[The second half of a chapter from my book The Age of Consequences]
I want to return to the Old West for a moment. Specifically, I want to review the nineteenth-century idea of manifest destiny and explore its role in the creation of the sixty-year post–World War II economic and cultural blowout of the Fiesta, using Phoenix as a prism.
Manifest destiny was a phrase employed energetically in the mid-nineteenth century by a variety of politicians, journalists, and economic boosters to express the general belief that the United States had an unstoppable destiny to expand from sea to shining sea in accordance with God’s manifest will.
The term was coined in 1845 by John O’Sullivan, a prominent New York journalist, as part of his argument for the annexation of the Republic of Texas and for American claims to the whole of Oregon, whose northern boundary was disputed by Britain at the time. These claims, he wrote, were logical and necessary “by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”
It was a moral call to action that was quickly picked up by less salubrious expansionists who used it to fan the patriotic flames of what became the Mexican-American War in 1846—a conflict that netted California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah and Colorado for the nation. The clarion call of manifest destiny eventually brought Hawaii and Alaska into the union too, as well as provided cover for our colonial adventures in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. It has even been used by some analysts to defend (or criticize) American military adventurism in the twenty-first century, including our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to historians, one of the reasons why manifest destiny had such a big impact is because it resonated strongly with the concept of American exceptionalism among citizens. This is the idea that America, by virtue of its development as a revolutionary democracy, its novel Constitution, and its perceived divinely directed “destiny” to spread liberty as far and wide as possible, is different from every other nation on the planet and thus exempt from the normal rules of history.
The idea that America is exceptional has its roots in the colonial Puritans’ vision of a virtuous “shining city on a hill”—a vision that stood in deliberate contrast to the decadence of the recently abandoned Old World. This vision was reinforced by pamphleteer Thomas Paine, who in 1776 argued that the American Revolution was an opportunity, for the first time since the “days of Noah,” to “begin the world over again.” Abraham Lincoln reiterated this idea in a message to Congress in 1862, arguing that the nation’s great experiment in liberty and democracy—the triumph of republicanism over monarchy and oppression—made America “the last, best hope of Earth.” In his famous address two years later at Gettysburg, Lincoln would call the Civil War a great test to see if American ideals would survive.
That they did survive that bloody conflagration served to bolster our sense of exceptionalism and destiny, providing a great deal of motivation for much of what Americans did henceforth, including the abolition of slavery and the settling of the American West. These ideals created a desire to extend freedom and democracy not only throughout the continent, but to the world as well, and became, in the process, an important part of our national mission in the twentieth century. Historical events confirmed this calling, from our triumph over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II to our victory over the despised Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Like a yeasty loaf of bread dough, our sense of exceptionalism kept growing. Mix in our unparalleled economic prosperity, abundant natural resources, a high standard of living, and a huge helping of technological prowess, and you have a recipe for an undisputed American self-confidence that serves millions.
Phoenix officially came into being on May 4, 1868. The original town site was located on 320 acres of scorching desert. In 1870, the U.S. Census found only 240 people living in what today is called the “Valley of the Sun.” By 1950, largely thanks to the invention of air-conditioning, there were over one hundred thousand people within the city limits, plus many more in surrounding communities. There were 148 miles of paved streets. Today, the Phoenix metro area is home to more than four million residents, making it the twelfth-largest city by population in the United States. It covers over five hundred square miles, making it the largest in the nation physically, even beating Los Angeles (at a mere 469 square miles). Since 2000, Phoenix’s population has grown by 24 percent, second only to Las Vegas, which grew by nearly 30 percent, and is expected to keep growing by double digits well into the future. That sounds like manifest destiny at work to me.
One of my indelible memories of growing up on the edge of Phoenix was the procession of hardware-laded pickup trucks zooming ceaselessly to construction sites everywhere. Festooned with ladders, water igloos, tool boxes, and whatnot, they zipped up and down the fresh streets like bees buzzing around a very large hive. They didn’t have to fly far to find nectar either. Cheap housing developments, mini-malls, and office complexes exploded across the desert with a fury that had all the hallmarks of an Old West land rush, only without the horses and revolvers. Certainly, the zeal was the same, as was the sense of unstoppable destiny, though perhaps without the religious motivation. Instead, we worshipped a lesser god—Moola—whose divine will directed us to overflow Phoenix with homes, schools, businesses, churches, restaurants, fast-food joints, sports bars, shopping malls, and highways. The only things an Old West miner or cowboy would have missed in 1966 were brothels and livery stables.
