Manifest Destiny: American Progress?

John Gast’s (1872) “American Progress.”

John Gast’s (1872) “American Progress.”

Few early American paintings capture the “spirit” of the young nation like that of John Gast’s (1872) “American Progress,” otherwise known as “Manifest Destiny”.  The visual detail itself tells a great story that is familiar from any history reading.  It shows the westward migration of “Americans” across our continent, leaving behind the civilization of east, and entering the foreboding “unsettled” territory that lay beyond the reach of train and telegraph; All of this, while being guided by divine “providence,” who carries the books that will “civilize” the wild west and helps to lay the wire that will keep the country connected, brightening the path for the railroads and future expansion.

Being driven ahead of the new settlers, are the old inhabitants of the land; the bear, the Indian, and the buffalo; moved out as to be replaced by a manufactured landscape filled with new farms and cities, supervised by a beautiful servant of God, who helps to rid ignorance and evil in this “untamed” land.  The painting shows no sympathies towards those displaced, and they can be looked at as a hindrance of progress.  They stand in the way of this great migration, and are relics of a darker, less civilized time.  American idealism is what will “save” our land, and in its future applications, the world.

It is an aspect of early America that has carried into modern times; the idea that our way of life is worthy of expansion and wished for (and supported) by our God.  We see in ourselves the ability to help mankind, and at the same time help ourselves.  But in reality, as well as what is on the canvas, the tendency is to forget about the perspective of the people driven out by our expansion, and the decimating effect it has on culture; the ones who never asked to be “saved” from their supposed “ignorance.”

While “Progress” depicts a hard-working, groundbreaking ideology with enormous potential; one can see the makings of a self-centered, oblivious, obnoxious, and ultimately insincere materialistic consumer nation.  The tendency is there to jump headfirst into any project, because of the faith we have in ourselves and our “destiny”.  It is shown in the attitude of the portrait: that there is “new land” that must be “tamed” and it is the American destiny to tame it.  We eventually decide to “share” our idea with the rest of the world.  Pride and capital led to further expansion, but faced the externalities of egoism and greed.

The plight of the ways of life displaced by the expansion of is ignorantly brushed aside, and ultimately, heavily criticized in hindsight.  Since the creation of this work, there have been many parallels questioning the motives of expansion, and many references to the attitude of “Manifest Destiny.”  Is it the American imperative to spread ourselves first nationally, then globally?  “American Progress” views this country as divinely inspired, the land of liberty and the light of modern democracy in the modern era.

Our big ideas are of course, worthy of sharing with our neighbors.  However, history will determine whether our goodwill is viewed as an imposition or accepted graciously.  We must remember that the eyes of the world are upon us, and they expect better of our motives and implementations.  They ask us to question:  Have all the big words taken on different meanings?  Has our ideology been corrupted, all in the name of “American Progress?”

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