Manifest Destiny and the Sublime – Part 1: Manifest Destiny Returns

Following Donald Trump’s bluster about buying Greenland, the idea of manifest destiny had another resurrection: ‘There we get a sense of motion, as in…Manifest Destiny. Admittedly, Manifest Destiny is not a PC phrase. Yet trendy pieties aside, it’s hard to argue with the long-term logic of national expansion as key to self-defense, as well as to greatness.’

Those are the words of the right-wing commentator James P. Pinkerton, welcoming the possibility of a new wave of US expansionism. He continues by unwittingly revealing the racism and misrepresentations that have always been part of the idea: ‘After all, by the 19th century, as transportation and technology improved, vacant territory wasn’t staying vacant. That is, if we had chosen to leave, say, Oregon to the Chinook, Klamath, and Umpqua tribes, then some other great power would have moved in.’ Empty means yet to be occupied by the right kind of people, with the manifest destiny to occupy land already inhabited by others.

In manifest destiny a racist distinction between a civilised chosen people and supposedly lesser groups is added to Christian ideas of revelation, teleological design and the destiny to ‘possess, multiply and fructify’ (found, for example, in Genesis 22:17):

It is a glorious history our God has bestowed upon His chosen people; a history heroic with faith in our mission and our future; a history of statesmen who flung the boundaries of the Republic out into unexplored lands and savage wilderness; a history of soldiers who carried the flag across blazing deserts and through the ranks of hostile mountains, even to the gates of sunset; a history of a multiplying people who overran a continent in half a century; a history of prophets who saw the consequences of evils inherited from the past and of martyrs who died to save us from them; a history divinely logical, in the process of whose tremendous reasoning we find ourselves to-day.

Albert J. Beveridge The March of the Flag (1898) in Amy S. Greenberg Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion: a Brief History with Documents, Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2012, p 155

The doctrine is often portrayed as progressive, bringing democracy, civilisation and enlightenment into dark and empty lands. Yet manifest destiny conceals economic motives and racist grounds:

As the reopeners saw it, their cause was to write “a history of the future” – to make manifest in the world the destiny whose course had been derived from their study of the past. Human societies, wrote George Fitzhugh in a long, digressive essay in support of the reopening of the trade, are “at all times and places, regulated by laws as universal and as similar as those which control the affairs of bees.” Slavery was a divinely ordained institution, which had been present in every great civilization since the beginning of time; it was “natural,” “normal,” “necessary,” and “inevitable”.

Walter Johnson River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013, p 413

Manifest destiny was not only grounded in racism, it had racist motives of purification and expulsion to add to economic exploitation:

This economic motive did not stop with possession of Cuba. More visionary Southerners saw their slave system extended throughout the Caribbean area – the other islands in the West Indies, Mexico and Central America. The dream was described by the New Orleans Delta: “Wresting that whole region from the mongrelism which now blights and blackens it, making it yield its riches up to the hands of organized and stable industry and intelligent enterprise, this idea is firmly fixed in the American mind, and, sooner or later, its development must become a great fact – a historical reality – manifest destiny accomplished.”

Charles H. Brown Agents of Manifest Destiny: the Lives and Times of the Filibusters, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980, p 41

The idea also rested upon violent legal justifications, such as the concept of a legal and cartographical blank space used to dispossess original peoples like the Cherokee nation:

The fundamental [Biblical] message, as it was understood at any rate, was to possess, multiply, and fructify at the expense of the heathens… The cramped Europeans, by contrast, could make real use of the land, subdue it; and thus they were justified in establishing full legal title.

Anders Stephanson Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right, New York: Hill and Wang, 1995, p 25

In the natural law tradition of vacuum domicilium, defended by Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel, ‘erratic’ nations were deemed not to be able to cultivate the earth or fully populate it and therefore lost any claim to title:

There is another celebrated question, to which the discovery of a new world has principally given rise. It is asked if a nation may lawfully take possession of a vast country, in which there are found none but erratic nations, incapable by the smallness of their numbers to people the whole? We have already observed in establishing the obligation to cultivate the earth, that these nations cannot exclusively appropriate to themselves more land than they have occasion for, and which they are unable to settle and cultivate. Their removing their habitations through these immense regions, cannot be taken for a true and legal possession; and the people of Europe, too closely pent up, finding a land of which these nations are in no particular want, and of which they make no actual constant use, may lawfully possess it, and establish colonies there.

M. de Vattel The Law of Nations, or Principles of the Law of Nature: Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns (translated from French) Dublin: Luke White, 1787, p 165

The concept ‘erratic’ is dangerous. It carries negative connotations of straying, erring and lack of predictability and constancy. This is where the legal violence resides, in negative descriptions of ways of life, contrasted with the apparent regularity and reliability of others, thereby justifying land grabs. The negative judgements exclude positive reasons such as movement according to seasons, food supplies, culture, tradition, deeper knowledge of the land and natural regeneration.

From another perspective, the erring was on the side of the settlers and cultivators, whose poor land management turned vast areas of the Great Plains into dust bowls by the 1930s.

Responding to Trump’s ‘offer’, Timothy Messer-Kruse reminds us of the cynical and hypocritical aspects of manifest destiny, as well as its inherent racism, repeated today in the casual offer to buy-out a land with a majority Inuit population, as if the horrors of earlier purchases were to be forever forgotten and as if the purchaser could ever be trusted: ‘Great powers routinely traded and swapped the lands of subject peoples with no pretense of such fictions of their equality and agreement. Both forms of colonial seizure were supported by racist notions that First Peoples were savage, incapable of self-government, and best served by the tutoring of colonial rule and the blessings of the marketplace.’

It is less well known that in the nineteenth century manifest destiny was supported by the ideas and art of the sublime. This became apparent to me during my research for The Egalitarian Sublime in David Nye’s work on the technological sublime and Elizabeth A. Kessler’s research on the sublime and space. In the final part of this analysis of the entanglement of the sublime with manifest destiny I will argue that the sublime is always tainted by manifest destiny. It shares similar forms of violence and discrimination, where the highest values conveyed by the sublime fail to be egalitarian and contribute to enthusiasm for iniquitous acts.

This is not the first time that Greenland, the sublime and manifest destiny have been interlinked. I’ll begin the next part of my argument with Lill-Ann Körber’s work on Greenland and the German Bergfilm SOS Eisberg with its ‘link between representations of the Arctic and political, as well as media-related issues relevant in Germany at the time, namely the unfolding of a fascist ideology and aesthetics.’ Lill-Ann Körber ‘See the Crashing Masses of White Death …’: Greenland, Germany and the Sublime in the ‘BergfilmSOS Eisberg in Scott MacKenzie and Anna Westerståhl (eds) Films on Ice: Cinemas of the Arctic, Edinburgh University Press, 2015, pp 148-160, p 149