How the West Won America: Lessons on Identity, Violence, and Nationalism

A common depiction of the American cowboy or outlaw, reminiscent of frontier identity.

The frontiersman, the quintessential icon of America, has contributed to how the nation is viewed by those foreign to her shores. Whether it be the shrewd outlaw on horseback with his trusty six-shooter, the Texan rebel fighting against the Mexican army of Santa Anna, or even the chauvinistic cavalryman on the banks of the Little Bighorn River, the image is as personified and part of American culture as it’s been portrayed in decades and years past. Behind the facade of the silver screen, there’s much more, in terms of historical and contemporary analysis, that can be said about the frontier. We can take away lessons on the formation of the American identity, lessons on violence, and lessons on nationalism.

I: INDEPENDENCE & MANIFEST DESTINY

The United States was founded on July 4, 1776, following the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Following the lead-up to this monumental event, in the early 18th century, the British Empire had persistently practiced a policy of salutary neglect against the Thirteen Colonies, providing extensive autonomy in colonial affairs as long as the colonists remained loyal to the British crown. Following the conclusion of the Seven Year’s War, colloquially known as the French and Indian War in the United States, the King of the United Kingdom, George III, issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which established the Proclamation Line along the Appalachian Mountains. All land west of the Proclamation Line was designated as Indian Reservation land and was not to be settled. This feud between the Thirteen Colonies and its settlers west of the Proclamation Line with Great Britain has been one of the leading causes of the American Revolutionary War and was an early inclination of what is now known as Manifest destiny.

A romanticized depiction of Manifest destiny shows westward expansion, development, and the displacement of Native Americans.

Manifest destiny was the romanticized name for American territorial expansion in the west. Historians often cite the Louisiana Territory’s purchase by then-President Thomas Jefferson as the impetus for western expansion, and there’s merit to this claim. The Louisiana Purchase had doubled the size of the nation overnight with just the stroke of a quill. As the nation doubled, the prospect for western settlements only grew as the floodgates beyond Appalachia opened themselves to the new frontiersmen. From this period came the folk-like figures of American history. Louis and Clark, Daniel Boone, and even future President Andrew Jackson. These individuals represent the birth of the rugged individualist persona and the return to man’s primitive environment. It’s this culmination of independence and expansion that the American identity was formed, as we will see, through blood and iron.

II: FRONTIER PHILOSOPHY

American historian Fredrick Jackson Turner, famous for his “Frontier Thesis” in the late 19th and early 20th century (which is a subject of influence on this article), postulated the notion that American democracy and identity were born through each iteration of frontier expansion. No longer were the old European customs relevant on the tracks of wilderness and the towering mountains. As the civilized man transposed himself back to a primitive environment, he would have to rapidly change his character to conquer nature, so to speak. Turner eloquently explains this dynamic in his 1893 breakthrough essay entitled, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, which would popularize his thesis. Turner writes:

An American frontiersman in primitive garments.

“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. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little, he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not [of] old Europe… The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.”

The frontier philosophy of Turner can also be applied to the conflicts for political control of the west. Before the Lousiana Purchase, the Lousiana Territory was controlled by the French, who lost much of their control in North America after the French and Indian Wars. Looming from the north, the British still held dominion in Upper and Lower Canada which posed a threat to the fledgling United States in the War of 1812. West of the Mississippi, the Spanish still held control of the Pacific west and intermountain regions, except the Oregon Country disputed between the U.S. and the British Hudson’s Bay Company. It would be under the Presidency of James K. Polk, a protégé of Andrew Jackson, that the United States would achieve its Manifest destiny. Polk, a dark horse in the presidential election of 1844, had partially campaigned on acquiring territory in the Pacific west, including all of Oregon and all of California. Polk’s expansionist promises were grandiose, to say the least. However, two forces stood in the way of Polk’s vision: the Mexicans and the British.

President James K. Polk, a champion of Manifest destiny, sought to expand America’s claims to the Pacific coast.

