The Frontier is Essential for the American Project
Key to the survival of the modern American project is never-ending motion, an eternal advance toward new horizons, new discoveries, greater progress. If folks in the States ever had to settle down and be content with where they were and what they had, many of them would, to quote The X-Files’s Dana Scully, ‘lapse into catatonic schizophrenia’ (‘Home’, http://www.insidethex.co.uk/transcrp/scrp403.htm).
Thus, some new frontier, some new challenge, must always be laid before them to overcome. Sacvan Bercovitch in "The American Jeremiad" (Madison, Wis., U of Wisconsin Press, 1978) traces the development of this mindset. In the early nineteenth century we find sentiments like this:
. . . Politicians justified annexation and the Westward movement as part of America’s duty to “manifest to mankind the excellence of the divine principles of our Revolution”: “For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen” (p. 142).
. . . Under Jefferson’s administration, and then Jackson’s, the expansion across Indian land proved beyond any doubt what all those terms implied – that America was not a territorial definition (except in the vague sense of “New World”), but the symbol of an ideological consensus. “From the analogy of reason and providence,” as well as “from prophecy,” said Thomas Blockway in 1784, in a sermon commemorating the Revolution, “it is apparent that [the] . . . three thousand miles of Western territory” constitute the “stage on which [God means] to exhibit the great things of His Kingdom.” Forty-two years later, Daniel Webster declared that the “principle” of the Revolution “adheres to the American soil. It is bedded in it, immovable as the mountains.” By 1856, Charles Dana could confidently announce that “the region which, commencing on the slope of the Alleghanies, broadens over the vast prairie” is “the Land of Promise, and the Canaan of our time”; if only the proper “New England minds” would direct the Westward migration – and if only they would keep “the enemies of our Revolution” from “making us a by-word and a scoff for mankind” – then the “wildest dreamer on the future of our race may one day see actualized a destiny far outreaching in splendor his most generous visions” (p. 161).
. . . In “this chosen land,” ran the argument, God “has been for ages watching and preparing. . . . The elements of a glorious order of civilization are now ready”; “we have increased beyond all previous calculations: we are surrounded by all comforts”; man’s “highest destiny” lies before us – “the untransacted destiny of the American people . . . to subdue the continent – to rush over this vast field to the Pacific Ocean . . . to carry the career of mankind to its culminating point” – and this divine “right of manifest destiny to spread will not be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal Yankee nation.” Implicit in all these statements . . . is the vision first expressed in God’s Promise to his Plantations: “Others take the land by His providence, but God’s people take the land by promise” (p. 162).
. . . “By promise,” they believed, the land belonged to them before they belonged to the land, and they took possession, accordingly, first by imposing their own image upon it, and then by seeing themselves reflected back in the image they had imposed. The wilderness/garden became their mirror of prophecy. They saw themselves revealed in it as the New Israel that would make the desert blossom as the rose. They also discerned in it those who did not belong to the land: Indians, heretics, opponents of the New England way, adherents to the ways of the Old World. . . . Romanticism added the dimension of the sublime to wilderness and garden. . . . American romantics looked to nature, as the New England Puritan had to Scripture, as a confirmation of the destiny of the New World. What they saw there was the vast frontier, mirroring, come iri da iri, by the light of prophecy, “the universal Yankee nation.”
