The Old Frontiers

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BOOKS MAY 7, 2008

The Old Frontiers

Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea

By Richard Kluger

(Knopf, 628 pp., $35)

In 1893, more than twelve million Americans traveled to Chicago to attend a national exposition celebrating the quadricentennial of Columbus's voyage of American discovery. "The World's Columbian Exposition" summoned Americans to celebrate the astonishing rapidity of their own ascent to continental dominance and international power. Barely one hundred years old, the United States had spread westward across North America to become one of the great powers on the earth, a nation capable of exerting influence and might throughout the Americas and across the Pacific to Asia. That expansion and ascent had come at the expense of North America's natives--defeated, diminished, and confined to reservations--and to the dismay of rival Spanish and British empires, driven from the continent or shunted to its margins. In 1893, the American victors sensed their arrival at a critical watershed in their history: a radical shift as continental expansion gave way to global reach.

Chicago seemed the perfect setting for this celebration of triumph and transition. No major American city had grown more rapidly as it became the commercial metropolis of the continent's heartland, the vortex for the region's lumber, wheat, corn, beef, and pork. In 1790, Chicago had been a mere trading post in an Indian world. By 1890, it had grown to more than one million people--the second-largest city in the United States. Almost all of its inhabitants were of European or African ancestry, continental newcomers who had displaced the native people. With good cause, Chicago's promoters seized upon the World's Columbian Exposition as a chance to cast their city as the fulfillment of the destiny set in motion by Columbus's discovery.

In 1893, the American Historical Association, a conclave of professional historians, also met in Chicago. One paper sparked unusual interest, and when it was published it became the most influential essay by an American historian: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" by Frederick Jackson Turner, then a young professor at the University of Wisconsin. Born in the rural town of Portage, Wisconsin, Turner was the son of a pioneer who spun tales of early soldiers, trappers, traders, and Indians. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Turner had headed east for graduate study at Johns Hopkins University, where he learned to despise the traditional mode of American history, with its emphasis on Europe's cultural legacy.

After completing his doctorate, Turner returned to teach at Wisconsin, where he developed his own interpretation of American history. De-emphasizing the influence of European culture, he stressed the power of the American landscape to remake newcomers. In his address to his assembled colleagues in 1893, Turner noted that the recent federal census report had declared that the continental United States no longer had a distinct frontier line between the domain settled by Americans and a "wilderness" retained by Indians. "This brief official statement," he declared, "marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the American West." He concluded that "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development." No derivative from Europe, American culture was distinctively shaped by an encounter with "free land" obtained along the advancing frontier of settlement.

Turner argued that the land remade Europeans into Americans. Plunging into the wilderness, the newcomers had to adapt to a strange and demanding land that mixed danger with opportunity. By adapting, they prospered. Turner explained:

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. . . . The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.

Frontier land invited settlers to become more mobile, shifting westward in search of better farms so that they could prosper. This geographic and social mobility rewarded egalitarian individualists, who would no longer accept the tyranny of tradition or the hierarchy of kings and aristocrats. Only a democracy could govern a nation of ambitious strivers, each persuaded that he was as good as any other man. Turner argued that the frontier experience created American democracy. He did not dwell on the ominous question raised by his argument: if the frontier encounter created democracy, could that democracy outlive its lost frontier? Would inequality deepen, impoverishing millions and empowering an entrenched elite that would make a mockery of the nation's democratic forms?

Turner's "frontier thesis" became sensationally influential largely because it was less novel than it seemed. Although a challenge to eastern intellectuals, Turner's interpretation systematized the conventional wisdom of middle America. In effect, he gave an academic polish to ideas long held by common Americans: that they had remade themselves as they had made the nation--primarily by defeating Indians and by transforming the supposed wilderness into a productive land of farms, towns, and cities. Turner subsequently published precious little, and certainly nothing as evocative and important as "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"; but he trained a large cohort of graduate students who helped to render his thesis pre-eminent among academic historians through the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

Later in that century, powerful critics emerged to challenge almost every element of the "frontier thesis." They faulted Turner for treating the American land as a howling wilderness free for the taking because it was thinly inhabited and virtually unaltered by Indians, who posed scant obstacle to American destiny. Treated as doomed, Indians vanished from Turner's vision of history once they became constricted within reservations. Turner also paid little attention to the continent's Hispanic and French colonists--and he slighted African Americans and Asian Americans as participants in North America's transformation. Like almost all other historians of his race, class, and generation, Turner thought of the American people as fundamentally white and English-speaking. Narrating American history as an east-to-west story of expansion by Anglo-Americans, he and his disciples scanted the south-to-north story of Hispanic colonization in Texas, New Mexico, and California. They also had little to say about the French enclaves around the Great Lakes and along the Mississippi--and nothing about the Russian colonial advance into Alaska.

