John Fiske, Manifest Destiny



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John Fiske, Manifest Destiny
A lecture delivered at the ROYAL INSTITUTION OF GREAT BRITAIN IN MAY 1880
Among the legends of our late Civil War there is a story of a dinner-party given by the Americans residing in Paris, at which were propounded sundry toasts concerning not so much the past and present as the expected glories of the great American nation. In the general character of these toasts geographical considerations were very prominent, and the principal fact which seemed to occupy the minds of the speakers was the unprecedented _bigness_ of our country. "Here's to the United States," said the first speaker, "bounded on the north by British America, on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, on the east by the Atlantic, and on the west by the Pacific, Ocean." "But," said the second speaker, "this is far too limited a view of the subject: in assigning our boundaries we must look to the great and glorious future which is prescribed for us by the Manifest Destiny of the Anglo-Saxon Race. Here's to the United States,--bounded on the north by the North Pole, on the south by the South Pole, on the east by the rising and on the west by the setting sun." Emphatic applause greeted this aspiring prophecy. But here arose the third speaker--a very serious gentleman from the Far West. "If we are going," said this truly patriotic American, "to leave the historic past and present, and take our manifest destiny into the account, why restrict ourselves within the narrow limits assigned by our fellow-countryman who has just sat down? I give you the United States,--bounded on the north by the Aurora Borealis, on the south by the precession of the equinoxes, on the east by the primeval chaos, and on the west by the Day of Judgment!"
I offer this anecdote at the outset by way of self-defence, inasmuch as I shall by and by have myself to introduce some considerations concerning the future of our country, and of what some people, without the fear of Mr. Freeman before their eyes, call the "Anglo-Saxon" race; and if it should happen to strike you that my calculations are unreasonably large, I hope you will remember that they are quite modest after all, when compared with some others.
The "manifest destiny" of the "Anglo-Saxon" race and the huge dimensions of our country are favourite topics with Fourth-of-July orators, but they are none the less interesting on that account when considered from the point of view of the historian. To be a citizen of a great and growing state, or to belong to one of the dominant races of the world, is no doubt a legitimate source of patriotic pride, though there is perhaps an equal justification for such a feeling in being a citizen of a tiny state like Holland, which, in spite of its small dimensions, has nevertheless achieved so much,--fighting at one time the battle of freedom for the world, producing statesmen like William and Barneveldt, generals like Maurice, scholars like Erasmus and Grotius, and thinkers like Spinoza, and taking the lead even to-day in the study of Christianity and in the interpretation of the Bible. But my course in the present lecture is determined by historical or philosophical rather than by patriotic interest, and I shall endeavour to characterize and group events as impartially as if my home were at Leyden in the Old World instead of Cambridge in the New.
First of all, I shall take sides with Mr. Freeman in eschewing altogether the word "Anglo-Saxon." The term is sufficiently absurd and misleading as applied in England to the Old-English speech of our forefathers, or to that portion of English history which is included between the fifth and the eleventh centuries. But in America it is frequently used, not indeed by scholars, but by popular writers and speakers, in a still more loose and slovenly way. In the war of independence our great-great-grandfathers, not yet having ceased to think of themselves as Englishmen, used to distinguish themselves as "Continentals," while the king's troops were known as the "British." The quaint term "Continental" long ago fell into disuse, except in the slang phrase "not worth a Continental" which referred to the debased condition of our currency at the close of the Revolutionary War; but "American" and "British" might still serve the purpose sufficiently whenever it is necessary to distinguish between the two great English nationalities. The term "English," however, is so often used with sole reference to people and things in England as to have become in some measure antithetical to "American;" and when it is found desirable to include the two in a general expression, one often hears in America the term "Anglo-Saxon" colloquially employed for this purpose. A more slovenly use of language can hardly be imagined. Such a compound term as "Anglo-American" might perhaps be logically defensible, but that has already become restricted to the English-descended inhabitants of the United States and Canada alone, in distinction from Spanish Americans and red Indians. It is never so used as to include Englishmen.
