The frontier and its absence have both shaped the American imagination
For Americans who had become accustomed to pushing reflexively westward, it must have come as quite a shock to the psyche when, in 1890, in the faraway eastern city of Washington, D.C., the authors of the last U.S. Census report of the 19th century pronounced indifferently that there was no longer such a thing as a frontier line — and so, in Frederick Jackson Turner’s immortal phrase, “closed the first period of American history.”
Because, as Mark Twain quipped drily, they are no longer making land, the second period — which we might for the sake of simplicity call “post-frontier America” — continues to this day. Throughout it, Americans have searched in vain for a new hinterland to conquer and worried as to what might happen to the national character if there were none in store. It is by no means an overstatement to say that the most popular parts of American history involve some sort of perilous travel — the more onerous the better — nor to recognize that it is still primarily these stories that fashion the American conception of self.
In pre-colonial times, the stage on which our celebrities of exploration performed their dramas was the ocean: Children still sing songs about “brave and bright” Christopher Columbus, visit the early settlements of southern Virginia, and know, at least in outline, about the Pilgrims who clambered aboard the Mayflower. The Pilgrims’ search for some ungoverned land on which to establish their own sect has been post-rationalized and simplified into a pre-echo of American classical liberalism, just as the purpose of the settlers at Jamestown has been somewhat blunted in our accounts. Nevertheless, the true intent of their missions to one side, the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the businessmen of Virginia remain the most interesting to us because, unlike those who navigated thousands of miles for the thrill of it — or in order to strike it rich or to proselytize — they not only braved the elements in search of a different future, but stayed in America to secure that future.
That what is new cannot be new forever is self-evident. A little while after independence had made them the hottest thing in town, the original 13 colonies became the establishment, forming an Old World in the New, rendering the virgin terrain in what was to be perpetually known as “the West” as the future, and elevating Lewis and Clark, the cowboys, and the families of the Oregon Trail as the new pioneers of American ingenuity. Witness the derisive way in which, in Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in the West, the bartender at rudimentary Flagstone presumes that the well-dressed and mild-mannered Jill McBain must be from “one of those fancy cities back East.” “New Orleans,” she replies, apologetically. In the rough world to which she has traveled, Jill can become a heroine only when she demonstrates that she can survive alone.
Thomas Jefferson did not live to see his “empire of liberty” stretch across the American continent, nor did Abraham Lincoln survive to hear Jefferson’s “fire bell in the night” fall silent and usher in a nation of free soil, Hamiltonian commerce, and easy homesteading. Nevertheless, by the end of the Civil War, events had forged a nation in which the receding wilderness offered ostensibly unlimited opportunity to those who were prepared to take it. (“Go west, young man!”) The importance of such a frontier to both the imagination and the outlook of a free people is often overlooked, and it may account for the nation’s failed 20th-century scramble to find somewhere else to conquer, first overseas and then beyond planet Earth.
At the start of the century, American sentiment flirted with Theodore Roosevelt, who yearned to turn the attentions of men with faces “marred by dust and sweat and blood” abroad and to transmute the journalist John L. O’Sullivan’s domestic conception of Manifest Destiny into a foreign empire (which he tellingly called “expansion”). But world war, economic depression, and the subsequent responsibilities of becoming the standard-bearer for the global West took care of that idea.
Then, as the Cold War froze into shape, the innocuous beeping of Sputnik 1 shamed, terrified, and inspired a nation that had always regarded itself as unrivaled in the field of exploration, and Americans looked beyond the exosphere. Space, they were promised in the optimistic argot of mid-century science fiction, was the new — perhaps even “final” — frontier, ripe for colonization and development. But American Space suffered the same fate as did American Empire, and the generation of Apollo 11 saw its “one small step” first falter and then halt, with the moon landings giving way to the poorly conceived Space Shuttle and, eventually, to nothing.
Early celestial pioneers would have been as astonished by this glum development as James Madison would have been to see California. Barron Hilton, the son of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton (who was born in 1887 in the barren New Mexico Territory), was apparently deadly serious about building a hotel on the moon, telling the Wall Street Journal in 1967 that he intended to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony within his lifetime. Hilton lived among a public that had been raised on both the forward-looking comic-book exploits of intergalactic travelers and the nostalgic adventures of American cowboys, and that lived in a country without serious rivals in the West. Americans did not laugh at the suggestion, instead flooding Hilton with letters asking how they could pre-reserve a room.
And why would they have laughed? Lending an official imprimatur to such visions, a 1958 booklet issued by the White House acknowledged the importance of a frontier to a forward-looking people, commending the “compelling urge of man to explore and to discover, the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before.” In what should be seen in part as a statement of cold fact and in part as a lamentation, the missive observed that “most of the surface of the earth has now been explored and men now turn on the exploration of outer space as their next objective.” Hilton was merely tapping into the zeitgeist.
So, too, to great electoral advantage, was President John F. Kennedy, who foreshadowed his seminal “we choose to go to the moon” speech by declaring in his acceptance speech to the 1960 Democratic National Convention that Americans stood “on the edge of a new frontier; the frontier of the 1960s; a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils; a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.” Such phraseology has now been widely hijacked and grafted as so much pablum onto empty speeches regarding government spending. But Kennedy’s optimism was earnest and reciprocated by the public. Many in his generation looked at the stars with as much ambition as the frontiersmen of the 18th and 19th centuries had looked to the terra incognita in the West. To their architects, Mercury and Apollo were intended to be as Lewis and Clark — an overture to a new era rather than a brief, limited, and in truth reactionary spasm.
Nowadays, not only have Americans stopped pushing into the unknown but, for perhaps the first time since the barbarians destroyed civilization and plunged the world into the Dark Ages, technology has in some ways actually stepped backwards: The Concorde, the supersonic jetliner that was called the future of air travel, is gone from the skies; there are now no American space shuttles in operation; and America’s space program has reached its nadir, with NASA currently unable to send Americans into space at all.
“Human activity in space,” regrets John Hickman in Reopening the Space Frontier, “has been literally going in circles, confined to Earth orbit.” This, at least in part, is the fault of the Earth’s powers’ having signed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which specifically prohibits nations and individuals from making any claims of sovereignty on planets, moons, asteroids, and other celestial bodies. Had the western frontier been so off limits, and the series of forts and small towns never built on its edges, who would have pushed into it? Barron Hilton’s hotel is unlikely to be built on its own, just as the string of motels and fast-food joints that line America’s roads did not exist until the construction of the interstate highway system delivered customers right to their doors.
This sort of government investment is often opposed by free-marketeers — myself included — as being inherently expensive, unacceptably collectivist, and a violation of the principles of limited government. Still, it is worth bearing in mind that so, at the time, was the Louisiana Purchase . . .
Taxonomically, Kennedy’s rhetoric has been rather stuffily termed “scientific progressivism.” Nevertheless, frontiers are arguably most important to advocates of limited government — at least insofar as they seem inevitably to cultivate the “rugged individualist” character that serves as centralized authority’s greatest foe and, thus, as the prerequisite for a political environment that is heavy on civic society and light on government. As the great virtue of the frontier was that Americans dissatisfied with the status quo could move to pastures new and experiment with ideas and models of their own, so the risk for a nation whose borders are established and wildlands are tamed must be that the disgruntled have no option but to stay in place and agitate.
If Frederick Jackson Turner is to be believed, one reason that there was so little real socialism in America before the 20th century is that voters had little need to try to change their towns, cities, and states when they could not only move away from their troubles but move to a place in which mores and hierarchies had not yet been ossified — where, in Milton Friedman’s cutting parlance, “the tyranny of the status quo” had achieved no purchase. Ten years after Jackson noticed Americans were running out of land, the Progressive era started; ten years after that began a decade that brought Woodrow Wilson, a national income tax, direct Senate elections, the prohibition of alcohol, and the start of the great federal takeover of the 20th century — from which there can be no geographical escape. This is no coincidence.
None of this is to say that a country cannot be free without a frontier; ultimately Americans remain the architects of their own fate. But the frontier certainly served as a profitable safety valve, and it has now disappeared. There is no longer a cache of free land, nor unlimited opportunity ripe for exploitation, and capitalists need not offer higher wages in order to keep workers from going west. The growth of the federal government, meanwhile, has rendered competition between the states less and less effective.
Foreign countries provide no sanctuary either. When the farmland ran out in America at the end of the 19th century, nearly 600,000 people moved to the untouched Canadian prairie. But many were deeply disappointed by the different climate and culture and moved back; by 1914, two-thirds had returned. If there was nowhere good to go in 1914, is there anywhere now? The last great hope of mankind, as Mark Steyn keeps reminding us, is just that: the “last” hope. There is nowhere else to run. And when the state isn’t worried about its citizens’ departing, it is more likely to impose onerous burdens on them, as progressive arguments for national economic policy make clear.
“The tendency” of the frontiersman, Turner believed, “is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control.” Meanwhile, “the tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression.” Even now, when discussing the American character, it is this anachronistic ideal to which most rhetoricians return — regardless of whether or not their political platform comports with its logic, and even when in the same breath they happily denounce the policies with which they disagree as representative of the “Wild West” and characterize their proposers as “cowboys.”
But, rhetoric notwithstanding, just as the British Empire’s focus on liberty was its ultimate downfall — it is difficult to subjugate people in the name of their liberty — perhaps it is time for us to wonder whether that great ambition to see the United States emerge from its parochial and agrarian roots and expand into the remotest parts of the continent was destined to become the victim of its own success. Manifest Destiny is all well and good, but what happens to a people of endless dynamism and coarse character when they get to the sea and realize that the land has run out? The answer, perhaps, is that they turn inward, and in that moment of final success lose a part of their disposition that is hard to utter and even harder to recreate.
“West,” Robert Penn Warren promised ruefully in All the King’s Men, “is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: ‘Flee, all is discovered.’” This is true until all is discovered. If the harsh life and decentralized spirit of the frontier slowly transformed expatriate Europeans into a rougher, more independent, and new people called “Americans,” is it not possible — or even probable — that its subjugation is slowly turning them back? Are Americans really “fiercely individualistic,” as the myth would have them? After all, neither real individualism nor real fear is a thing that many Americans have to deal with nowadays, nor do they get much chance to move away and try something new when governments overstep their bounds. Within our closed nation, the growing safety net insulates people ever more from the consequences of their choices — especially in the supposedly more sophisticated cities. For an example of this, examine the difference in election returns between rural and urban counties.
Myths can remain effective shapers of national character only for so long. If we believe that institutions and challenges mold people, it surely follows that a frontier people must need a frontier, and a nation built on individual self-reliance must need theaters in which that self-reliance can play out. The harsh truth is that we’ve lost a great deal of that distinctly American character, even as we insist upon sentimentalizing it.
And sentimentalize it we do. It is no accident that almost every area of Disneyland, a place primarily dedicated to idealizing America, offers a cartoon variation on the frontier theme: Frontierland memorializes the Old West, Tomorrowland picks up the space theme, Adventureland the imperial frontier, Critter Country the inhospitable desert, New Orleans Square the westernmost big city of the 1800s. Nor is it a surprise that Walt Disney funded construction of his fantasy park in part by airing a television show that featured the “King of the Wild Frontier,” Davy Crockett. Disneyland was built in the 1950s, as Americans emerging from a depression and then a total war searched for their next steps into a brave new world. They are still looking, per Kurt Vonnegut — “forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be.” Why? Well, as Vonnegut wistfully concludes, “it must have something to do with the vanished frontier.”