Turner's sharpest and most resourceful modern critic, Patricia Nelson Limerick, has asserted that "Turner was, to put it mildly, ethnocentric and nationalist. English-speaking white men were the stars of his story; Indians, Hispanics, French Canadians, and Asians were at best supporting actors and at worst invisible." Turner's critics also faulted his claim that America's frontier experience created a uniquely democratic society. They pointed to other frontier colonial regions--Argentina, South Africa, Canada, and Australia--which were slower to develop an egalitarian individualism and democratic politics. On the other hand, the twentieth century brought democracies to India and western Europe: places without Turner's version of a frontier as "free land. "

 

Despite these academic attacks, Turner's thesis thrives in our popular culture, manifest in almost any popular history of expansion in print or on film. Readers and viewers welcome the familiar story of a triumphant western expansion that created a distinctive American identity. Richard Kluger has designed his big new book for such readers. In Seizing Destiny, he recounts the great multi-century sweep of American history. Kluger tells an epic story of people "ruthlessly transforming a spectacular wilderness into a mighty state." He adds that "no other sovereign entity ever grew so large so fast to become so rich and so strong."

Kluger begins with Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century and French fur traders in the seventeenth century as precursors to the American Revolution against British rule a century later. The new nation aggressively expanded by purchasing Louisiana from the French in 1803, but it failed in a bid to conquer Canada during the War of 1812. In 1818–1819, the Monroe administration pressured the Spanish into surrendering Florida and persuaded the British to share the Pacific Northwest. Between 1820 and 1850, the United States pressed westward to the Pacific. American settlers migrated into Texas, where they revolted against Mexican rule, winning their independence in 1835–1836. Annexation by the United States in 1845 led to a one-sided war with Mexico a year later. Sweeping American victories secured the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which cost Mexico her northern two-fifths, including California on the Pacific. At the same time, the British and the Americans agreed to divide the Pacific Northwest along the forty-ninth parallel.

During the last third of the nineteenth century, the United States pushed into the Caribbean and the Pacific to project its power and seek markets in Latin America and Asia. In 1867, the Americans seized the Pacific Island of Midway and purchased the vast Alaskan Territory from Russia. During the 1890s, a military coup toppled the Hawaiian monarchy and added those islands to the United States. In a brief war in 1898 the United States crushed the Spanish, securing American protectorates in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The next century provided a few more tropical islands: the Danish (now U.S.) Virgin Islands in the Caribbean and Wake Island in the Pacific.

 

Despite this dramatic and important story, Kluger's book often bogs down in long and repetitive accounts of the back-and-forth of diplomatic exchanges, recapitulating dead ends as well as actual consequences. After belaboring British and American negotiations over Oregon, Kluger observes that "by late August [President] Polk's patience had run out." Kluger's readers will understand how Polk felt.

To break the tedium, Kluger recurrently jolts readers with flamboyant metaphors. He likens one small colony to "a flea spitting into a hurricane" and Americans to "a porridge of diverse peoples ... not free of lumpiness." Kluger likes his metaphors well mixed. Of the American Revolution, he observes that "here was a substantiation that theirs was a truly indissoluble union and no mere display of pyrotechnics sent skyward to scare away their overseas masters. " Of the French Revolution, he observes that "French grievances were vented in alternating waves of liberation and repression that swept the overwrought masses toward the cauldron of anarchy. France became an inflamed society with a large and easily dislodged chip on its shoulder."

Undiscriminating in his use of sources, Kluger sprinkles his book with errors, large and small. He places the American attack on Quebec in late 1775 on the famous "Plains of Abraham," when in fact that assault targeted the Lower Town beside the St. Lawrence River. He confuses the Federal Constitution (1787) with the later Bill of Rights (1791) and the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), when he argues that the Constitution "provided a broad array of individual rights, installed brakes on tyrannical tendencies of the central government, and imposed prohibitions on the states to protect all their citizens against impairment of their liberties." In recounting the War of 1812, he colorfully refers to the "Tory-leaning province of Maine," when the region was actually an electoral stronghold for the Democratic-Republicans who declared war on the British. He labels the notorious John Randolph a "Federalist" when, in fact, he was a dissident Republican properly known as a "Quid."