If Phoenix in the late 1960s represented a new frontier, marching to the updated tune of manifest destiny, it differed in one important respect from its predecessor: it exhibited a palpable sense of loss. I have a vivid memory from my teenage years of a silent protest. All over the edge of town, numerous real estate signs, each announcing vacant land for sale, had been defaced with a spray-painted lament: save our desert. During a visit one day to a dilapidated horse stable my parents rented way out in the desert, I asked my father what the protest meant. I don’t recall his response, but I do recall my feeling of uneasiness, especially as the signs were pushed farther and farther into my beloved desert.
A torn feeling crept into me. I was a suburban kid. I loved all that asphalt and the liberty and convenience it symbolized, especially when behind the wheel of my adventurous Jeep Cherokee. But I also lamented the disappearing desert, its living edge harder to find with each passing month. I understood that my two halves were linked together—one depended on the other—and were like squabbling siblings doomed to quarrel endlessly. As I grew older, however, this torn feeling deepened, until I didn’t know what to make of the tension anymore. So I did what many of my peers did to resolve their teenage angst—I moved away and went to college.
The torn feeling nagged at me, however. On trips home, I tried to shield myself from the expanding signs of manifest destiny that I saw everywhere, preferring to cocoon with my parents in their downtown apartment, far from the still-vigorous frontier. It helped that my mother had finally made peace with Phoenix. They now lived close to the main library, the art museum, and other cultural amenities, which had encouraged her to engage once more in the outside world constructively. She became cheerful again, and I recall many happy conversations in their living room revolving around books, authors, movies, and current events.
My father, too, had made peace of a sort with his shortcomings, though not with his deteriorating health. He had contracted adult-onset diabetes in the 1970s, and by the time he was due to retire, his health had declined substantially, requiring daily dialysis treatments. It made him cranky. At the end of their lives, they had reversed roles—my sweet-tempered, generous, optimistic father became grumpy and despondent, while my conflicted, restless, unsatisfied mother mellowed into a cheerful, if still reclusive, angel.
It made for unpredictable visits home.
In a way, their lives continued to reflect the changes consuming Phoenix. Rapid growth, especially the proliferation of new highways in and around the city, created a type of urban-onset diabetes that required daily transfusions of fossil fuel and water to keep the megalopolis alive. It also mocked the proclamation I heard throughout my youth that “We’ll never be another Los Angeles!” This type of daily dialysis made residents cranky too, especially those citizens who felt helpless to stop, or even slow, the city’s relentless growth. At the same time, Phoenix tried to make peace with itself, or at least with its expectations. It stopped pretending it was still a frontier cow town and embraced instead its role as a major cosmopolitan city, with all the traffic congestion and good coffee that came with it. But most of all, it stopped trying to have its desert and eat it too.
It just ate and ate.
It was manifest destiny at work, of course, but it was also the American sense of exceptionalism in action. Not only did we believe in the “rightness” of our cause—to conquer and overspread the continent—we grew increasingly confident that we were exempt from any negative consequences of our actions. If they existed, we were told they either would be (1) fixed by the free market, (2) fixed by government regulation, or (3) pushed far enough into the future to not matter. Phoenix was a perfect illustration. At no time did I hear any second-guessing about limits to growth in a desert. Nothing checked Phoenix’s destiny—not concerns about water supplies, cheap gasoline, loss of local agriculture, smog, or what it would take to keep four million people alive in a desert. It was as if we ignored the laws of physics along with the lessons of history.
Progress was good for my parents. They came to a strange land as poor pioneers and prospered along with Phoenix. They lived the American Dream—not the pursuit of material manifestations of success as much as their steady improvement over time. Their lives were better than their parents’; they had more security, more opportunity, more comfort. They didn’t do without, go hungry, or stand in unemployment lines; they were well-educated, well-fed, and well-blessed with the fruits of a robust and expanding economy. Best of all, especially for my mother, they could travel, and they saw parts of the globe that deeply impressed them. If they had second thoughts or misgivings about progress, I never heard a word. For them, the future was always bright.
I developed a different perspective. I came of age during the heyday of progress, witnessing the good, the bad, and the ugly. Impressed at first, I have now lived long enough to see that manifest destiny was not necessarily a positive force in our history. I will likely live long enough to see evidence that America is not exceptional after all—that despite this nation’s many admirable qualities, it is subject to the same historical forces that have worn down all great nations and empires throughout the ages. I know that I’ve already lived long enough to see us enter the Age of Consequences.
Here’s a photo I took (from http://www.indeliblewest.com):
Age of Consequences: