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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

“Crossing a Continent” and “Winning a Wilderness” - 19th-Century Expansionism, the Frontier, and the ‘Wild’ West

Give me land, lots of land Under starry skies above,

Don’t fence me in.

Let me ride through the wide Open country that I love,

Don’t fence me in.

Cole Porter/Robert Fletcher, “Don’t Fence Me In”

The ideology of US expansionism and empire was resonantly articulated by John L. O’Sullivan (1813-1895) in an article published in the Democratic Review in 1845 that advocated the annexation of Texas, which indeed came to pass later in the same year; in this editorial, O’Sullivan most notably coined the phrase “manifest destiny:” “The American claim is by right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative self government entrusted to us” (“Annexation” 6). O’Sullivan was a journalist, lawyer, and a leading propagandist for the Democratic Party; he also was a key member of the so-called Young America Movement, a group of intellectuals and politicians “who concocted a new ideology of American expansion in the 1840s” (Hine and Faragher, American West 199; cf. Eyal, Young America Movement). In neo-Jeffersonian fashion, they saw in westward expansion the opportunity for an “agrarian counterrevolution” against industrialization and urbanization in Europe and the Eastern United States (Hietala, Manifest Design 105). O’Sullivan’s claim that US-Americans by right of their manifest destiny could and should spread over the whole American continent connected the myth of the West to notions of Puritan chosenness and “destinarian thought” (Stephanson, Manifest Destiny 55) by rhetorically linking west- and southward expansion to notions of the Promised Land (cf. chapter 3) and translatio imperii, and thus expressed an idea that “held currency long before it was sloganized” (Fresonke, West 7). Expansionism was a key issue in the presidential elections of 1844, which pitted expansionists such as Democratic candidate James K. Polk, who called for “the reoccupation of Oregon and the reannexation of Texas at the earliest practical period” (insinuating the recovery of territories that had never been ‘occupied’ or had not even been part of the US in the first place), against anti-expansionists such as then-member of the Illinois General Assembly Abraham Lincoln, who was intent on “keeping our fences where they are and cultivating our present possession, making it a garden, improving the morals and education of the people” (qtd. in Hine and Faragher, American West 201). Polk won the election by a slim margin; yet, the above-quoted statements once again show how the West was used as a kind of empty signifier that could be variously ideologically charged as either a (foreign) space to be conquered or as a (domestic) space to be contained and protected as a (national) garden.

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner turned O’Sullivan’s and many of his contemporaries’ claims into a scholarly argument by putting US territorial expansion in the West in the context of geographical determinism and building around it a genuine US-American evolutionary theory in his lecture on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” a text that would firmly lodge the frontier concept in scholarly discourse and everyday speech. Arguing that “[t]he existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development,” Turner uses the frontier concept to write a Eurocentric history of settlement in North America that paradoxically tries to downplay America’s European roots:

Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West. (“Significance”)

The West is conceived by Turner not as a specific region or place but as the dynamic space of the frontier, which according to Turner is “the meeting point between savagery and civilization;” he goes on to say that “[t]he most significant thing about it is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land” (ibid.). In that Turner’s definition of the frontier remains analytically underdetermined as well as imaginatively evocative, it serves as an “elastic” term (ibid.) describing the experience which Turner believed captures best the ambivalent and partially regressive process of Americanization:

The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little, he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs, any more than the first phenomenon was a case of reversion to the Germanic mark. The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. At first, the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. (ibid.)

Turner held that the frontier as the prime locus of Americanization generated a “composite nationality” in its “crucible” (ibid.), which has been identified as a specifically American trope in the previous chapter on the melting pot myth. In Turner’s view, the frontier also promoted “individualism, democracy, and nationalism [...]” (ibid.), which he thus connected to the westward expansion of the US, and served as a kind of safety valve for potential social unrest. His essay concludes with an affirmation of the frontier’s importance in shaping the American nation and character by linking it to well-known foundational figures and events such as Christopher Columbus and American independence: “And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history” (ibid.).

Discussions of Turner’s frontier thesis have been highly controversial and fill whole libraries. Initially, many scholars still favored Herbert Baxter Adams’s thesis about the Germanic origins of America, but Turner’s argument soon became widely accepted and by the 1920s had turned into the dominant scholarly opinion on American national history, rendering the American Historical Association, as one critic has it, “One Big Turner Verein” (Billington, “Introduction” 3). The persuasiveness of Turner’s argument had been amplified in the previous decades by semi- or pseudo-scholarly works such as Theodore Roosevelt’s multi-volume The Winning of the West (1889-96), which identifies “race expansion” and “Western conquest” as foundational for American nation-building and as a monumental and successful effort at “carv[ing] states out of the forest and the prairie” (Works Vol. 9, 527). Throughout the Great Depression and especially after Turner’s death in 1932, critical assessments of Turner’s work came to the fore in regard to the (a) speculative, (b) hyperbolic, and (c) entirely unempirical character of his argument, which to many no longer seemed convincing:

“How could a frontier environment, which persisted only briefly before the settlement process was completed exert such an enduring influence over [...] the nation as a whole?” (Billington, “Introduction” 4). More fundamentally, the Great Depression led to a reconsideration of the frontier myth in general. For one thing, Turner’s safety valve argument was reversed in the sense that cities on the Eastern Seaboard rather than the rural West were attributed the function of containing and defusing social turmoil (cf. Shannon, “Not Even”). In a broader framework, George Pierson argued that Turner’s thesis had replaced “the God of the Puritans,” who had until then vouched for American superiority, with a seemingly “natural force” - the frontier - “as source and justification” of American exceptionalism (“Turner’s Views” 39). Rather than supporting this reformulation of exceptionalist designs, Pierson early on argues for a comparative perspective on US history and settlement (cf. ibid. 40). In the 1950s in the context of the ‘Cold War,’ the Turner Thesis once more was widely praised only to be yet again radically critiqued in the 1970s by revisionist scholars such as Richard Slotkin, Annette Kolodny, and Patricia Nelson Limerick, who have emphasized the violence of colonization and expansionism, the masculinist matrix of discourses about the West and empire-building, and the Eurocentric and ethnocentric biases involved in the frontier logic. Slotkin in particular has addressed the ways in which “the inanimate world of nature” is “humanized” in the appreciation and appropriation of the West, while the Native Americans at the same time are “dehumanized” (Fatal Environment 53). The Native American genocide can be considered the gaping absence in Turner’s thesis as well as in much of its early revisions; it has only been addressed more fully in the past decades in alternative histories of “how the West was lost,” not won by Native Americans (cf. Calloway, Our Hearts), of which Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970) is perhaps the best-known example. In contemporary scholarship of the so-called New Western Historians, the frontier has become the “f-word,” as Patricia Limerick quips (“Adventures” 72). But even if many scholars have found Turner’s argument utterly problematic, if not ridiculous, it has not lost its powerful grip on the popular imagination.

Both images of the American West as mythic rural Arcadia and as a site of historic conflict and conquest of mythic proportions remain entangled with each other and are central elements in discourses of nation-building and American exceptionalism in its crudest form, as both agrarians and expansionists ignore or dismiss the indigenous population as inhabitants of the land they seek to conquer and/or ‘cultivate:’ “The divisibility of the native and the land permitted the formulation of a myth and ideology of expansion in which racial warfare com?plements the processes of agrarian development” (Slotkin, Fatal Environment 53). We can see this complicity perhaps most clearly in writings of authors who are critical of the American empire yet at the same time remain attracted to its expansionist logic. Henry David Thoreau for example, one of the central figures in early American nature writing, wrote that “[t]he nation may go their way to their manifest destiny which I trust is not mine” (qtd. in Fresonke, West 128), yet at the same time was fascinated by the West: “Eastward I go only by force; westward I go free” (Thoreau, “Walking” 268). Thoreau, it seems, wanted “a nation of Walden Ponds, just as Jefferson, equally at odds with his own political impetus, wanted a nation of yeoman Monticellos” (Fresonke, West 15). Both Thoreau and Jefferson thus are caught in - and perpetuate - the mythical, exceptionalist “frontier magic” (Slotkin, Fatal Environment 40).

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