Therefore shall ye keep the commandments which I command you this day, that ye may be strong, and go in and possess the land, wither ye go to possess it;
- The Fifth Book of Moses, Called Deuteronomy 11:8 (The Blessings of the Promised Land)
After frontiersmen crossed the Appalachian Mountain range, great land companies had speculated on the value of this land. The Ohio Company secured a grant at the forks of the Ohio, and the Transylvania Company sent Daniel Boone into the bluegrass region of Kentucky. This became known as the Wilderness Road. Settlements began there. These settlements grew so quickly that Kentucky became a state in 1792, followed by Tennessee in 1796 and Ohio in 1803.
The Louisiana Purchase increased the number of states, extending territory from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, and from the Mississippi River to the Rockies. Jeffersonian Democracy took root everywhere, spreading wherever it was introduced. The Lewis and Clark Expedition crossed the continent by following the Mississippi, Missouri and Columbia Rivers. Zebulon M. Pike was sent north up the Mississippi, west across the prairies, and up the Arkansas River. Pikes Peak above Colorado Springs, Colorado is named after him. This marks the approximate western limit of his exploration.
After a corruption case involving the Louisiana Purchase, westward migration reached flood stage. Louisiana was admitted to the Union in 1812, and a new state was added each succeeding year through 1821. The new Cumberland, or National Road linking the Ohio country with the east, along with steamboat development, pushed the movement.
The War of 1812 marked some halt to westward progress. It was foreshadowed in 1811 by the Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana against Indians spurred on by British forces. General William Henry Harrison rode his fame from this battle to the Presidency a few years later. President James Madison was unhappy with the British searching American war vessels, impressments of Americans into seamen, paper blockades, and instigation of further Indian conflicts. The British had the greatest navy on Earth, although American ships demonstrated superiority. But the British had more ships and the Americans were forced to flee.
On inland waters, the Americans won more victories on Lake Erie (where Commodore Matthew Perry captured a British fleet, rare in English naval annals). On Lake Champlain, Commodore Thomas McDonough defeated a flotilla from Canada. At Detroit, General William Hull crossed into Canada, retreated and surrendered. The British also repulsed an American invasion at Niagara. General Henry Dearborn then captured the Canadian capital, York, but the English boldly invaded Washington and burned the White House to the ground. General Andrew Jackson’s frontier army then marched on and defeated the British at New Orleans. The British sued for peace via the Treaty of Ghent. America’s second military success against the vaunted British led them to believe in a sense of invincibility and destiny in themselves. This created a national confidence like no other nation.
The United States in the early 19th Century consisted of a few states, which were former colonies. Then the territory of Louisiana was bought from the French. What lay west was virgin territory. They knew that across the continent could be found the Pacific Ocean. They knew there were native Indians indigenous to the country. They knew about the Spanish lands that lay in the Far West and in South America. They knew little about what lay in between.
The “era of good feeling” began after the War of 1812. James Madison was elected President in 1816, and re-elected in 1820. He was the fourth Virginian to be elected to the White House. Monroe had fought in the revolution and studied law under Thomas Jefferson. After the U.S. acquired Florida, the U.S. faced a diplomatic crisis because General Andrew Jackson cared little for international law in his prosecution of Indian Wars in the Pensacola region. After 300 years, Spain had lost its foothold in the Americas. She lost all her American colonies except Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Partly in response to the changing dynamics of the Americas, Monroe wrote the famous Monroe Doctrine. This was in response to the Quadruple Alliance, which after crushing revolutions in Spain and Italy planned to do the same in the American territories. But Britain, having learned the lesson of opposing America, left the Alliance. Britain suggested that the U.S. join in opposing interference in Latin America. Monroe discussed it with Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.
The Cabinet feared a Russian threat in Oregon. Monroe consulted Jefferson and Madison on the issue. Monroe issued his doctrine in the course of three statements to Congress on December 2, 1823.
“. . . The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, are henceforth not to be considered by any European powers,” it stated. He went on to say that any attempt of Europe to extend their system to any part of America was “dangerous to our peace and safety.” He said the U.S. would not interfere with existing European colonies in Latin America or meddle in Europolitcs. Britain supported the position, and Russia backed off. Chief Justice John Marshall laid down a series of judicial decisions that reflected this “national spirit.”
The first obstacle was Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821. They experienced economic deprivation, and were unable to form a new government. Mexico found itself under emperor's rule, but in 1824, the monarchy was overthrown and a constitutional Republic was started. The Centralist, Federalist, Monarchist and Republican parties fought with each other, and divisions were created.
Mexico had won vast northern territories after its independence from Spain. They were underpopulated. Mexico wanted to colonize, but due to Mexican economics self-advancement in the frontier and relocation was more difficult. Mexican colonization was a governmental program. In the U.S. it was a popular movement. The Mexicans were scared of fighting the Native Americans. Their military system was not able to guard them.
The Catholic Church was also unable to exercise authority in the border areas. Since Mexico operated via central government, frontier expansion was virtually impossible to control.
Texas was considered part of the southwest territories (northern from the Mexican geographical stanbdpoint). A mostly uninhabited region, it was claimed first by Spain and then by Mexico after they gained independence. Mexico lacked much of the political and military power and influence of Spain.
With few Mexicans living there, the region had little Mexican governmental or military presence. Solitary farmers tilled the land. Local Indians raided the Mexican farms every year in order to feed themselves over the winter time. The Indians were careful not to kill all the Mexicans. They needed enough of them to stay alive who would till the farms, growing the harvests they would steal in ucceeding years.
The Mexican government was unable to protect the farmers, but decided on a risky call to action. A clarion call was made. They began an advertising campaign of sorts in the Amertican South, mostly in Tennessee, calling for “men with guns,” adventurers and mountain men, to move to Texas. Among them was Daniel Boone. Urged to bring their guns, they were promised that if they fought the Indians, thus protecting the Mexican farmers, they would be free to profit off their labors. They would be given land, allowed to earn a living off its bounty, hunt and trap game, sell what they caught, and attain whatever wealth their hard work produced. This scenario was the basis for the 1960 classic The Magnificent Seven starring Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen. American “gunslingers” were often commissioned to fight off banditos.
Adventurerous Tennesseans and other Southerners came to Texas with guns. The next harvest they defended the farms, preventing invading Indians from stealing the bounty. The Indians retreated and did not attack after that. The Americans, meanwhile, became prosperous. Soon they were marrying, starting families, and creating businesses. Then they became the wealthiest citizens in the region and largest employers of Mexican labor.
The Mexican hierarchy took umbrage with American dominance and the “taking” of their women. They declared the Americans were all Mexican citizens. Their profits were now subject to Mexican taxation and fealty. They could be pressed into service in the Mexican military, and made to do the bidding of the Mexican government.
Already fiercely independent anyway, inspired by the desire to live freely that drove the American Revolution, they rebelled against the Mexicans. They were appalled at the notion that a foreign government could declare they were not Americans. They argued they were in a neutral territory, rendered as American as Mexican by sheer virtue of their overwhelming success, displays of excellence and over time superiority in populated numbers. A Mexican soldier, Santa Anna, seized power in 1833. He overthrew the constitution and ruled by force. He inhabited all Texas and ordered the Texans to give up their guns. In 1836, Texas declared itself independent and Santa Anna invaded. On March 6 of that year he attacked a small fortified mission in San Antonio called the Alamo. Outnumbered 12 to 1, the Texans, led by Davy Crocket, fought until each American was dead. Among the defenders was Jim Bowie, inventor of the Bowie knife. Santa Anna then rounded up 500 Americans and shot 250 of them. His policy of terror backfired. When Americans heard of it, they cried “Remember the Alamo.” They exacted revenge in a systematic, efficient manner over the following years. At San Jacinto, Sam Houston’s forces stopped the Mexican advance.
