I believe that Manifest Destiny was the nineteenth century idea that the United States of American—led by Anglo-Americans—was picking up the mantel of world leadership and the white man’s burden from the British Empire and would become greater than its predecessor. I think it was an idea that began decades before its formal declaration, and continues in some diminished way to the present.
I think that Manifest Destiny was not about white Greeks and Bohunks, Irishmen, and Swedes. I think that “white” didn’t become a standard classification to include all Americans of European ancestry until after WW 2, when Bohemians and Swedes, Greeks, Italians, and Irishmen all served together. Until then—even through the Dutch-American Roosevelts, Anglo-Americans were the ideal, and the story of Manifest Destiny their story of crusading against and bringing Civilization to a vast wilderness. (Which of course leads to totally ambivalent attitudes towards American Indians—but that is another story.)
If you look at one factor only, the ethnicity of our presidents, fully 38 of the 44 Presidents’ backgrounds, and 39 if you count Trump’s maternal side, are from the British Isles. Until about 1950, Scandinavians were farming; Germans were brewing and baking and doing business. National political leadership was left to or taken by Anglo-Americans.
Eisenhower was our first German American President, Kennedy the first Irish—and Catholic—President. The clump at the top of this chart doesn’t really break apart until after WW 2.
The other whites. The vast majority of early non-Anglo European immigrants to the U.S. came to Northern cities and Midwest farms. Northern cities were made up of ethnic neighborhoods, where Italian, Polish, Irish, and other non-Anglo European-American groups clustered. Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics often attended their own churches in adjoining neibhborhoods.
In my Minnesota birth town several Lutheran churches ministered to their unique immigrant communities. The German Lutheran Church still used the German language; the Swedish Lutheran Church used Swedish. The largely Scandinavian population who had fled farms too divided to maintain and sustain found farms in Minnesota and the Dakotas that had some resemblance to country they had left. Willa Cather found Bohemian farmers in Nebraska in the same circumstance.
But, you say, under Jim Crow, Southern restaurants, public restrooms and drinking fountains said “whites only” and not “Anglo only”? Although I do not have experience in the South, my reading is that Southern culture was long dominated by Anglo-Americans—maybe beginning with Jamestown. That domination hiccupped during the Civil War and Reconstruction, then continued until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
At a church meeting in Washington D.C. in 1968, not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King, I heard a white woman from South Carolina—and significantly, I do not remember her name or ethnic identity—describe herself as “white trash.” She said that that she and her kind were looked down on by the region’s leaders, but given racism as a way to make them feel superior to someone while keeping them in their place. If this is true, “whites only” was a crude tool left in the wake of failed “Reconstruction” to keep the original, largely Anglo slave owners in control.
To bolster my theory about the impact of WW 2 on homogenizing white in America, remember that troops were totally segregated through the War; the military was integrated by President Truman in 1948.
I think one can also argue that ethnicity had, from the 19th century on, through the period noted as Manifest Destiny, been of less concern on the Frontier. People left old homes and alliances to move West—and the intermingling was almost immediate. In Wallowa County where I live, there were not enough French Canadian DeBoies and Beaudoins to keep intermarriage of that ethnic group sustained.
We should also remember that the Great Migration of Southern Blacks is recent; 1916-1970 are the normal given dates. And Blacks did displace some ethnic neighborhoods as whites moved to GI housing in all-white but ethnically mixed suburbs.
All of this is to say that the renewed concern about race in America is different from racist attitudes of other days. And that my hunch is that WW 2 kicked off the new divisions that have worked their way to Trump and some of his angry followers.
So today, many whites of all stripes feel threatened—and united in their fears—by sixty years of Civil Rights legislation, legal immigration from many continents, and the economic jostling at the southern border that just might have started with the Bracero program of WW 2.
And by the advent of an African American President.
# # #