Refraining from all such barbarisms, I prefer to call the English race by the name which it has always applied to itself, from the time when it inhabited the little district of Angeln on the Baltic coast of Sleswick down to the time when it had begun to spread itself over three great continents. It is a race which has shown a rare capacity for absorbing slightly foreign elements and moulding them into conformity with a political type that was first wrought out through centuries of effort on British soil; and this capacity it has shown perhaps in a heightened degree in the peculiar circumstances in which it has been placed in America. The American has absorbed considerable quantities of closely kindred European blood, but he is rapidly assimilating it all, and in his political habits and aptitudes he remains as thoroughly English as his forefathers in the days of De Montfort, or Hampden, or Washington. Premising this, we may go on to consider some aspects of the work which the English race has done and is doing in the world, and we need not feel discouraged if, in order to do justice to the subject, we have to take our start far back in ancient history. We shall begin, it may be said, somewhere near the primeval chaos, and though we shall indeed stop short of the day of judgment, we shall hope at all events to reach the millennium.
Our eloquent friends of the Paris dinner-party seem to have been strongly impressed with the excellence of enormous political aggregates. We, too, approaching the subject from a different point of view, have been led to see how desirable it is that self-governing groups of men should be enabled to work together in permanent harmony and on a great scale. In this kind of political integration the work of civilization very largely consists. We have seen how in its most primitive form political society is made up of small self-governing groups that are perpetually at war with one another. Now the process of change which we call civilization means quite a number of things. But there is no doubt that on its political side it means primarily the gradual substitution of a state of peace for a state of war. This change is the condition precedent for all the other kinds of improvement that are connoted by such a term as "civilization." Manifestly the development of industry is largely dependent upon the cessation or restriction of warfare; and furthermore, as the industrial phase of civilization slowly supplants the military phase, men's characters undergo, though very slowly, a corresponding change. Men become less inclined to destroy life or to inflict pain; or--to use the popular terminology which happens here to coincide precisely with that of the Doctrine of Evolution--they become less _brutal_ and more _humane_. Obviously then the prime feature of the process called civilization is the general diminution of warfare. But we have seen that a general diminution of warfare is rendered possible only by the union of small political groups into larger groups that are kept together by community of interests, and that can adjust their mutual relations by legal discussion without coming to blows. In the preceding lecture we considered this process of political integration as variously exemplified by communities of Hellenic, of Roman, and of Teutonic race, and we saw how manifold were the difficulties which the process had to encounter. We saw how the Teutons--at least in Switzerland, England, and America--had succeeded best through the retention of local self-government combined with central representation. We saw how the Romans failed of ultimate success because by weakening self-government they weakened that community of interest which is essential to the permanence of a great political aggregate. We saw how the Greeks, after passing through their most glorious period in a state of chronic warfare, had begun to achieve considerable success in forming a pacific federation when their independent career was suddenly cut short by the Roman conqueror.
This last example introduces us to a fresh consideration, of very great importance. It is not only that every progressive community has had to solve, in one way or another, the problem of securing permanent concert of action without sacrificing local independence of action; but while engaged in this difficult work the community has had to defend itself against the attacks of other communities. In the case just cited, of the conquest of Greece by Rome, little harm was done perhaps. But under different circumstances immense damage may have been done in this way, and the nearer we go to the beginnings of civilization the greater the danger. At the dawn of history we see a few brilliant points of civilization surrounded on every side by a midnight blackness of barbarism. In order that the pacific community may be able to go on doing its work, it must be strong enough and warlike enough to overcome its barbaric neighbours who have no notion whatever of keeping peace. This is another of the seeming paradoxes of the history of civilization, that for a very long time the possibility of peace can be guaranteed only through war. Obviously the permanent peace of the world can be secured only through the gradual concentration of the preponderant military strength into the hands of the most pacific communities. With infinite toil and trouble this point has been slowly gained by mankind, through the circumstance that the very same political aggregation of small primitive communities which makes them less disposed to quarrel among themselves tends also to make them more than a match for the less coherent groups of their more barbarous neighbours. The same concert of action which tends towards internal harmony tends also towards external victory, and both ends are promoted by the co-operation of the same sets of causes. But for a long time all the political problems of the civilized world were complicated by the fact that the community had to fight for its life. We seldom stop to reflect upon the imminent danger from outside attacks, whether from surrounding barbarism or from neighbouring civilizations of lower type, amid which the rich and high-toned civilizations of Greece and Rome were developed. When the king of Persia undertook to reduce Greece to the condition of a Persian satrapy, there was imminent danger that all the enormous fruition of Greek thought in the intellectual life of the European world might have been nipped in the bud. And who can tell how often, in prehistoric times, some little gleam of civilization, less bright and steady than this one had become, may have been quenched in slavery or massacre? The greatest work which the Romans performed in the world was to assume the aggressive against menacing barbarism, to subdue it, to tame it, and to enlist its brute force on the side of law and order.