Manifest Destiny was a phrase used by leaders and politicians in the 1840s to explain continental expansion by the United States. The United States decided that to explore this territory was a mission. They were men of idealism and Democratic beliefs. However, Manifest Destiny as an idea, as a policy and as historical fact remains one of the most controversial parts of this nation's history. American Manifest Destiny does not approach the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, but in many circles is thought to be nothing more than an extension of it. To those who choose to criticize it, Manifest Destiny was just more whites of European ancestry raping, pillaging and plundering the indigenous peoples of America. To be sure, there was in Manifest Destiny evil, greed and racism of the worst kind. But the phrase itself, "Manifest Destiny," is a very telling one. Events of this period were inevitable. There seems to be no realistic alternative to it. The question, then, is not whether it was the right thing to do or not, but whether it was done rightly or wrongly. The gray area in between, where morality and moral equivalence live, is where judgment lies.
The main argument against Manifest Destiny is the fact that white politicians advocated it, but did not view non-Europeans as being capable of self-government. There was virtually no conception of Native American as equal to whites in any way. They were not necessarily viewed as evil or barbaric (although in some quarters they were). Everybody operated on a premise. That premise was that the natives were not intellectually capable of equality.
The natives were seen as human. They were not entirely viewed from an unkindly angle. According to legend, the Indians had taught the Pilgrims how to grow crops using fish as fertilizer. They were guests at the first Thanksgiving. There is some question about this, however. These stories may have been invented or exaggerated to elevate Indians to equality with white settlers. But the point is that in the hearts of whites, there was great hatred for the Indians. Christian charity was a strong concept. This concept drove many to spread Christianity to the hinterlands, offsetting to some extent hatred.
But the main political agenda, as the population of the original 13 Colonies and the economy grew, was the need for new land. Land represented potential income, wealth, self-sufficiency and freedom. To the rugged individualists of the new America, the Western frontiers meant self-advancement.
The United States had a high birth rate and an increase in population due to immigration. Agriculture was the main asset of family farms. The population went from more than 5 million in 1800 to more than 23 million by mid-century. Nearly 4 million Americans moved to Western territories between 1820 and 1850.
The United States suffered two economic downturns, in 1818 and in 1839. Frontier land was virtually free. The frontier created new commerce and initiative. Land, which was expensive in the cities, meant self-sufficiency. With that came some political power and independence. Maritime merchants also wanted to create new commerce by building West Coast ports leading to increased trade with countries in the Pacific.
The Americans were happy to expand. Their political system was popular with the people and there was no fear that distance would dilute its effect. In fact, the Americans found that the more individualistic and separated Americans were from the government, the more they supported a system that allowed them to be so free. There were no governmental entities showing up out of nowhere demanding inordinate taxes or collectivist yields. When the frontiersmen wanted government services, they requested it, and then they got it.
Frontier society was too informal, Democratic, self-reliant and egalitarian to satisfy Mexican political aims. Their frontier communities were at odds with the central government, which imposed restrictions that affected them in a negative manner.
American romanticism and European literature, namely by Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, were popular in the United States. Many who went to fight Mexico had read them. The Age of Enlightenment had created the strongly held notion that change was inevitable, and that progress was good. The fact that progress was good was obvious on its face. Recent inventions and breakthroughs in medical science had made this an indisputable fact.
19th Century Americans were unlike anybody in history, except possibly the Egyptians who built the pyramids. They had unbelievable confidence in themselves and were convinced that they were capable of doing anything. In the 1830s and '40s America underwent drastic changes in every way. Industrial and technological advances made life easier than it had ever been before. Steam power and the locomotive railroad became a metaphor for American ingenuity. The rotary press in 1846 made production of newspapers cheaper than ever. It enabled papers to circulate in the national, not just regional, markets. The magnetic telegraph in 1844 was received as nothing less than a miracle. Journalist John L. O'Sullivan called it "Manifest Destiny." The phrase first appeared in print in July of 1845 in the Democratic Review in reference to the Texas issue. O'Sullivan was defending the American claim to Texas.
To extend the boundaries of the U.S. was to extend "freedom." The fact that Democracy is the best form of government was no longer a question. It was now accepted fact. Therefore it was considered "God's plan" for Mankind. The concept that America, and American expansion, was endorsed by God was a totally mainstream idea at this time. People who feel this way do not just sit still, they take action. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about a destiny that guides individuals, states, and nations. The U.S. was destined to become a world leader; in industrial development, commercial activity, the arts and sciences, and intellectual achievements. There were no limits and no boundaries.
When James K. Polk became President there were about 3,500-4,000 Americans living in the Oregon country, clamoring for a reunion with the United States. There were 800 or so Americans who moved into California and they wanted the same thing.
Passage to India and Asia for commercial enterprise was now possible. Oregonians and Californians thought of themselves as American citizens. They wanted laws codifying this.
Had the United States not advanced into the West, any number of other countries would have. Only American military success against the British, the fall of the Napoleonic empire, and Spain’s loss of Mexico to independence, prevented these nations from sending armies into the friontier after the Lewis and Clark Expedition provided viable maps.
The Rusians established a coastal port in what became Northern California. The English and Spaniards already had claims to certain forts and bays dotting the Pacific Coast. Germany was not yet a single federated nation, but the rise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire gave impetus to German-speaking people to expand. The Austrians formed an alliance with Mexico, which Germanly attemted to exploit into a military sphere of influence there and in Latin America. As the Industrial Revolution made them powerful, this influenced their global perspective, a large factor in World War I. Had America not consolidated all this territory as they eventually did, any number of these other nations would have expanded. No doubt conflict would have arisen, with the U.S. fighting a large-scale war with a European country, or worse yet Europan allies, over Texas, California, or some other states.
The model of Spanish expansion, for instance, is already historical fact. It is called the Inquisition. Had Spain advanced into what is now the 50 States, there remains all likelihood the Native Indians would have have suffered through such an experience, a worse one than the Indian Wars. While Spain’s lack of power by the 19th Century, leading to Mexican independence, probably renders this an unlikely possibility, what probably would have happened is the European powers could have ended up fighting territorial wars with each other.
Scenario: Mexico retains San Diego. L.A. is a Spanish province. San Francisco is British, Oregon held by the French, but other parts of the Pacific Coast are considered Russian. Other states are split up in a hodge-podge manner, with wars being fought and re-fought over these areas, just as wars were fought for Normandy, Alsace-Lorraine, Sicily, Constantinople, and everywhere else in Europe. The consolidation of the West by the United States renders these mere scenarios.
Worse scenario: major conflict, probably all-out war, on the American continent in the 19th or early 20th Century. World War I might have been fought not in Europe between 1914 and 1918, but on American soil, very possibly during or shortly after the Civil War, with both the Union and the Confederacy enlisting the alliance of old enemies France and England to carry on their old hostilities on foreign soil.
