There are historians who distill everything to economic urges and dismiss the possibility of ideas informing action and they may do so because ideas generally do not inform their writing. Charles Austin Beard and his The Rise of American Civilization form the great example of this approach which now stands like an imposing ruin in the landscape of American historiography. What was once the grandest house in the province is now a ravaged survival. [Hofstadter] At the other end of the spectrum are this historians we believe that great men with great ideas drive the course of history without reference to what came before them or is happening around them. Bancroft’s History of the United States has been referred to as, every page a vote for Andrew Jackson, and is an example of this approach.
The plain and simple truth of the matter is much closer to Robert Burn’s idea, The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!, so that a Constitutional Convention in 1787 is willing to make compromises about slavery – which is becoming an economic liability and will not survive the marketplace – six years before Eli Whitney applies for his patent on the cotton gin which will destroy their carefully crafted compromises. There are ideas, there are economic forces and neither can wholly escape the other in the formation of history.
Many have argued about the uniqueness of the formation of the United States from a handful of English colonies and borrowing equal parts of Puritan predestination and the Methodist urge to proselytize – the “keeper” of the sacred texts role being reserved to the Episcopalians – have invested that uniqueness with the role of exceptionalism that has both justified and necessitated the sharing of the American gospel with the continent and the world. What has been unique in the experience is the role of journalism, a profession that came into being about the same time as the colonies, that requires no particular intellectual qualification and that has no check – by constitutional writ – on its excesses.
In our next four entries – including this one – we are going to look at an ideas the first of which found its great advocate in John Louis O’Sullivan. Manifest Destiny as it is popularly called and we will examine how its working out in American life had far more to do with the causes of the American Civil War than any other single force. The idea that the war was fought to end slavery is akin to the idea that the First World War was fought to make the world safe for democracy – it doesn’t bear close scrutiny – and the so-called yankee abolitionists were, for the most part, every bit as racist – if not more so – than their Southern slave-owning brethren.
John Louis O’Sullivan fills the bill for beginning the discussion because he is a journalist, credited by some as the originator of the phrase Manifest Destiny, and is typical of his type in the 19th century. As peculiar as he is quaint and as opinionated as he is wrong he is still the measure of 19th century journalism and using his biography as well as his own words seems to be the ideal place to start.
John L. O’Sullivan and his times Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, c 2003 Robert D. Sampson Journalists United States Biography, O’Sullivan, John L. (John Louis), 1813-1895 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xvi, 304 p.: ill.; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 279-294) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
The life of nineteenth-century journalist, diplomat, adventurer, and enthusiast for lost causes John Louis O’Sullivan is usually glimpsed only in brief episodes, perhaps because the components of his life are sometimes contradictory. An exponent of romantic democracy, O’Sullivan became a defender of slavery. A champion of reforms for women, labor, criminals, and public schools, he ended his life promoting spiritualism. This first full-length biography reveals a man possessed of the idealism and promise, as well as the prejudices and follies, of his age, a man who sensed the revolutionary and liberating potential of radical democracy but who was unable to acknowledge the racial barriers it had to cross to fulfill its promise.
Sure to be welcomed by scholars of the Jacksonian era and others interested in nineteenth-century American history, John L. O’Sullivan and His Times presents an in-depth examination of O’Sullivan’s ideas as they were expressed in the Democratic Review and other newspapers and literary magazines he edited. O’Sullivan was a crusader whose efforts to end capital punishment came within a hair’s breadth of ending the practice of hanging convicts in New York. As an editor, he called down the wrath of the people on speculators and promoters of privilege and monopoly and eloquently praised the virtues of majority rule and the citizens’ right to control and transform their government. He was a political operative who supported the radical wing of the Democratic party, battled nativists, and plotted strategy with a young Samuel J. Tilden, and was a promoter of a fresh American literature who significantly aided Nathaniel Hawthorne’s career and familiarized his readers with the works of Whitman, Poe, Whittier, and Thoreau.
Through extensive research of primary materials—including contemporary correspondence and journals of public figures such as Martin Van Buren, William Marcy, Benjamin R Butler, Samuel Tilden, and James K. Polk—author Robert D. Sampson explores the many facets of this enigmatic figure, a man described by Hawthorne as one of the truest and best men in the world.
The American people having derived their origin from many other nations, and the Declaration of National Independence being entirely based on the great principle of human equality, these facts demonstrate at once our disconnected position as regards any other nation; that we have, in reality, but little connection with the past history of any of them, and still less with all antiquity, its glories, or its crimes. On the contrary, our national birth was the beginning of a new history, the formation and progress of an untried political system, which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only; and so far as regards the entire development of the natural rights of man, in moral, political, and national life, we may confidently assume that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity.
It is so destined, because the principle upon which a nation is organized fixes its destiny, and that of equality is perfect, is universal. It presides in all the operations of the physical world, and it is also the conscious law of the soul — the self-evident dictates of morality, which accurately defines the duty of man to man, and consequently man’s rights as man. Besides, the truthful annals of any nation furnish abundant evidence, that its happiness, its greatness, its duration, were always proportionate to the democratic equality in its system of government. . . .
What friend of human liberty, civilization, and refinement, can cast his view over the past history of the monarchies and aristocracies of antiquity, and not deplore that they ever existed? What philanthropist can contemplate the oppressions, the cruelties, and injustice inflicted by them on the masses of mankind, and not turn with moral horror from the retrospect?
America is destined for better deeds. It is our unparalleled glory that we have no reminiscences of battle fields, but in defence of humanity, of the oppressed of all nations, of the rights of conscience, the rights of personal enfranchisement. Our annals describe no scenes of horrid carnage, where men were led on by hundreds of thousands to slay one another, dupes and victims to emperors, kings, nobles, demons in the human form called heroes. We have had patriots to defend our homes, our liberties, but no aspirants to crowns or thrones; nor have the American people ever suffered themselves to be led on by wicked ambition to depopulate the land, to spread desolation far and wide, that a human being might be placed on a seat of supremacy.
We have no interest in the scenes of antiquity, only as lessons of avoidance of nearly all their examples. The expansive future is our arena, and for our history. We are entering on its untrodden space, with the truths of God in our minds, beneficent objects in our hearts, and with a clear conscience unsullied by the past. We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can. We point to the everlasting truth on the first page of our national declaration, and we proclaim to the millions of other lands, that “the gates of hell” — the powers of aristocracy and monarchy — “shall not prevail against it.”
The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High — the Sacred and the True. Its floor shall be a hemisphere — its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens, and its congregation an Union of many Republics, comprising hundreds of happy millions, calling, owning no man master, but governed by God’s natural and moral law of equality, the law of brotherhood — of “peace and good will amongst men.”. . .
Yes, we are the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement. Equality of rights is the cynosure of our union of States, the grand exemplar of the correlative equality of individuals; and while truth sheds its effulgence, we cannot retrograde, without dissolving the one and subverting the other. We must onward to the fulfilment of our mission — to the entire development of the principle of our organization — freedom of conscience, freedom of person, freedom of trade and business pursuits, universality of freedom and equality. This is our high destiny, and in nature’s eternal, inevitable decree of cause and effect we must accomplish it. All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man — the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen; and her high example shall smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field. Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity.