Thoreau and Manifest Destiny

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Author: Richard J. Schneider, Slife Professor in the Humanities, Wartburg College | © Richard J. Schneider 2016

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Critics have often claimed, based mostly on Thoreau’s interest in Native American culture and on a few of his comments pulled out of context, that Thoreau was opposed to America’s “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined by newspaper editor John O’Sullivan in 1845. That view is consistent with the popular vision of Thoreau the non-conformist that we cherish and that he himself encourages. Thoreau’s opinion of the westward movement, however, is more complex and more positive than these critics acknowledge.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 A key document in the argument for Thoreau’s negative view of Manifest Destiny is a letter that he wrote to H.G.O Blake on 27 February 1853: The whole enterprise of this nation, which is not an upward, but a westward one, toward Oregon, California, Japan, &c, is totally devoid of interest to me, whether performed on foot, or by a Pacific railroad. It is not illustrated by a thought; it is not warmed by a sentiment; there is nothing in it which one should lay down his life for, nor even his gloves,—hardly which one should take up a newspaper for. It is perfectly heathenish,—a filibustering toward heaven by the great western route. No; they may go their way to their manifest destiny, which I trust is not mine.” (Correspondence 296, emphasis Thoreau’s) Francois Specq cites this passage as evidence that “Thoreau squarely rejected Manifest Destiny” (336, note 16), but he overstates Thoreau’s view. This letter is one of series of letters to Blake that Bradley P. Dean has dubbed “Letters to a Spiritual Seeker.”

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 When considered in the larger context of this letter and of similar comments elsewhere in Thoreau’s letters, we see that Thoreau is not rejecting Manifest Destiny but simply putting it in spiritual perspective. What is most important to Thoreau, as he encourages it to be for Blake, is the development of his own spiritual destiny, compared to which the national destiny is relatively insignificant. But only relatively. He is willing that others “may go their way to their manifest destiny” even if it is not his own.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Later in the same letter he adds, “As it respects these things, I have not changed an opinion one iota from the first” (87). Earlier letters concerning the Transcendentalist tenet that inward exploration was more important than outward travel verify that Thoreau was indeed consistent in this belief. In a letter to his friend Isaiah Williams on 14 March 1842, he firmly asserts, “I am my destiny” (Cor. 1, 108, emphasis Thoreau’s). Two years later in July 1844, another friend, Isaac Hecker, writes inviting Thoreau to join him for a walking tour of Europe; it will be an adventure during which they will “walk, work, and beg, if needs be” their way through the Old World (Cor. 1, 258). Thoreau politely declines in a reply on 14 August, saying, I am strongly tempted by your proposal, and experience a decided schism between my outward and inward tendencies. Your method of travelling especially—to live along the road—citizens of the world, without haste or petty plans—I have often proposed this to my dreams, and still do. (Cor. 1, 261, Thoreau’s emphasis)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 However, he continues, I cannot so decidedly postpone exploring the Farther Indies, which are to be reached you know by other routs [sic.] and other methods of travel. I mean that I constantly return from every external enterprise with disgust to fresh faith in a kind of Brahminical Artesian, Inner Temple, life. All my experience, as yours probably, proves only this reality. (Cor. 1, 262, Thoreau’s emphasis)

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Thoreau’s letter to Blake about Manifest Destiny is only a later example of this same argument against thinking that external travel can bring inner knowledge. He offers Manifest Destiny as simply a case in point.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 There is in this insistence on inner exploration, however, always a real pull toward an opposite external experience. Although he declines Hecker’s invitation, he is tempted by it. This same “schism” in his thinking occurs in Walden as well. He begins the final chapter of Walden with two paragraphs about travel and exploration. The first paragraph reminds the reader of the benefits of travel. It can improve one’s health: “To the sick the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery,” as they later did for Thoreau (320). It can reveal new aspects of nature: “Thank Heaven, here is not all the world. The buck-eye does not grow in New England, and the mocking-bird is rarely heard here” (320). And nature itself relies on migration: “The wild-goose is more of a cosmopolite than we; he breaks his fast in Canada, takes a luncheon in the Ohio, and plumes himself for the night in a southern bayou. Even the bison, to some extent, keeps pace with the seasons, cropping the pastures of the Colorado only till a greener and sweeter grass awaits him by the Yellowstone” (320). The paragraph ends with a warning not to get too comfortable in one place but instead to be open to new places and experiences, because “The world is wider than our views of it” (320).

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Thoreau’s much longer second paragraph shifts the emphasis to the internal side of the schism. Despite its benefits, travel does not address humanity’s most important concerns: “Is it the source of the Nile, or the Niger, or the Mississippi, or a North-West Passage around this continent that we would find? Are these the problems which most concern mankind?” (321). Every person’s most important goal should be to explore his or her own private destiny: “Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes . . . be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought” (321).

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 As the paragraph continues, the westward movement becomes Thoreau’s metaphor for this inward exploration: “Start now on that farthest western way, which does not pause at the Mississippi or the Pacific, nor conduct toward a worn-out China or Japan, but leads on direct a tangent to this sphere, summer and winter, day and night, sun down, moon down, and at last earth down too” (322). Having acknowledged the difficulty of such inward exploration, however, Thoreau also admits that even geographical exploration is better than simply staying stuck at home physically or spiritually: “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some “Symmes’ Hole” by which to get to the inside at last” (322).

Thoreau’s Personal West

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Thoreau did not go round the world, but he certainly did a great deal of geographical travelling while trying “to get to the inside at last.” He travelled as far as Canada in the north, Cape Cod in the east, Philadelphia in the south, and Minnesota in the west.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The importance of the West emerges very early in Thoreau’s career as a symbol for both his personal aspirations and for America’s aspirations. As early as May 1841 he describes his personal destiny as a westward movement: “ I shall not mistake the direction of my life; if I but know the high land and the main,—on this side the Cordilleras, on that the Pacific,—I shall know how to run. If a ridge intervene, I have but to seek, or make, a gap to the sea” (PJ I, 308). Here the west represents Thoreau’s own personal future, his own destiny,

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Even earlier in a journal entry on 27 March 1840 the west represents America’s national destiny: “How many are now standing on the European coast—whom another spring will find located on the Red River—or Wisconsin” (PJ1, 120). In August of that same year, Thoreau suggests in his journal that the west is the destiny not only of America but of humanity: “Man looks eastward upon his steps till they are lost in obscurity, and westward still takes his way to the completion of his destiny. Whence he came or whither he is going nor history nor prophecy can tell—He sprang where the day springs and his course is parallel with the sun” (PJ1, 177). The next year he writes a couplet that he titles “Westward, Ho!”: “The needles of the pine/All to the west incline,” suggesting that even nature favors a westward movement (PJ1, 309).1 Throughout his life the west would continue to hold out to Thoreau both literal and symbolic opportunities, and he would eventually find a way to merge his personal west with both America’s west and humanity’s west.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 At times in his life Thoreau’s personal destiny did indeed seem to lie in the west. In 1838, Thoreau, recently graduated from Harvard and having lost his job teaching at Concord’s Center School, was forced to look elsewhere to continue his teaching career. On 17 March 1838 he wrote to his brother John, who was then teaching in Taunton, suggesting that they both seek teaching jobs in the west: I have a proposal to make. Suppose by the time you are released, we should start in company for the West and there either establish a school jointly, or procure ourselves separate situations. Suppose moreover you should get reddy [sic] to start previous to leaving Taunton, to save time. Go I must at all events. Dr. Jarvis enumerated at least a dozen schools which I could have—all such as would suit you equally well. I wish you would write soon about this. The Canals are now open, and travelling comparatively cheap. I think I can borrow the cash in this town. There’s nothing like trying. (Cor. 1, 37, Thoreau’s emphasis).
John accepted Henry’s suggestion, returned to Concord, and prepared to leave for Kentucky, where Dr. Jarvis, a former Concordian now living in Louisville, told Henry there were opportunities.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 By then, however, Henry had also applied for a position in Virginia recommended to him by Harvard’s President Quincy, so while Henry waited for a reply from Virginia, John changed his mind and took a job closer to home in Roxbury, Massachusetts (Cor. 1, 39 note). Thoreau, however, did not get the Virginia job, so after seeking and being rejected for other teaching jobs in Maine and Massachusetts, he decided to stay put and opened his own private school in his family’s home (Harding, Days, 75). But although his attempt to go west to teach did not work out, Thoreau clearly was serious about it.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In 1843 Thoreau accepted a position as tutor to the son of William Emerson, Waldo’s brother, on Staten Island. There he found himself at the starting gate of the westward movement, because part of Staten Island served as a temporary quarantine station for newly arrived immigrants. Thoreau passed the immigrants regularly as he explored the island and went back and forth into Manhattan. On 21 July he writes to his sister Sophia, I am well enough situated here to observe one aspect of the modern world at least—I mean the migratory—the westward movement. Sixteen hundred imigrants [sic] arrived at quarantine ground on the fourth of July, and more or less every day since I have been here. I see them occasionally washing their persons and clothes, or men women and children gathered on an isolate quay near the shore, stretching their limbs and taking the air, the children running races and swimming—on this artificial piece of the land of liberty—while their vessels are undergoing purification. They are detained but a day or two, and then go up to the city, for the most part without having landed here. (Cor. 1, 210, emphasis Thoreau’s)