This was a murderous work, and in doing it the Romans became excessively cruel, but it had to be done by some one before you could expect to have great and peaceful civilizations like our own. The warfare of Rome is by no means adequately explained by the theory of a deliberate immoral policy of aggression,--"infernal," I believe, is the stronger adjective which Dr. Draper uses. The aggressive wars of Rome were largely dictated by just such considerations as those which a century ago made it necessary for the English to put down the raids of the Scotch Highlanders, and which have since made it necessary for Russia to subdue the Caucasus. It is not easy for a turbulent community to live next to an orderly one without continually stirring up frontier disturbances which call for stern repression from the orderly community. Such considerations go far towards explaining the military history of the Romans, and it is a history with which, on the whole, we ought to sympathize. In its European relations that history is the history of the moving of the civilized frontier northward and eastward against the disastrous encroachments of barbarous peoples. This great movement has, on the whole, been steadily kept up, in spite of some apparent fluctuation in the fifth and sixth centuries of the Christian era, and it is still going on to-day. It was a great gain for civilization when the Romans overcame the Keltiberians of Spain, and taught them good manners and the Latin language, and made it for their interest hereafter to fight against barbarians. The third European peninsula was thus won over to the side of law and order. Danger now remained on the north. The Gauls had once sacked the city of Rome; hordes of Teutons had lately menaced the very heart of civilization, but had been overthrown in murderous combat by Caius Marius; another great Teutonic movement, led by Ariovistus, now threatened to precipitate the whole barbaric force of south-eastern Gaul upon the civilized world; and so it occurred to the prescient genius of Caesar to be beforehand and conquer Gaul, and enlist all its giant barbaric force on the side of civilization. This great work was as thoroughly done as anything that was ever done in human history, and we ought to be thankful to Caesar for it every day that we live. The frontier to be defended against barbarism was now moved away up to the Rhine, and was very much shortened; but above all, the Gauls were made to feel themselves to be Romans. Their country became one of the chief strongholds of civilization and of Christianity; and when the frightful shock of barbarism came--the most formidable blow that has ever been directed by barbaric brute force against European civilization--it was in Gaul that it was repelled and that its force was spent. At the beginning of the fifth century an enormous horde of yellow Mongolians, known as Huns, poured down into Europe with avowed intent to burn and destroy all the good work which Rome had wrought in the world; and terrible was the havoc they effected in the course of fifty years.
