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John Gast’s Painting “American Progress”

John Gast’s painting “American Progress” (1872) is linked to the subject of manifest destiny. It was a political concept that first appeared in 1845 and became a part of the American foreign policy narrative in a relatively short period of time, managing to live through centuries, to some point reflecting the US actions on the international arena. The notion of the divine mission remains central to the American self-positioning to this day and was also the focus of Gast’s work.

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The painting visually depicts American interventionist aspirations, that became apparent by the end of the first half of the 19th century when the Mexican war ended with the US acquiring Texas. It served as an allegory for American westward expansion, that brought the country into the darkness. The woman, that is the central character in the painting, is leading animals, peasants, and indigenous people into the darkness, symbolizing the development track that was chosen by the American government (Gast). She is carrying a school book and a telegraph wire, and the attributes of the modernization era surround her, but the indigenous people look at her tremendous figure with fear and distrust (Gast). Thus, it reflects the cost of the liberalization of the United States from the colonial rule, and the process of it becoming a country that conquers territories just the way the British Empire did. The progress it seemingly brings is detrimental and destructive for the people who belong to the places America absorbs.

The idea of manifest destiny in politics was introduced by John O’Sullivan, who published the “Annexation” article in Democratic Review (Kuchera). However, the idea was not new; instead, it echoed an older one – the “divine mandate” coined by Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony John Winthrop back in the 1630s (Kuchera). Still, the manifest destiny concept proposed the same idea of American exceptionalism. In terms of the geopolitical agenda, it promised to be a useful instrument in the establishment of a new paradigm of American foreign policy that did not change ever since. The Mexican war signaled the success of the approach that would be called imperialist and aggressive in the foreseeable future. This expansionist slogan conveyed the spirit of the time and proposed that the former colony can become an independent and powerful nation-state.

Works Cited

Kuchera, Carolyne. “Manifest destiny”, 2016. Oxford University Press. 

Gast, John. American Progress. 1872. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division, Web.

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