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Several months later on 1 October he writes to his mother about his ferry rides into the city amid immigrants getting their first look at America: I have crossed the bay 20 or 30 times and have seen a great many immigrants going up to the city for the first time—Norwegians who carry their old fashioned farming tools to the west with them, and will buy nothing here for fear of being cheated,—English operatives, known by their pale faces and stained hands, who will recover their birth-rights in a little cheap sun and wind …. Whole families of imigrants [sic] cooking their dinner upon the pavements—all sun-burnt—so that you are in doubt where the foreigner’s face of flesh begins—their tidy clothes laid on, and then tied to their swathed bodies. (Cor. 1, 238-39)

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 These immigrants, Thoreau says, “look like respectable but straightened people, who may turn out to be counts when they get to Wisconsin—and will have this experience to relate to their children” (Cor. 1, 239). In these comments Thoreau clearly recognizes the westward movement as a genuine opportunity for immigrants to make their way in the world.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Four years later while Thoreau was still living at Walden Pond and pitching his manuscript of A Week to publishers, he wrote on 28 May 1847 to editor Evert Duyckinck about the possibility of getting his manuscript published: “If you take it—It will be a great convenience to me to get through with the printing as soon as possible, as I wish to take a journey of considerable length and should not be willing that any other than myself should correct the proofs” (Correspondence 1, 301). The “journey of considerable length” refers to Thoreau’s intention to join a geological survey of mineral lands in Michigan proposed to him by Emerson and headed by Emerson’s brother-in-law, Charles T. Jackson. As Robert Hudspeth indicates in a note to this letter, “Nothing came of the proposal, though T clearly was willing to go” (Cor. 1, 302). It is, however, interesting to speculate what might have happened to Thoreau’s writing career if he had in fact gone west to Michigan.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 After the publication of Walden in 1854, Thoreau’s reputation seems to have drifted west, and he began to get inquiries about lecturing from admirers in towns in the Midwest. He received requests, for instance, from Akron in Ohio, Hamilton in Canada, and Rochester in Michigan. He looked seriously into going on a lecture trip to these towns but apparently could not get enough engagements to make it financially feasible. Nonetheless, on 31 May 1856 he wrote to his correspondent in Michigan, Calvin Greene, about his genuine interest in seeing the west: I thank you heartily for your kind intentions respecting me. The West has many attractions for me, particularly the lake country & the Indians. Yet I do not foresee what my engagements may be in the fall. I have once or twice come near going West a-lecturing, and perhaps some winter may bring me into your neighborhood (Correspondence 425-26).