All of this is the backdrop of the Mexican War, which was called “boundlessness and reform spirit; a quest for a better place for the nation,” a test of Republican Democracy in a crisis. The die was cast when the United States became a nation. An idea had been born. It was utterly inexorable. Even those who find fault with the expansion and the Mexican War agree that it was unstoppable. To the extent that the expansion can be found at fault is the fact that the ambition for land was insatiable. Walter Lippman said that it was villainy clad in the armor of a righteous cause, to use an expression.
Walt Whitman stated, "What has miserable, inefficient Mexico - with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many - what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the New World with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!" Whitman, one of America's greatest poets, glorified equality. "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you?" he wrote. "Whoever degrades another degrades me, and whatever is done or said returns again to me? I am vast, I contain multitudes."
Mexican intellectuals have admitted that they were a "backward and decaying people." Such thinkers as Mariano Otero and Carlos Maria Bustamante are considered exceptions to the rule. Weakness and underdevelopment marked Mexico in the 19th century, the product of long and complex historical forces. Some prominent white Americans who were vested in the expansion still found fault with American expansion into Mexican territory.
"I do not think there ever was a more wicked war than that waged by the United States in Mexico," wrote Ulysses S. Grant, one of the most prominent of American military men, and himself a participant in the war, in his memoirs. "I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign." His was a minority opinion, if indeed he actually expressed it publicly.
The U.S.-Mexican War was only one of a series of American expansions that took place in the 19th century. The United States expanded from coast to coast, into Asia, created naval shipping lanes in the Middle East (Asia Minor) and in the Spanish-American War, Cuba and the Philippines. The country became a power in Asia and in the Caribbean without occupying islands there, with the exception of the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Central America was a place where the U.S. exercised phenomenal political, economic and political control. Expansion was no worse than most European North Atlantic countries during that time. Colonies, empires and "spheres of influence" were the way of the 19th-century. If the U.S. had not “kept up,” they would have fallen behind. Every European power was colonizing native lands, exploiting them for rubber, iron ore, wood, and oil.
The idea of Manifest Destiny was foreshadowed by some of the writings of revolutionary times. Canada was considered a "prize" in the period between the American War for Independence and the War of 1812. It rationalized the Louisiana Purchase and United States' support for Texas independence and annexation. This gives credence to the idealistic elements of the movement. The question is whether Manifest Destiny is an idea in and of itself, or whether the nation simply justified it. What remains as a concrete element of this subject is that if the U.S. had not gone West, either the Mexicans would have, the Indians would have simply stayed there, or other foreign powers would have done it.
This leaves basically four options. Which one is the best option? If Mexico had taken over what became the American West, would the region and the indigenous people's there be better off than they are now?
Europeans did not fear the United States despite all our "dangerous" talking and writing about liberty. They certainly were not about to tell the U.S. they were wrong for doing what they had been doing. The Mexicans, however, were torn. They admired America, but they feared them. The Americans had proven a willingness to fight, and they were very good at it. There were border territories of dispute. They knew the Americans would fight for them. Any army that could defeat the English was formidable. Mexicans wanted prosperity, a good economy, and prosperous agriculture. But they wanted to do so without losing land in the process. The Texans, by revolting against Mexico, were doing practically the same thing that the Mexicans themselves had done when they revolted against Spain. Texans knew this.
Expansion was not 100 percent popular. Henry David Thoreau was an outspoken critic of the Mexican War. But critics had different reasons for opposing the policy. Thoreau was an anarchist. He was uncomfortable with the exercise of mighty power. But others believed the United States could fail in self-government if it grew too large. This became a political position of the Whig Party during the 1840s, when they opposed war with Mexico. Others said a Democracy could succeed only if it were small and close to the people. This was a Jeffersonian ideal. But most saw greatness equated with growth and economic development. This was Alexander Hamilton's vision. Later, the Northeast and East Coast felt they would lose power if the United States admitted more states to the Union. Abolitionists were afraid that the conquest of Mexico would lead to the incorporation of more slave territory into the United States. There was sympathy with the Mexicans and some pacifist opposition to the war itself. President James Polk had to pay attention to these concerns.
Texas, however, was a state of strong American disposition. Their people were of rugged character, hard-charging entrepreneurs, men of legend and myth. Their annexation seemed to be a part of natural American expansion. It was a logical sequel to the Louisiana Purchase. John Quincy Adams, a member of the House of Representatives, however, thought Texas' annexation was a slaveholder's conspiracy.
By the mid-19th century, Mexicans had been living in Mexico for more than a century. Many citizens of the United States could be traced back one or two generations. The old European problems, the ancient hatreds and bones of contention, did not come into play. The Americans had no natural dislike of the Mexicans, although racism must be considered. Mexico's history during the period preceding the war was rife with turmoil and coup d'états. Mexico, therefore, was suffering from the social and political fragmentation resulting from the Spanish Empire, the war for independence, reorganization bankruptcy, and foreign threat.
The United States' conquest of the West had been going on since the time when the 13 Colonies were established. They had set their eyes on the northern territory of New Spain. In the early 1840s, many books appeared on the subject of California, emphasizing its richness, mild climate, beautiful and marvelous ports. This created a utopian vision. The U.S. had always wanted to trade with China. Polk made California a major priority. His election made the expansion a certainty. Mexico stood in the way. The Mexicans still use the term, "The U.S. Invasion." Different perceptions of the conflict are very real. The U.S. Congress authorized war against Mexico in 1846, saying the Mexican government had left no alternative. Americans propagandized and justified. Mexico's internal situation between 1841 and I848 is critical. First, there was the Santa Anna dictatorship between 1841 and 1843. Then came the Centralist Republic, in power until December 1845. This was followed by the Mariano Paredes dictatorship, which lasted eight months. During this time, the possibility of a monarchy was once again discussed. The federal republican government was restored in 1847. Six presidents succeeded one another from June, 1844 to September, 1847. With the exception of Manuel de la Peña y Peña, the rest came to power as a result of popular or military uprisings against their predecessors. Thus, all confronted opposition forces that questioned their legitimacy and wanted to overthrow them. Texas and its annexation to the United States, as well as John Slidell's mission, became part of the debate.
Having defeated the greatest military empire on Earth, the United States desired to become one of the “big boys” on the world stage. After the Revolution, the U.S. again fought, and defeated, the British in the War of 1812. They expanded naval operations and were not afraid to use force, as in the conflict with Barbary pirates off the coast of Tripoli (1801-05).
After President Thomas Jefferson secured the Louisiana Purchase from French Emperor Napoleon in 1803, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition succeeded, there was strong national consent behind the notion of Manifest Destiny, that it was in fact God’s will she expand westward until successfully turning America into a trans-continental empire. This, and the issue of Mexican “control” of the southwest territories, remains a controversial subject to this day.
Once Mexico declared independence from Spain, they became much weakened and would have not been able to withstand English or French infiltration into the California/southwest territories, any more than they could resist the United States.
The U.S. and Mexico fought a war between 1846 and 1848, won decisively by the United States. American forces invaded and captured Mexico City. Rather than appropriate the city and possibly much of the entire country as a colony, or extension of the United States, its conquered people enslaved by a victorious enemy as was the fate of most all the conquered for time immemorial, the U.S. withdrew from the city and gave back the defeated Mexicans Mexico City.
While jingoistic support of the American war effort against Mexico was widespread, there was nascent “war protest.” Its most prominent critic was the famed author of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau. He and Ralph Waldo Emerson were two American literary giants of the era. Thoreau engaged in strong civil disobedience in protest of the war which, among other things, helped to expand and give strength to the institution of slavery.
