Book Review: Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism
In Reginald Horsman’s Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism, the author studies racism in America in a manner that contributes significantly to the historiography of the Jacksonian Era. In this work, Horsman links racist ideologues to political events that have happened throughout history, Jim Crowism and Reconstruction being of particular focus. Horsman’s thesis in this work is that the ideological elements of manifest destiny go hand in hand with the tenets of American racism; in essence, racism is a decidedly integral part of American ideology, one which provided a vital symbolic language that framed issues ranging from the social to the economic. Racism is painted by Horsman as an ideology that persists throughout history, something that is closely tied to American republicanism and the mainstream.
In the book, Horsman investigates how the Anglo-Saxon racial ideology evolved to the point it reached in the Jacksonian Era, and how it impacted the early 19th century concept of American exceptionalism. Because of the society’s emphasis on racial theory and race itself at the time, the national outlook was irrevocably transformed and set the tone for the Jacksonian Era as one preoccupied with race as an aspect of manifest destiny. Horsman, here, delves deep into the past to source out the origins of this Anglo-Saxon racial perspective, moving from its beginnings in Europe and moving up to its fully-fledged expression within the Civil War. In essence, Saxon institutions and culture were culturally ingrained to be superior and more important in civilized society than those of Africans and minorities; many scholars at the time took to a perspective that glorified the Saxon’s past, one that followed them all the way up to the Revolutionary War.
After that point, however, the rise of romanticism, Aryanism theories, and German-centric ideologies regarding European pasts allowed whites to change ” the emphasis on superior racial characteristics as a reason for weak institutions” (Horsman 1981, p. 25). With the growth of science during the early 19th century in particular, minds from multiple medical and biological fiends began to construct notions of a racial hierarchy, with Africans and the like being placed inferior to Caucasians due to things like skull shape and size, language use, and more. While the Enlightenment began to shift these views toward abolition and racial equality, out on the fringe these notions of racial superiority persisted.
It was out on the frontier that Horsman claims racism persisted and linked itself with manifest destiny; because of these ideas of white superiority, justifications could be made for the subjugation of blacks and the slaughter of Indians. Despite the American expansionism credo that American advances into the territory that was available allowed them to create ” bastions of republicanism,” race played enough of a significant factor that permitted them to use racial superiority as an excuse as well (Horsman 1981, p. 97). By the year 1850, says Horsman, the concepts of racism and manifest destiny were fully combined; Americans believed in a unique direction for the nation to expand its influence and its scope, which also carried connotations of a superior white heritage it would bring to the savage masses. This allowed Americans to ideologically justify the massacre of Indians, the continuation of slavery as an institution, and more. With the Mexican War, in particular, these notions were applied in full, as Americans were all too happy to give racial justifications for conflict, and they were sufficiently averse to integrating races that vulnerable regions could simply be invaded without question.
There are quite a few strengths to Horsman’s book; one of Horsman’s advantages is his ability to display in detail how thought and action are interrelated, particularly through historical events. By demonstrating the thought processes behind these institutions, Horsman allows the reader to look into the national character of the Jacksonian Era, taking apart the racial theories that exist (both then and now) to uncover the truth about where race falls into the American experience. Horsman is correct in his particular focus upon early 19th century racial theory, as it provided a uniquely dangerous mix of science and logic that was misused to justify these thoughts of racial superiority. In essence, the author shows that the Jacksonian Era was the time in which the advances of science and reason simply gave Americans more plausible and believable reasons to invade lesser peoples and take their land.
Horsman’s work is radically different from many works in the historiography of the Jackson Era, and of slavery in general. Many works approach racism as a strange fluke in American history, where slavery is an anachronism and Jim Crow laws are irrationally discriminatory; ” irrational” racists, by and large, are presented as demented and fundamentally wrongheaded (Pessen 1978, p. 46). In essence, the phenomenon of racism is separated quite a bit from the American character. However, Horsman contradicts these notions and challenges them in detail; he argues that the very nature of American character is tied up in the same ideologies that favor racism and lead to it; racism itself simply changes in form and frequency depending on the change in material needs and slight cultural evolution. To that end, Horsman seeks to explore racism in the Jacksonian Era as something that continues today, linking the contemporary character of America with these same cultural characteristics. In this way, Jacksonian politics and national identities are shown in a relatable and fascinatingly prescient manner.
In conclusion, Horsman’s work is a unique and fascinating look at how race fit into the American character, particularly during the Jacksonian Era. By defying common historiography and showing that race is an inexorable part of manifest destiny (at least where it applies to America), Horsman denies the ability for race theory to take an easy way out by separating it from the tenets of American culture. By dispelling the idea that racists were aberrations and flukes to be ignored, the author forces the reader to more closely investigate the cultural and historical factors that lead to racism continuing to be a pervasive element of American society. Racism is shown to be a line of thinking that is now inseparable from American notions of exceptionalism, white superiority, and colonialism – the same thoughts that allowed America to expand into its current form are what allowed slavery to perpetuate, wars to be fought, and native peoples to be subjugated during the Jacksonian Era. Horsman’s work is detailed, organized, and its information is formatted in a way that is easy to assimilate, permitting its radical ideas to be pondered in full.
Horsman, R. (1981). Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Harvard University Press.
Pessen, E. (1978). Jacksonian America: society, personality and politics. Harvard University Press.