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 In the summer of 1860 he again tried to arrange a lecture tour west, this time to Buffalo and Rochester in New York, but with the same negative result (See Correspondence 583-85). It would be only a year later, however, until Thoreau would at last see the lake country and the Indians in Minnesota, passing through New York and Michigan en route.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 At the end of his life Thoreau went west seeking a drier climate in Minnesota, because it had been recommended to him as possibly easing the symptoms of his recurring consumption (tuberculosis). Thoreau and his traveling companion, young Horace Mann, Jr., left Concord on 11 May 1861, travelling by train to the Mississippi River and then by steamboat up the river to Minneapolis.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Thoreau and Mann took an eventful trip up the Minnesota River on the steamboat Frank Steele to visit the Lower Sioux Agency in the town of Redwood. They arrived at the agency on 20 June, the day when the Dakota Indians from the surrounding area gathered to receive their regular payments from the federal government. Thoreau was able to witness the formal speeches and ceremonies accompanying this council. In their speeches the Indians complained of unfair treatment, and the government officials predictably attempted to placate them. Their main spokesman, Red Owl, argued forcefully that supplies and housing had been inadequate. Thoreau was favorably impressed by Red Owl’s speech, writing in a letter that Red Owl had “the advantage in point of truth and earnestness, and therefore of eloquence. …They were quite dissatisfied with the white man’s treatment of them & probably have reason to be so” (Correspondence 621). Other white witnesses came to a similar conclusion. Another passenger wrote, The speeches consisted of the usual excuses and fair promises on our side, and the ordinary complaints from the Indians, of injustice and fraud, probably, alas! too well founded in fact. There was, to a sympathetic spectator, a touching contrast between the plausible demeanor and language of the white dignitaries, and the simple, untutored earnestness of the savages. (quoted in Corrine Smith 263). Thoreau’s assessment of Red Owl’s speech thus does not express any unusual sympathy for the Indians, but rather an objective account of the proceedings.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Thoreau’s reaction to the Sioux Agency council was essentially that of a tourist: he witnessed the Indians doing a “monkey dance” and purchased three items of buckskin clothing and some snowshoes to take home as souvenirs. The trip seems not to have affected his view of the Indians or their fate as the nation moved west. Indeed, when he observed several gamblers disembarking and remaining at the Sioux Agency, Thoreau assumed that they would soon fleece the Indians of their government payments.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Unfortunately, Minnesota’s air did not have the desired effect, and Thoreau returned to Concord in July weaker than when he left. The trip, as Harding concludes, was a “tragic failure” (Days 450).

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Neither Thoreau’s first youthful attempt to go west, his intended western lecture tour, or his last actual journey west indicates any explicit endorsement of the national program of Manifest Destiny. All of these do suggest, however, that Thoreau had a generally positive impression of the west.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 On the other hand, Thoreau’s sympathetic portrayal of the immigrants on Staten Island certainly implies his early tacit approval of the westward movement. His joining a government geological survey to Michigan, while again offering him a job, would also have been implicit support of the westward movement. He undoubtedly would have gone as a surveyor, a role that was necessary to the settlement of new lands. As Patrick Chura has pointed out, “the political development of the United States would owe a great deal to concepts of measurement. . . . Along with any attempt at permanent settlement of the continent, and sometimes preceding it, came surveyors” (2). These events in Thoreau’s life indicate that for him the west was more than a symbol and that he saw it as having potential positive benefits for himself, for immigrants, and for the nation.

