The writings of Richard Kluger
ON THE SIXTH OF MARCH, 1997, two months into his fifth year in office, President Bill Clinton made his first state visit to his nation’s immediate neighbor to the south. His aides were not elated to learn that Mr. Clinton’s host, President Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, had arranged for the two heads of state to pay a ceremonial visit of homage to a monument, a pink marble terrace with six memorial columns, at the edge of Chapultepec Park three miles from the heart of Mexico City. At this place, 150 years earlier, in the closing battle of the American invasion of Mexico, U.S. troops had bloodily fought their way to the top of the hill commanded by ChapultepecPalace, then serving as Mexico’s military academy. Among its last, fiercest defenders were six teenage cadets, one of whom, rather than surrender or be skewered by American bayonets, wrapped himself in the red, white, and green flag of his country before leaping off the castle ramparts to his death. Ever after, these defiant young martyrs have remained, in Mexican eyes, a constant reminder of the unjust onslaught by the bullying gringos from the north.
The Clinton advance team, reluctant to stir up the faint but unextinguished embers of animosity, voiced distress over this wreath-laying stop on the schedule. “So we said it’s just a sign of respect, part of the protocol,” a senior Mexican official told a New York Tunes reporter. Indeed, many heads of state had visited the monument to Mexico’s Boy Heroes of Chapultepec, marking the hallowed battleground where 1,800 Mexicans (as well as 450 Americans) died.
But only once before had an American President appeared at the spot. Harry S. Truman came on the hundredth anniversary of the battle, silently laid a wreath, turned around, got back into his limousine, and drove off.
Clinton, a more voluble and gladhanding sort, dealt with it more graciously. “I’m going there as a gesture of respect, not only respect for their lives but respect for the patriotism and integrity of the people who have served this country,” he said at a news conference prior to the ceremony. (Presumably “this country” referred to Mexico.) “We are trying to heal the wounds of war with nations with whom we fought even more recently,” the President added. At the event itself, however, no words were spoken; Clinton placed a wreath, the two chiefs of state stood at attention while their respective national anthems were played, and that was that. Afterward a history professor at the Colegio de Mexico remarked to a Newsday reporter, “President Clinton’s visit is in a way a recognition of this symbol of an unjust war. The visit is a sign of historical sensibility on his part.”
Sensibility, sí; regrets, no – not even for what posterity (and more than a few contemporaries) recognized as America’s biggest, boldest act of territorial plunder, under the guise of a war trumped up by a President of engorged willfulness. Even the all-embracing humanist poet of his age, Walt Whitman, celebrated the martial rampage, ignoring – like most of his countrymen – that Mexico in 1847 was a pitiably weak sister republic of the United States, an anarchic invalid that had run through eighteen presidents in the two dozen years since it had declared itself an independent nation. Yet America, with the full license of Congress, raped it, making off with more than 500,000 square miles, nearly half of its southern neighbor’s territory. Most of it, to be sure, was loosely held and yielded without a fight. But at times and in places the Mexicans, though poorly trained and ineptly led, fought proudly and determinedly.
For the United States, the decisive savaging of Mexico was the most brazen chapter in an ongoing saga celebrating what some of the nation’s most forthright statesmen had dignified as its providential mission. Lions like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun had asserted their country was hewing to a divinely guided trajectory, fated to extend its dominion from Hudson Bay to the isthmus of Panama. Some even proposed Patagonia as the only logical southern terminus of a hemispheric union under America’s enveloping benevolence. While managing to contain itself within more modest boundaries, the United States did not tire of trumpeting its “manifest destiny;” a luminous slogan minted shortly before the Mexican war by a New York journalist on the make and hell-bent on propagating expansive dominion as a national virtue.