Their concept of the frontier is a measure of their debt to the Puritans. Traditionally, frontier meant a border dividing one people from another. In a sense, the Puritans recognized those differences – their “frontier” separated them from the Indian “outer darkness” – but they could hardly accept the restriction as permanent. America was God’s Country, after all, and they were on a redemptive errand for mankind. In effect, their motive for colonization entailed a decisive shift in the meaning of frontier, from a secular barrier to a mythical threshold. Even as they spoke of their frontier as a meeting-ground between two civilizations, Christian and pagan, they redefined it, in a rhetorical inversion characteristic of the myth-making imagination, to mean a figural outpost, the outskirts of the advancing kingdom of God. It became, in short, not a dividing line but a summons to territorial expansion. And when after the Revolution the holy commonwealth spread westward across the continent, bringing light into darkness – or in one of Cotton Mather’s favorite phrases, “irradiating an Indian wilderness” – the frontier movement came to provide a sort of serial enactment of the ritual of the jeremiad. It was the moving stage for the quintessentially American drams of destined progress, of process as order and control. By the time of Jackson, the Puritan-Revolutionary inversion was standardized. What in Europe signified history and restriction, came in America to signify prophecy and unlimited prospects. This reading of frontier altered the Puritan concept, to be sure, from threat to promise; but in doing so it amplified (rather than changed) the old sense of errand. In part at least, Jacksonians also regarded the frontier as a savage domain awaiting liberation, and they also invoked it, as we have seen, as a vehicle of the jeremiad: to create anxiety, to denounce backsliders, to reinforce social values, and (summarily) to define the American consensus.
This vision of the frontier had its chronometrical side in the American sublime. The Puritans had sought correlations between their environment and Scripture; the Jacksonian romantics, expanding the outlook of the Revolutionary era, read the biblical promises in nature itself. The Alleghenies, the prairies, the Hudson and Mississippi rivers became their Book of Revelation. “Never before,” David Huntington has observed, “had the landscape painter known such urgency. He had, for the first time in the world, been asked to paint the myth of human destiny,” to find an “iconology” through which the “spectator could slough off the Old World psyche and be spiritually reborn into the New World.” And that new birth, be it noted, was not “Adamic” or “prelapsarian,” as our literary critics have told us, but (like the “National birth-day”) progressive and redemptive. Its purpose was precisely to turn the nostalgia for paradise lost into a movement toward the future. It was shaped not by Rousseau but by New England Puritanism (pgs. 162-5).
It is important to note before going on that this sort of thinking about the frontier is mainly a product of the New England soul, which embraces change and progress as virtues. The Southerner by contrast has always been defined by adherence to sameness and tradition. The latter ought to be as eager as any to throw off the Yankee ideology as something foreign to his way of life.
Withal, many from the Southern and Western States have gotten themselves bound up in the fast-paced Yankee lifestyle and have even entered the circles of the Elite alongside their Yankee cousins. And it is here that we pick up the history of the idea of the frontier. By the latter half of the 20th century, the old New England Elite, having enriched themselves over the last hundred years or so by exploiting the peoples and lands beyond the frontier (i.e., the South and West), were ready to close the frontier, to cut off the ability for social advancement of the lower classes to the Elite circles. But the New-Rich Elite from the South and West wanted to keep the frontier open and social mobility possible. This conflict between Old and New Elite over the frontier, and its consequences for Americanism, is well-described by Carl Oglesby in his book The Yankee and Cowboy War (New York City, Berkley Publishing, 1976, https://ia800204.us.archive.org/8/items/OglesbyCarlTheYankeeAndCowboyWar/Oglesby,%20Carl%20-%20The%20Yankee%20and%20Cowboy%20War..., via https://www.lewrockwell.com/lrc-blog/george-herbert-walker-bush-3/). Mr Oglesby says,
What accounts for the way the various organs of state force--defense and security alike--became so divided against each other? ClA-Intelligence against CIA-Operations, the CIA, the Pentagon, the FBI, and the presidency at one time or another against each other--what is this internal conflict all about? Why should the country's premier political coalition, formed after Reconstruction and reformed by Franklin Roosevelt, have begun to destabilize so badly in the 1960s and 1970s?
. . . The Dallas-to-Watergate outburst is fundamentally attributable to the breakdown taking place within the incumbent national coalition, the coalition of the Greater Northeastern powers with the Greater Southwestern powers, the post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction coalition, the coalition of the New Deal, of Yankees and Cowboys.