If Attila had carried his point, it has been thought that the work of European civilization might have had to be begun over again. But near Chalons-on-the-Marne, in the year 451, in one of the most obstinate struggles of which history preserves the record, the career of the "Scourge of God" was arrested, and mainly by the prowess of Gauls and of Visigoths whom the genius of Rome had tamed. That was the last day on which barbarism was able to contend with civilization on equal terms. It was no doubt a critical day for all future history; and for its favourable issue we must largely thank the policy adopted by Caesar five centuries before. By the end of the eighth century the great power of the Franks had become enlisted in behalf of law and order, and the Roman throne was occupied by a Frank,--the ablest man who had appeared in the world since Caesar's death; and one of the worthiest achievements of Charles the Great was the conquest and conversion of pagan Germany, which threw the frontier against barbarism eastward as far as the Oder, and made it so much the easier to defend Europe. In the thirteenth century this frontier was permanently carried forward to the Vistula by the Teutonic Knights who, under commission from the emperor Frederick II., overcame the heathen Prussians and Lithuanians; and now it began to be shown how greatly the military strength of Europe had increased. In this same century Batu, the grandson of Jinghis Khan, came down into Europe with a horde of more than a million Mongols, and tried to repeat the experiment of Attila. Batu penetrated as far as Silesia, and won a great battle at Liegnitz in 1241, but in spite of his victory he had to desist from the task of conquering Europe. Since the fifth century the physical power of the civilized world had grown immensely; and the impetus of this barbaric invasion was mainly spent upon Russia, the growth of which it succeeded in retarding for more than two centuries. Finally since the sixteenth century we have seen the Russians, redeemed from their Mongolian oppressors, and rich in many of the elements of a vigorous national life,--we have seen the Russians resume the aggressive in this conflict of ages, beginning to do for Central Asia in some sort what the Romans did for Europe. The frontier against barbarism, which Caesar left at the Rhine, has been carried eastward to the Volga, and is now advancing even to the Oxus. The question has sometimes been raised whether it would be possible for European civilization to be seriously threatened by any future invasion of barbarism or of some lower type of civilization. By barbarism certainly not: all the nomad strength of Mongolian Asia would throw itself in vain against the insuperable barrier constituted by Russia. But I have heard it quite seriously suggested that if some future Attila or Jinghis were to wield as a unit the entire military strength of the four hundred millions of Chinese, possessed with some suddenly-conceived idea of conquering the world, even as Omar and Abderrahman wielded as a unit the newly-welded power of the Saracens in the seventh and eighth centuries, then perhaps a staggering blow might yet be dealt against European civilization. I will not waste precious time in considering this imaginary case, further than to remark that if the Chinese are ever going to try anything of this sort, they cannot afford to wait very long; for within another century, as we shall presently see, their very numbers will be surpassed by those of the English race alone. By that time all the elements of military predominance on the earth, including that of simple numerical superiority, will have been gathered into the hands not merely of men of European descent in general, but more specifically into the hands of the offspring of the Teutonic tribes who conquered Britain in the fifth century. So far as the relations of civilization with barbarism are concerned to-day, the only serious question is by what process of modification the barbarous races are to maintain their foothold upon the earth at all. While once such people threatened the very continuance of civilization, they now exist only on sufferance.
In this brief survey of the advancing frontier of European civilization, I have said nothing about the danger that has from time to time been threatened by the followers of Mohammed,--of the overthrow of the Saracens in Gaul by the grandfather of Charles the Great, or their overthrow at Constantinople by the image-breaking Leo, of the great mediaeval Crusades, or of the mischievous but futile career of the Turks. For if I were to attempt to draw this outline with anything like completeness, I should have no room left for the conclusion of my argument. Considering my position thus far as sufficiently illustrated, let us go on to contemplate for a moment some of the effects of all this secular turmoil upon the political development of the progressive nations of Europe. I think we may safely lay it down, as a large and general rule, that all this prodigious warfare required to free the civilized world from peril of barbarian attack served greatly to increase the difficulty of solving the great initial problem of civilization. In the first place, the turbulence thus arising was a serious obstacle to the formation of closely-coherent political aggregates; as we see exemplified in the terrible convulsions of the fifth and sixth centuries, and again in the ascendency acquired by the isolating features of feudalism between the time of Charles the Great and the time of Louis VI. of France. In the second place, this perpetual turbulence was a serious obstacle to the preservation of popular liberties. It