I read a fantastic book this week called Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America by Thomas Hietala. I’ll have a review up for it soon, but what I want to talk about here is how inspiring this particular book was for my own writing. About halfway through the book I started thinking to myself “this is the book I want to write.” If I could communicate half as clearly as Hietala, I would be a happy writer. And it’s not just style that impressed me. Hietala successfully challenges the idea of manifest destiny, one of the major American national stories (or myths, as it turns out), and in the process overturns a number of prominent interpretations. Hietala’s conclusions seem inescapable, as if they were simply lying on the ground waiting to be picked up like placer gold at Sutter’s Mill, but formulating them no doubt required an enormous amount of legwork and an intimate familiarity with his subject.
It is obvious from his footnotes and quotations that Hietala read widely in both primary and secondary sources, but what really struck me is how he manages to engage the political and diplomatic culture so effectively. We’re not just told that the expansionists desired more land for farms. This desire is itself motivated by a particular conception of the ideal society – a thoroughly Jeffersonian understanding of political economy – that infuses especially Democratic action in the period. The Democrats wanted more land to make sure that the perils of British industrialization, like rampant pauperism and deplorable working conditions, didn’t migrate to American shores. Though this yeoman farmer ideal was substantially undermined by chattel slavery and the aristocratic nature of Southern landholders, it remained a powerful ideological trope. What excites me so much about this is the fact that his deep engagement with the literature allows Hietala to construct a cohesive conceptual worldview in which to set his narrative.
Hietala also manages to integrate the story of domestic racism, both Northern and Southern, into his narrative in such a way as that it takes on a crucial explanatory power. Hietala traces the consequences of this racism thusly: Democrats played on Northern racism to convince them to support the annexation of Texas, with the theoretical consequence that African Americans would be drawn to the new territory and eventually emigrate to Mexico. While this theory was ludicrous and had no predictive power, it did help President Tyler annex Texas, and foregrounds the power of Northern racism.
In short, this book facilitated a watershed moment for me, a moment that quickly and thoroughly changed my impression of a major chapter in American history, and will likely influence how I think and write about the period for the rest of my academic career.