. . . The agony of the Yankees and the Cowboys, the "cause" of their divergence in the later Cold War period, is that there was finally too much tension between the detentist strategy of the Yankees in the Atlantic and the militarist strategy of the Cowboys in the Pacific. To maintain the two lines was, in effect, to maintain two separate and opposed realities at once, two separate and contradictory domains of world-historical truth. . . . (pgs. 2-3)
. . . on balance, the souls most fervently desirous of decisive military measures to prevent a Communist takeover [in Vietnam--W.G.] tended to argue from a Frontierist, China-Lobby kind of position, and the souls most calmly able to accept losses and pull back tended to argue from an Atlanticist, Council on Foreign Relations, NATO-haunted kind of position.
The Yankee/Cowboy split thus suggested itself as a not too- simplistic way to indicate in swift, available terms the existence of a rich and complex rivalry, the general cultural disposition of its chief contending principals, and the jointly historical and mythic character of their struggle, commingling John Wayne fantasies with real bloodshed, real genocide.
The profile of these types is best suggested in the persons and relationship of corporate-banker/monopolist David Rockefeller and tycoon entrepreneur Howard Hughes. An inquiry into their long rivalry is the first step in our exposition of Watergate in Part Three. But the spirit of Yankeeness is given off by many things besides the Chase Manhattan and of Cowboyness by many things besides the Hughes empire. Yankeeness is the Ivy League and Cowboyness is the NFL. Yankee is the exclusive clubs of Manhattan, Boston, and Georgetown. Cowboy is the exclusive clubs of Dallas and New Orleans, Orange County East and West. Yankee is the Council on Foreign Relations, the secret Round Table, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bundles for Britain, and at a certain point, the Dulles brothers and the doctrine of massive retaliation. Cowboy is Johnson, Connally, Howard Hunt and the Bay of Pigs team. Yankee is Kennedy, Cowboy is Nixon (pgs. 5-6).
. . . Quigley is the author of a huge book about the contemporary world, Tragedy and Hope, to which I will return in chapter two. I begin my debt to Quigley here by borrowing the following observation from his summary. Noting that since 1950 a "revolutionary change" has been occurring in American politics, Quigley says this transformation involves "a disintegration of the middle class and a corresponding increase in significance by the petty bourgeoisie at the same time that the economic influence of the older Wall Street financial groups has been weakening and been challenged by new wealth springing up outside the eastern cities, notably in the Southwest and Far West." He continues:
These new sources of wealth have been based very largely on government action and government spending but have, none the less, adopted a petty-bourgeois outlook rather than the semi aristocratic outlook that pervades the Eastern Establishment. This new wealth, based on petroleum, natural gas, ruthless exploitation of national resources, the aviation industry, military bases in the South and West, and finally on space with all its attendant activities, has centered in Texas and southern California. Its existence, for the first time, made it possible for the petty-bourgeois outlook to make itself felt in the political nomination process instead of in the unrewarding effort to influence politics by voting for a Republican candidate nominated under Eastern Establishment influence. . . . By the 1964 election, the major political issue in the country was the financial struggle behind the scenes between the old wealth, civilized and cultured in its foundations, and the new wealth, virile and uninformed, arising from the flowing profits of government-dependent corporations in the Southwest and West.
The whole point of introducing the Cowboy/Yankee language, of course, is to bring precisely that old-money/new money, Atlanticist-Frontierist tension into focus in the plane of current events.
The main idea of looking at things this way is to see that a sectional rivalry, derived from the patterns of the Civil War, still operates in American politics, indeed that at the altitude of national power elites, it may be the most sensitive and inflamed division of all, more concentrated than race and class and more basic than two-party system attachments and ideologies . . . (pgs. 6-8).
Let us go a step further with these types, Cowboy and Yankee, and sketch a first outline of the differing worlds they see.
The Yankee mind, of global scope, is at home in the great world, used to regarding it as a whole thing integrated in the far-flung activities of Western exploration, conquest, and commerce. The Yankee believes that the basis of a good world order is the health of America's alliances across the North Atlantic, the relations with the Western Democracies from which our tradition mainly flows. He believes the United States continues the culture of Europe and relates to the Atlantic as to a lake whose other shore must be secured as a matter of domestic priority. Europe is the key world theater, and it is self-evident to the Yankee mind that the fate of the United States is inevitably linked up with Europe's in a career of white cultural destiny transcending national boundaries: that a community of a unified world civilization exists, that there is such a thing as "the West," "One World.”