To label the happy progress of the United States of Americaevidence of destiny’s smile did not make it so. But an incurable case of triumphalism had led Americans to assume that their singular success as a nation was not only foreordained but also deserved – why else would the Universal Overseer have rewarded them so amply? Dumb luck was not an acceptably ennobling explanation. A more measured, less self-serving assessment of America’s achievements might suggest that, in pursuit of their mission, its supercharged people overlooked no opportunity to maximize every advantage that nature, geography, history, economics, and, yes, dumb luck presented to them. Crafting their own destiny with whatever tools were at hand, they gained a continental expanse by means of daring, cunning, bullying, bluff and bluster, treachery, robbery, quick talk, double-talk, noble principles, stubborn resolve, low-down expediency, cash on the barrelhead, and, when deemed necessary, spilled blood. Within ninety-one years – the blink of an eye by historical measurement – a league of thirteen lately British coastal colonies, starting without an army or a design for their collaborative future operation, had by 1867 extended their boundaries to encompass 3.7 million square miles, from the western shore of the Atlantic to the eastern shore of the Bering Strait at the tip of Alaska. And then they stopped manifesting their destiny by seizing someone else’s real estate. What they had gathered up, except for the future addition of some strategically located islands, was sufficient for their purpose. Today only Russia and Canadaoccupy more of the earth’s surface, and only China and India are more populous. No other sovereign entity ever grew so large so fast to become so rich and so strong.
The main dynamics of this growth process were these: a spectacular virgin landscape of immeasurable expanse and superlative fertility greeted invaders from the Old World, and nobody occupied it but scatterings of nomadic, Stone Age tribes shy on the organizational skills or death-dealing tools to repulse the newcomers. And why bother? Mother Earth was vast. How could the natives have guessed, until it was too late, that the white interlopers were only the first wave of what would shortly prove an ocean swell of humanity, come there to stay? The willful kings of Europe who had licensed the transatlantic expeditions presumed they could buy dominion on the cheap over this largely empty New World. The sovereigns simply announced their proprietary rights to all the territory that their intrepid explorers could see – and far, far beyond – as though the mere act of proclamation somehow legitimized the claim. What the masters of the Old World could not have foreseen was how an unprecedented confluence of liberties and incentives, grounded on the availability of cheap, bountiful, and accessible land on every side and beyond every horizon, would result in the emergence of an unpredictably feisty breed of restless colonials, scornful of authority and orthodoxy.
The land itself was the true treasure of this gorgeous, if nettlesome, new world. And the American colonizing experience advanced fresh ways of thinking about the ownership and value of real property. At the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Frost recited one of his poems, which, given the occasion, immediately earned the lines a place in the annals of the most memorable American verse. Called “The Gift Outright,” it begins:
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia;
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we were still unpossessed by. . . . .
The American colonists by their tireless labor and dauntless staying power had embraced the good earth all about them as their own long before they declared it free from the distant sovereign who, with belated insistence, asserted his rule over that land and all who dwelled thereon. Frost’s lines assigned a metaphysical content to the passage from colony to nation, as if the American soul and the American soil were inextricably linked. No doubt it was faulty wiring, not a supernatural visitation, that caused a puff of smoke – in fact, several puffs – to arise around the lectern while the flinty old poet read these lines, as if the departed souls of millions of native Americans had suddenly materialized in protest of his bland racism.
For countless millenia, dating back to well before the Christian era, so-called Indian tribes had lived unchallenged on this land and revered it for the beauty and nourishment it provided them, for its immanent life force, for the omnipresent spirits that ruled the weather and inhabited every meadow, brook, tree, rock, beaver, and plover. But the notion that they held title to the land – that it was somehow theirs to possess and deny to all others – was plainly absurd, to the Indian manner of thought. How could mere mortals, who passed their short span on earth and soon returned to dust, claim title to the land, which lived on forever? It would be as foolish as claiming ownership of the sky, the sea, the moon, or the stars. Land could not belong to any person or people, for the land abided and superseded man. The most that any native American tribe would have claimed was a right of custom to dwell in some more or less defined territory and partake thankfully of its fruits, hoping that habit would certify habitation and fend off others aroused by evil spirits to displace them. Thus, when the white men came and asked – if they bothered – to purchase title to great expanses of the earth’s surface from them, the natives had difficulty fathoming the concept. How to assign material value to a priceless thing? One might as well have tried to strike a bargain for life itself.
