The majority of countries around the world, specifically the United States of America, worked to pave a path for their futures during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Enlightenment, industrialization, and imperialism were all prevalent during these centuries. These factors altered history and was influential in molding the United States into what it is today. Although these countries were trying to create a new path, a majority of them followed the same path that previous countries had already laid out for them. The painting, American Progress, painted by John Gast, serves as a model of the events that took place during these centuries that moved America to where it is today, by using the paths set by previous countries.
The intended use for American Progress was as a marketing piece to get people to migrate from the east to the west of America. Americans began to expand westward once America won the Mexican-American war, which ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This treaty left Mexico with the loss of land that would soon become states in the western United States. Because of the expansion and movement of Americans into this newly acquired land, the Indian Natives were chased from their lands. This is illustrated in Gast's painting on the leftmost side. The American settlers justified kicking the natives out by saying that they were helping them become more modern and civilized, an imperialist ideology used historically by Great Britain and their views about Orientals. Britain believed they were the most powerful in the world and thought other countries such as China needed to be more civilized, like they were. As a result of this power, Britain developed a trade relationship with China by introducing the drug, opium. Because this drug was highly addictive, China continued to trade with Great Britain, despite growing government disagreement about the introduction of this drug into their country. This resulted in a strong trading relationship with China, which lead Britain into becoming a great industrialized country just like China.
Industrialization was also on the rise during this period and is seen in the painting, American Progress. Lady Liberty is shown holding a telegraph wire which was the latest technology that expanded the east towards the west. Industrialization was the development of capitalist social relationships, resulting in improvements in technology, social relationships, and economic/ political views. The intensification of mass production and assembly lines pushed industrialization forward, creating more automobiles, standardized railways, and telephones. One can also see in Gast's painting the modes of transportations become more modern from the left to the right of the painting. This shows the advances that were happening during the industrial revolution. Time became a driving force during the end of the 18th century. Because of the industrial revolution, clocks, used to measure time, could be made more readily available so that everything could be gauged through time. Labor was measured in time. Progress was measured in time. Capital also become a central focus of countries, giving rise to all land needing to be privatized, a previous British ideology. Time and land became capital.
The center of American Progress is occupied by the goddess figure that embodies the nation of America. This woman is known as Lady Liberty. On the left side of the painting there is no light visible, representing the absence of enlightenment. To the right of her, the painting is lit, which shows that as she is moving across the painting to the west she is bringing light with her. Lady liberty is also carrying a book which symbolizes her bringing enlightenment to the west. The book represents the new knowledge that the west is bringing to the world. This is yet another example of how she is bringing enlightenment to the new western states.
Immanuel Kant states in, "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" “The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!” The enlightenment was based upon power and knowledge. Knowledge during these centuries was very important to show one's superiority over others. This can be seen in Defoe's, Robinson Crusoe. Throughout the entirety of this novel, Crusoe is made to represent the ideal western, modern man. He develops sovereignty while being stranded on an island by himself, while still remaining sane. Robinson meets a man while on the island and names him Friday because that was the supposed day of the week that he saved him. Crusoe shows “Friday” how intellectual he is by knowing what day of the week it is. This also correlates back to people during this time needing to gauge everything by time and thus, showing one's enlightenment and knowledge. People during this time began to accumulate vast knowledge, and because of it, felt superior to any person seen as not as intelligent. Crusoe stripped the identity away from this man that he just met and used his enlightened mind to educate him and civilize him to be more like himself.
John L. O'Sullivan, "The Great Nation of Futurity" states, “our national birth was the beginning of a new history, the formation and progress of an untried political system, which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only; and so far as regards the entire development of the natural rights of man, in moral, political, and national life, we may confidently assume that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity.” O'Sullivan outlines that the Unites States stood out from other nations because of the disconnection with the past and a greater influence on the future, which is untrue. Although America did focus on the future and not the past, it still followed Great Britain's previous ways and imperialist ideologies as a model for expanding westward. During this time, the idea about the homogenous nation-state becomes prevalent and feudalism dies off. The new modern system would allow for exponential growth, which, in turn, allowed people to accumulate capital. The United States and Great Britain had the belief of Anglo-Saxons and felt the need to prove their superiority over other countries. The British believed they were above all other countries and started to bring order, civilization, and morality to the rest of the world. The British believed that because other countries were not as superior as them, they needed to be altered so that they fit the ideal version of what they thought was the imperialist mold.
The miners in American Progress show a much deeper meaning than many people realize. During the latter half of the 19th century, countries were searching for ways to accumulate capital, such as using raw materials like minerals from the earth. The discovery of Quinine, an anti-malarial drug, led countries racing to Africa to find all that the country had to offer. Joseph Conrad's, Heart of Darkness, describes the horrific truths of imperialism, while also telling the stories of King Leopold's rule over the Congo and all the horrific things Kurtz and others did to supply Europeans products from the materials found in Africa. Kurtz' need for accumulation of capital is correlated to the miners in the bottom of the painting. In the same way that the Congolese people were forced to poach ivory in the drive for a profit, the miners in the painting mined for gold during the gold rush in California in the hopes to produce a profit and showing power. This need to prove superiority and capital shows how intense people during these eras would go to prove to others of their power.
In Conrad's book, Heart of Darkness, Kurtz talks about his painting of a woman holding a torch that is blindfolded and surrounded by darkness. The woman resembles Lady Liberty, but the distinct difference is that the woman is wearing a blindfold. This shows that she is trying to bring enlightenment to the world, but she cannot because she cannot see. She is physically and mentally blinded by what is happening around her. In the same way, Europeans were not “in the light” about what was happening in the Congo so that they could get their rubber tires or grand pianos. Rudyard Kipling's, “The White Man's Burden” outlines that the white man's burden is to serve and help those who are in need and civilize those who are not as developed as the white man. Kipling continually explains that the white man's duty is to help civilize and educate the Orientals. This imperialist ideology was not accepted by Kurtz. He did not support the imperialist notion, because he did not want to lie to the European people of what was really happening in the Congo. People were being murdered in order to gain power. Europeans claimed they were educating and civilizing these people, but they were blindfolded to what was actually going on in order to get the products they wanted.
American Progress reflects many of the prevailing ideologies of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, during which expansion, enlightenment, industrialization, and imperialism shaped the United States as well as the world. The accumulation of capital and power drove countries to commit wrongs to which others turned a blind eye. The need for knowledge and expansion of land led countries to kick out natives that were there long before them. The United States followed in the footsteps of other countries before them, forcing the ideas of enlightenment and imperialist ideologies on natives. Furthermore, America followed the same destructive path of many countries that preceded them.
...(download the rest of the essay above)