The Cowboy mind has no room for the assumption that American and European culture are continuous. The Cowboy is moved instead by the discontinuity of the New World from the Old and substitutes for the Yankee's Atlantic-oriented culture a new system of culture (Big Sky, Giant) oriented to an expanding wilderness Frontier and based on an advanced Pacific strategy (p. 8).
. . .
The distinction between the East Coast monopolist and the Western tycoon entrepreneur is the main class-economic distinction set out by the Yankee/ Cowboy perspective. It arises because one naturally looks for a class-economic basis for this apparent conflict at the summit of American power. That is because one must assume that parties without a class economic base could not endure struggle at that height. It is then only necessary to recall that antiwar feeling struck the Eastern Establishment next after it struck the students, the teachers, and the clergy-struck the large bank-connected firms tied into the trans-Atlantic business grid. During the same period, industrial segments around the construction industry, the military-industrial complex, agribusiness, the Southern Boom of the sixties and seventies, and independent Texas/Southwest oil interests--i.e., the forces Quigley calls "new wealth”--never suffered a moment of war-weariness. They supported the Texan Johnson and the Southern Californian Nixon as far as they would go toward a final military solution.4
Why should this difference have arisen? After a century of Northeastern leadership, and one-quarter century of Cold War unity, why should the national ruling coalition of the old and new owning classes, Yankee and Cowboy, have begun pulling apart? But then we have to go back What was the basis of their unity to begin with?
William Appleman Williams deals with a variation of this question when he argues that the basis for the long-term general (or “pluralist") coalition of the forces of capitalism (or "plutocracy") with the forces of democracy in American politics is the constant companionship of the expanding wilderness frontier. Williams thus stands the Turner Frontier on its head, correcting it.5 I add that another and cognate effect of the frontier in American economic development was to preserve the entrepreneurial option long after the arrival of the vast monopoly structures which tend to consume entrepreneurs. In the states whose political economic histories Marx studied, for example, the frontier was never the factor that it was in America, except as America itself was Europe's Wild West. The rugged individualist self-made rich man, the autonomous man of power, the wildcatter, began to drop out of sight, to lose presence as individual, type, and class, with the rise of the current-day computer-centered monopoly-corporate formations. The tycoon-entrepreneur is of course disappearing as a type in America too, at least as a political force in national life. The Hughes empire, at last, has been corporatized. Old man Hunt is dead. His sons are bringing Harvard Business School rational bureaucracy to the operation. But that only makes it all the more curious that political power continued to emanate from the type and the person, the image and the reality, the ghost perhaps, of a creature like Hughes as late as the second victorious presidential campaign of Nixon. Why should the Cowboy tycoon have persisted so long as a political force, competent to struggle against the biggest banking cartels for control of the levers of national power?
As others have argued, the Frontier was a reprieve for democracy. We may note here that it was also a reprieve for capitalism as well, whose internal conflicts were constantly being financed off an endless-seeming input of vast stretches of natural riches, having no origin in capitalist production. All that was needed was for the settlers to accept the genocidal elimination of the native population and a great deal became possible--the purple mountains, the fruited plains. And generation after generation of American whites were able to accept that program. The Indian wars won the West. The railroads and highways were laid. The country was resettled by a new race, a new nation.
Energies of expansion consumed the continent in about two centuries, pushing on to Hawaii and Alaska. There is no way to calculate the impact of that constant territorial expansion on the development of American institutions. There is no way to imagine those institutions apart from the environment created by that expansion. It is a matter our standard national hagiography paints out of the picture, though we make much of the populist-saga aspect of the pioneering (never "conquering") of the West. How can we congratulate our national performance for its general democracy and constitutionalism without taking into account the background of that constant expansion? We do not teach our children that we are democrats in order to expand forever and republicans on condition of an unfrozen western boundary with unclaimed wilderness. To the extent that the American miracle of pluralism exists at all, we still do not know how miraculous it would be in the absence of an expanding frontier, its constant companion 'till the time of the Chinese revolution.