is a very difficult thing for a free people to maintain its free, constitution if it has to keep perpetually fighting for its life. The "one-man-power." less fit for, carrying on the peaceful pursuits of life, is sure to be brought into the foreground in a state of endless warfare. It is a still more difficult thing for a free people to maintain its free constitution when it undertakes to govern a dependent people despotically, as has been wont to happen when a portion of the barbaric world has been overcome and annexed to the civilized world. Under the weight, of these two difficulties combined, the free institutions of the ancient Romans succumbed, and their government gradually passed into the hands of a kind of close corporation more despotic than anything else of the sort that Europe has ever seen. This despotic character--this tendency, if you will pardon the phrase, towards the _Asiaticization_ of European life--was continued by inheritance in the Roman Church, the influence of which was beneficent so long as it constituted a wholesome check to the isolating tendencies of feudalism, but began to become noxious the moment these tendencies yielded to the centralizing monarchical tendency in nearly all parts of Europe. The asiaticizing tendency of Roman political life had become so powerful by the fourth century, and has since been so powerfully propagated through the Church, that we ought to be glad that the Teutons came into the empire as masters rather than as subjects. As the Germanic tribes got possession of the government in one part of Europe after another, they brought with them free institutions again. The political ideas of the Goths in Spain, of the Lombards in Italy, and of the Franks and Burgundians in Gaul, were as distinctly free as those of the Angles in Britain. But as the outcome of the long and uninterrupted turmoil of the Middle Ages, society throughout the continent of Europe remained predominantly military in type, and this fact greatly increased the tendency towards despotism which was bequeathed by Rome. After the close of the thirteenth century the whole power of the Church was finally thrown into the scale against the liberties of the people; and as the result of all these forces combined, we find that at the time when America was discovered government was hardening into despotism in all the great countries of Europe except England. Even in England the tendency towards despotism had begun to become quite conspicuous after the wholesale slaughter of the great barons and the confiscation of their estates which took place in the Wars of the Roses. The constitutional history of England during the Tudor and Stuart periods is mainly the history of the persistent effort of the English sovereign to free himself from constitutional checks, as his brother sovereigns on the continent were doing. But how different the result! How enormous the political difference between William III. and Louis XIV., compared with the difference between Henry VIII. and Francis I.! The close of the seventeenth century, which marks the culmination of the asiaticizing tendency in Europe, saw despotism both political and religious firmly established in France and Spain and Italy, and in half of Germany; while the rest of Germany seemed to have exhausted itself in the attempt to throw off the incubus. But in England this same epoch saw freedom both political and religious established on so firm a foundation as never again to be shaken, never again with impunity to be threatened, so long as the language of Locke and Milton and Sydney shall remain a living speech on the lips of men. Now this wonderful difference between the career of popular liberty in England and on the Continent was due no doubt to a complicated variety of causes, one or two of which I have already sought to point out. In my first lecture I alluded to the curious combination of circumstances which prevented anything like a severance of interests between the upper and the lower ranks of society; and something was also said about the feebleness of the grasp of imperial Rome upon Britain compared with its grasp upon the continent of Europe. But what I wish now to point out--since we are looking at the military aspect of the subject--is the enormous advantage of what we may call the "strategic position" of England in the long mediaeval struggle between civilization and barbarism. In Professor Stubbs's admirable collection of charters and documents illustrative of English history, we read that "on the 6th of July [1264] the whole force of the country was summoned to London for the 3d of August, to resist the army which was coming from France under the queen and her son Edmund. The invading fleet was prevented by the weather from sailing until too late in the season.... The papal legate, Guy Foulquois, who soon after became Clement IV., threatened the barons with excommunication, but the bull containing the sentence was taken by the men of Dover as soon as it arrived, and was thrown into the sea." [15] As I read this, I think of the sturdy men of Connecticut, beating the drum to prevent the reading of the royal order of James II. depriving the colony of the control of its own militia, and feel with pride that the indomitable spirit of English liberty is alike indomitable in every land where men of English race have set their feet as masters. But as the success of Americans in withstanding the unconstitutional pretensions of the crown was greatly favoured by the barrier of the ocean, so the success of Englishmen in defying the enemies of their freedom has no doubt been greatly favoured by the barrier of the British channel. The war between