Some of Kluger's bigger mistakes derive from a determination to cast the British as pompous exploiters of the poor American colonists. Kluger insists that the colonists blamed the British crown for the massive land speculation in frontier lands. In fact, leading colonists, including George Washington, were the speculators, and they bristled when the crown tried to regulate or restrict their aggressive intrusion into Indian lands. Kluger contradicts his colonial picture by later (and correctly) noting that the post-revolutionary land speculation "smacked of the same cronyism and inside dealing that marked the rampant abuse of public office in the colonial era." That similarity was hardly coincidental, given that the same sort of Americans speculated in land after, as well as before, the revolution. Similarly, Kluger repeats the hoary myth that a tyrannical king provoked the American Revolution: "the crown's demand for obedience and tribute money" was "a clear case--no matter how dressed up--of child abuse." But until 1776 the colonists hoped that the king would help them by intervening against the real culprit, which was Parliament, and its offensive taxation.

In addition to tedious stretches, bursts of overwrought writing, and frequent factual errors, Seizing Destiny suffers from an uncritical embrace of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis. Praising Turner as the "eminent Meistersinger of the farmers who carved America from the wilderness," Kluger tells a trite story: "When a new world was found across the sea, the set ways of the old one began to be thrown into question." A frontier of abundant and fertile land generated "an unpredictably feisty breed of restless colonials, scornful of authority and orthodoxy." Unable to abide the rule of British kings and aristocrats, that "breed" staged a revolution to create a democratic nation designed to seek "new land for its ill-disciplined, hard-charging people." This recycled Turner derives from Kluger's reliance on creaky scholarship from the early twentieth century, and on more recent pop histories that repeat the old cliches.

To update Turner's story, Kluger periodically pauses to editorialize about the grim aspects of the American conquest. He wants to treat Americans' "incurable case of triumphalism," which has led them "to assume that their singular success as a nation was not only foreordained but also deserved." Kluger preaches that "those Americans given to blind chauvinism would do well to consider the darker side of the tale as well." He insists that we "gained a continental expanse by means of daring, cunning, bullying, bluff and bluster, treachery, robbery, quick talk, doubletalk, noble principles, stubborn resolve, low-down expediency, cash on the barrelhead, and, when deemed necessary, spilled blood." Mostly, Americans spilled lots of Indian blood and enslaved lots of Africans. The frontier spawned "a people unapologetic for the transparency of their abuse of the red and black races." He rues "the flagrantly inhumane practices of slavery and genocide that the American people imposed upon the non-Europeans in their midst."

In another bid to modernize Turner, Kluger draws contemporary parallels from President James Polk's malevolent role in invading Mexico to conquer the land that has become California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas. A Tennessee slaveholder, hack politician, and conspicuous Christian, Polk felt driven to expand the United States to the Pacific at almost any cost. His acquisitive vision of American security and his devotion to military solutions ran roughshod over the truth and over the rights of others. Hinting at a later counterpart, Kluger notes that Polk "did not read for pleasure or to broaden his frame of reference; as a result, he squinted xenophobically at the world and perceived political issues in stark black and white." Kluger adds that "in his international dealings, he shamelessly overstated American rights and claims, letting partisanship beggar facts, and glibly cast Great Britain as the bogeyman in order to excuse his, and his countrymen's, territorial acquisitiveness." Lest a reader miss the hints, Kluger observes that Polk's critics "strafed the President with charges very like those to be leveled against George W. Bush for leading the United States into war against Iraq early in the twenty-first century."

Like Turner, Kluger insists that every people has a singular character that transcends internal divisions of class, race, gender, and personality. This lumping into racial and national types leads to caricatures. According to Kluger, "a spectacular virgin landscape of immeasurable expanse and superlative fertility greeted invaders from the Old World, and nobody occupied it but scatterings of nomadic, Stone Age tribes shy on the organizational skills or death-dealing tools to repulse the newcomers." Apparently unknown to Kluger, recent scholars have discarded Turner's stereotype of Indians as immutable primitives flitting about a forest primeval. In fact, native peoples had dramatically reshaped their environment by selectively burning the forest, erecting villages, clearing fields, and developing and cultivating remarkably productive plants--especially squash, beans, and maize.

Kluger may prefer Indians as noble savages who did nothing to change the land and who could do nothing to resist the colonial invasion, but recent scholarship has illuminated the natives' innovative ability to adapt to the colonial invasion--to complicate it, and to slow its progress. During the eighteenth century, for example, the Indians of the southern Great Plains acquired horses and became formidable warriors, who rolled back the Spanish missions and settlements in Texas and New Mexico. Such resourceful natives find no place in Kluger's narrative, which casts all Indians as an undifferentiated mass of suffering victims, doomed to destruction by their stubborn adherence to a primitive culture. Lumping them all together as Indians, he never differentiates between their hundreds of distinct nations, bands, and villages. Uninterested in particular Indians as historical actors, Kluger mentions none by name, save a brief cameo by Tecumseh and his brother, who appear after three hundred pages of collective suffering and futile resistance by homogeneous Indians. This anonymous lumping stands out against the blizzard of named Americans granted personalities and initiative in Kluger's tome.

