Our History Then and Now

Algis Valiunas

Winter 2021

American historiography — the writing of our history — has never been a more hotly contested political battleground than it is today. The left, for many of whom the motto is "the more radical and inflammatory, the better," has seized the high ground and now pretty well dictates the terms on which the conflict is waged. Conservatives, outmanned and outgunned, are reactionary of necessity, as they tend to be by their very nature, taking their punishment as they must and returning fire fiercely but sporadically. By the sheer massing of forces in every institution shaping public opinion about our nation's past — in elite universities and lowly grade schools, in highbrow and middlebrow literature, and in politics, television, movies, newspapers, and magazines — the left looks to be carrying the day.

The honorable opposition may be gallant and spirited (and not incidentally have truth on its side), but it is losing; the American story most countrymen tell themselves is fast becoming one of an illegitimate founding, systemic race-based hatred, irremediable wrongdoing on the part of once-revered statesmen and soldiers, economic exploitation of the many by the few, and the ravaging of once-pristine nature by businessmen heedless of any good but their own profit. America, in sum, with little to be proud of and everything to its shame, has habitually violated the tenets of its political creed — its professed belief in freedom and equality — and never possessed rightful title to its vaunted exceptionalism, which amounts to so much hypocrisy and braggadocio. Not only are we not better than most people; we are, in fact, among the worst. The sooner we are all made to realize our own viciousness and inherited guilt, the better off we will be.

Accordingly, accounts of American heroism or nobility are stuffed down the memory hole. The only history acceptable is of profound evil transmitted down the generations. Witness Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which has sold more than 2.6 million copies in America since its publication in 1980 and is commonly used in schools. Zinn announces his radical parti pris openly, searching out every ugliness in every dark corner of America and elevating every sufferer of injustice — real or imagined — to the role of most privileged observer:

I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott's army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.

Zinn's influence is evident in the 1619 Project of the New York Times, which argues that the real purpose of the American founding was to establish and perpetuate black slavery. Distinguished historians may have dismissed the project as pseudo-historical folly, and the Times' editors may have made post hoc attempts to walk back the core of its incendiary thesis, but its leading writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, received the Pulitzer Prize for newspaper commentary, and the project's tenets are taught in 4,500 schools in 50 states. Its overheated tendentiousness threatens explosion, but it nonetheless commands the foreseeable future.

Fatal knowledge demands fateful action, and scalding words inspire exhilarating wreckage. Thus outraged mobs tear down every memorial to Columbus they can get their hands on; vandals splash red paint across the marble visage of George Washington; a bronze bust of Ulysses Grant, whom Frederick Douglass called "the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of my race," comes crashing down in San Francisco — perhaps for his making war against the American Indians, perhaps for no reason besides the compulsion to destroy. Monuments to Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and even Abraham Lincoln are safe nowhere; self-righteous fury, abetted by ignorance, demolishes statues of abolitionists and philanthropists, unimpeachably virtuous men and loyal friends to the oppressed — all quite innocent of any hint of malevolent action or wrong thinking.

The fever burns for razing the past and starting over again on the path to social perfection. It is the same howling enthusiasm, if not yet the monstrous bloodlust, one saw in Kampuchea Year Zero, when more than a million people were killed as part of the Khmer Rouge's efforts to establish a Marxist utopia in Cambodia: leftist nihilism in service of utopian fantasy. The very idea of disinterested history is on the way out, along with a host of other mainstays of what was once the liberal creed.

Liberalism flourished in this country not all that long ago, and the writing of American history was among its most impressive achievements. Serious men with a popular touch related the story of how the continent was conquered and settled — how the West was won — and in their admirable evenhandedness, they neither scanted the appalling details of warfare against the Indians and the Mexicans nor exaggerated the courage, hardihood, and strength of mind of the men and women who civilized the wild country. Among these 20th-century historians proud of their heritage, gifted at storytelling, and scrupulous about the truth, were Bernard DeVoto and Paul Horgan.