Thoreau’s Literary West

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Thoreau’s own travels combined with his avid reading in history, geography, and exploration narratives fed his intense interest in the relation between individual destiny and America’s destiny in world history. Despite his lifelong emphasis on inner exploration, three of his four published books are travel narratives, and these travel narratives focus not only on personal destiny but on national destiny. A quick review of these travel narratives should remind us that throughout his writing career Thoreau maintained a balanced view of America’s destiny that culminates in his essay “Walking.”

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers Thoreau criticizes the historical neglect of Indians and eulogizes their passing, but he also equally praises the settlers who fought them. Robert Sayre has accurately described A Week as “a unique history of red-white relations in New England and a vision of what they might become” (123). But Thoreau knew what those relations had in fact become, and he does not condemn the historical result. He instead accepts the extermination of the Indians as a necessity of cultural succession as New England settlers moved inland.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 In recounting a battle between Indians and settlers from the “History of Dunstable” Thoreau tells of how some of the wounded settlers managed to survive by eating cranberries and to make it back to the settlements to recover and eventually be rewarded for their valor. “But alas! of the crippled Indians, and their adventures in the woods,” Thoreau complains, “how many balls lodged with them, how it fared with their cranberries . . . there is no journal to tell” (122). However, Thoreau balances his sympathy for the Indians with admiring depictions of the pioneers that displaced them. In discussing “The History of Dunstable” Thoreau does not condemn the extermination of the Indians but praises the valor of the exterminators and the need of their admirable qualities in his own day. Thoreau praises one of the heroes of Lovewell’s fight, Lieutenant Farwell. Farwell’s name, he says, “still reminds us of twilight days and forest scouts on Indian trails, with an uneasy scalp,—an indispensable hero to New England” (168).

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 In The Maine Woods Thoreau accepts the history of the Indian as “a history of his extinction” and studies his Indian guides as an anthropologist studies a disappearing race (MW 6). He famously bemoans the destruction of Maine’s forests by the logging industry and calls for national forest preserves (MW 156). But he also praises the loggers themselves as they search for prime timber forests. He and Joe Polis converse with “two explorers” camping in the wilderness, and Thoreau is intrigued by the freedom of their life: “It is a solitary and adventurous life, and comes nearest to that of the trapper of the west, perhaps. Working ever with a gun as well as an axe, letting their beards grow, without neighbors, not on an open plain, but far within a wilderness” (MW 101). So attractive is such a life that Thoreau admits, “I have often wished since that I was with them” (MW 101). Thoreau sees The Maine Woods as a “lesser Oregon and California” that, “as we have advanced by leaps to the Pacific,” has been left mostly “unexplored behind us” (MW 82). He praises its wildness and the vastness of its forests, but as he looks down on it from the side of Mt. Katahdin, he can see it as “a large farm for somebody, when cleared” (MW 66) and he admires as a true pioneer a man like George McCauslin, who has already cleared land for a farm in the midst of the wilderness (MW 22-3). Obviously Thoreau does not envision or even desire that the Maine Woods should remain unsettled.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 In Cape Cod Thoreau again expresses sympathy for the Indians as the Puritans appropriate land because the Indians say that “not any” owns it, but he avoids discussing other first encounters. On the other hand, he criticizes the Puritans for not being more aggressive explorers. Thoreau criticizes the Pilgrims as pioneers for being too passive, not bold enough in pushing inland to the west: It must be confessed that the Pilgrims possessed but few of the qualities of the modern pioneer. They were not the ancestors of the American backwoodsmen. They did not go at once into the woods with their axes. They were a family and church, and were more anxious to keep together, though it were on the sand, than to explore and colonize a New World. (201-202). Granted, he continues, they were busy at first about their building, and were hindered in that by much foul weather; but a party of emigrants to California or Oregon, with no less work on their hands, –and more hostile Indians, –would do as much exploring the first afternoon (202).

