History Lesson: Manifest Destiny

November 5, 2012

That’s the T-Shirt that the Gap was selling, that it has now withdrawn as offensive.  You can read the Huffington Post story here.

More interesting, however, is an essay in Inside Higher Ed entitled “Why History Matters,” by Amy Lewis, an associate professor of management at Drury University. She reminds us why business majors and graphic designers need to know a little history.

“Manifest Destiny was the belief widely held by Americans in the 19th century that the United States was destined to expand across the continent.” That’s how the Wikipedia entry on Manifest Destiny begins. About the T-shirt, Professor Lewis tells us “Facing protests that the shirt was, at best, culturally insensitive and could easily be interpreted as glorifying the massacres and cultural destruction of Native Americans, the designer apparently issued a flippant tweet about the survival of the fittest. Quickly, Gap stopped selling the shirt, and issued an apology.”

Sidenote: it’s a 19th century phrase that calls attention to ugly chapters in the ‘exceptional’ history of the United States, but it’s also a phrase whose use was fairly rare in the 19th century, and whose use has been steadily on the rise ever since — in the decades after anyone wanted to use the phrase in a positive way:

 

 

 

 

 

Note the increase in usage during WWII and during the Vietnam War? And note the steady ascent in usage since 1985.  We need to learn the history, but we do not need the phrase on T-shirts

 

 

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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