Born in 1897, DeVoto came roaring out of Utah an obstreperous atheist from Mormon country, discovering the life of intellect and imagination he was made for while studying as an undergraduate at Harvard University. He wrote several novels, five of which he was willing to sign his name to and some others under a pseudonym, though none were as good as he had hoped to make them. Eventually, he gave up trying his hand at fiction. He taught some at Harvard and Northwestern University; edited the Saturday Review of Literature, now long defunct but in its time an influential organ of middling culture; and not only edited Harper's Magazine (a cut above middling, perhaps) but also wrote a celebrated monthly column, "The Editor's Easy Chair."

Ultimately, DeVoto produced three landmark works of history that made his name —The Year of Decision: 1846, published in 1943; Across the Wide Missouri, published in 1947; and The Course of Empire, published in 1952. Missouri won the Bancroft Prize and the Pulitzer Prize, while Empire received the National Book Award. These three works were built to last; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt keeps them in print today as paperbacks. But they do not even make it into the bibliographies of more recent histories of the American West, and evidently have outlived their shining day as far as scholars are concerned. Yet there must be people who still read them — and maybe even love them.

Paul Horgan, a contemporary of DeVoto, was an Easterner who traveled west — from Buffalo to New Mexico — while still a boy, then returned to New York state to attend the Eastman School of Music, where he took part in founding the American Opera Company. He was even more prolific than DeVoto, writing 17 novels — most of them set in the Southwest — and some two dozen works of non-fiction. In 1989, a writer in the New York Times Book Review said of him, "[w]ith the exception of Wallace Stegner [another historian of the West, a great friend and admirer of DeVoto's, and his biographer], no living American has so distinguished himself in both fiction and history."

Horgan was the president of the American Catholic Historical Association, an honorable position that would immediately kill his reputation among the professoriate today — including those who write for the Times Book Review. His base of operations became Wesleyan University, where he was author in residence from 1969 to 1995, and a fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies. Nineteen American universities awarded him honorary degrees. His most enduring works include the two-volume Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, published in 1954, and Lamy of Santa Fe: His Life and Times, a biography of that city's first bishop, published in 1975. Both books were awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and Great River received the Bancroft Prize as well. Originally released by prominent trade publishers, they remain in print, re-issued in paperback editions by the Wesleyan University Press. But like DeVoto's classics, they have receded from scholarly view.

Fashionable oblivion notwithstanding, the works of these two men are significant as ever.


Bernard DeVoto's master theme is Manifest Destiny, an idea and a phrase that today prompts hooting derision from all respectable historians, their students, and their students' students, who see such talk as preposterous, just unspeakable jingoism and criminal indifference to blood shed by the peoples who possessed the coveted land before Americans decided it was all theirs. Yet DeVoto does not shy away from the cruelties and other trespasses of imperial expansion; rather, he insists that it is an American empire being built — though a democratic empire like no other, an empire fast on its way to becoming the greatest republic the world has ever seen.

As DeVoto asserts and demonstrates, Manifest Destiny developed in and below the popular awareness, quite apart from journalists' hortatory bunkum and senatorial calls to advance in the direction of the sunset toward the new dawn. Stegner, in his 1974 biography of DeVoto, finds himself excited, as he says many readers have been, by the impression DeVoto creates of

seething human activity, all of it bearing westward, all of it expressing the impulse that was not quite formal national policy (that in fact violated such specific elements of policy as the segregation and protection of the Indian Territory), and not quite even idea, but an urge below the level of consciousness, moving a people westward as inevitably as the sun compels the face of a sunflower.

The surpassing gravity of the theme, and the geopolitical reality on which it was founded, smash and scatter modern naysayers' moral objections.