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 He compares the Pilgrims as explorers unfavorably to the French, who had followed the St. Lawrence River far inland before the Puritans arrived. He repeats this praise for French exploration in A Yankee in Canada, saying that the early French Canadians “possessed a roving spirit of adventure which carried them further, in exposure to hardship and danger, than ever the New England colonist went, though not to clear and colonize the wilderness, yet to range over it as coureurs de bois, or runners of the woods” (Excursions 113-14). Although he has traveled east to Cape Cod, Thoreau’s thoughts also turn to the “Far West, the true Hesperia,” to “the shore of California, whither all our folks were gone,—the only ne plus ultra now (Cape Cod 141).

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Throughout these travel narratives Thoreau consistently praises the spirit of adventure that motivates exploration, a spirit that in his essay “Walking” he calls “wildness.” It is in “Walking” that he succeeds in merging his sense of the west as personal destiny with his belief in the west as America’s destiny. As has been often noted, “Walking” is really two essays spliced together, one on the topic of “walking” and the other on “the wild.” In the first he describes how the process of walking reinvigorates him personally so that he can return to reinvigorate society. In the second he describes America’s need for a spirit of wildness and its expression in the westward movement.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 For Thoreau a walk in the woods, sauntering, is not a rejection of civilization but a spiritual exercise through which the walker returns anew to society. It is going “a la Sainte Terre,” to a spiritual Holy Land within, as much a spiritual as a physical exercise. By sauntering, however, Thoreau is not rejecting civilization but rather seeking what he calls in Walden “the tonic of wildness,” for “our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it” (317). The purpose of wildness is to refresh civilization, not to reject it. Thoreau finds physical change to be a necessary catalyst without which “I cannot preserve my health and spirits” (187), because the wildness of nature gives him the psychological and spiritual wildness to function creatively when he returns to civilization. He brings back wildness civilized.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 In one sense place is indifferent to the saunterer because as a spiritual exercise the goal should be to be “equally at home everywhere” (185). Thoreau finds, on the other hand, that place is vitally important for symbolic reasons. “It is not indifferent to us which way we walk,” he says; “there is a right way” (195). That way is west. Thoreau prefers walking west partially for practical reasons: he finds that the best areas for walking around Concord are mostly “between west and south-south-west” (195). More importantly, however, Thoreau prefers walking west for symbolic reasons: “the future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side” (195). “The West of which I speak,” Thoreau says later in the essay, “is but another name for the Wild, and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world” (202). The west is not just a geographical direction; it is a symbol of a free, adventurous state of mind in an individual and of the future not only for America but for the world.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 This correspondence between individual destiny and national destiny Thoreau suspects might not be a mere coincidence:
I know not how significant it is, or how far it is an evidence of singularity, that an individual should thus consent in his pettiest walk, with the general movement of the race; but I know that something akin to the migratory instinct in birds and quadrupeds,—which, in some instances, is known to have affected the squirrel tribe, impelling them to a general and mysterious movement, in which they were seen, say some, crossing the broadest rivers, each on its particular chip, with its tail raised for a sail, and bridging narrower streams with their dead,—that something like the furor which affects the domestic cattle in the spring, and which is referred to as a worm in their tails,—affects both nations and individuals, either perennially or from time to time. (197) Now nature is added to the migratory mix. Individual, natural, and national destinies all rely on migration.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Thoreau saw the westward movement as not only a natural instinct and the source of his own future, but also of the nation’s future. He realized that for the nation migration was inevitable and that his own daily walks were an acknowledgement of that national destiny. To migrate west, he says, “is the prevailing tendency of my country-men. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west” (196). “We go eastward to realize history,” he says, but “we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure” (196).