 

African Americans suffer even more from Kluger's unwitting invocation of a dated caricature. He casts them as inferior to Indians and as a passive mass, deprived of individuality and of the capacity to resist their slavery: "Unlike the imported blacks, the natives refused to be enslaved and do the white man's work for him; death was preferable to such a defilement of their beings and culture." Sloppy thinking, rather than racist intention, surely explains Kluger's slipshod implication that blacks accepted slavery because they were less resolute than Indians. Here he misses yet another opportunity to convey the recent scholarship, in this instance on the Indian slave trade. In fact, the colonists did enslave thousands of Indians, but exported them to the West Indies to exchange for Africans. The exchange removed both peoples from areas where they knew the immediate hinterland and so could more readily escape. The bloody history of West Indian and African American slave revolts, runaways, and maroonage attests that blacks could, as readily as Indians, court death to resist slavery.

In Kluger's hierarchy of peoples, the Spanish and the French receive greater agency and individuality than Indians and Africans--but considerably less than white Americans. Drawn from the old Black Legend crafted by Spain's enemies, Kluger's Spanish were all cunning killers: "While there is no denying the Spaniards' insolence and inhumanity, the success and efficiency of their wholesale thuggery must be noted." A historian with some sense of nuance would apply that characterization only to the soldiers known as conquistadores, while noting that sixteenth-century Spaniards also included Bartolome de Las Casas and other Catholic missionaries, who provided a scathing and eloquent critique of the treatment of Indians. In addition to slighting the diversity of sixteenth-century Spaniards, Kluger treats them as incapable of changing over time. "Stiff-necked" to the end of their "totalitarian regime" in the early nineteenth century, the Spanish appear as utterly undeserving of a place in the continent. In fact, the Spanish belied this caricature of arrogant inflexibility. During the late eighteenth century, the Spanish reformed and revitalized their empire, adopting pragmatic measures that converted some frontier Indians from foes to allies.

At first the French seem to benefit from Kluger's need for foils to highlight the arrogance and the cruelty assigned to the Spanish: "France had not come as a blatant conqueror or looter." Kluger adds that "instead of disparaging Indian folkways and spiritual beliefs as the Spaniards often did, the French tried to understand them, learned their languages ... and bargained with them more or less fairly." Here, too, he erases the diversity of the French with a blunt stereotype. We never read, for example, of the rage with which some French treated those Indians who resisted their colonial intrusion. During the 1720s and 1730s, thousands of Chickasaw, Fox, Sauk, and Natchez suffered death or enslavement in wars with the French around the Great Lakes and in the Mississippi Valley. If we want an accurate history of the continent's conquest, we need a defter analysis than what we can derive from the national and racial typologies of Turner's day.

The French appear equally homogeneous, but in a much less flattering light, when Kluger later sets them against the British. The French then re-appear as committed to a rigid, bureaucratic, and Catholic empire that stifled commercial enterprise and civil liberties. The British, by contrast, earn Kluger's praise for their work ethic and property rights, which he attributes to their Protestantism. But that praise also does not last, for the British turn sour when Kluger's version of the American Revolution renders them villains pitted against their own colonists in America. Converting frontier abundance into prosperous farms, the colonial Britons had become Americans with a new "collective character" defined by "courage, physical and mental stamina, and a positive outlook on life." As "a high-spirited, self-reliant people, irreverent toward wisdom and authority," the new American people naturally united against the constraining rule of their distant rulers in Britain. According to Kluger (and again, to Turner), North America worked an improving magic on Britons in America that neither the Spanish nor the French could ever enjoy. Apparently Catholicism disqualified a people from the frontier effect.

Mixing a celebration of American genius with a hectoring of American greed, Kluger waxes most contradictory in recounting the conquest of Mexico's northern third during the 1830s and 1840s. First Kluger denounces the Americans as racist exploiters:

White Americans, from colonial days on, had never shown their willingness to live at peace and on equal terms with those of other races, choosing instead to exterminate, enslave, marginalize, or otherwise abuse them, and justifying their actions by alleging their victims' natural inferiority. Their own compulsion to amass property and dominion went unmentioned. The Mexicans, of preponderantly swarthy cast, were a sitting target for virulent American racism.