Indeed, such objections may even be beside the point: DeVoto is describing a kind of inevitability not entirely within the sphere of moral choice. He makes this much clear in the preface to Across the Wide Missouri: "As a historian (riding on the commuter's local) I have interested myself in the growth among the American people of the feeling that they were properly a single nation between two oceans: in the development of what I have called the continental mind." Later, in The Course of Empire, DeVoto portrays geography as destiny, the American land longing to be filled and fulfilled. Manifest Destiny is thus not a booster's sales pitch, but a yearning inherent in the land itself: the physical become metaphysical.

The theme, in DeVoto's rendering, moved even some who felt themselves duty-bound to resist it. The "literary communists" of Brook Farm — those intellectual New Englanders who founded the well-intentioned yet feckless social experiment that Nathaniel Hawthorne skewered in The Blithedale Romance — knew that the realization of Manifest Destiny would involve flagrant national immorality, but they embraced it nevertheless. They couldn't help themselves, for they had discerned the mighty hand of God governing the course of human events. As DeVoto, in The Year of Decision, quotes of an 1846 editorial in the Harbinger (the Brook Farmers' periodical):

There can be no doubt of the design being entertained by the leaders and instigators of this infamous business, to extend the "area of freedom" to the shores of California, by robbing Mexico of another large mass of her territory; and the people are prepared to execute it to the letter. In many and most aspects in which this plundering aggression is to be viewed it is monstrously iniquitous, but after all it seems to be completing a more universal design of Providence, of extending the power and intelligence of advanced civilized nations over the whole face of the earth, by penetrating into those regions which seem fated to immobility and breaking down the barriers to the future progress of knowledge, of the sciences and arts: and arms seem to be the only means by which this great subversive movement towards unity among nations can be accomplished.

By no means does DeVoto subscribe to the Brook Farmers' reasoning, if it can be called that; he finds their providential line of argument "woozy" at best. But the force that put this rather ludicrous notion into their minds must be reckoned with.

That same force inhabited the more worldly brain of President James Polk, who managed to bring to a burning focus his countrymen's innumerable inchoate notions of the great American fate, to concentrate these vital energies into a military spearhead, and to extend the nation's boundaries from sea to shining sea. Yet DeVoto's Polk is no presiding genius. Indeed, he himself is an instrument of an idea the entire nation was undertaking to make actual: the continental imperative.

In his first landmark work, The Year of Decision, DeVoto braids the long processions of Americans heading west into a complicated narrative with the simple goal of fulfilling this imperative. Francis Parkman — a master historian whom DeVoto calls the best America had — was a young, tenderfoot adventurer at the time, eager to have the chance to live for a couple of weeks among wild Indians. But in writing his first book, The Oregon Trail, Parkman missed his unique opportunity to register, record, and comprehend the mass movement west that would define the age. This Boston Brahmin, finicky about the company he kept, looked down on the coarse and unruly multitude who surrounded him on the way and found them unworthy of serious attention. Consequently, he wound up writing an interesting travel book, rather than a monumental history.

There are members of the multitude whom DeVoto, too, finds not to his taste — notably the Mormons, fleeing murderous persecution in Illinois and Iowa and glory-bound for the most inhospitable Promised Land there is, which Brigham Young named "Deseret." Yet despite the rebarbative features of this severe people, DeVoto deems the Mormons admirable in their determination and fortitude: "A hard, resistant folk had found a hard, resistant land, and they would grow to fit one another. Remember that the yield of a hard country is a love deeper than a fat and easy land inspires, that throughout the arid West the Americans have found a secret treasure."

It is mountain man James Clyman — soldier, trapper, Indian fighter, and, in quieter intervals, farmer and storekeeper — whom DeVoto calls his "culture hero." This exemplary figure may not have been a Hegelian world-historical individual, but he was certainly a native magnifico, an American original, and a near relation of the legendary half-horse, half-alligator of colossal brag. This man's way of life was a lesser mortal's inconceivable horror show:

[D]rifting downstream with a log to escape the Aricara, watching a Dakota tear the flesh of a dead enemy with his teeth, sewing Jedediah Smith's scalp and ear in place after a grizzly had lacerated them, starving in winter canyons, purged by alkali water, feasting with the Crows on a buffalo hunt, battling the Arapaho on Green River, captured by the Blackfeet but escaping them. But the routine may be assumed.