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Thoreau was writing “Walking” in 1851-52 based on journal entries from that period, but at the same time he was reading Arnold Guyot’s The Earth and Man, the book that provided scientific validation for America’s Manifest Destiny. According to Guyot’s teleological vision of history, the mission of the white race in “the geographical march of history” (300, emphasis Guyot’s) was, to carry civilization to a place where it could best fulfill God’s plan for humanity. Europe had proven itself a fertile seedbed for culture, but its soil was exhausted of innovation and its people were overcrowded. “To what continent,” then, was civilization to progress? Guyot’s answer was that “the geographical march of civilization tells us, to a new continent west of the Old World – to America” (321). This succession of races and cultures would, of course, eventually lead to resource competition with the indigenous races, but, being innately inferior, the “savage” Indians would eventually be subdued and replaced by civilization. Their role, in terms of human ecology, was as facilitators of the land for the influx of Europeans. In “Walking” Thoreau’s idea of Manifest Destiny and the westward movement of world civilization is drawn straight from Guyot.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Thoreau, like Guyot, finds little potential in directions other than the west. Guyot argues that movements south from Europe and the Caucasus lead to a lack of moral development because of the enervating heat. In “Walking” Thoreau acknowledges the recent migrations southeast to Australia but is skeptical of their success: “this affects us as a retrograde movement, and, judging from the moral and physical character of the first generation of Australians, has not yet proved a successful experiment” (Excursions 196). Guyot argues that movements east into Asia at first lead to impressive cultural development, but that development is eventually stifled by the vastness and isolation of that continent’s huge mountain ranges and vast wastelands. Thoreau echoes this view when he comments on the limitations of the Asian world view: “the eastern Tartars think that there is nothing west beyond Thibet. ‘The world ends there,’ say they, ‘beyond there is nothing but a shoreless sea.’ It is unmitigated East where they live” (Excursions 196).

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 By contrast, Thoreau, the American, can “believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me” (Excursions 196). This limitless vista is part of the idea of “American exceptionalism,” the idea that North America was an exceptionally fertile and healthy place, exceptionally well suited to be the next stop on the march of civilization. “Where on the globe,” Thoreau asks, “can there be found an area of equal extent with that occupied by the bulk of our states, so fertile, so rich and varied in its productions, and at the same time so habitable by the European, as this is?” (Excursions 198).

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Thus far in “Walking” Thoreau has echoed Guyot’s vision of world history without quoting him directly. Thoreau responds to his reading of Guyot primarily in two extended passages, one in a journal entry written between 10 January and 9 February 1851, and the other in “Walking.” In both he expresses agreement with Guyot. In the journal passage he copies out Guyot’s summary of the difference between the aridity of the Old World and humidity of the New World climates: “‘compared with the Old World, the New World is the humid side of our planet, the oceanic, Vegetative world, the passive element awaiting the excitement of a livelier impulse from without” (PJ3, 183, emphases Thoreau’s). This quote confirms a similar observation in Thoreau’s own words made earlier in that same group of journal entries:
The old world with its vast deserts – & its arid & elevated steppes & table lands contrasted with the new world with its humid & fertile valleys & savannahs & prairies – & its boundless primitive forests – Is like the exhausted Ind corn lands contrasted with the peat meadows, America requires some of the sand of the old world to be carted onto her rich but as yet unassimilated meadows. (PJ3, 181) These two passages make it clear that Thoreau agrees with Guyot’s view of America’s role in the progress of civilization. America has lain fallow during the occupancy of the Indians; it will be brought to life by the influx of Europeans. The seeds that have sprouted in Europe will now bear fruit in America.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 That Thoreau’s agreement extends even to Guyot’s view of the increasing complexity and power of civilization is suggested by another passage from Guyot that Thoreau quotes approvingly in “Walking.” Having just cited naturalists Michaux and Humboldt concerning the superiority of New World vegetation, Thoreau, after first expressing some reservation about Guyot’s attempt to extend Humboldt’s argument, approvingly quotes Guyot’s assertion that “‘As the plant is made for the animal, as the vegetable world is made for the animal world, America is made for the man of the Old World’” (198). The sentence to which it is most interesting to find Thoreau attaching his approval is one in which Guyot describes this progress as being “marked by a new civilization superior to the preceding, by a greater power of development” (198-9). The Latin phrase that Thoreau coins shortly after this quote makes it clear that he endorses Guyot’s view: “Ex Oriente lux, ex Occidente frux. From the East light, from the West fruit” [199, emphases Thoreau’s].

