Last May, Donald Trump delivered the commencement address at the Naval Academy. There, he stated that “our ancestors tamed a continent,” and he followed this statement up by adding, “we are not going to apologize for America.” What does this mean? What does it mean to “tame” a continent? What does it mean to be so sure of your achievements that you do not find any reason to “apologize” for America? We must interrogate this language within a historical context and specifically look at the way it espouses ideas of power and subjugation, marginalizing those who our ancestors “tamed” and those who essentially built this nation with their sweat and tears while enslaved.
Later, Trump said, “America is the greatest fighting force for peace, justice and freedom in the history of the world.” This, of course, is a comment meant to flatter and draw attention to America’s ideals of democracy and liberty for all. However, are those ideals, even at home, espoused with rhetoric that claims we “tamed the continent” and bolsters ideas of American exceptionalism and individual merit? These ideas, while working to bolster patriotism, divide because in order to “tame,” one must conquer. In order to fight “for peace, justice and freedom” globally, one must adhere to those standards within the nation. Can it be said that we do that when we take children away from their parents at the border? Do we espouse “peace, justice and freedom” when some claim that those athletes who refuse to stand for the National Anthem should be deported? Simply put, no!
From the outset of the colonial period, colonists and explorers sought to “tame” the Americas and mold them in the shape of European culture. Writing to Luis de Santangel in 1493, Christopher Columbus told the minister of finance for the Spanish Crown, “And there I found many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them I have taken possession for their Highness, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.” How can one take possession of a land when “people innumerable” occupy it? Throughout the letter, Columbus mentions lands he has taken possession of for the crown. This “possession” affected Indigenous inhabitants of the islands Columbus landed on, and while some wondered who, or what, he would find, he tells Santagel, “In these islands I have found no human monstrosities, as many expected, but on the contrary the whole population is very well-formed.” He even proclaims that Lucyan and other tribes he met had “a very acute intelligence.” However, he “took by force” some of these individuals.
While Columbus, out of one side of his mouth, admits to the intelligence of the Lucyan, he also forcibly takes their land into his possession for Spain. As part of this process, he ordered the Lucyan to pay him tribute, and when they refused, he began to disfigure them. Does this mean he “tamed” the Lucyan and the land? Or, does it mean he intimidated and conquered? Taming means to bring under control, possibly through force or possibly not. As well, it connotes that the individual or land is somehow inherently inferior so one must tame it in some manner. Yet, conquer means to lay to waste and to bend individuals into submission through sheer power. So, are these terms really all that different? Do they both lead to the same end, the subjugation of individuals who the tamers/conquers view as inferior?
In the 1600s, the Pilgrims and the Puritans saw themselves as new Israelites embarking on a journey to their Canaan (America). As such, they viewed their “possession” of lands in what would eventually become America as ordained from on high. They viewed themselves as cultivators of the vast wilderness and taming it in order to bring about the glory of God. After King Philip’s War, Increase Mather, in his introduction to A Brief History of the War With the Indians in New England (1676), writes about the “Land the Lord God of our Fathers hath given us for a rightfull Possession” amongst the “Heathen people.” How did they gain this possession? Well, the history of King Philip’s War begins with the Pilgrims and their relationship with King Philip’s father Massasoit. Massasoit aided the Pilgrims in surviving those first few years and struck a peace agreement with them, but after Massasoit’s death, the peace began to waiver and tensions arose, thus leading to King Philip’s War, a war in which the colonists decimated the Native Americans. Viewing life through the lens of Puritan typology, the colonists, of course, saw this a sign from God that he ordained their “rightfull Possession” of the land. Is this exceptionalism? Is this, again, taming, conquering, or both?
Commemorating the Pilgrims in 1820, Daniel Webster delivered A Discourse, Delivered at Plymouth, December 22, 1820. (December 22 commemorated the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.) In his Discourse, Webster honors the Pilgrims and their arrival at Plymouth and even goes as far as to say that they “impress[ed] this shore with the first footsteps of civilized man!” The key word here, of course, is “civilized.” Later, Webster intones,
Poetry has fancied nothing, in the wanderings of heroes, so distinct and characteristic. Here was man, indeed, unprotected and unprovided for, on the shore of a rude and fearful wilderness; but it was politic, intelligent and educated man. Everything was civilized but the physical world. Institutions containing in substance all that ages had done for human government were established in a forest. Cultivated mind was to set on uncultivated nature; and, more than all, a government, and a country, were to commence with the very first foundations laid under the divine light of the [C]hristian religion.
According to Webster, the Pilgrims “cultivated” (i.e. tamed) the previous “uncultivated” land. This included cultivating the Native Americans of that land as well. Speaking during the era of Manifest Destiny, Webster notes that eventually the Pilgrims, and other settlers, moved further inland from the coast to cultivate the “savage” land: “Two thousand miles, westward from the rock where their fathers landed, may now be found the sons of the Pilgrims; cultivating smiling fields, rearing towns and villages.”
What Webster doesn’t note is the people that the Pilgrims displaced and the “cultivation” they enacted upon those people and their communities. William Apess, a Pequot and Methodist minister, strove to counter Webster’s view, and the dominant public view, of the Pilgrims as “civilized” cultivators and Native Americans as “savagely” uncultivated. In his Eulogy on King Philip (1836), Apess counters Webster, and others, by claiming that what they, and their forefathers, did in the name of Christianity did not represent what he knows about God. In effect, Apess takes the language of the master’s house and uses it to dismantle the structure. Apess partly writes,
But some of the New England writers say, that living babes were found at the breast of their dead mothers. What an awful sight! and to think too, that diseases were carried among them on purpose to destroy them. Let the children of the pilgrims blush, while the son of the forest drops a tear, and groans over the fate of his murdered and departed fathers. He would say to the sons of the pilgrims, (as Job said about his birthday,) let the day be dark, the 22d of December, 1622 let it be forgotten in your celebration, in your speeches, and by the burying of the Rock that your fathers first put their foot upon. For be it remembered, although the gospel is said to be glad tidings to all people, yet we poor Indians never have found those who brought it as messengers of mercy, but contrawise. We say, therefore, let every man of color wrap himself in mourning, for the 22d of December and the 4th of July are days of mourning and not of joy. Let them rather fast and pray to the great Spirit, the Indian’s God, who deals out mercy to his red children, and not destruction.
Throughout the Eulogy, Apess uses Christian rhetoric to counter the atrocities that the Pilgrims and other perpetrated upon King Philp’s people and other Native Americans. Ultimately, Apess calls on people to stop celebrating December 22nd because of its actual connotations in regards to the displacement and murder of the people who inhabited this land before “the first footsteps of civilized man” appeared.
So, again I ask, what does it mean to say, “Our ancestors tamed a continent”? What do we mean by that statement? Should we apologize for that “taming”? Do we have anything to apologize for? Yes, we do have things to apologize for, and our “taming” of an “uncivilized” people and land is one of those things. How can we proclaim American exceptionalism and our ideals of “peace, justice and freedom” when we deny the atrocities from our own past? We, in all honesty, can’t. We must confront our past to move forward. Failing to do so, as we currently see, will not bode well for the future.