Friday, September 5, 2008

The Nation in the Wilderness

George Caleb Bingham, Daniel Boone Leading Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap, 1852

I sometimes think that people outside the United States fail to appreciate the power of the religious ideas behind the American self image. The United States as a specially chosen nation with a messianic mission to the world is not the exclusive property of the political right, or even of the religious. The American Special Dispensation shapes the rhetoric and the platforms of both presidential campaigns this year. There certainly are secular versions of this same idea, among groups as diverse as the Libertarians and the Greens. I'm not quite sure there is anything else quite like this idea in the rest of the world. The closest to this concept of messianic nationhood that I can think of is Holy Russia. This is a 19th century idea born out of pan-Slav movements and religious revival in Russia. It's coming back with a vengeance in 21st century Russia with the active support of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. America The Promised Land, The Shining City On The Hill, has a messianic mission to save the world from itself (and so does Holy Russia).

The Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham painted this scene of Daniel Boone over 30 years after Boone's death. Bingham very explicitly likens Boone to Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness. Boone would not have approved. The real Daniel Boone died in Missouri after a lifetime of dealing with creditors, greedy speculators, and ambitious politicians. He ended his days preferring the company of the Indians to that of his fellow whites. The real Daniel Boone died in 1820 so that the Daniel Boone of legend could take over, the archetypal American frontier hero, the tough fearless fighter guarding the women in the wagon (the real Daniel Boone, certainly a courageous fighter, was born into a Quaker family and always opposed breaking treaties, forced relocation, and war against the Native Americans).
As we shall see, artists like Bingham painted the westward expansion in explicitly Biblical terms; the chosen people wandering through the wilderness to settle in the Promised Land and battling the Canaanites who were already there. The west was the land destined by God for American settlement; and in the minds of many, this was not a metaphor.
There is a very disturbing racial element in all this. In most of the paintings and rhetoric surrounding the westward expansion, the Chosen People going west to their Promised Land are almost always exclusively white and Protestant. Never mind that the actual settlement of the west, especially the second wave, was as cosmopolitan an enterprise as the rest of American history. The western half of the Transcontinental Railroad was built by Chinese immigrants, the eastern half by Irish immigrants. About half of the cowboys who worked the legendary cattle trails were black. The cowboys most in demand for their skills were Mexican vaqueros. Nonetheless, the conventional narratives around the conquest of the west remain very white stories.
The westward expansion was an imperial enterprise. The primeval west was not empty. It was the homeland of nations that had their own histories going back centuries. Those nations were assigned the role of the Canaanites in the narrative shaped around the westward expansion. One of the main reasons for all the Biblical metaphors in the official imagery and conventional narratives was to absolve people of the guilt of conquest. A holy people went out and claimed the land that was given to them by God.


nurmihusa said...

Holy Mother Russia and America The Promised Land. Two sides of the same coin. Exactly so!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Doug. I didn't know those things about Daniel Boone. (The last thing I heard about him was that his marriage license was worth quite a bit of money [Antiques Roadshow]).

One of my gradeschool "girlfriends" was Brenda Larez. We had a sizeable portion of Mexican-Americans in my hometown, because their ancestors built the railroads of the more southern routes (to Texas and California; my hometown is the hub of that split in the tracks; the shanties still stand out east of town, as a memorial). When I reached "a certain age" it was made clear to me that it was no so "ok" for me to be visiting in the Larez home (or the African-American Papin home, where my second "girlfriend" lived). I knew it was wrong, but I was too young to know why.

Anonymous said...

Just to be clear, I meant that I knew it was wrong that I was being discouraged to visit the homes of my best friends.