Elections 2012: Manifest Destiny is a Topic for Monday Debate

Mark Trahant

A T-shirt with the words “Manifest Destiny” became an instant cause in Indian country recently and especially on Social Media. Thousands of people told The Gap that the shirt was outrageous and should be pulled from the shelves. The campaign was successful, the clothing company responded, the designer apologized, and the shirt is no longer sold.

But Manifest Destiny is still the centerpiece in American thinking about the world. It’s topic one in tonight’s debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

The term “Manifest Destiny” was first used by John O’Sullivan, editor of The New York Morning News, writing in 1845 to justify conquest of American Indian lands in the West. “Away, away with all these cobweb issues of rights of discovery, exploration, settlement, continuity, etc. ... And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us.”

But that was only the name “Manifest Destiny.” The idea had been around since Europeans first crossed the ocean.

Tonight’s debate is in Florida and the topic is international affairs. Fitting. In 1818 Andrew Jackson invaded Seminole Country in violation of international law. His army murdered civilians, destroyed villages, killed Seminole warriors and their African-American allies, and executed two British citizens for “inciting and arming” the Indians. A few years later Florida was United States territory.

The idea of conquest was present long before the phrase “Manifest Destiny.” Thomas Jefferson had the same basic thought when he described America’s role as an “Empire of Liberty.”

No politician today would dare call for “Manifest Destiny.” But that same idea will surface tonight cloaked in the politically correct version, “American Exceptionalism.” (Although that phrase actually predates “Manifest Destiny.”)

One of the planned topic areas, probably the first one, is how the two candidates see America’s place in the world.

There will be two different answers both in terms of style and substance.

Critics of President Obama say that, at his core, he does not believe in this premise. The evidence is a 2010 speech where the president said: “I believe in American Exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

But Obama also said in that same speech, “I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.” And, he continued, “I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.”

But that version of American Exceptionalism doesn’t fit Romney’s definition. “I think it’s fair to ask, you know, what is it that explains the absence of any discernable foreign policy from the president of the United States? And I believe that it flows from his fundamental disbelief in American exceptionalism,” Romney said on a talk show last year. “In the President’s world, all nations have common interests, the lines between good and evil are blurred, America’s history merits apology. And without a compass to guide him in our increasingly turbulent world, he’s tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced.”

The very idea of nuances are opposite Manifest Destiny. The idea that God has ordained a particular kind of American power. Or as it was called during the pre-war build up to an invasion of Iraq, American Hegemony.

American Hegemony justified the Iraq war and the threats that Romney makes to Iran. One of the questions tonight: Is Romney even open to talking with Iran in order to prevent war.

At the Citadel military college in September, Romney used language that would have matched any 19th century Manifest Destiny speech.

“This century must be an American Century ... America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world,” he said. “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.”

Obama’s view is quite different. He outlined this in a 2010 National Security Strategy. “The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone. Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power,” the president said. The power of the country comes not from its military strength but from its people. “Our long-term security will not come from our ability to instill fear in other peoples, but our capacity to speak to their hopes.” That idea, Obama argued, still requires American leadership.

So as you watch, listen, or tweet about tonight’s debate consider what the two candidates are saying – spoken words or not – about Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism or the American Century.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is:marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



mikevandyke's picture
Submitted by mikevandyke on
I was gonna keep my mouth shut...but after Russell Mean's passing I cannot. The whole Manifest Destiny shirt, the drug war, Mexican Immigration, School of Americas training for gangs like MS13, the Mapuche insurrection in Chile, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Blackwater take over of Alaska Corporations, the new alliance of Alaska Corps, Blackwater and Columbia, pipeline fights, fracking protests, the strength of culture and activism in South Dakota and the Southwest, and the hush hush build up of naval vessels around Central and South America are all examples of a WAR for the Americas that is ongoing and not over. To say they did not steal anything is true in a way....we are still here and haven't given up. They are illegally occupying the Western Hemisphere. The fallacy is not that they stole this land from the indians, the fallacy is that it is theirs and that we have disappeared or stopped fighting. Its not theirs never was, never shall be.

gsevalikova's picture
Submitted by gsevalikova on
Romney is a nutball and many know it. He shows leanings toward tyranny and has the eyes of a hothead,and we worry about his willingness to honor separation of church and state. But the worst news is what's been going on under the media's radar. Russia has been holding the largest military exercizes in history and much of it is now directed at the Arctic. Did you see Time Magazine this week ? China's president on it's cover.Radio voice of Russia( www.english.ruvr.ru)

larrymoniz's picture
Submitted by larrymoniz on
The European invasion of the Americas is over, as is the African invasion via slavery. Neither was morally proper or defensible. However, Black Americans can't be shipped off to Africa anymore than European-Americans can be sent back to their respective nations in Europe. I'm a second generation American and would be totally lost in the Portuguese society of my ancestors. While I readily acknowledge that AmerIndian rights were seized by invading European forces bent on trade and conquest, hundreds of years have passed and the only feasible course is to truly spoke the pipe of peace, resolve differences between our heritages and treat each other as equals. The heritages and languages of numerous tribes have been eradicated. While there are still Wendat in Kansas, Oklahoma and elsewhere, none speak the language. Similarly, I never learned more than a few words of Portuguese. Traditional clothing, foods, customs were all sublimated to the process of assimilation into American society. The same happened to my grandparents who emigrated here for a better life in the 1800s. It is now 2012 and we must all work together to make a better America for all of us. Our various cultures have joined together before to help grow and protect the United States. The bravery and fame of the Navaho code talkers during World War II is unmatched as are the honor due such warriors as I see during Powwows when they dance the circle to be recognized by all present. Then, no one questions the color of their skin, no one asks if they are red, black, white or yellow. The only question is whether they were warriors. Today, the entire greedy concept of "nation building" is past, despite the attitude of those few who would maintain an archaic policy for personal financial gain. Today, we must ask each other only one question: Are you American?