A new and eye-opening interpretation of the meaning of the frontier, from early westward expansion to Trump’s border wall.
Ever since this nation’s inception, the idea of an open and ever-expanding frontier has been central to American identity. Symbolizing a future of endless promise, it was the foundation of the United States’ belief in itself as an exceptional nation – democratic, individualistic, forward-looking. Today, though, America hasa new symbol: the border wall.
In The End of the Myth, acclaimed historian Greg Grandin explores the meaning of the frontier throughout the full sweep of U.S. history – from the American Revolution to the War of 1898, the New Deal to the election of 2016. For centuries, he shows, America’s constant expansion – fighting wars and opening markets – served as a “gate of escape,” helping to deflect domestic political and economic conflicts outward. But this deflection meant that the country’s problems, from racism to inequality, were never confronted directly. And now, the combined catastrophe of the 2008 financial meltdown and our unwinnable wars in the Middle East have slammed this gate shut, bringing political passions that had long been directed elsewhere back home.
It is this new reality, Grandin says, that explains the rise of reactionary populism and racist nationalism, the extreme anger and polarization that catapulted Trump to the presidency. The border wall may or may not be built, but it will survive as a rallying point, an allegorical tombstone marking the end of American exceptionalism.
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All That Space
"America was, if it was anything, geography, pure space."
The British colonies in North America were conceived in expansion. America was an aspiration, an errand, and an obligation, born out of violent Christian schism and Europe's interminable religious and imperial conflicts. Depending on the intricacies of their particular interpretation of Revelation, the Protestants who settled New England might have understood flight across the Atlantic as a way of escaping European war. Or they might have seen migration as a chance to open a new front and win those wars on new soil. Here in the 1600s, in the eschatological nebula of the New World, was the first paradoxical image of America as simultaneously pristine and despoiled: empty and at the same time filled with primitives begging for deliverance, subordinated to Catholic Spain, which had conquered its part of the Americas a century earlier and stood as the great obstacle to Reformation England's rise as a world power. "All yell and crye with one voice Liberta, liberta," Richard Hakluyt, a clergyman and court minister, wrote in the late 1500s, hoping to convince investors and his queen to establish an American colony.
As Puritan society frayed under the harsh conditions of settler life, the frontier threatened and beckoned. The dark woods were filled with witches. And they were witchy, inviting hither. The forest was the place where the community could be redeemed and given new purpose, a chance to once again start anew. Or it could be a place of more sorrows — "wilderness sorrows," as two early Puritan patriarchs described the hardships that awaited those who ventured into uncharted territory — where whatever solidarity existed would be smashed into atoms as settlers scattered to escape the rule of the clergy. "People are ready to run wild into the woods again and to be as heathenish as ever," warned Increase Mather. Expansion could be — often in the same sermon — held up as the cause of and solution to the difficulties of establishing Christian communities.
Either way, Native Americans had to get out of the way. They could die: "They waste, they moulder away, they disappear," said one Puritan chronicler of indigenous people who had succumbed to European pestilence years before the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, thus clearing the earth for the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. "God made way for his people by removing the heathen and planting them in the ground," said another observer. They could be murdered: the holy terror unleashed by the Puritans was, according to the historian Bernard Bailyn, driven by "fears of what could happen to civilized people in an unimaginable wilderness and fears of racial conflicts in which God's children were fated to struggle with pitiless agents of Satan, pagan Antichrists swarming in the world around them." Survivors could be enslaved: the first patent granted in colonial America, in 1626, was to a Virginian merchant and planter, William Claiborne, for inventing a device that would not just restrain Indians but also make them work. Claiborne was given an Indian to experiment on, for the "tryall of his inventione." Colonial records do not say what this innovation might have been, only noting that it wasn't successful.
Or they could be pushed further and further west. The "prodigious and restless population," complained New Orleans's Spanish governor in 1794, "progressively drives the Indian nations before them and upon us, seeking to possess for itself this entire vast continent which the Indians occupy between the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Appalachian mountains."
More than a century and a half later, writing in the early 1950s, the Mexican author and diplomat Octavio Paz made much the same point:
America was, if it was anything, geography, pure space, open to human action. Since it lacked historical substance — ancient social classes, established institutions, religions, and hereditary laws — reality presented no obstacles other than natural ones. Men struggled not against history but against nature. And wherever there was an historical obstacle — indigenous societies, say — it was erased from history, reduced to a mere natural fact, and dispensed with accordingly. ... Evil is outside, part of the natural world, like Indians, rivers, mountains, and other obstacles that must be domesticated or destroyed.
The American Revolution is a permanent revolution, Paz went on, a nonstop expulsion of all "elements foreign to the American essence" and a "constant invention of itself." And anything that stands in the way of that invention, anything that is "in any way irreducible or inassimilable" to perpetual creation — be it Native Americans, Spanish America, or history itself — "is not American":
In other places, the future is one of man's attributes: because we are men, we have a future. In Saxon America ... the process is inverted, and the future determines the man: we are men because we are the future. And everything that has no future is not a man.
The United States, Paz said, "offers no room for contradiction, ambiguity, or conflict." The nation flies forward "swiftly, as if weightless," across the land. Trying to stop North Americans moving west, Stephen Austin, the founder of Texas, said over a century earlier, was like "trying to stop the Mississippi with a dam of straw."
The drive west waxed and waned and burst forth with great passion during key moments.
The first few decades of the 1700s were a period of relative theological calm. British colonists, still beset by wars, diseases, bad weather, and their own divisionism, recovered somewhat from the spiritual anguishes that had afflicted their Puritan settler forebears. Then came the Great Awakening in the 1730s, and hectoring jeremiads once again began to interpret global events — wars between European states — as the latest stage in the struggle between popery and true religion. Forest fever — the idea that migration was prophetic, that clearing the woods and filling the valleys with Christians was part of a messianic mission — returned. Settlers, who had begun to move over the Blue Ridge, into the Shenandoah and Ohio valleys, and through the Cumberland Gap, "were all great sticklers for religion and for Scripture quotations against the 'heathen.'" They took it as a matter of faith — as was said of the Scotch-Irish who in the 1730s pushed the Conestoga people off nearly all of their land in western Pennsylvania — that it was "against the laws of God and nature, that so much land should be idle while so many Christians wanted it to labour on, and to raise their bread."
Increasingly, in the decades before the American Revolution, western settlement was also understood in secular terms, as inducing not Christ's Coming but social progress. Benjamin Franklin previewed this way of thinking in 1751, in a short pamphlet titled "Observations Concerning the Increase in Mankind." In Europe, Franklin wrote, an excess population pushed at the limits of subsistence, trying to coax food out of exhausted soil, filling cities, driving down wages. "When Labourers are plenty," he said, "their Wages Will be low." America, in contrast, escaped this demographic trap. Population growth, rather than working to subdivide finite resources into smaller and smaller shares, multiplied wealth. Abundant, cheap, and bountiful land meant laborers could give birth to as many children as they needed, since their children too could just clear a forest and plant their own crops. Markets would grow in tandem with supply, allowing America to avoid the distortions — too little food, too many workers, too cheap wages, too crowded cities, too much production of manufactured goods without enough demand — that afflicted Europe. "So vast is the Territory of North-America," Franklin wrote from his printing office in Philadelphia, "that it will require many Ages to settle fully; and till it is fully settled, Labour will never be cheap here."
Franklin was an optimistic Promethean. He imagined history as a propulsive movement across the sea and land, east to west. We are "scouring our planet," he wrote, "by clearing America of woods." There were, he estimated, a "million English souls" in America, a number that would double within a generation, until there would be more Englishmen on "this side of the water" than in Great Britain. Franklin here was putting forth a new way of thinking of racial differences, justifying his preference for people of his own "complexion" not by theological absolutes — of the kind that imagined Native Americans as agents of Satan and justified their removal from the land in the name of Providence — but by an assertion of a modern-sounding relativism. All people, he said, had a "partiality" for their own kind, as he did for white people: "I could wish their Numbers were increased." Africa was "black," Asia "tawny." Most of Europe, Franklin thought, was "swarthy," save for Great Britain and parts of Saxon Germany. In North America, white settlers were making "this side of our Globe reflect a brighter light to the eyes of inhabitants in Mars or Venus," Franklin wrote. It was a deist jab, substituting the judgment of other (extraterrestrial) sentient beings for that of an omnipotent god.
The Seven Years' War broadened horizons, spreading among an increasing number of people both Franklin's kind of optimism (which linked prosperity to expansion) and a darker impulse (by which settlers came to believe the land was their inheritance, bounty for blood shed). Between 1756 and 1763, Europe split into two great coalitions — one led by Catholic France, the other by Protestant Great Britain — and waged a war that spilled out over nearly all the earth, to India, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America. In northern America, Paris and London both deployed standing armies, settler militias, and indigenous allies, fighting for control of the continent.
The war (which in America actually started in 1754, as British and French colonists skirmished for control of the Ohio valley) was bloody. It was a long low-intensity, high-mortality slog of exhausting treks through pathless woods, massacres, burned villages, frantic retreats, hunger, thirst, and cannibalism, which all sides practiced, either as retribution or for survival. British "rangers" copied the fighting style of Native Americans, learning how to move through the landscape stealthily, in small units, and conduct quick raids. Rogers' Rangers, for instance, dressed and lived "like the Indians," putting scalping knives to France's indigenous allies as they pacified the Connecticut valley. Upon approaching an Abenaki village near the Saint Lawrence River filled mostly with women and children, the rangers, according to one of its members, set about to "kill everyone without mercy." Within less than fifteen minutes, "the whole town was in a blaze, and carnage terrible." Hardly anyone escaped: "Those who the flames did not devour were either shot or tomohawk'ed." "Thus the inhumanity of these savages was rewarded with a calamity, dreadful indeed, but justly deserved," the ranger said.
Such imitation served not only a tactical but a psychic function: by killing as pitilessly as they imagined their victims killed, they could justify killing their victims pitilessly. And by acting as if they themselves were as native to the land as Indians, they could claim the land once Indians were removed from the land. "Fraternal genocide" was how one writer described settler mimicry: slaughtered "Indian brothers" became the "unappeased ghosts in the unconscious of the white man." This was, in a way, the beginning of the blood meridian that Cormac McCarthy writes about in his novel, the horizon where endless sky meets endless hate. Or at least it was the beginning of the continentalization of the "barbarous years," as Bernard Bailyn called the first decades of settler destruction of Native Americans.
Great Britain won that war, taking from France an enormous swath of forestland, north from the Great Lakes down through the Ohio valley and west to the Mississippi. But London soon lost the peace. With France defeated, Spain became Great Britain's last imperial competitor. The Spanish Crown, though, had by this time only a tenuous hold on its North American territories, leaving many British colonists, such as Franklin, anticipating one last battle, which would deliver all of North America and the Caribbean to Great Britain. In the coming "future war," Franklin wrote in 1767, English speakers would be "poured down the Mississippi upon the lower country and into the Bay of Mexico, to be used against Cuba, or Mexico itself."
They already were pouring down, the "overflowing Scum of the Empire," as the British governor described the drifters and squatters who rushed over the mountains and into the Mississippi valley. Crown officials did what they could to stop them. But they were in a bind, since Great Britain's victory left it indebted to two opposing groups, whose interests couldn't be reconciled. On the one side were British colonists, from east of the Alleghenies and Appalachia, who had served as foot soldiers against the French. They had been promised plots of frontier land in exchange for their military service. On the other side were Britain's indigenous allies, who largely lived on the western side of the mountains in the trans-Appalachia valleys — Iroquois in the north, Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws in the south, and Seminoles in Florida, among others. Many of them too had fought for the Crown, and their contribution to London's victory was no less essential than that of the white colonists.
In October 1763, the Crown tried to clarify the situation. King George III issued a proclamation prohibiting European settlement west of a fixed partition line, which ran along the crest of the Alleghenies: "We do hereby strictly forbid, on Pain of our Displeasure, all our loving Subjects from making any Purchases or Settlements whatever, or taking Possession of any of the Lands above reserved." London even ordered settlers who had already crossed that line "forthwith to remove themselves" and return east. In issuing the decree, King George was essentially voiding the founding charters of colonies and revoking standing concessions that the Crown had bestowed on private companies over the years, including hundreds of thousands of acres ceded to the Ohio Company. In effect, London was recognizing a new kind of colony, comprised of indigenous nations separate but equal to those founded by Europeans on the Atlantic coast. They live "under our protection," the proclamation said of indigenous peoples, and "should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such parts of Our Dominions and Territories." The new arrangement wasn't disinterested. British merchants knew that continued access to fur depended on keeping white settlers out of indigenous hunting grounds. Still, to "let the savages enjoy their deserts in quiet," as the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations said, was a powerful statement, as was George III's use of the word "nations" to describe native peoples. Indigenous leaders understood the proclamation to be an affirmation of their sovereignty.
British colonists knew it to be a violation of theirs, since they defined their sovereignty as the right to move west.
King George's partition was intolerable for squatter and squire alike, confirming to British colonists that their interests were now decoupled from the interests of the British Crown. Since God's law and nature's law were higher laws than George III's law, they claimed the right to set up a new society as they saw fit, where they saw fit, before, beyond, or on top of the Alleghenies. There was no reversing the flow, warned Franklin. "Neither royal nor provincial proclamations, nor the dread and horrors of a savage war, were sufficient," he wrote, "to prevent the settlement of the lands over the mountains." The facts were already on the ground, the settlers already on the land.
The partition of North America was unworkable. The proclamation itself was incoherent, offering land to white veterans of the Seven Years' War and protection of their land to Native Americans. The Crown stalled on the first and couldn't deliver on the second. Its representatives in America, loyal colonial governors, took desperate measures to stop the procession west and to remove squatters from Indian lands, even threatening the "felony of death without benefit of clergy." To no avail. Thousands of colonial volunteers in the war against France had received a firsthand view of the forbidden zone, the quality of its oaks and elms; its game and sources of water; the navigational potential of its rivers and tributaries; the nature of the soil; which crops would have to be planted, such as tobacco, flax, and cotton; and which ones grew unassisted. Native grapes and mulberries were just waiting to be plucked, hemp, said to spread spontaneously, to be cut. Witnesses to such bounty would not stay east of the Alleghenies.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The End Of The Myth"
Copyright © 2019 Greg Grandin.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction - Fleeing Forward
1. All That Space
2. The Alpha and the Omega
3. A Caucasian Democracy
4. The Safety Valve
5.Are You Ready for All These Wars?
6. The True Relief
7. The Outer Edge
8. The Pact of 1898
9. A Fortress on the Frontier
10. A Psychological Twist
11. A Golden Harvest
12. Some Demonic Suction Tube
13. More, More, More
14. The New Preëmptor
15. Crossing the Blood Meridian
Epilogue - The Significance of the Wall in American History
A Note on Sources and Other Matters