Manifest Destiny

John T. Starr

July 02, 1991|By John T. Starr

SENATORS Ted Stevens of Alaska and Slade Gorton of

Washington are angry with the Smithsonian Institution, more particularly with the National Museum of American Art, a part of the Smithsonian. They are so angry, in fact, that they have threatened to use their positions on the Senate Appropriations Committee to curtail funds for the Smithsonian.

What has riled them is the exhibit, "The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920." As is often John T.Starrthe case in exhibits, there are accompanying texts on the wall commenting on the paintings. Many of these texts, the senators say, contain inflammatory observations. The senators see a distinct leftist slant in some of these observations, a slant that rejects the traditional and almost holy idea of Manifest Destiny. So, being what may be called children of Manifest Destiny, the senators are angry.

Manifest Destiny, as defined by the historian Bernard DeVoto, was nothing less than "the American destiny to spread our free and admirable institutions by action as well as by example, by occupying the entire continent as well as by practicing virtue." It was by occupying the continent to the Pacific Ocean, developing it, with the help of Providence, for the greater good of "man," which meant, of course, for the economic gain of the white man. Any Indians who might have been found in the way of this didn't count. After all, they were heathen savages.

Many artists of the 19th century painted the West: Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Alfred Jacob Miller and others. Their paintings are beautiful, and they were well received, especially by well-to-do patrons in the East, many of whom had financial interest in the development of the West. What if many of Bierstadt's paintings show mountains higher and even more rugged than they really are, or that Moran's colors are more vivid, or that Miller's show lovely pastoral scenes where, in fact, the country was a wilderness? The important thing is that they encouraged the idea of Manifest Destiny, that they encouraged people to go West and to invest in the development of the West.

Another item, not entirely unrelated, in the recent news concerns the proposal put forth by some Sioux and Cheyenne Indians (and approved in the House of Representatives June 24) to change the name of the Custer Battlefield National Monument in Montana to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. It was here on June 25, 1876, that Gen. George Armstrong Custer and 225 men of the 7th Cavalry were killed by a force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. It was the last great Indian victory pTC against the white man and his westward march to Manifest Destiny. Custer was an agent of Manifest Destiny just as Stevens and Gorton are its children.

To the Indians, this ground is important, almost sacred. Here, their forefathers who fought in battle were a free people fighting for their homes and their way of life. To them, Custer and his men were invaders sent out, under orders from Washington, to take their lands and their homes from them. They were not unlike the army that Saddam Hussein sent to take Kuwait. Furthermore, it is not a Custer victory that is commemorated here, but a Custer defeat. It was a victory for the Indians, even though it was a dying gasp of a beaten people.

Merchants and motel operators in the vicinity are opposed to the name change. Everybody knows Custer. There is a painting, copies of which were hung prominently in many bars and saloons (and still may hang in some), which shows Custer standing like an Errol Flynn in the center of his men. He has been made into a hero, a national hero. His name draws thousands of tourists to the battlefield every year. They spend tens of 'N thousands of dollars for food, drink and lodging. But how many have heard of the Little Bighorn? It's a funny name to begin with; who ever thought of calling a river that?

So the bottom line is economics. And that is the epitome of Manifest Destiny, right down to today.


John T. Starr writes from Baltimore. 1/2

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