Henry David Thoreau: anarchist?
Henry David Thoreau was a civil disobedient. He influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The study of civil disobedience is an important point, and is especially worth looking at as it relates to the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, and the civil rights struggle.
G.W.E. Hegel said that people are social beings who seek fulfillment through the state. Hegel upheld Machiavelli's rejection of the classical Greek view. The Hindus rejected the connection between ethics and government, which the Greeks did advocate. Thoreau is in line with the Hindus. Thoreau said the state had no moral authority, and felt that their corruptions were dangerous to the public.
Thoreau is the exact opposite of Creon's Antigone. If a law is immoral, it is to be disobeyed. After many debates, even the Uniform Code of Military Justice agrees with Throreau. The U.C.M.J. actually gives leeway to a soldier who disobeys an order if it is not moral. This is quite a leap of faith for an organization that is based on the strict ladder of authority and the following of orders. But the Nuremberg Trials and the Japanese War Crimes Tribunals were not just the exposition of German and Japanese evil. They made us think about human nature and the role of soldiers. The My Lai massacre forced us to examine ourselves. Disobeying a direct order is risky business, but it has its roots in the civil disobedience of thinkers like Thoreau.
At the heart of the concept is the idea that individual liberty trumps the claim of state authority. In Thoreau's day, his contemporaries were not quite ready to accept it. Thoreau arrived at his conclusions after much self-examination, as described in his book, Walden. His journey is reminiscent of Socrates and Buddha, or of the vanaprastha stage of the Hindu vision of life. Thoreau was dissatisfied with the United States, but instead of leaving the country, he chose to liberate himself through a “state of universality.” As an outsider, he objected to the state's abuse of power, and accorded little legitimacy to the political and economic institutions of the country. This manifested itself in his refusal to pay a poll tax, his protest of slavery, and his opposition to the war with Mexico. While his outspoken views regarding war and slavery made him a mere dissident, his refusal to pay taxes makes him an outlaw. Since he did this on purpose with no attempt to evade the consequences, he becomes a civil disobedient. John Locke and John Stuart Mill were British liberal theorists who railed against the abuse of power, but did not make themselves criminals by breaking laws they disagreed with. Locke said that government's duty was to defend private property. Thoreau denounced private property.
A number of leading writers lived in the Walden Pond area of Massachusetts, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thoreau challenged these great minds to follow his lead and disobey unjust laws, but there were no takers. Emerson was aghast at his colleagues' stance.
Thoreau was definitely liberal, but it is unclear whether he advocated “limited government” or no government. Because this distinction is not made clear, his anarchism is called into question. but he did not advocate for the elimination of government. He criticized majority rule and representative Democracy, while denying that law can make humans just individuals. He attacked capitalism because it exalts money and is the engine behind slavery, and went beyond Karl Marx in that he indicted it as immoral. Marx just saw it as the end product of an evolutionary process that needed to be changed.
Thoreau lives on as a significant thinker because his theories of civil disobedience are just and were used by great men. But aside from his call for the end of slavery, one struggles to know what he wanted. Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, he lived until 1862, making him a contemporary of Marx. He considered Concord to be the center of the “American Renaissance.” He graduated from Harvard in 1837, influenced by Emerson's philosophy of Transcendentalism. Emerson's views were similar to Hegel's idealism, that a “divine essence inheres in all being; a transcendent spirituality exists and permeates nature”. Hegel sanctified the state, though. Thoreau denounced it. Hegel saw divinity in it, but Thoreau called it “half-witted,” strong in appearance but rotten at its core. Thoreau did see God as nature's individual conscience. He said the state attempts to quell individual spirituality.
“I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the state, to withdraw and stand afoot from it effectually,” he said.
Thoreau is a revered literary figure and a very influential American, but enigmatic. Here is a man living in what was the freest country on Earth at a time when free countries were pretty few and far between. He would have been swept away in two seconds, sent to a gulag in Russia, a re-education camp in China, a concentration camp in Germany, yet he finds so much disillusionment in America, where he was free. That said, Thoreau is part of a long tradition of obstructionists, confrontationalists and contrarians. Thoreau precedes modern writers like Christopher Hitchens, comedians like Bill Maher, and renegade politicos like Ramsey Clark. He lives in the protesters and the shouters. He does not offer a solution.
Thoreau somehow saw in government a systematic undermining of moral development. Up there at Walden's Pond, living a quietly reclusive life, with no governmental hindrance, he reached his conclusions. What he did see, from afar, was institutionalized slavery and a war with Mexico. His opposition to slavery makes him a great man, if for no other reason. In the Northern part of the U.S. that Thoreau lived in, abolitionist views were the norm. He did not stand alone in this vioew.
Plenty of people were abolitionists, but they chose to protest the government's policies within the system, not to all-but-disavow the legitimacy of the institution. Thoreau simply viewed slavery as evil and the government as evil for allowing it. How he would have reacted to the freeing of the slaves is an interesting point of conjecture.
He also opposed the Mexican War of 1846-48. His response to the government was to refuse to pay the poll tax, levied on every male in his state between the ages of 20 and 70. On July 23, 1846, he was arrested at Walden Pond and imprisoned for one year in the Concord jail. He welcomed the experience, using it to write “The Relation of the Individual to the State,” which he delivered as a lecture on January 26, 1848. In it, Thoreau embodies a fairly new kind of political animal, the radical. The outsider. He rejects his and his nation's traditions. He was a protester.
He denounced nationalism in the opening paragraph of his essay, but as mentioned before, declared he is not an anarchist. He made the somewhat contrary statement that the best government is the least government, but people are not ready for no government. He declared “war” on the state while “using it” for his purposes. Later anarchists like Emma Goldman would adopt Thoreau. It seems that, at the heart of Thoreau's complaint, is the notion that spiritual forces drive the American government.
The Federalist Papers and other documents are rife with religious references. The Founders repeatedly refer to God and His divine inspirations. That offended Thoreau, who said government is not imbued with such authority, especially not a government that allows for slavery. The nation, quite simply, is suspect.
As for voting, Thoreau said, “All voting is sort of gaming . . . Even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it . . . There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men . . . It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.” Therefore, when the state becomes intolerable, “then, I say, break the law.”
Some tried to say Thoreau was simply carrying on the tradition of the colonists who resisted British rule in 1776. This argument does not hold up because the colonists were not represented and that was what they sought. They advanced laws within the British government, and once those demands were not met, an alternative to the government. Thoreau dissented from a government that gave him every opportunity to give his views and seek redress, to stand on a soapbox or even run for and hold office. No, said Thoreau, the government is illegitimate. In many ways, Thoreau’s concepts were more in line with later French existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.
At Walden Pond, Thoreau lived a simple life absent from the trappings of wealth. He chided Emerson, who lived in a big house in Concord.
“Things are in the saddle and ride Mankind,” said Emerson.
“. . . . a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without,” replied Thoreau.
He would have agreed with Marx when he wrote of capitalism, “Its principal thesis is the renunciation of life and human needs” by teaching that life depends on “the more you have” and “my own power is as great as the power of money.”
Thoreau differs with Marx, calling luxuries and comforts of life “positive hindrances to the elevation of Mankind,” subscribing to voluntary poverty. Marx did not find these luxuries to be evil, but the system that led to their importantance blocks man from his true destiny. Marx would agree with Thoreau in exposing business as working hand in hand with slavery. Again, Marx would find the businessmen misguided and Thoreau immoral.