Writing about men of a hardness the modern American has likely never encountered, DeVoto cannot resist the romance of this part-savage, wholly perilous life. It was men like Clyman, after all, who made possible the incomparably softer and sweeter life most of us enjoy today.

DeVoto's history has its instances of mockery as well. Acidulous irony, vinegary but not quite corrosive, marks his tone when he writes of the Mexican War:

The Mexicans made an admirable conquered people, amiable and polite, and their cookery, religious observations and social customs had the Americans agape. The army enjoyed itself while [General Zachary] Taylor called for reinforcements and wondered what to do....The correspondents, who had no new battle, went on inflating Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. They filled their space with atrocities, all Mexican, and heroisms, universally American.

DeVoto's tone can also bite with mordant contempt for those men who manufactured their heroisms out of whole cloth. The founding fathers of American California, John Frémont and Robert Stockton, were expert at lying — the former often to himself, the latter to anyone who would listen — and at publicizing their fabrications. They converted their lawless freebooting into the honorable legend of front-page newsprint, and even anticipated the necessities of a more seductive medium:

Commodore Stockton needed only to survey the situation in order to understand the cinematic requirements. He supplied them...[with] "reports from the interior of scenes of rapine, blood, and murder"....There was no rapine, pillage, or murder...those he was calling usurpers and criminals were the constituted [Mexican] authorities....[Yet] the commodore was off for glory. He knew his Hollywood.

"And there were the Indians," DeVoto writes in The Course of Empire, a brisk, long march from the conquistadors' quests for cities of gold to Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery. The Indians provided the chief impediment to the physical extension of the continental mind. DeVoto writes of them as one is no longer allowed to do, as frequently savage or childish or bestial, by turns or all at once:

Friendly, hospitable, genial (most of them), generous, amusing, they were also children with tantrums and deadly weapons. At any moment and without warning friendship could become murder: murder on impulse, in spite, in remembered grievance, for honor, for appeasement of the supernaturals, as a courtesy to an ally, for no reason, and always for the trade goods. Wilderness man living with neolithic man had to live with him as with a jaguar in its den.

The descriptions of the tortures the Indians devised for their entertainment, which surpassed in ingenuity even those conceived by "the zeal of religious Europeans during the preceding centuries," more than justify the uncomplimentary epithets. Here, a captive of the Mohawks who managed to escape recalls what he witnessed, and DeVoto elaborates on the "ecstasy of the primitive mind":

When a fingernail has been pulled out "they putt a redd coale of fire upon [the hand] and when it is swolen bite it out wth their teeth." From this stump the veins would be pulled out as far as possible and seared. Sinews exposed at the wrist would be wound round a stick and pulled out by windlass action. When a scalp was removed — the victim was still alive — it was enjoyable to dump a kettleful of glowing embers on the wound. Bullets were melted and the liquid lead poured into wounds, or for greater sport gunpowder which was then ignited. "They cut off yor stones and the women play wth them."

And yet the Indians sometimes come off better than the white men who despised them. In Across the Wide Missouri, DeVoto tells of how the Reverend Samuel Parker is appalled by the Sioux religious ceremony, in which dancing braves wear animal masks and horns and the women chant and beat the sacred drums, all to ensure the buffalo hunt prospers. When the ceremony ends, Parker launches into a rendition of the hymn "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night" to try to save the Indians from their diabolism. "The Sioux listened reverently," writes DeVoto, "they [hold] all religions sacred." The Sioux are as ferocious as the Mohawks, yet in DeVoto's eyes, their inclusive natural piety puts to shame the missionary's contempt for their pagan faith — and his itch to convert them.

