Wednesday, December 08, 2004

An Introduction to American Culture

American culture is a very unique thing, and has been created by very unique ideas. Americans assume these ideas almost instinctively, but we should examine them and their origin so that we can understand America better. The ideas of Manifest Destiny and the American Dream took a complicated path to becoming virtually unquestioned in the American mind.

Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny is a ghostly idea that defies the researcher’s attempts at figuring it out. The task becomes even more difficult if he comes to the study with the assumption that America is inherently good, as the study will contradict him sometimes. Fortunately, some semblance of order can be presented here, with the topics of what Manifest Destiny is, it’s history, and it’s effects.
What is Manifest Destiny anyways? There is no one better to answer this question than John L. O’ Sullivan, who used the phrase first. In the United States Magazine and Democratic Review he claimed that it was, "our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” (Sullivan) In other words, America has a divine right to rule North America, or perhaps the world.
Although Sullivan was the first to use the phrase, the idea had been around for a long time.
The concept of manifest destiny is as old as the first New England settlements. Without using the words, John Winthrop articulated the concept in his famous sermon, the Arbella Covenant (1630), when he said: " ... for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us;…" Winthrop exhorts his listeners to carry on God's mission and to set a shining example for the rest of the world. From this beginning, the concept has had religious, social, economic, and political consequences. (Reuben) Of course, the Pilgrims did not have the same view that would show up later. As time went on Manifest Destiny developed into what it is today. Before the War of 1812 the War Hawks contributed significantly to it. In fact, that war was a direct result of a certain idea. American’s were so proud that they assumed that Canadians wanted their country annexed. However, that assumption was wrong, and America was humiliated. The War Hawks believed that America was a great nation, with freedom to be given to every person on the planet. Additionally, God had given His blessing on the nation, so it could do anything it wanted to promote that freedom. As you can see, this idea became quite substantial.
The questions about what Manifest Destiny is and how it came about have been answered; the question that remains is on the affects of Manifest Destiny. Like many ideas, the one under question has managed to wriggle into many aspects of life. Every war after 1811 has been motivated to some extent by it. Manifest Destiny was the direct cause of the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of the Republic of the Cherokee. There are innumerable other incidents resulting at least in part from it, from American tourists insulting Europeans, to the Iraq War. Just as all other ideas, Manifest Destiny has second and third order consequences.
Hopefully the idea of Manifest Destiny has been rendered understandable, through definition, historical analysis and investigation of the effects. Although Manifest Destiny has squashed Indians and created wars, its advantages may outweigh its disadvantages. However, no human can be completely sure of the verdict.

American Dream

The American Dream is a rather strange and unique idea. It flowed from many philosophical movements, but was also in existence before and with them. There are four main roots for the American Dream: itself, Manifest Destiny, Transcendentalism, and Utopianism.
The American Dream almost made itself. In the early 1700’s Britain had a policy known as Salutary Neglect. This policy essentially allowed the colonies to make their own laws and rule themselves. This allowed upward mobility for everyone. This was a dramatic turn from Europe, where the lower class was consciously hindered. As future immigrants saw this freedom, they probably exaggerated it in their minds and lived that freedom when they arrived. The idea of freedom is so important that it has waged several wars for it, and continues to do so to this day. Freedom must be in place before people can even attempt to live out the American Dream, and freedom is jealously guarded by America.
In addition to itself, Manifest Destiny contributed to the creation of the American Dream. Essentially, Manifest Destiny stated that America was great and appointed by God to govern vast lands. At least, that is what most of it’s proponents wanted people too think. It was actually an excuse for America to take territory. But this idea that America was great, so Americans were also great, got into the American mind. If the United States could do wonderful things, its people could also. So the American Dream was influenced by this notion of American greatness.
Not only did this strange dream build upon itself and take ideas from Manifest Destiny, Transcendentalism contributed a large piece also. One of the basic principles of Transcendentalism is that something can turn into something else. A bottle of pop can become a cannon. The orphan in New York can become an oil tycoon with an enormous fortune and 20 businesses. That is why America is so good at creating heroes like Superman and Spiderman; we simply know that someone can be transformed into someone else. Richard Scary videos teach kids that, “You can be anything you want to be.” Every little boy, or girl, can be the President. If you can change, then you can move up in the world. So Transcendentalism held that it is possible for everyone to be great, if they will work at it. Even with itself, Manifest Destiny, and Transcendentalism, the American Dream needed one more movement before it could be complete. This movement is Utopianism. The American Dream provided the work ethic, Manifest Destiny kept the West open to anyone who came and Transcendentalism allowed for the land’s perfection, so you could build Utopia. It was just a matter of settling down somewhere and working the land. A perfect society could be created. Yes, this is subduing the earth, but it did not realize an important truth. A perfect society cannot be created on earth because of sin. We should not be so busy creating our own heaven that we forget the real Heaven. Be as that may, Utopianism led America to apply its dream to real estate, so that


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