The overwar in Asia has its internal American origin in the native reflex to maintain the Western Frontier on the old terms and to do so at all cost, since our whole way of life hinges on the Frontier. What the late-blooming Yankee liberal critics of the Vietnam war refused to hear and recognize between the lines of the prowar arguments of the more philosophical Cowboy hawks was this essential point about the importance of Frontier expansion in American life from the beginning.
In the nature of things, the American Frontier continued to expand with the prosperity it financed. Now, in our generation, it has brought us to this particular moment of world confrontation across the Pacific, fully global in scale for both sides, fully modern in its technological expression for both sides--the old Westward-surging battle for space projected onto the stage of superpowers.
The success and then the successful defense from 1950 to 1975 of the Asian revolutionary nationalist campaigns against further Western dominance in Asia--China, Korea, Vietnam--means that all that is changed. What was once true about the space to the west of America is no longer true and will never be true again. There will never be a time again when the white adventurer may peer over his western horizon at an Asia helplessly plunged in social disorganization. In terms of their social power to operate as a unified people and in the assimilation of technology, the Chinese people are, since 1950, a self-modernizing people, not colonials any more. And instead of a Wild West, Americans now have a mature common boundary with other moderns like ourselves, not savages, not Redskins, not Reds, only modem people like ourselves in a single modern world. This is new for us, a new experience for Americans altogether.
Our national transformation from an unbounded to a bounded state will of course continue to stir the internal furies. No one interpretation of the event will be able to establish itself. No one will agree what the end of the Frontier means, what it will lead to, what one ought to do about it. But all will agree that it is upon us and past, whether it is called one thing or another. And now after Vietnam, as though it were not clear enough before, it is apparent beyond any possibility of doubt that whatever this force of Asian self-modernization is, whether it is evil or good or beyond good and evil, it is assuredly not a force that United States policy-makers can manhandle and manipulate and hold back through diplomatic chicanery and military force . . . (pgs. 9-12).
More broadly I write to say that we are the American generations for whom the frontier is the fact that there is no more frontier and who must somehow begin to decide how to deal with this.
What shall America do about the loss of its wilderness frontier? Can we form our nation anew, on new, nonexpansionist terms without first having to see everything old swept violently away? The unarticulated tension around that question undermined the long-standing Yankee/Cowboy coalition and introduced, with President Kennedy's assassination, the current period of violent and irregular movement at the top of the power hierarchy. It is the precipitous and at the same time unfocused character of this question of the closed, lost frontier that has created such a challenge, such a threat, to traditional American values and institutions, the threat of a cancerously spreading clandestine state within (p. 13).
Taking Mr Oglesby’s overview and looking also at events in our own day, we can sketch out a few conclusions about the frontier and the American mission at home and in the world:
--The Old Elite from New England have become degenerate nihilists, offering nothing to people anywhere in the world but emptiness and death.
--The New Elite of the South and West have become the carriers of the old Puritan/Yankee creed of American Exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, and new frontiers to cross. Considering the end that the Old Elite and the people they ruled over have come to, this should be a cause for deep concern for the peoples of the South and West.
--The Western frontier on the Earth has closed, so the New Elite are trying to create a new ‘West’ for Americans to caravan towards to keep the American project functioning smoothly, whether it is scientific discoveries (robotics, AI, etc.), new forms of transportation (underground hyperloops), or, most importantly (because it evokes the memory of the pioneer days of the Old West), colonization of the moon, Mars, and space in general. Without a frontier, without the continual pillaging of fresh resources, the various hallmarks of the American experiment would quickly fade away: the lack of fixed social classes; the mobility of the people up or down the income scale; the democratic government this flux engenders; the acquisition of material things as the greatest good in life.
--Given the growing divide amongst the Elites, sooner or later we are likely to see a fracture in the Union: A State or States will secede and become independent countries (Texas and California are probably the likeliest to go first).