In the Old World, by contrast, human ownership of the land was not in the least an unnatural idea and had a fateful impact on all daily life. Title to it, however and whenever obtained, was the measure of standing for nations, communal units, and individuals alike. Over long ages men had fought and died to gain and hold territory they judged essential to their well-being. Proprietorship may have been ephemeral and illusory, but it nevertheless defined temporal power. Wealth, grandeur, and hegemony, though, were not defined by acreage alone; the number of vassals and villeins dependent on and paying allegiance to an overlord, rendering him homage in crops, labor, or combat when called upon, was as telling a measure of his importance. In medieval Europe and long after, ironclad feudal control of the land had the virtue of clearly marking where almost every living soul ranked in the community and defining his or her daily duties. In the system’s purest form, absolute monarchy, all ownership of the land flowed from the throne downward. The king or emperor alone embodied the realm and, by custom (invariably derived from battles won long before), held ultimate title to all the territory therein; anyone else awarded or claiming title to real estate enjoyed it through the sufferance of the monarch. This privilege, reserved for the nobility, the church, or, on occasion, particularly useful members of the mercantile class, came with a price attached – fees, loyalty, and military and other forms of service in perpetual tribute – and could be withdrawn at the sovereign’s whim. At each generational passage a renewal of the vows (and payment) of fealty to the crown was mandatory. It was a system based less on monetary value or other material considerations than on social and, when required, physical domination.
All of which pretty much left the common man with no land to call his own, or much else to his name beyond the shredding clothes on his back, a few sticks of furniture, and basic tools to tend his lord and master’s fields. Under the circumstances, those who straggled to wring their meager sustenance from the land did not revere it, for it was not theirs, only assigned to them to toil over. The landless peasant either complied with this grinding regimen or was ground under by it. Protest would have availed him little beyond heightened anguish over his lot. The want of land to call their own, in short, doomed the farming masses everywhere to a lifelong struggle for survival without hope of consolation that their labors might someday redound to the betterment of their progeny.
From the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, revolutionary thoughts began to stir in the minds of people at all levels of the social hierarchy. Its humblest members, long counseled by their parish priests to suffer silently while clinging to piety as their latchkey to eternal salvation, started to question the holy fathers’ call for forbearance. Reformers like Luther and his followers began to pry open the minds and hearts of the laity, inviting their direct address to the Heavenly Father and closer examination of the orthodoxies purveyed by the closed-minded, widely corrupt ecclesiastical establishment. Equally heretical was the embryonic notion that states and their rulers deserved the common man’s allegiance only to the extent they served the needs of the people, not the other way around. By the mid-seventeenth century Europe was edging toward its Age of Enlightenment, and an advance cadre of philosophers and social commentators proclaimed that mankind had “natural rights” to a life of liberty, dignity, and self realization. Central to the fulfillment of this aspiration was every man’s right to hold real property in his own name and for whatever disposition he chose to make of it.
But land was finite, in short supply, and few who had it were eager to pan with it. Accordingly, the “natural” right to title and conveyance of land – meaning possession that did not have to be granted by any temporal authority, civil, royal, or ecclesiastical – was little more than a wishful invocation of God’s universal blessing and was met scornfully by those atop the rigidly stratified social system. Indeed, the throttling premise at the core of feudalism had been that only the divinely anointed ruler, no matter how much given to skullduggery, held a “natural” right to own land and only he could assign title to it. In truth, even the most enlightened of monarchs (and they were few and far between) ultimately owed their legitimacy to the gleaming edge of a sword or the business end of a musket. Panoply parading as omnipotence certainly helped, but it was earthly power – manpower, horsepower, and firepower, not prayer, reason, or eloquence – that in the end determined who got to own what. “Natural rights” could not compete with the willful wrongs of despots.
When a new world was found across the sea, the set ways of the old one began to be thrown into question. Land on the far side of the ocean was said to be going begging for want of men to take it up. And those who did so might thereby free themselves from the cruelty of perpetual servitude. And if heaven smiled on their labors, they might arrive at a standard of living they and their families had scarcely dreamed of. Still, it was all designated the king’s realm.
