‘Manifest Destiny’ undone? Why Presidential candidates should look to the past to decide the future

Emigrants Crossing the Great Plains, Albert Bierstadt 1867 Emigrants Crossing the Great Plains, Albert Bierstadt 1867

America is in the midst of presidential election fever.

And despite being a Brit who is still shamefully yet to complete the West Wing, a recent holiday to DC has made total infection inevitable.

It goes without saying. These remain difficult times for the States and consequently, US election debate seems to have centred on who is to blame: Obama, Bush or possibly even Bill. The big, prevailing issue, as it was last time round, is the economy, stupid.

A weak economy is the problem; a strong economy is the solution. So far, so obvious. Yet little seems to have been said about why or what led the economy to this dark place.

The subprime collapse of 2007 is an easy place to start the story. And also a more comfortable one. For what if this and other events are merely symptoms of a much more fundamental failing? Not one borne of late 20th Century banking practices in the Gordon Gekko ‘Greed is Good’ mould. But a crisis that traces its origins right back to the creation of the American character and principles to which many of the world’s most powerful nations also subscribe?

While in Washington, we spent an afternoon in the Museum of Native American History: a celebration of the continent’s first people and the story of their fate as the young nation sought to fulfil America’s “Manifest Destiny” to expand across the continent through the bloody acquisition of land and natural resources.

Each indigenous tribe was different. But all seemed to share a common understanding of the need to live within nature’s limits. From the Lakota of the Great Plains, whose sacred circle or Hocoka, brought together life cycles, seasons, animal nations, and human values into rich spiritual synthesis; to the Chesapeakes, living in the once-dense forests of modern Maryland, whose guardian spirit of natural order (‘Solid Living Face’) symbolised a survival delicately dependent on taking no more in beast or bounty than the land had bestowed.

But to early Americans, bent on sculpting brave new worlds out of the wilderness, such practices were closer to savagery than civilisation.

The continent seemed to promise limitless abundance and vast, unexplored potential. It was their good fortune to exploit it.

However, faced with a challenging physical environment, unlike anything encountered in Europe, these early pioneers would first have to win the wilderness and assert dominion over inanimate nature.

In his seminal 1889 essay, “The significance of the frontier in American history”, historian Fredrick J Turner argues that this collision – between the savagery of wilderness and the civilising ambitions of settlement – proved instrumental in fashioning an American sense of self. An identity that was rugged, self-reliant, aggressively individualistic. With a restless, expansionist impulse furnished by the largeness of the landscape.

In Turner’s view, this “individualistic way of thinking” had a profound and enduring effect on the young nation. Forging the spirit of independence and creating the conditions that explain the American Revolution.

Yet qualities that helped early pioneers cope with physical adversity and advance individual enterprise were not necessarily good attributes for building a balanced, responsible, equitable economy. When it came to making a buck, individual liberty took precedence over good governance – stunting the growth of a “highly developed civic spirit”.

Turner was a close and able reader of early American history. He was not Nostradamus. But he was clear that this freshly minted individualism carried “dangers” for the country’s nascent economy. Writing in 1891,he blames “individualism in America” for promoting “inflated paper currency and wild cat banking” – practices condemned by then-President Jackson for rendering contemporary sales of land worthless and precipitating the “Panic of 1837″, a sweeping five-year economic depression which saw unemployment hit record levels. De ja vu?

Over a century before Enron and the wave of latest banking scandals, Turner was also prescient of problems that would later grip corporate America. Noting that this “dominant individualism”, forged in the forested wilderness of the frontier, had cast a mind that would make “it difficult to secure social regulation of business enterprises that are essentially public”.

Of course, singling out over-strident individualism for the entirety of today’s financial crisis is over-simplistic. Just as historical comparisons between distinct events can refract rather than illuminate the past.

Caveats aside, the two economic crises of 1837 and 2007 suggest a common cultural character. One crisis was caused by a weak currency that couldn’t keep pace with the race to purchase land. The other, by aspirations to own property that were stronger than owners’ ability to pay back loans. Both arise from an insatiable appetite to own that exceeds the resources to fulfil it. This is an instinct forged on the vast expanses of the frontier and now given boundless range in today’s credit-based consumer society.

The problem is this appetite has not yet adjusted to the fact that land is no longer free, nature’s abundance no longer unlimited. To sustain current levels of American consumption would require four planets to sustain, scientists estimate. In reality, we have only one. And it must be shared.

Tomorrow’s great American crisis will be caused by pressures on ‘capital’ of a different sort. Not financial, but natural capital. And as the continent’s first people were all to keen to observe, Nature is a most uncompromising creditor. With the force to return to wilderness and savagery even the mightiest of civilisations that dare undermine the balance of things.

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