So DeVoto appreciates what was lost when the traditional Indian life vanished like the buffalo before the white man's unstoppable advance. But he does not cant in favor of savagery; he recognizes that the immemorial Indian ways, some of them noble, some of them unspeakable, were doomed. Once the white men arrived, North American life could no longer continue as it had for centuries; the unbounded freedom of nomadic hunting peoples was inimical to the intentions of the continental mind, which had a new nation to conceive. Modern civilization simply had to prevail against an overmatched enemy.

DeVoto is willing to accept the necessity of conquering the Indian nations, but he doesn't go so far as to make an unalloyed virtue of it. Manifest Destiny may have seemed to circumscribe moral choice — "seemed" being the operative word here — but it did not annul it, and the Americans DeVoto describes are not innocent of treachery or cruelty in their conquest of the Indians. Like most every imposition of a new regime, ours entailed immoral and even barbarous acts that make subsequent generations wince when they look upon them.

But if DeVoto does not make Americans out to be any better than they really were, neither does he make them worse, as current fashion dictates. He never hopes for social perfection or believes America ought to aspire to it; as Stegner writes of DeVoto's political moderation, "[t]he American approximation [to the ideal society] was as good as an imperfect world was likely to provide." He refuses to condemn the men of past ages by the moral standards of the present — a present that reaps all the fruits of trees sown in times of penury, hardship, and desperation, and will not condescend to be grateful for any of them. In fact, he "protest[s] the tendency of twentieth-century historians to hold the eighteen-thirties in American history to ideas which the eighteen-thirties had never heard of, which they would not have understood, and which produce confusion or nonsense when imposed on them today." That could stand as the motto of the liberal historian par excellence.


Paul Horgan's masterpiece, Great River, tells of the four nations — the Indians, the Spaniards, the Mexicans, and the Americans — that settled the land along the Rio Grande in succession. The first were the cliff-dwelling Pueblo Indians who, during the 13th or 14th century (possibly in a time of killing drought) abandoned their home on the mesas to the north of the region and came down to the life-giving water. These primordial waters were fundamental to their religion, and Horgan composes an encomium to the prayerful native modesty with which the Indians placed themselves in relation to inhuman nature. It was not dominion they were after, but the harmony that comes of accepting their own limited agency.

One can see how this simple natural piety might appeal to modern men disenchanted with Christianity and the civilization it represents. Horgan is not such a man, however; he gives the Indian religion and general turn of mind all the respect he can, but plainly sees that they were to be superseded by a richer faith.

The Indians' communal life, as Horgan tells, was a stunted one, with no place for the efflorescence of individuality. Accepting their powerlessness before nature meant that their elemental understanding of themselves remained undeveloped:

In harmony with all nature but individual human nature, the people retained together a powerful and enduring form of life at the expense of a higher consciousness — that of the individual free to unlock in himself all the imprisoned secrets of his own history and that of his whole kind, and by individual acts of discovery, growth and ability, to open opportunities that would follow upon his knowledge for all who might partake of them. It was costly, that loss of the individual to the group.

To their gods alone belonged the privileges of venturesome shining uniqueness. Human life, by contrast, was that of the herd, "units among units in a perfected strict society whose loftiest expression of the human properties of mind and soul was an invisible tyranny of fear that bent them in endless propitiation before inanimate matter." Such fear pervaded the Pueblo animists' world:

Imprisoned in their struggle with nature, the people sought for an explanation of the personality they knew in themselves and felt all about them, and came to believe in a sorcery so infinitely distributed among all objects and creatures that no act or circumstance of life was beyond suspicion as evil or destructive.