And then Kluger proceeds to repeat credulously as facts many of the racist observations made by his nineteenth-century sources. He describes California's Mexican soldiers as "mostly lazy, thieving rascals." He also casts California as "a fragrant, primeval Shangri-la" and "a veritable Garden of Eden" shamefully neglected through "the lassitude or ignorance of the residents." Kluger concludes that "the Mexicans made poor use of their land, letting idyllic California, for example, wither on the vine." He then dwells on California's rapid economic development in the immediate wake of the American conquest.

In this way, Kluger carelessly provides ammunition for those who would argue that the abundant ends justified the nasty means of conquest. Indeed, he repeatedly, if unwittingly, suggests that although Americans stole the continent, they deserved it far more than did their inferior competitors: the noble savages, brutal Spanish, greedy French, arrogant Brits, and shiftless Mexicans. And so it is awkward and unpersuasive when Kluger concludes his book with a liberal editorial linking our current social woes to the bad manners of our territorial conquest: "Systematic inequities, evidenced by the cruel and growing gap between the grossly affluent and the desperately struggling, have polarized American society, created a permanent underclass of the disaffected, and cast liberty and social justice as antagonists to, not twin pillars of, the national creed." He adds that America's rulers cannot long sustain our nation's "primacy by claiming entitlement to mastery abroad and continuing to neglect the social pathogens stalking their homeland."

I wish I could share these conclusions, but reading them made me cringe, because they are tacked onto a long book that neglects to demonstrate the connection between current inequality and past conquests. To make that case requires more careful research and more disciplined thinking than Kluger brings to his rambling array of opinions and contradictions. As a result, his conclusion exemplifies the sort of lazy self-righteousness that has given liberalism such a bad name with much of the public.

Sometimes Kluger's use of national and racial types slides even into the social Darwinism of Turner's generation. Kluger refers to Americans as "a new breed" united in their greed for land. To explain the growing gap between the rich and the poor in colonial America, Kluger glibly asserts that "half of those who had come to America as indentured servants remained landless laborers afterward. As everywhere, natural selection worked against the timid, the lazy, the improvident, the incompetent, and the luckless." Discounted as slackers and losers, the landless poor vanish from Kluger's brutal definition of real Americans, who are essentially scheming over-achievers. And this social Darwinian explanation undermines his concluding sermon that Americans must address the deepening inequality of contemporary society. Why bother, if natural selection accounts for poverty and wealth?

Indeed, Kluger undermines the case that liberals could, and should, be making to find historical roots for our current crisis. He blames America's manic expansion westward on a "prodigious wastefulness" of the soil, owing to the "inertia, ignorance, or fatigue" of common farmers. In fact, that extensive mode of farming pales in comparison with the major role played in expansion by hyper-competitive speculation in millions of acres by America's wealthiest class, which profited by retailing lands to actual settlers. By lumping all Americans together in an undifferentiated "character" of wasteful greed, Kluger obscures the class differences that empowered and enriched some Americans at the expense of others. By neglecting the role of class privilege in driving American expansion, he cannot ultimately make a case that inequality today derives from the continent's conquest.

Kluger means well, but in trying to write a history of an entire continent over five centuries, he is in over his head. Lacking competence in the historical sources, he makes a hash of their evidence. Struggling to master the complexities of a distant past and a grand scale, he reaches backward for the reassuring simplifications of an earlier generation. With the best of intentions, he hopes to teach Americans to regret how we won this continent, and to reflect on the current implications of past misdeeds; but he undermines his case by indulging in retrograde and distorting national and racial stereotypes. Recycling those caricatures inevitably vindicates Americans as the deserving winners of a nasty competition with inevitable losers.

To achieve his goals, Kluger needed to make a cleaner break with the tropes of Turner's day. Indeed, he missed a golden opportunity to reform Turner's frontier thesis--which can be rescued from its distorting character types. Although Turner got almost all of the details wrong, he knew where to look for the distinctive nature of American society. The frontier thesis rightly regards expansion as central to the development of American institutions and values through the nineteenth century. That expansion created this nation's wealth, and its distribution of property and power, and much of its historical memory. But that distribution of property and power was profoundly unequal--it was, in other words, at odds with the democratic aspirations also generated by the frontier experience. Before HBO's series Deadwood succumbed to David Milch's rhetorical excesses, it brilliantly explored the tension between frontier illusions and realities--and particularly between the frontier ambitions of common people and the consolidating power of capital. Had Richard Kluger similarly illuminated that tension, he would have earned the pulpit to preach history to his readers.

Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, is the author of The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (Knopf).

By Alan Taylor

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