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 In “Walking,” Thoreau sees in Guyot’s vision of human history hope that American progress does indeed lead, if not toward a higher spiritual goal, at least toward a higher historical goal. He agrees with Guyot that civilization’s movement westward is healthy and that it was being lead by the American farmer plowing up new soil to make a new life amid America’s wild forests and prairies. Thoreau quotes Guyot silently but approvingly: “It is said to be the task of the American to ‘work the virgin soil,’ and that ‘Agriculture here already assumes proportions unknown everywhere else” (206; Guyot 236). Thoreau sees the farmer as the real hero of the westward movement: “I think that the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural” (206). The victories that the farmer wins are the results of technology, which here receives high praise from Thoreau: “The weapons with which we have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and the lance, but the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog hoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hard-fought field” (207).

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Thoreau contrasts Indians unfavorably to these pioneer farmers. In the face of the farmer’s technological ingenuity and persistence, the Indian, Thoreau suggests along with Guyot, must be doomed to extinction. Placed in a temperate climate the most conducive in the world to moral and intellectual development, the Indian has proven unworthy of such blessings by an inability to make full use of them. “The very winds,” Thoreau says, “blew the Indian’s cornfield into the meadow, and pointed out the way which he had not the skill to follow. He had no better implement with which to entrench himself in the land than a clamshell. But the farmer is armed with plow and spade” (207). Thoreau here expresses no more regret than does Guyot for the fate of the Indian, who has proven himself unable to make use of the natural “dispersion of seeds” or to participate in the historical dispersion of cultural seeds. Thoreau instead uses the “savagist” technique (see Sayre) of reducing the Indian to a Romantic symbol of the wild: “The wildness of the savage is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good men and lovers meet” (210).

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 So despite his reputation for suspicion of progress and technology, in “Walking” Thoreau clearly endorses Guyot’s view of human progress and of the succession of one culture replacing another through the competitive mechanism of a “greater power of development.” For Thoreau the west is not only the future of America but of world civilization. “The West,” he says, “is preparing to add its fables to those of the east” (209). Other cultures have had their day; now it is America’s turn:
The valleys of the Ganges, the Nile, and the Rhine, having yielded their crop, it remains to be seen what the valleys of the Amazon, the Plate, the Orinoco—the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi will produce. Perchance, when in the course of ages, American Liberty has become a fiction of the past,—as it is to some extent a fiction of the present,—the poets of the world will be inspired by American Mythology. (209) Despite his swipe at the evils of slavery—American Liberty as a fiction of the present—Thoreau affirms America’s role in world civilization’s destiny. As David Robinson says, “Thoreau’s larger strategy is thus to use the wild to purify and preserve in a new and redeemed form the world of civilization” (“Thoreau’s ‘Walking’” 172).

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Although throughout his writing career Thoreau was consistent in his Transcendentalist emphasis on inward spiritual exploration, he was also consistent in viewing the westward movement as both a metaphor for that inward exploration and as the literal historical destiny of America. What Lawrence Buell has described as true of the Transcendentalists in general is also true of Thoreau specifically: “they were hardly immune to the romance of settlement and its attendant dream of unique national destiny” (“Manifest Destiny” 195).

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Thoreau did not approve, of course, of all the consequences of Manifest Destiny. As John Christie correctly observes, “Thoreau’s perspective upon the western movement, while a committed one, was also a critical one” (108). Thoreau regretted the necessity of exterminating the Native American way of life and even the Native Americans themselves, and he deplored the materialism and greed that were prime motives behind the westward migration. However, he also accepted both the fate of the Native Americans as an inevitable result of cultural succession and the destiny of America as the rightful successor in the history of world civilization.

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Source: https://commons.digitalthoreau.org/tsag2016/friday-july-8/thoreau-and-manifest-destiny/