“The rich man is always sold to the institution which makes him rich,” wrote Thoreau.
“Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue,” Marx wrote.
“His moral ground is taken from under his feet,” as he strives for profit, Thoreau wrote of the man of commerce.
Marx might have thought Thoreau a utopian thinker, although, despite Thoreau's less-government concepts, it would seem that Marx's vision is more unrealistic. Thoreau might have advocated breaking up government, but Marx advocated constructing something that relies on an imperfect premise. As the saying goes, it is easier to tear something down than to build it up.
Marx was an inevitablist. Thoreau was a conscientious objector. Marx did not consider individual voluntary poverty, which is interesting. The leaders of Communism and Socialism never did, either. Marx hated the capitalist accumulation of wealth, but what would he have said about the accumulation of wealth and the private dachas of high-ranking Communist Party members? Marx simply saw no merit to being poor. Despite being born into money, he was so poor in his London that the result was personal tragedy, the death of his daughter. Wealth was okay by Marx, as long as it did not come due to exploitation. Under his theory, an actor who becomes wealthy playing idealistic roles is fine. An actor who becomes wealthy "exploiting" sex and violence is not.
Furthermore, Marx would have you join the Communist Party, with all the baggage that entails. Thoreau wanted no political affiliation. In the end, of course, if Walden lived in Russia, Walden Pond would have been turned into a collectivist farm. Walden would have died of starvation whether he joined the party or not. Still, despite Thoreau's recalcitrance, one can certainly give him credit for being true to himself.
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” he said.
He also saw a future for his ideas; there is a historical inevitability to his future. In a way, he was right. We see it all the time, only the study of Thoreau allows us to pinpoint what it is. Thoreau is the patron saint of complainers and whiners. Nothing will ever be good enough for these people. They will always be with us.
Thoreau criticized people who say there is truth in God. He did not say he has the truth, but is in pursuit of it. Thoreau leaves everything open-ended. Perhaps that is the way it should be, but he gives no credence to other people's beliefs. He knows what he knows, he feels what he feels, he questions what he questions. So, like so many elitists, the idea that somebody else has faith is preposterous!
Admiration for Thoreau is not in his views on government, patriotism or truth, but in his concept of civil disobedience. This does not change the fact that he would have been just another face at Auschwitz if he had chosen the wrong country to be civilly disobedient in. The Israelis have not chosen the Thoreau/Gandhi path for this very realpolitik reason. But in the right society, Thoreau is the right kind of protester.
“If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood,” he said. “This is, in fact the definition of a peaceable revolution . . .”
Erie Canal, California Gold Rush, trans-continental Railroad
Shortly after victory over Mexico, the California Gold Rush captured the imagination of the young country in 1849, with the state admitted to the union shortly thereafter. Whatever “hold” Mexico or the old Spanish families of California may have still maintained was wiped away when millions of settlers simply out-numbered them in their own land. No army or government invaded and took over. Rather, ordinary citizens freely arrived, settling homesteads until they were the vast majority. It was only later, when Indian raids threatened travelers, which included numerous women and children, that the Army was deployed and the Indians Wars fought.
But Manifest Destiny was not yet complete. A series of accomplishments and events needed to take place in order for 19th Century Ameriucan hegemony over the entire ciontinent was established. First had been the building of the Erie Canal, extending from New York state on into Pennsylvania, a westward shipping trajectory making it possible to move large numbers of people and equipment over vast distances. Originally the quest for an elusive Northwest Passage animated the explorers. Absent that, the ambitious Americans seemingly created one by dint of their own hands and iron will.
Now there was a connection with the Great Lakes region of the upper Midwest and Canada. While building of the Erie Canal was probably the greatest single engineering accomplishment in human history at the time, it was more than that. It gave Americans a sense of pride and belief in themselves that indeed they were a Chosen People in a new Promised Land. Such nationalist pride, with its racial overtones of white superiority, can and have been proved dangerous when in the hands of somebody like Adolf Hitler. While the future did offer its share of ethnic hatreds in the form of slavery, Indian Wars and Chinese intolerance, there was alays enough Christian inclusion to prevent anything approaching a genocide.
The forging of the Erie Canal, followed by the Gold Rush, gave impetus to the most ambitious project yet, the building of the trans-continental railroad. Built by two private enterprises, there were political insentives offered, but it was wholly not a government project. Once connected to Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river from Omaha, Nebraska, from there the two lines connected America westward, across the rugged Rocky and Sierra Mountain Ranges, into the Sacramento Valley and San Francisco, located on the Pacific Coast. From there, costal lines connected to San Diego and Los Angeles in the south; to Portland and Seattle in the north; to Mexico and Canada.
It was, as Stephen Ambrose’s account of it says in the title of his book, Nothing Like It in the World. The Siberian railroad, built on mostly flat lands, took much longer, with numerous casualties, and was riddled with errors and incompetence. The trans-continental railroad was a modern marvel of efficiency. It of course was the pride of a young nation. It represented the consolidation of a hard-earned empire, a technologiucal achievement that was viewed as a validation of Democracy, and for many a way to exorcise the Civil War. But perhaps its greatest impact was ionternationally.
First, it was the “death knell” of Indian independence. Once the lines were built, troops could be transported anywhere. It discouraged the Indians, who slowly but surely surrendered to the will of the white invaders. It completely ended any ambition of European or Latin American powers who may have eyed with envy the once-virgin lands of the American West. But it also sent a tremendous message to nations riding the whirlwind of the Industrial Revolution. The U.S. was a power every bit as much as any of them. It quickly ascended to the top economic powerhouse in the world.
Germany, consolidated by the 1870s, already politically tied to Mexico, had global military ambitions. But the United States demonstrated in the Civil War they had a world class army with a superior general officer class. This combined with the building or the railroad forced them to consider any future military conflict that could draw the United States in. The Republican Abraham Lincoln had shown a willingness to use the full measure of his Army. The Republicans developed a reputation as a muscular party not unafraid of power.
Potential enemies were in awe of American technological might, which they knew would be turned on them if they entered any military conflict. Perhaps these factors played a role in the fact that while invasion plans of Belgium-France were written in 1905 when Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, it was not until 1913 when the Democrat Woodrow Wilson occupied the Oval Office that Germany carried out their attack.
America: where slavery came to die
After the U.S.-Mexico War, the slavery issue took center stage in American politics. Slavery was a thriving institution that existed as far back as one group of men had the ability to defeat another group of men in combat of any kind. The armies and nations that enslaved others knew no particular racial, ethnic or religious identity; it was a widespread practice among all citizens of Mankind. African tribes defeated other African tribes, selling their captives into the hands of slave traders. The Spanish, Dutch and English, in the main, brought Africans to the New World, the Americas and the Caribbean. It was once said so vast was the slave trade that shark migration in the Atlantic Ocean was changed because of the dead bodies of so many slaves tossed overboard. This is not true but represented just how much resentment exists still today over slavery’s legacy.
The Puritans arrived in Massachusetts without slaves. Their Christian faith was abhorrent to the practice, but when England came to colonize the Americas, they did import slaves. When the United States declared independence (1776), defeated the British (1783) and ratified the Constitution (1787-88), the young country in essence inherited slavery.
