September 3, 2009

The Friday Record - Manifest Destiny

Hello! After taking a week or so off, I'm back with The Friday Record. It is the one weekly post I have the most difficult with because, well, because I have to DO research a subject and write about it. Often, I run out of time before I can do that. So, The Friday Record will most likely be a hit and miss in the future.

Today, I'm writing about Manifest Destiny, the notion that inspired thousands of Americans to say good-bye to their way of life and familiar surroundings and head west to the vast and wild frontier.

In 1845 a magazine reporter wrote “Our manifest destiny is to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” He was, in other words, giving a moral excuse to the greed and imperial ambition of the American people to expand westward. God had predestined the United States of America to stretch from sea to shining sea and it was the duty of the American people to spread Christianity and democracy across the continent.

The idea of Manifest Destiny did not originate with this reporter. Since 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson instigated the Louisiana Purchase, Manifest Destiny was in the works. It continued on with the acquisition of Florida and parts of Alabama and Mississippi in 1819 from Spain. In 1845 Texas, its own republic since winning independence from Mexico ten years earlier, was annexed into the United States. In 1846 the long disputed border with Canada in the Northwest was finally settled to be 49 degrees latitude. In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican War, gave the U.S. New Mexico and California. And finally, in 1853, the Gadsden Purchase acquired Arizona from Mexico. This completed the contiguous states.

It was not Manifest Destiny alone, however, that spurred on the tens of thousands of people to take the harsh, dangerous journey west. It was economic depressions, in 1837 and 1841. It was word of the rich, fertile soil in Oregon. It was the gold discovered in 1848. It was greed.

As AMERICA: A Narrative History says, “Trappers and farmers, miners and merchants, hunters, ranchers, teachers, domestics, and prostitutes, among others, headed west seeking their fortunes.” THE UNITED STATES: A Brief Narrative History says, “The desire for land of their own, the search for economic opportunity, and the promise of starting over in a new region ranked high among the many and complex reasons that people decided to endure the hardships....”

The pioneers of the mid-1800's did overcome vast hardships to settle the land and fulfill Manifest Destiny. The trail alone offered up “difficulties in finding adequate food and water, hostile Indians, and the danger of being trapped by snow in the mountains.” (THE UNITED STATES) Once they reached their destination, they often had those difficulties as well as others to contend with, including death. However, the westward movement “constitutes a colorful drama of determined pioneers and cowboys overcoming all obstacles to secure their visions of freedom and opportunity amid the regions awesome vastness.” (AMERICA)

Yet, Manifest Destiny did not come without a long-lasting price to America. In addition to the hardship the pioneers suffered, “...the colonization of the Far West involved short-sighted greed and irresponsible behavior, a story of reckless exploitation that scarred the land, decimated its wildlife, and nearly exterminated the culture of Native Americans.” (AMERICA)

It is hoped that if given a chance to do it all over again, the American government and people would have done it differently. But it is doubtful it would have happened any other way. The desire of the government and the desire of the people would not have changed. As one gold seeker proclaimed, “The whole emigration is wild and frantic with a desire to be pressing forward.” A desire to own land, find economic freedom, to find freedom itself in a new life. Thousands of Americans and new emigrants were willing to endure the hardships and carve a place in history in the name of Manifest Destiny. And the government was glad they were.

Now, to put a writing lesson curve on does your story emulate the idea of Manifest Destiny? How are your characters predestined to change their lives, their ideas, their souls? What are they willing to give up to find the brass ring across the dangerous frontier?

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Monthly Prizes to Win!


Mary Ricksen said...

Interesting way to make a comparison. I guess you have to believe. I think we make our own destinies and nothing is eventuality.

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Thought provoking post. Like you, I doubt anything would change with the expansion of the US were we to go back in time. Ignorance was rife. Superstitioun still guided many decisions, as did religion. The 'savages' needed to be civilized. And some of those folks pursued that goal with the purest, although misguided, of intentions. Some were spurred by greed. Others by necessity. Some were criminals running from justice. No, it wouldn't change.

As for my work, destiny plays a part only in my heroine's ability to 'see' events in the future. One of those events is the advent of the hero. He is her fate---or that's how she interprets the vision---a fate she feels she must accept despite her misgivings. Not that she goes down without a fight, mind you. Accept it, perhaps. With grace? No way!

unwriter said...

A most interesting lesson in American history. You make some very good points. I'm not sure how it affects my writing beyond the fact that it was manifest destiny that I got into writing.

Maryann Miller said...

Really enjoyed the history lesson. Some of it I knew, but it was nice to have a refresher after so many years since I studied American History.

My brain is too muddled tonight to try to think of the manifest destiny of my characters.