By what pretension of legitimacy, though, had the kings and princes who sponsored the expeditionary voyages of the Age of Discovery tried to extend their sway across the wide Atlantic? Since there was no historical basis for any claim of possession, they coined a “right of discovery and settlement,” premised on the likelihood that any occupants of this looming terra incognita were nullities, possibly monstrous, and at best marginally human by Europe’s lights. But was the symbolic gesture by a sailing captain, planting his monarch’s flag on misty shores months’ travel time from home, sufficient to establish a royal entitlement? Entitlement to what? And by whose authority and with whose assent? The sovereigns themselves seemed to understand the dilemma and turned for sanction to Pope Alexander VI, who in 1493, with a shake of his crook and miter, declared the kings of Spain and Portugal, Their Catholic Majesties, invested to divide the unexplored pagan world between them along two clearly designated longitudinal lines. But since when and by what sanction was the papacy infallible or omnipotent when addressing temporal matters? Why should Catholic France have been excluded from that spectacular papal indulgence? And why should England and the states of northern Europe that would shortly turn against the Roman church have been obliged to honor a worldwide Iberian hegemony? And in fact, five European kingdoms were to make overlapping claims and issue charters of title to courtiers and clients, granting them immense portions of the barely glimpsed new hemisphere. In truth, no European sovereign could plausibly claim a mandate of entitlement – his manifest destiny, so to speak – from on high. There was no “on high” governing the New World; that was one of the delightful things that was new about it. Only the dispatch of soldiers and settlers could certify sovereignty.
Nearly all of those who came from the British Isles, whether gentry or commoners, king’s cronies or desperate paupers, the God-fearing or the God-forsaken, came for the enchanting land, so abundant, so empty, so fecund. Because the soil was blessedly rich and there was so much of it – often beyond a family’s collective strength to work it – many settlers were able to reap harvests well in excess of their needs, an unimaginable luxury for most European peasants scratching away at tired old fields primarily to benefit a hated overlord. Such hard-won liberation from ancient thralldom brought the dignity of independence and with it a new breed, the self validating American colonist, whose ambition was often as expansive as the landscape.
The lure of all that land with its robust yields ensured a constant inflow of settlers, and the more who came, the more who followed. The demand for fresh territory steadily grew, no matter the sacrifices required to get it and hold on to it, however painful its clearing and cultivation or furious the response by the displaced natives. Ineluctably the frontier etched its way west from the seaboard, up river valleys to the piedmont and the mountains beyond, then through or over that long rugged barrier to the sweeter meadows, thicker forests, and crystal streams awaiting.
After these irrepressible Americans consecrated their land as a nation, no longer the provinces of an exploitative absentee power, their territorial cravings only grew. Americans’ passion for space to embrace as their own private preserve, safe from prying authorities and promising a decent livelihood, animated the nation-building process from the first. What affected individual families applied with equal force to the country’s collective conduct as a sovereign commonwealth. The unbridled United States would forever be in need of new land for its ill-disciplined, hard-charging people. The land would be needed, if not tomorrow, then one day soon. And so an exuberant national policy emerged more or less spontaneously, aimed at gathering in as much as possible of the earth’s adjacent surface and bringing it under the United States’ jurisdiction – as inventory awaiting future settlement – whenever the opportunity arose. And it seemed to arise with remarkable frequency, stirring the nation’s political leaders to pursue immense territorial accretions that, as some wary European observers had feared, were creating an infant colossus, soon to bestride the full ambit of the New World.
This greatness – of size, wealth, and power – did not, of course, spring forth full-blown; it had to be planted, fertilized, tended to, gathered up, and processed, all obstacles be damned and, if need be, demolished. Although self-justifying throughout the process, those early generations of Americans had no exclusive call on heaven’s blessing for their venture. They were simply all too human in confusing opportunity with entitlement and mistaking the abundance of liberty doled to them by history and geography for a license to have their way. Those Americans given to blind chauvinism would do well to consider the darker side of the tale as well.
©2017 Richard Kluger