The Founding Fathers originally desired to end slavery, but a bargain needed to be worked out in order to keep the Southern colonies within the Federal system. It was established that importation of slaves would end in 1808. The theory was that after that year, the existing slaves would eventually grow old and pass away, thus ending the practice. Slaveholders throughout history often kept slaves without regard to the maintenance of family units, much less allowing units to form through marriage and the birth of children. This practice was allowed in America.
Even though the plan held insofar as no slaves were imported after 1808, the existense and continued birth of children, combined with the general maintenance of families, obviously meant the slave population did not dwindle away and die; it thrived. It became vital toi the Southern agrarian economy, and over time a major bone op contention.
A new party, the Republicans (or the Radical Republicans, as they were called) rose up in opposition to slavery. The Democrats became the party of Southern slavery. Republican Abraham Lincoln won the 1960 election, Civil War broke out, lasting until 1865. The Union prevailed, the Confederacy defeated, and the United States stood bloody but unbowed. In 1863 Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring black slaves free. When the war ended two tears later, blacks technically were “free,” although it took another century and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1860s to effectively accomplish this huge task.
The Union infused its effort with symbolism, much of it inspired by the Christian abolitionists who were the driving force behind the main issue of the war. Millions of white men went into battle, marching to an inspiring tune, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which dared to be on the side of Truth. Its drumbeat line was, “The truth is marching on.”
Between 618,000 and 700,000 Americans died in the Civil War, plus those maimed and otherwise hurt. More than twice as many soldiers died of disease and attrition as of combat deatrhs. Approximaetly 360,000 Union soldiers died ostensibly to free black slaves. While there were many issues at hand, this was the most important. President Lincoln codified this in his stirring Gettysburgh Address (1863).
Slavery has been called America’s “Original Sin,” and perhaps it was, but the fact it was brought here by Europeans, not started here by Americans, is a worthwhile distinction. While that fact may not be particularly material, what is material is the fact that slavery came to America to die. There was no indication prior to President Lincoln’s election that slavery was about to end anywhere in the world. Then the Civil War was fought and won by the Union. Slavery ended on American soil, courtesy of Americans fighting to end it, ratified by American laws written by Americans. “Four score and seven years” after the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, Americans used that document as the legal framework to end slavery. It did not end because some foreign entity, army or empire came to American shores, defeating a resistant America to end the practice, and under the barrel of a gun forced them to do so. Perhaps America came to it kicking and screaming, but ultimately she ended slavery of her own free will. When slavery ended in America, it died once and for all as a legitimate form of trade between nations. It has never returned. America is where slavery came to die.
Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Columbia became the great American angel or woman, floating over the plains of the West. Animals and Indians symbolically fled her. In her wake came farms, villages and homesteads; in the back are cities and railroads. Columbia means the light of civilization dispelling the darkness of ignorance and barbarity.
In the painting, Native Americans have to be removed, symbolic of the thinking of 19th Century Americans. Another interesting symbol shows a railroad train coming out of the East with smoke billowing, bringing technological enlightenment with it. Civilization and technological development are seen as good things. The debate is whether this happened at the cost of spirit or morality. Were Americans of the Old West immoral? Is modern America, shaped by the emergence of the West, immoral? The greater question is not whether immorality marked the whole of the West, but rather whether certain events were immoral. Is immorality and progress mutually exclusive? Is change immoral? Or is it more realistic to simply observe as fact that, when change does occur, rivalries and conflicts are inevitable. When this happens, somebody wins and somebody loses.
Anglo-Saxon institutions were introduced into an area that was devoid of enlightenment with this issue. With this unique experiment in the new world - this nation that prided itself upon its Democratic institutions - Native American people were forced out of their ancestral homes. Is there rationalization for this? The question then comes down to the usurpation of property.
One argument is that these poor Indians had to be moved in order to save them, but this is hypocrisy. Some Indians were relatively "sophisticated" and "civilized." Some intellectuals have written that the literacy rate of the Cherokee nation was higher than in the white South up through the Civil War.
Either way, the tribes were not all barbaric all the time. In the Southeast some Indians were farmers, and "successful." They were moved to Oklahoma. In Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, Native American people were active in trade, were trilingual and very good entrepreneurs. They were forced to the plains of Kansas. Many of the people who went into the West became Native American pioneers. An interesting phenomenon occurred, however. Indian cultures in the East brought many tenants of American "civilization" into the West themselves. This created problems for officials in Mexico.
The second option involves leaving it to the Indians. This of course is specious, since nobody would have done, but for the sake of argument, would this have helped the Indians? Do the Indians ask us to help them build freeways? Do the Indians ask us to help them build hospitals? Is it possible to bring this kind of Western infrastructure into the Indian territories without dominating their society? What if the Americans simply had a "hands off" policy, and all the benefits of modern society occurred east of the Mississippi River? Then the Indians would have kept living in teepees in the West. They would have died of diseases, warred with each other using bows and arrows, starved, froze in the winter, and done all the things that they always did. The Americans would have been excoriated as unfeeling for not going in and helping their red-skinned brothers.
If the whites never contact the Indians, then what happens to the Indians? What do they invent? If Indians had never been in contact with whites, since 1800 on, are they still living in teepees? Do they have houses with running water? Do they have ways of transporting themselves? Do they have phones? Do they have medicine (other than peyote)? Are these questions racist?
Maybe from 1800 to 2003 the American Indians would have invented aqueducts, irrigation systems, electricity, penicillin, airplanes, cars, roads . . . They would have invented some things. They would have made advances in areas critical to their way of life; farming, hunting, warfare, religion and societal evolution. Even absent formal contact, they may well have learned from whites, “stealing” progressive ideas – aqueducts, irrigation, architecture, medicine, even religion - through espionage or other means. The most liberal of guilty whites, or the most radical Chicano or Indian activists, must be willing to look in his own heart. If so, can they say that the Indians, left to their own devices, would have invented or progressed without Manifest Destiny?
Napoleon once said, “History is written by the winners.” Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government known to man, with the exception of all other forms of government known to man.” These analgies apply to the American West. Manifest Destiny is the worst form of historical progress that could have happened there, with the exception of all other forms of historical progress that could happened there. This is the established premise.
The Old West narrative is one of the great, mythic tales of legend in all of human history. The cowboy was a figure of enormous romantic appeal. Europeans of the 19th and early 20th Centuries were utterly fascinated by both cowboys and Indians. Each was an entirely mysterious, heretofore never seen creature; utterly exotic and fascinating. Most city dwelling Americans were equally fascinated. mSo appealing is the cowboy in American that he still lives in our lexicon.
A “cowboy” in politics or military command is seen as a rogue element, the type most feared by the Soviets during times of confrontation. Ronald Reagan was viewed as the ultimate cowboy, an image he was happy to present. In films like The Hunt For Red October, a Soviet submarine commander played by Sean Connery fears the most dealing with “a cowboy” as his counter-part; a m an who “shoots first and asks questions later” rather than reasoning things out.
The films of John Wayne and many Western novels played on the heroic cowboy image. The cowboys always killed the Indians; rescued the white women; and restored order to civilization. The end. Many Americans understood this narrative was not likely to be 100 percent accurate, but were comfortable that represented a larger truth. In 1970 a book shattered this myth. Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was a tearful, guilt-plagued, tragic, heart breaking renbdering of the Indian Wars as it apparently really happened.
