I remember, back when I was in middle school, learning in a history class about this concept called manifest destiny. This was during lessons about American westward expansion during the 19th century — the Louisiana Purchase, the annexation of Texas, Oregon Territory, etc. Manifest destiny was described as a sort of religious calling; the “literal will of God” for the United States to spread its territory from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
It was taught to us as this really noble endeavor, and if you observe contemporary attitudes about America’s history, a lot of people still believe it was. But there was little discussion about the real ideologies that fueled America’s conquest, or the real-world consequences of these ideas. Of course, many of us now know that the settling of America was anything but a dignified affair.
As I was reading Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, I was curious to see him explore, not just the horrific actions that were a result of American colonialism, but also the psychology behind these oppressive ideas and the different ways that people try to justify or pacify their impact. Whitehead shows us the American colonial mentality through the character of Arnold Ridgeway, a slave catcher who serves as the novel’s primary antagonist. Ridgeway embodies the prevailing spirit that fueled American imperialism — what he calls the “American Imperative.”
Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.
Ridgeway is described as a man who, early on in life, struggled to connect with his life’s purpose in the same way that his blacksmith father had an almost spiritual connection to forging iron. It wasn’t until several years into his career as a slave catcher (after his stint as a slave patroller) that Ridgeway began to form a strong attachment to the American Imperative: the idea that the world is essentially the white man’s oyster, and it is the duty of everybody else to fall in line. “It means taking what is yours, your property, whatever you deem it to be,” he tells the novel’s main protagonist, Cora (p.225). “And everyone else taking their assigned places to allow you to take it. Whether it’s red men or Africans, giving up themselves, giving of themselves, so that we can have what’s rightfully ours. The French setting aside their territorial claims. The British and the Spanish slinking away.”
…I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription…
History shows that Whitehead’s characterization of Ridgeway was pretty in-step with modern views of the time — look no further than the popularity and widespread advocacy for both African American enslavement and Native American displacement.
Chattel slavery, an institution that lasted for over 400 years in North America and whose effects are still being felt centuries later, grew rapidly as the country began extending westward in the early 19th century, and its expansion ended up being the central issue in the lead-up to the American Civil War. The displacement of Native Americans, which began during the era of Western colonialism, reached its boiling point during the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren. Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which essentially called for the forceful removal of American Indian tribes from their homelands, and Van Buren oversaw their march westward, in what is popularly known as the Trail of Tears.
Both slavery and Indian removal were widely supported and motivated by the same twisted, “unstoppable racial logic” that Ridgeway puts forth: “If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.”
They sat on what was once Cherokee land…until the president decided otherwise and ordered them removed. Settlers needed the land, and if the Indians hadn’t learned by then that the white man’s treaties were entirely worthless, Ridgeway said, they deserved what they got.
It’s no wonder our teachers and textbooks never emphasized this part of American coloniality, probably because it would have been very hard afterwards to sell the idea of American exceptionalism. The American Imperative/Manifest Destiny is really just a psychology of entitlement, fueled by overt racism and backed by religious misapplication. It’s the reason for the shame Ridgeway feels for his failure to capture Cora’s mother Mabel, knowing that it meant he had allowed a black woman to subvert the system. It’s what drove him to great lengths to continuously track Cora, even when she seemed beyond his reach, even when the costs of tracking her no longer justified the bounty — in order to keep her in her “assigned place” in this established order.