What the conquistadors brought was a far more expansive sense of human possibilities, concentrated in a faith commonly seen today as straitened and oppressive but that Horgan describes as setting loose bountiful energies of mind, body, and soul. In the ardent discipline of pious submission, the truest human freedom was to be found. In Horgan's telling, the Catholic faith endowed the Spaniards with the fullness of being that the Indians lacked:

Relief from man's faulty nature could be had only in God. In obedience to Him, they found their greatest freedom, the essential freedom of the personality, the individual spirit in the self, with all its other expressions which they well knew — irony, extravagance, romance, vividness and poetry in speech, and honor, and hard pride.

Of course, honor and hard pride were also pagan virtues, worldly and specifically soldierly ones sometimes incompatible with Christian caritas. Yet the Spaniards' reverence very clearly extended to the goods of this world, which they wanted as fast as possible and as much of as they could carry. Horgan gives a lengthy and somewhat cheeky account of Coronado's fruitless search for Quivira, fabled city of gold, in what is now Kansas:

As for riches and comforts and fine living — when you got off your horse at the end of a hard day and had to get some supper to satisfy your hunger, you cooked whatever you had, and you cooked it on a fire made of the only thing to be found, which was cow droppings. That was Quivira.

Horgan contrasts the Spaniards' hope of gold and silver pouring into their waiting hands with the Indians' laboring to fulfill basic physical needs — civilized avarice against primitive subsistence — and it is not immediately apparent which people he thinks superior in virtue:

To the Indian, wealth meant all that both pueblo and plain offered — rain and grass and primal acts of work and of the fruits of the earth only sufficient to sustain life equally for all. To the Spaniard it meant money and all that lay behind it: to purchase instead of to make, and of the world's wealth, all that a man could possibly gather and keep far beyond the meeting of his creature needs.

Here, the life of honest toil for a bare minimum looks no worse, and perhaps rather better, than that of the hurly-burly quest for plunder that ever eludes one's grasp. Horgan, it appears, does not allow his passion for the faith he shares with the conquistadors to overwhelm the historian's responsibility to remain disinterested. Nor does he overlook the Indians' profound misery and torpor:

Wandering Indians watched them, Mansos, naked and passive, but known to be capable of great ferocity. They had no fixed dwellings or planted fields, but ate berries and whatever they could catch that jumped or ran, such as toads, lizards and vipers, and other animals, all of which they ate raw.

The desire to save the souls and improve the earthly lot of these wretched natives often triggered the genuine evangelizing and civilizing impulse of imperial powers. Horgan writes of Don Juan de Oñate, the governor of the colony of New Mexico who, in the final years of the 16th century, expressed such sentiments:

Turning to other purposes of his colony, he listed many — the "need for correcting and punishing the sins against nature and against humanity that exist among these bestial nations"; and the desirable ends "that these people may be bettered in commerce and trade; that they may gain better ideas of government; that they may augment the number of their occupations and learn the arts, become tillers of the soil and keep livestock and cattle, and learn to live like rational beings, clothe their naked; govern themselves with justice and be able to defend themselves from their enemies."

Thus these noblest intentions co-existed with the Spaniards' yearning to return home from this pestilent country filthy rich.

Notably, the upshot of living among the Indians was that the exquisite Spanish refinement regressed to coarseness under native influence:

Through three centuries the colonials knew first how it was to move farther away from Spain; and then from Cuba, then from Mexico City, then from Culiacán; and from the big monasteries of New Biscay and Coahuila to the Rio Grande. Every stage brought reduced movement, less color, luxury, amenity, worldly importance in all things....A grand energy, a great civilization, having reached heights of expression in the arts of painting, poetry, architecture, faith and arms, had returned to the culture of the folk. Defeated by distance and time, the Rio Grande Spaniards finally lived as the Pueblo Indians lived — in a fixed, traditional present.

As Spaniards became Mexicans, paragons of a renowned metropolitan culture eroded into humble provincials. The colonizers were "masters of great wildernesses that yet mastered them in the end."