The book paints such a dastardly picture of official American governmental and military policy; of such evil racism; and of such a collection of lies and double-crosses constantly committed by the whites against the dispossessed Indians, that many could not then and even to this day do not fully accept it. It is indeed a totally one-sided account. For this reason Brown has been accused of liberal bias, of intentionally making America look bad to sway opinion against the Vietnam War. Perhaps the book exaggerates here and there, leaves out a few facts that would balance the perspective, but overall it is such a collection of atrocities, one after the other, that there really can be no “balancing out.” After Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the most jingoistic, patriotic American must bow his head in shame.
Whereby even slavery had its “white heroes,” from Abe Lincoln to the Union soldiers to the framers of a Constitution that ultimately had the legs to free them 76 years after it was written; not so in the Indian Wars. It must remain a stain on the American character, place for humility.
Brown’s book did indeed hit home at precisely the right time. Had it come out 10 or even five years earlier, its effect would have been negated. By 1970 the war in Vietnam had taken a turn for the worse. The public was solidly against it. American patriotism was at an all-time low. That year, the USC football team attended a cowboys ‘n’ Indians movie while on a road trip. The Trojans were a solidly integrated team that felt they “got it right” under coach John McKay, but that night, white players found themselves cheering when the cowboy shot the Indians, the blacks cheering when the Indians got one on their side. Afterward an argument ensued between the now-divided team, a collection of All-Americans expected to contend for the national championship. Riven by racial tensions that bubbled to the surface all year, they struggled to a 6-4-1 record. This is a microcosm of a divided America during the Vietnam War; of black-white race relations; and of the Indian conflict a century earlier.
Brown’s book was not the only vehicle which, in 1970, used an earlier conflict as a metaphor for Vietnam. Two major war movies were produced in 1970. Patton was a gung-ho bio-pic of the pistol-packing, swaggering George Patton, the very symbol of American glory for the ages. M*A*S*H was a comic, biting, sarcastic put-down of the military establishment. Director Robert Altman’s film was set in Korea, but her purposefully created imagy evoking Vietnam in a decidcely anti-war manner.
“And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall you free,” Jesus Christ said in John 8:32. Indeed even when the truth hurts, as Brown’s truthful depiction of the Indian conflict assuredly did, it was a necessary step in understanding American history. It is a great, proud history, more magnificent than any other. It is a history of men, and men are corrupt. All men are capable of great evil.
Time travelers and the Indians
Of course the U.S. wanted the Indians’ land. The U.S. wanted to justify their reasons for wanting it. That said, there is an awesome amount of untrammeled land that dots the Western landscape. Human population made up a tiny percentage of the pristine, untouched countryside. Traveling east, west, north or south, throughout states like Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and even California, the great mythically overstuffed desert metropolis, reveals that to this very day most of this land is still untouched. Some telephone poles. A reservoir. Some fire roads. A diner. An occasional prison off in the distance. Up in the sky, maybe some Navy fighter planes or, who knows, a stealth bomber over Nevada. That place is so desolate that aliens might have a city out there, at least according to lore.
While staying on the theme of aliens, or at least science fiction, picture if you will a time machine. If man could invent a such a machine and transport an entire government of liberals, Indian activists, medical personnel and social workers to Gold Rush Era Washington, D.C., with a direct mandate to re-write history and see to it that white settlements of the West be done “peacefully” this time, little likely would change except that more whites would die than actually did. Substantially more Indians would die, too. The problem might not have been resolved until the 20th Century. Marx's vision of social justice, if implemented in the Old West, might have resulted in genocides to rival Eastern Europe.
The first premise is that the U.S. was going to expand, populations were going to spread, and modern progress would occur. America-haters say that Manifest Destiny is a scourge on our history, but it was a completely inexorable, unstoppable movement. Any government that would have attempted to put a break on it, to legislate against it, to imprison would-be settlers and the like, would never have survived the vote. Had the government attempted to stem the tide, a riot, a war perhaps to match the Civil War, would have broken out. There would have been no popular support among the people to support any military action by a U.S. Government to stop Westward expansion.
The "time-travelers" would have set forth their rules of engagement. Many of the moderns would have been dispatched west to try and put a break on the actions of the whites when they met the Indians, to give them medical aid, to educate them, and be nice to them.
The question of whether white men had the right to take over the West may be an argument, but it is sophistry. There is no question the Indians were lied to, abused and mistreated, but there was no Indian Nation. Disparate tribes roamed the plains. They were often nomadic in nature. Many were at war with each other. They just existed. It is a huge land, an enormous country. No tribe “owned” all of it, lived on all of it, and controlled all of it. To the Indian way of thinking, a giant spirit bequeathed it to them, in their minds every bit a form of destiny as the American Manifest destiny. A universal quality infused their belief, that it was their rightful heritage for as long as the sun rose and the moon came appeared.
Incredible distances could be traveled without a sign of human life. The anti-America crowd pictures hordes of whites bearing down on enormous populated Indian citizenry. They put forth the proposition that industrialization, pollution and population have robbed us of our land; environmental concerns of man encroaching on Mother Nature. A reading of Jack Kerouac roaming the American West dispels this myth.
Kerouac drove the old Route 66, largely replaced by Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Today, at the apex of the American Empire, the height of our military might, the Information Age, of environmental degradation, population explosion and modern technology, once you get past the suburban sprawl of San Bernardino and Riverside, you will see some restaurants, gas stations, some windmills to generate electricity, some signs, some telephone poles, a town every so often, and a few rest stops. The resort town of Palm Springs will pass by to your right in the distance, but unless you are paying attention you may not notice. Beyond that, it is pretty much desert until Phoenix. Beyond that is more desert as far as the eye and the gas tank will take you, staying on 10, one of the most heavily traveled, major interstates in the country. In Santa Monica, where the 10 starts, a sign tells drivers they are entering the Christopher Columbus Trans-Continental Highway!
The same thing can be said about the drive between San Diego and Las Vegas, Las Vegas and Reno, Reno and Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe and Portland, Colorado and Iowa, and on and on. The American West today still contains vast quantities of untrammeled land, as pristine now as it was in Geronimo's day. The concept that the white hordes – some whites slaughtered Indians - descended like Mongols upon the peaceful Injuns is an exaggeration.
But if time travel were possible, consider a delegation selected to right the wrongs of the past. Imagine Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson in charge of a Special U.N. Commission on Time Travel and the Reconstruction of History, armed with “political correctness.” A large group of Native American leaders, representing all the various tribes, are sent with the contingent. Time travel allows people to make the trip, but they do not have modern equipment or medicine. They have to make do with what is available in the 19th Century.
Sent back to the Old West of 1850s, their job it is to see to it that the U.S. settlers treat the Indians with respect when they encounter them. Scenario: when they finally make it over the Rockies, most of the modern men are dead from disease, attrition and hardship. Tired and bedraggled, the survivors could not care less about diplomacy with whatever will meet them “on the other side,” but they still want to “do the right thing.” Picture Clinton and Jackson crouched behind the wheel of an upturned wagon, two of their cavalry officers lying died with arrows through their necks, while the Indians circle the lot of 'em. Clinton's orders would be the same as any other human beings, which is to "kill them before they kill the rest of us."
Alternative scenario: assume Clinton and Jackson would prepare for this possibility ahead if time, which would be to make sure the American Government provide them overwhelming military support so they would not be encircled. No matter how much support is given them, however, since the railroad has not been built yet, there is no way to provide comfort or safe passage to the West.
