Post-Reconstruction America gave rise to an incredibly transformative society and culture. Modernism was beginning to sweep the land with the industrial revolution, urbanization and westward expansion. How did the underprivileged fare in this new America? What were the experiences and problems of the Native Americans, women, African-Americans, and various immigrant groups at this time? Be specific. Was there a gap between the rhetoric of hope and democracy peddled by American institutions and leaders and the reality on the ground for the masses? What of the meanings of The New Colossus on one had, and the Chinese Exclusion Act on the other? What do these represent about historical development and issues of libery in the late 19th century U.S. In conclusion, how do authors Stone and Kuznick, in the beginning of their text Untold History, frame the problems of writing and the telling of history, and how do those concepts relate to these aforementioned issues above?
The United States went through a surplus of superficial changes from 1865 to the present day. Although many issues in the American way of life were addressed, many of these issues were dealt with in only a marginally effective way at best. Many such changes were introduced in the political systems, yet political posturing was slow or inept to bring social change to the American system of government has many which has strengths and weakness. Although most Americans are the freest people on the planet, this paradigm is only true with many reservations.
In fact, one way to look at freedom would be to consider that opposite of freedom — incarceration. Currently the United States dominates the world in number of prisoners both per capita as well as the total population. The U.S. roughly has about five percent of the world’s population, yet holds nearly fifty percent of the world’s prisoners. Thus, at best, the American freedom is a perspective that is rather selective. The concept of American freedom can also be coupled with a sense of standing hypocrisy. This analysis will consider some of the greatest freedoms that Americas have gained since 1865 as well as some of the developments that have made the concept of freedom rather illusory.
Before reconstruction, expansion westward seemed perfectly natural to many Americans in the mid-nineteenth century; like the Massachusetts Puritans who hoped to build a “city upon a hill, “courageous pioneers believed that America had a divine obligation to stretch the boundaries of their noble republic to the Pacific Ocean (U.S. History N.d.). There were two sets of standards that were created for these ideals. One was given to those who could associate with the perceived moral and cultural superiority of the American way of life, and another for those who did not share these ideals. The expansion had many negative implications for the latter group that included Native Americans, women, African-Americans, and various immigrant groups.
In 1865, during reconstruction, this period undoubtedly is one of America’s transformative efforts towards freedom. During this period, the U.S. made public strides towards allowing freedoms for all American men regardless of race or of ethnicity. For example, the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal rights for all and citizenship for blacks; the Fifteenth Amendment prevented race from being used to disfranchise men. Despite these efforts, they were slow to translate into meaningful actions for those who were repressed; however the legislation that was passed was revolutionary and certainly set the stage for a series of later achievements.
The early American idealism, pre-reconstruction, developed out of several different perspectives that were upheld during a period of prosperity and growth. After the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny was used as a justification for expansion and this idea began to develop in the American consciousness. The idea of Manifest Destiny involved the concept of a sense of a God-given mission or destiny to spread its power, influence, and ideals to the far corners of the earth. The superiority that this perspective offered was founded upon the conviction in the democratic ideals that the country embraced. This belief in democracy and the values that were perceived to be associated with it were viewed as an inevitable evolution in human progress. This led many to believe that anything that stood in the way of this trend was to be destroyed and much of the American population accepted this as it was consistent with their own ambitions.
Woodrow Wilson was a great believer in the superiority of his background and his culture. He was descended from Presbyterian ministers on both sides of the family and he was known to be moralistic, infuriating, and self-righteously inflexible as he believed that he was carrying out God’s plan for the country (Stone and Kuznick 2013). He used his power in South America with a desire to have certain loyal politicians who shared his values elected or “to elect good men” as he was recorded as saying. President Wilson can be viewed as the epitome the self-righteous and driven personality that helped to form the notion of the nation’s imperial ambitions. The sense that God has empowered peoples has served as the backbone of much of the nation’s drive as well as many of the other imperial nations through history.
Manifest Destiny had other implications on the American consciousness as well as a sense of hypocrisy. For example, it was believed that this superiority was only applicable to the individuals deemed as having the capacity to be able to self-govern. Therefore minority groups such as the Native Americans, Mexicans, and African-Americans were not included in the philosophy of Manifest Destiny. Even though Mexico established their independence in Spain in 1821, they were targets in the American conquest for land, power, and self-advancement (Minster 2002). There was a lot of discrimination against non-European immigrant groups as well as the Native Americans, Mexicans, and Chinese for example. This sentiment was deeply embedded in mainstream American culture and the view was upheld that expansion was the country’s destiny and future prosperity.
The expansionary efforts were not constrained by the geographic barriers as the U.S. ran out of room to the West and out of opportunity to the South. When the advent of technology permitted efficient movement of goods and people, then the navy allowed for further imperial expansions. Captain A.T. Mahan of the U.S. navy, a popular propagandist for expansion, greatly influenced Theodore Roosevelt and other American leaders with such phrases as “Americans must now look outward” and the countries with the biggest navy would inherit the Earth (Zinn 2003). Thus although Manifest Destiny definitely changed when the frontier closed, the concept merely morphed into a new strategy to further American interests. Furthermore, though the phraseology of Manifest Destiny eventually fell out of fashion, the drive towards imperialist ambitions certainly did not.
The rights of minorities to gain freedoms spread to other groups as well — most notably women. However, women are not technically a minority as their numbers should equal roughly half of the population; however they were still a repressed group on many fronts. It was 1920 that marked the first year in which American women were able to vote, another remarkable phase in American freedom. The next greatest achievement towards freedom in the United States was likely the ending of desegregation and the triumph of the civil rights movement. However, although there have been major achievements in ensuring diversity and freedoms offered regardless to race, this struggle lingers on even in the present day as the country still struggles with this issue.
Minster, C. “Independence from Spain.” Latin American History. 2002. http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/latinamericaindependence/a/independence.htm.
Stone, O., and P. Kuznick. The Untold History of the United States. New York: Gallery Books, 2013.
U.S. History. “Manifest Destiny.” U.S. History. N.d. http://www.ushistory.org/us/29.asp.
Zinn, H. Twentieth Century. New York: Perennial, 2003.
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