Mexico ultimately achieved independence in 1821, to immense jubilation that failed to issue in the hoped-for national grandeur. Horgan describes the region as a land of endemic ignorance, indolence, and injustice, but one in which, for better or worse, sustenance was readily available to the unskilled and the unambitious. The appearance of Texan — and ultimately, American — bustle and industriousness in the Rio Grande valley during the ensuing decades changed the nature of the country, and the Mexicans didn't much like it:

Soon the province was served by foreigners who were expert craftsmen and adroit bargainers — carpenters, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, gunsmiths, tailors, hatters, shoemakers. The Americans set up water-powered mills. One spent a winter in Santa Fe building a public clock — the first one in an ancient city that previously took the time of day from a stone sundial at the old Palace. Others established a distillery up the Rio Grande at Arroyo Hondo, using water power in its machines. In a very few years all fabrication industry and commerce in the province were led by the foreigners....A farm here, a flour mill there, a lumberyard, a brickkiln, a tannery — such establishments brought the techniques of the United States frontier far from home, and using the bountiful raw materials of New Mexico made so much visible change in the commercial life of the province that an upper Rio Grande Mexican cried out, "[h]ow long shall we continue to be foreigners on our own soil?"

Mexican amour-propre suffered palpitating heartaches. The resulting self-pity, the most useless of emotions, and resentment, the most corrosive, left lasting stains on the Mexican character:

The economic superiority of white over brown created corresponding social prejudice, until brown not only was dispossessed but was made to feel inferior. It was a set of attitudes in which dwelt the seed of much trouble for later generations of the two Rio Grande peoples, one so heedless and energetic, the other so hapless and proud.

For the long-running trouble, Horgan tends to blame Mexican failure and subservience more than he does American callousness and oppression. Thus he offends against current pieties that hold the competent responsible for the victimhood of the feckless. Perhaps most damning of all, when Horgan adds up the moral vectors related to the American advance in the Southwest, the result is the continental mind in full cry:

The sober tenacity of Stephen Austin, the tormented loyalties of the early Anglo-Texans, the wild self-regard of the trapper, the organized and systematic ways of the Missouri trader, the physical power that served Texans ready to die for freedom or adventure — all these prophetic American qualities taken together seemed stronger than their sum; suggested destiny; and now approached their larger fulfillment as the Army of the United States every day drew nearer to the disputed border [in 1846].

Horgan writes of delicate matters touching dangerous feelings with a refreshing frankness, amounting to a boldness that would not be tolerated in a historian today. Rather than enjoy an esteemed academic position, the patronage of the most prestigious publishers, and a shower of literary prizes, he would be branded an irredeemable racist, shouted down if he dared speak to a college audience, and consigned to the ash heap.


American history is not what it used to be. The vogue — the moral imperative — is now and will long remain to despise American achievement and detest national pride in that achievement.

One of the foremost scholars of Manifest Destiny (and of "Manifest Manhood"), Amy Greenberg, professor of history and women's studies at Pennsylvania State University, typifies the novus ordo seclorum in historiography today. In the introduction to her 2012 book Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion: A Brief History With Documents, Greenberg invokes the imagery of pathology to highlight the danger Manifest Destiny continues to pose to American rectitude:

You can think about Manifest Destiny as a virus in the body politic, an illness that lies dormant for extended periods of time (such as immediately after the Civil War), but at times becomes symptomatic, as in the 1840s and 1898....As a reflection of a deep-seated sense of superiority, as a rallying call, and as a smoke screen for immoral and sometimes illegal actions by both state and citizens, Manifest Destiny became one of the most influential ideologies in American history. It justified the relentless displacement of Native Americans from the colonial era forward; a war of aggression against Mexico in 1846 that stripped it of half its land; attacks on Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and Central America by private American mercenaries known as filibusters; and military action to gain overseas colonies in the late nineteenth century, despite the fact that the United States, once itself a colony, defined its identity in opposition to European empire.