Henry III. and the barons was an event in English history no less critical than the war between Charles I. and the parliament four centuries later; and British and Americans alike have every reason to be thankful that a great French army was not able to get across the channel in August, 1264. Nor was this the only time when the insular position of England did goodly service in maintaining its liberties and its internal peace. We cannot forget how Lord Howard of Effingham, aided also by the weather, defeated the armada that boasted itself "invincible," sent to strangle freedom in its chosen home by the most execrable and ruthless tyrant that Europe has ever seen, a tyrant whose victory would have meant not simply the usurpation of the English crown but the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition at Westminster Hall. Nor can we forget with what longing eyes the Corsican barbarian who wielded for mischief the forces of France in 1805 looked across from Boulogne at the shores of the one European land that never in word or deed granted him homage. But in these latter days England has had no need of stormy weather to aid the prowess of the sea-kings who are her natural defenders. It is impossible for the thoughtful student of history to walk across Trafalgar Square, and gaze on the image of the mightiest naval hero that ever lived, on the summit of his lofty column and guarded by the royal lions, looking down towards the government-house of the land that he freed from the dread of Napoleonic invasion and towards that ancient church wherein the most sacred memories of English talent and English toil are clustered together,--it is impossible, I say, to look at this, and not admire both the artistic instinct that devised so happy a symbolism, and the rare good-fortune of our Teutonic ancestors in securing a territorial position so readily defensible against the assaults of despotic powers. But it was not merely in the simple facility of warding off external attack that the insular position of England was so serviceable. This ease in warding off external attack had its most marked effect upon the internal polity of the nation. It never became necessary for the English government to keep up a great standing army. For purposes of external defence a navy was all-sufficient; and there is this practical difference between a permanent army and a permanent navy. Both are originally designed for purposes of external defence; but the one can readily be used for purposes of internal oppression, and the other cannot. Nobody ever heard of a navy putting up an empire at auction and knocking down the throne of the world to a Didius Julianus. When, therefore, a country is effectually screened by water from external attack, it is screened in a way that permits its normal political development to go on internally without those manifold military hinderances that have ordinarily been so obstructive in the history of civilization. Hence we not only see why, after the Norman Conquest had operated to increase its unity and its strength, England enjoyed a far greater amount of security and was far more peaceful than any other country in Europe; but we also see why society never assumed the military type in England which it assumed upon the continent; we see how it was that the bonds of feudalism were far looser here than elsewhere, and therefore how it happened that nowhere else was the condition of the common people so good politically. We now begin to see, moreover, how thoroughly Professor Stubbs and Mr. Freeman are justified in insisting upon the fact that the political institutions of the Germans of Tacitus have had a more normal and uninterrupted development in England than anywhere else. Nowhere, indeed, in the whole history of the human race, can we point to such a well-rounded and unbroken continuity of political life as we find in the thousand years of English history that have elapsed since the victory of William the Norman at Senlac. In England the free government of the primitive Aryans has been to this day uninterruptedly maintained, though everywhere lost or seriously impaired on the continent of Europe, except in remote Scandinavia and impregnable Switzerland. But obviously, if in the conflict of ages between civilization and barbarism England had occupied such an inferior strategic position as that occupied by Hungary or Poland or Spain, if her territory had been liable once or twice in a century to be overrun by fanatical Saracens or beastly Mongols, no such remarkable and quite exceptional result could have been achieved. Having duly fathomed the significance of this strategic position of the English race while confined within the limits of the British islands, we are now prepared to consider the significance of the stupendous expansion of the English race which first became possible through the discovery and settlement of North America. I said, at the close of my first lecture, that the victory of Wolfe at Quebec marks the greatest turning-point as yet discernible in all modern history. At the first blush such an unqualified statement may have sounded as if an American student of history were inclined to attach an undue value to events that have happened upon his own soil. After the survey of universal history which we have now taken, however, I am fully prepared to show that the conquest of the North American continent by men of English race was unquestionably the most prodigious event in the political annals of man kind. Let us consider, for a moment, the cardinal facts which this English conquest and settlement of North America involved.



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