--The Robert Mueller/Democrat Party investigation of Pres Trump is likely a continuation of this feud between the Yankee and Cowboy Elite, Trump being the Cowboy in this fight (he is from the Northeast, but his family is of recent immigrant origin, making him of a kind with the New Rich of the South and West, not one of the Old Guard of New England: https://www.history.com/news/donald-trump-father-mother-ancestry) and Mueller, Hillary Clinton, etc., the Yanks (https://www.biography.com/political-figure/robert-mueller). Whoever wins this battle, it is a victory for globalism. That is the end goal of both factions; they just want to get there by different means. The former, the Yankees, want to attain a one world government by means of treaties, think tanks, social engineering, and other quiet, subtle tactics. The latter wish to use more open forms of coercion like warfare, whether economic or physical.
That said, Donald Trump, Elon Musk, and others are still pointing the way to the frontier, desperately trying to hold the American project together, but as with most other things in modern America, it is a distraction from what is true and good. The frontier is an externalization, a secularization, of the inner Christian life that the peoples of the States have forgotten or rejected. It is an attempt to satisfy the longing for the infinitely new blessings that the Christian experiences in his endlessly deepening union with God. Father Dumitru Staniloae writes,
Orthodox spirituality aims at the perfection of the faithful in Christ. This perfection can’t be obtained in Christ, except by participation in His divine-human life. Therefore the goal of Orthodox spirituality is the perfection of the believer by his union with Christ. He is being imprinted to an ever-greater degree by the human image of Christ, full of God.
So the goal of Christian Orthodox spirituality is the union of the believer with God, in Christ. But as God is unending, the goal of our union with Him, or of our perfection, has no point from which we can no longer progress. So all the Eastern Fathers say that perfection is unlimited.
Our perfection, or our union with God, is therefore not only a goal, but also an unending progress. On this road two great steps can be distinguished: first, the moving ahead toward perfection through purification from the passions and the acquiring of the virtues and secondly a life progressively moving ahead in the union with God.
--Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar, trans. Archimandrite Jerome and Otilia Kloos, South Canaan, Penn., St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003, p. 21.
Walking this path towards union with God in the Orthodox Church, men and women are completely satisfied. They have no need nor desire to conquer unknown realms in order to puff up their egos and acquire a hoard of earthly wealth. They are content to live a simple, agrarian life with their neighbors as they work out their salvation and await their departure for the Kingdom not of this world.
We find echoes of this in traditional agrarian societies all over the world. The true logos of the South conforms to this pattern. The present-day Southern writer and farmer Wendell Berry gives testimony to it when he writes about the possibilities of contentment in a single place:
. . . A place, apart from our now always possible destruction of it, is inexhaustible. It cannot be altogether known, seen, understood, or appreciated.
That Cézanne returned many times to paint Mont Sainte-Victoire, or that William Carlos Williams spent a long life writing about Rutherford, New Jersey, does not mean that those places are now exhausted as subjects. It means that they are inexhaustible. There are many examples of this. One that I have kept in mind for nearly forty years, to define a hope and a consolation, is that of the French entomologist, Jean Henri Fabre. Too poor to travel, Fabre spent the last thirty-odd years of his life studying the insects and other creatures of his small harmas near Sérignan, “a patch of pebbles enclosed within four walls” (Edwin Way Teale, The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, p. 2). And surely his enthusiasm lasted so long because he studied the living creatures in their—and his—dwelling place.
--Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition, Berkeley, Cal., Counterpoint, 2000, pgs. 139-40.
But take a step into the nominalism of the post-Schism West (whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, Cartesian, Newtonian, etc.), and this contentment is destroyed, and man is thrust onto the path of chasing frontier after frontier, boundary after boundary, in search of what will satisfy and give rest.
The Puritan/Yankee City on a Hill will always need a frontier to forestall its inevitable collapse, proof that the American project is a diabolical fantasy. It is time for the peoples of the States to wake up from it. Hundreds of years of sleepwalking is more than enough.