So far, all negative. Then the following sentence purports to cinch the case against ever having anything to do with this vile contagion: "Without Manifest Destiny, the territorial expansion of the United States from a strip of Atlantic coast colonies to a continental empire in less than a century would have been, literally, unthinkable." Given everything that has just come before, this expansion must also have been entirely bad, morally tainted beyond saving, unworthy of any decent person's respect, figuratively inconceivable. In fact, despite any ethical misgivings, it was a marvel of heroic will, energy, daring, resourcefulness, and intelligence, as the now-discredited DeVoto and Horgan ably demonstrate.

Greenberg's A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, was also published in 2012 and lavishly praised in the right places. The book takes its title and tone from remarks that Ulysses Grant, then a lieutenant during the Mexican War, made to a journalist in 1879: "I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign."

In Greenberg's eyes, disgrace adheres to most every American who took part in or cheered on this war, which showed Manifest Destiny doing its worst. President Polk was smitten with the brain fever that progressive historians frequently observe in the continental mind. Not only would "the push west" provide a safety valve for the seething immigrant masses of the eastern cities and constrain the economic power of manufacturing and the concomitant political power of urban elites, it would "reinforce patriarchy by providing men with a means of supporting their families in an environment where strength and physical skill mattered." How insidious the ways of the fathers, and how profoundly gender-studies experts read the past! Without Manifest Destiny, the patriarchs would have suffered a debilitating loss of muscle mass, and women might have ruled the nation, which ought discreetly and decently to have extended no farther west than the Mississippi. As it happened, toxic masculinity preserved itself by consorting with vatic political hoodoo.

In fact, by 1834, Congress had passed a bill forbidding American settlement west of the Mississippi apart from Missouri, Louisiana, and the Arkansas territory. The bill aimed to preserve the integrity of Indian country. But before the law became active, white settlers had shouldered their way into the new territories of Wisconsin and Iowa, compelling legislators to extend the "permanent Indian frontier" to the 95th meridian. So one learns from Dee Brown's 1970 book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, the most influential history on the subject, which made Indian virtue and white loathsomeness the standard moral framework of the new horse opera. (No matter that the Mexican War and the California gold rush of 1849 meant that Indian country would soon be less than inviolable.) In Brown's telling, a familiar demon reared its head and presided over the extinction of American honest dealing:

To justify these breaches of the "permanent Indian frontier," the policy makers in Washington invented Manifest Destiny, a term which lifted land hunger to a lofty plane. The Europeans and their descendants were ordained by destiny to rule all of America. They were the dominant race and therefore responsible for the Indians — along with their lands, their forests, and their mineral wealth.

Once the villainy of whites and the victimhood of the Indians had been thus established, any subtle variations of motive were rendered unnecessary. Whenever Indians violated the terms of a treaty, it was because whites had been patently dishonest. Whenever Indians resorted to violence, they had been goaded past all endurance. Whenever Indians committed atrocities, they were doing what whites had taught them. It really doesn't matter that things sometimes happened otherwise; the story works too well to admit of any corrections. The finer shadings one finds in DeVoto and Horgan disappear in the harsh, glaring light of insulted self-righteousness and perfervid repugnance for all white ways.

Treating the most contentious subjects with punctilio and nuance, writers such as Bernard DeVoto and Paul Horgan honored the American intellectual tradition of fair-mindedness and civic virtue while telling a thrilling story with shrewdness and grace. Yet the days when moderate men wrote eloquent and inspiriting American histories — and were handsomely rewarded for their excellence — are gone, perhaps never to return. The objective of more recent historians is to leave the reader feeling soiled by his contact with our past. These authors profess their uncompromising honesty but in fact tell a hateful one-sided story designed to disgust and appall. One can only be grateful that DeVoto's and Horgan's best books remain readily available, opening a window upon our morally vexed but ultimately heartening democratic vistas. In this regard, they are invaluable.

Algis Valiunas is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of Churchill’s Military Histories: A Rhetorical Study.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.