The contingent somehow survives, however, and makes contact with the Indians. The Indians they finally see do not understand any of their liberal nostrums, quickly deduce these quasi-Indians are heap bad medicine, and it is not too long before they break out the old bows and arrows. After that it is every man for himself. About the only thing Clinton would be able to do, in charge of this doomed operation, is send the Army out West in huge numbers so that the show of overwhelming force would simply mollify the Indians. Variations of the Little Big Horn and the Trail of Tears follow.
No matter which scenario the time traveling contingent follows, they would probably not be able to “convince” the Indians of their good intentions. The presence of the overwhelming military support, sent to protect them in the first place, would dissuade the Indians from trusting them.
The plight of the Indians is similar to the plight of the Africans, and the Arabs after World War I. The “enemy” of these people is, in an odd way, modernity. In other words, the world changes. Progress takes place, and people who do not keep up with it are not just left behind, but left behind to die. What a conundrum. Who would argue that roads, highways, electricity, hospitals, medicine, phones, air conditioning and a million other things, almost all invented by white males, is not a good thing? Would any one say that American Indians would be better off living in teepees than without modern appliances? The same question applies to Africans in the jungle and Arabs making their way on the shifting sands of the Sub-Sahara.
So how can the modern wonders of white invention be a bad thing for non-whites? The answer is complicated. Obviously, modern inventions usually are not bad. Medicine is never bad, is it? It is if sick people need it and armed thugs steal it. Modern methods of making and getting food to people is bad if it gets hijacked and stolen, or diverted to guerrillas, revolutionaries or army troops instead of to the people.
When things were simple, they did not know better. Before white inventions made their way into the Third World, people just got sick and died. Nobody much paid attention. It was considered quite natural, actually.
Then came the guns. The gun is one of the most schizophrenic of inventions. If guns had never been invented, would this have been a good or a bad thing? The gun debate is not part of the present issue of discussion, which is an attempt to deal with the forces of societal evolution as an offshoot of Marxist theory.
What modern life has done is to elevate those who have been able to take advantage of it, but it sheds light on those who do not. For centuries, people in what became known as the Third World existed. If they had a plague, many of them died. If they had a drought, people starved. Very few were educated, and “ignorance” was the norm. Injustice reigned supreme.
Then came the missionaries. The missionaries, if one really wanted to examine this, are the original racists. They came to these places to spread religion, medicine and food. On the face of it, this is a benevolent act, but this was affirmative action at work for the first time. Too “save” the natives by introducing them to Christ is to assume that the way they knew was not as good as the way of the white man. To assume they needed to be fed is to assume that the white man's way, which is to eat nutritious foods, is better than to starve. To assume they needed medical care is to assume that the white man's way, which is to prevent the spread of disease, is better than pestilence.
While facetious, these intellectual exercises hopefully explain, or shed light, on the impossible-to-avoid cultural clash and backlash that occurred when whites and natives met and began to inter-act. The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate the great chasm, and tragedy, that occurs during the proverbial “clash of civiliations” that marks history. The unfortunate fact that very well may emerge from this is that no matter how well intentioned, the outcomes may have been inevitable. The purpose of the time machine is to argue that even if modern men, armed with the knowledge of historical mistakes, were to go back in time to right those mistakes, they very well may have failed, but made them worse. This is a conundrum of human psychology, speaking to the corruptibility of the soul.
Furthermore, this exercise addresses a larger question, with even more disturbing consquence. That question is: are whites by their very nature harmful to non-whites? Many black liberation theologists, black Muslims, Marxists and radicals have argued they are. Martin Luther King, Jr. staked his life on the premise that whites were not inherently harmful to non-whites, but he was assassinated for his efforts.
The reason so much of the non-industrial Third World is a disaster is that progress and modernity outpace human ability. We have seen it in the American West. The tragedy of Native Indians was not just what happened when they went head-to-head with the whites, but that it was inevitable. Would the world’s non-whites as a whole, ranging from black Africans to Indians to Arabs to Orientals and others, have been better off had they never known whites, or at least not had them so thoroughly dominate their societies, ranging from missionaries to colonization to wars to genocides?
There is no “answer” to this question. It certainly appears to range greatly, as the Indians of America appear an entirely different gropup than the Indians of India. The Arabs and the Orientals appear to have completely “switched places” in history over the course of centuries. No group can claim the victimhood of Africa’s blacks.
The Chinese, while once an exploited class, are also the inventors of gunpowder, which caused so much death over the years. In this respect they cannot be held as victims of a white society that, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, poisoned their pure society. The Spaniards of Latin America and both the British and French of the South Pacific are blamed with bringing diseases to the natives. The experience of the Native Indians when they met the Americans is similar. In this, at least, the United States can lay no special claim to evil. Alcohol, sexual disease, pestilence and all of other form of misery are said to have destroyed paradises.
Is this truly the case? As mentioned, could America have stayed where they were in the East and left the West to the Indians. Of course had they done that, the British, French, Russians, Dutch, Spanish and probably the Germans would have made life at least as miserable for the Indians as the Americans did; probably more so. There was no alternative to Manifest Destiny. It was a political inexorability.
Also, as mentioned, any white men who simply did not “touch” the dark-skinned natives of the world would have been criticized for not spreading civilization, progress, medicine, Christianity, and all other forms of “advancement” on “backwards” people. The backwards peoples thesmelves no doubt, at least over time, would have been currious as they heard more and more legends and myths of the far-off whites, indeed invited them into their cultures, and ventured into theirs, a universal aspect of human curiosity as old as Plato’s “allegory of the cave.”
If by miracle over the past several hundred years this contact had not happened, consider the world. On the one hand Silicon Valley, the Internet, space travel, vast medical advancements; on the other, medicine men chanting to a sun god, a shaman with a bone between his lips. Is this a better world for the natives? Is the alcohol, the disease and the exploitation better or worse than the alternative?
Or, a more hopeful fantasy, in which the natives invent things on their own that are of equal value to the inventions “imposed” upon them by the whites. There is some evidence of this possibility. Orientals for instance, were a highly advanced society, so much so, in fact, that the Japanese were convinced of their racial superiority over the corrupt, immoral white man; a major impteus for their war with Russia (1905) and invasion of Pearl Harbor (1941).
The Arab world remains a major mystery. Much of the great progress of Mankind occurred in the Middle East, or the “mysterious East.” Great tinctures, architecture, mathematical constructs, and other discoveries came from this world. The implementation of Islam had a strange slowing effect on all of this, but the religion has created a certain sense of moral superiority, as well. Many Muslims think of non-Muslims as being infidels, therefore not worthy of mercy, which is another dynamic in and of itself.
Then consider Christianity. There are a considerable number of people who think this a mere myth, a series of fairy tales. Even those usually acknowledge that regardless of Christ’s divinity, the religion represented civility, humanity, and a role of reason in the Dark Ages. For those who do believe in His divinity, the question has no further relevance. The missionary work of spreading the word of salvation trumps all exploitation, no matter what. Without salvation, no amount of earthly paradise is more than a temporary haven from the maws of Satan.
The building of the trans-continental railroad consolidated gains and “civilized” the American West. San Francisco became the first great city of the West. After the Indian Wars, the United States expanded its influence in the Pacific and the Atlantic: the Philippines and Cuba. Winning World War I completed the nation's global outreach.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism