May 5th, 2011
What was the most significant event in American History?
"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain." (Adams n.d.)
From the beginning, the founding fathers had a vision. It was a vision that constantly changed and grew, that this was a nation with a completely different attitude from the European traditions that they had left behind. The vision of becoming an independent nation from the burdens of the British Empire, with no aristocracy to control society and no bounds to their economic expansion, carried on from the start of the colony’s independence from Britain.
At the close of the American Revolution the opportunity to move west was encouraged more than ever. The open land, open opportunity and general lack of governmental restrictions, beckoned many people to a fresh start. Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis, “The Significance of the American Frontier,” shows that the regional characteristics of the American Frontier (wherever it was), along with the South and the East Coast and their own, contrasting regional characteristics, created the cultural mystique known as the American West. Turner’s thesis in turn, gave the concept of how America was ideologically changed by this westward expansion, which had been very significant in changing and redefining the United States.
It’s true that Turner over-simplified his thesis. The process was more complex in many ways, including bringing people to the land, buying the land, and developing it. However, “Admitting that the procession to the frontier was more complex than Turner realized, that good lands were seldom free, and that a safety valve never operated to drain the dispossessed and the malcontented from industrial centers, does this mean that his conclusions concerning the migration process have been completely discredited? The opposite is emphatically true.” (Billington 1958) And while lands in the west were almost never free, they were still cheaper than anywhere else in the country. The economic pressures of the other regions of the country still acted to encourage people outward and into the frontier.
In the South, a completely different socio-economic system evolved from the very beginning. That society was primarily based upon a privileged class which consisted of 3-4% of the population. They were served by a large class of slaves and significant numbers of “poor, white” farmers and shopkeepers. The system was one of white supremacy, where the main social interactions were based off of a fixed belief of hierarchy, in which white people considered themselves superior (no matter their place in the southern social class) to anyone who was black. In turn, the blacks were made to bear all the burdens of the economy without any compensation.
In this southern white-slave system, the individualist who could go as he pleased with minimal government and maximum capitalist leverage was non-existent. Slavery existed because the government said it could and the ruling class dictated what everyone else said or did. After the Civil War, segregation and exploitative share-cropping were used to prevent the blacks from claiming their share of the American dream, essentially robbing black southerners of their political rights, economic opportunity and social mobility. It was still the same system that existed, before the Civil War. (Andrews 2004)
During the rise of eastern industrialization in the mid-19th century, there began to be labor shortages for operating the mills, mines, and railroads. At first, the “bosses” had their day by working their people for long and unregulated periods, such as 10-12-14 hour shifts, six days a week. This was compounded by poor and even hazardous working conditions, company police forces and company stores which forced the workers to trade only on company-authorized goods, charging them more money than they were making.
Inevitably, the push for social changes began, and collective bargaining and unionization had its start in America. This began in the East in the late 1800’s primarily for the purpose of making the living conditions and working conditions tolerable for the American worker. A number of problems arose as organizing took place which included strikes and strike breaking, violence and corruption on both sides of business and labor. This characteristic of the industrialization in America began in the East and shows an indisputable mark on the massive population centralized along the East coast. With this mark is the realization of a social system that entailed a close network of the working class verses the high-end “millionaire man” for whom they were indebted to him for their “daily bread.” (The Labor Movement in the Public Eye 1999-2009)
This social-system which began the “middle” class in America has been considered as one to where most men and women have to fight against a certain type of “aristocracy.” For any American patriot this is deemed to be similar to the oppressive aristocracy of Britain that bean the American Revolution. (Recruitment of Lowell Mill Workers -- An account from the 1840s n.d.)
These examples show that South and the East regions of America exhibit characteristics which are at variance with the independent attitude of the settling of the America west. These characteristics are much the opposite of the American Frontier which sought the ideals of individualism, independence from strong government and dominating social casts, and self-reliance.
“To a degree unknown among Europeans, Americans do display a restless energy, a versatility, a practical ingenuity, and earthly practicality.” (Billington 1958) In the American’s ideal of settling anew in the unknown frontier, many people hoped and dreamed of laying a foundation for their legacy and heritage by finding better opportunities for themselves and their children. This “spirit” of westward exploration gave hope to many people wishing to express their ideals and communal beliefs, such as the Mormon Pioneers who were driven out of the East and the Shakers who can be traced from Pennsylvania, Kentucky and as far west as Ohio. “It also helped nurture in the pioneers an infinite faith in the future. The belief in progress, both material and intellectual, that is part of modern America’s creed was strengthened by the frontier experience.” (Billington 1958)
The settlers and pioneers strove to fulfill the examples and ideals of the American founding fathers, by the practice of true democracy in their simple self-government.
“But the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy here and in Europe. As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism. Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression. Prof. Osgood, in an able article, has pointed out that the frontier conditions prevalent in the colonies are important factors in the explanation of the American Revolution, where individual liberty was sometimes confused with absence of all effective government. The same conditions aid in explaining the difficulty of instituting a strong government in the period of the confederacy. The frontier individualism has from the beginning promoted democracy.” (Turner 1998)
The American West still thrives in today’s society of individualism, “...where every man must earn his own” being the motto spoken from the lips of previous generations. Now the cultural mystique that came from the iconic cowboy and rugged ranchers of the west, gave the influence of the American Dream. This dream gave everyone that expanded to the west the hope that they could make their own life and earn their own by ways of production with no social casts being emitted in this society. The West made the North and South irrelevant to each other and brought many into small communities that each had their own like-minded ideal. The legend of the West has given the United States a goal of exception that has been made possible by many who have achieved this dream through entrepreneurialism, and attainable ambition through one persons own work.
If we begin with the words which framed the revolution starting this country“…they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” (Jefferson 1996-2011) then the American frontier is the place where people expected to live each day the realization of this ideal. In his closing words, Turner understood this driving desire to find these ideals when he said, “He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.” (Turner 1998)
Adams, John. www.quotebd.com. 31 January 2011 .
Andrews, William L. Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the Slave Narrative. 2004. 31 January 2011 .
Billington, Ray Allen. "How the Frontier Shaped the American Character." American Heritage (1958).
Jefferson, Thomas. Declaration of Independence. 1996-2011. 2 February 2011 .
Recruitment of Lowell Mill Workers -- An account from the 1840s. 2 February 2011 .
The Labor Movement in the Public Eye. 1999-2009. 2 February 2011 .
Turner, Frederick Jackson. Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner. Yale University Press, 1998.