Possibly the most famous campaign slogan during Polk’s candidacy for President was the phrase, “54° 40' or Fight”, a reference to the ongoing Oregon border dispute between the U.S. and Great Britain. The Treaty of 1818, which sought to resolve the issue through a joint occupation had ultimately failed to keep the tensions at bay. Manifest destiny had invigorated Americans and they weren’t going to let their previous colonizers take control of the land that was rightly American by divine virtue. American settlers had also begun to outnumber British settlers in the Oregon Country, prompting action from the U.S. government to settle the dispute. As Polk assumed the Presidency, he declared that joint occupation of the Oregon Country would end within one year. If the dispute had not been settled within the allotted time frame, a war would almost certainly assume the mantle. Polk, keen on compromise, knew that the British could potentially force their claim through naval superiority, but British Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen pursued a peaceful resolution and did not want to escalate tensions over land that he deemed undesirable to British interests. In 1848, a compromise was reached between the United States and Great Britain, drawing the border between British-controlled territory and American-controlled territory at the 49th parallel. The Oregon Territory was established as American continued its territorial expansions.

The situation just south of Oregon was a different story. In 1844, Mexico was still a relatively young nation-state, achieving independence from the Spanish Empire in 1821. In 1836, the Mexican province of Texas declared independence from Mexico following the establishment of a centralized Mexican government, and thus, the Republic of Texas was born. Many inhabitants of Texas were also of American descent, venturing to the land with hopes of starting new lives, similar to the pioneers of the Oregon Country. The Mexcian Tejanos province soon had more in common with the Anglophone United States than it had with Hispanophone Mexico. Therefore, it was only necessary for Texas to secede and for the United States to weigh in on the affair which would culminate in the annexation of Texas into the U.S. and the prelude of the Mexican-American War. For a year and ten months, the United States would engage in warfare with the Mexican Republic, ultimately prevailing in 1848. As a result, Mexico would lose all its territory in the Pacific west and intermountain region to the United States through the Mexican Cession outlined in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Texas, the Mexican Cession, and the Oregon Country were acquired under Polk’s presidency.

And so Polk had achieved what elected him as the unlikely President. Over four years, the United States had doubled yet again through war, bloodshed, and the quest for identity. The political ramifications of this continued expansion were yet again congruent with Turner’s Frontier thesis, that the nationalistic fervor which drove the United States to push west had also contributed to the evolution of her political institutions and thus the progression from an antiquated agrarian society to a flourishing industrial marvel. Tuner writes:

“It was this nationalizing tendency of the West that transformed the democracy of Jefferson into the national republicanism of Monroe and the democracy of Andrew Jackson.”

And as America had been transformed by the frontier, so had the communities that formed among her plains, along her river banks, and deep within her hills and mountain peaks.

As stated earlier, the return to man’s primitive environment renders him savage through virtue of survival. This had culminated in individual identity and is relevant in the formation of political thought on the frontier. Tuner’s belief is that the conditions on that frontier had produced American democracy. Turner writes:

“But the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy… 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.”

Turner’s notions on the effect of the frontier in relation to individual and political development are rudimentary in understanding the development of American identity, nationalism, and evolution of its political institutions.

American identity, as stated by Turner, generates an individualist, anti-social, and rugged lifestyle. In Western films and television shows of the last century, the characters who personified these traits were the cowboys and outlaws, taken directly from the American Old West. These were the anti-heroic, vigilante individuals, like Billy the Kid or Wild Bill Hickock. To the spectator, the anti-hero lacks identity. He has to prove himself, to “rough it” in the wild, untamed land. Law and order are absent or otherwise despised. Vigilantism takes center stage while violence is adopted as a quest for identity. Nationalism and populist tendencies, respective of the American identity of the mid 19th century, have also been born on the frontier. As the United States continued to expand, so did its effort to press its claims as well as institute governance. A distinct Jeffersonian, Jacksonian democracy had been formed on the frontier, directly affecting the U.S. as a whole through the protraction of states’ rights. States’ right advocate and former Vice President under Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, said in a statement to the House of Representatives in 1817 that, “We [the United States] are great, and rapidly — I was about to say fearfully — growing!”

The admission of new states, as well as the continuation of slavery, proved to be a harbinger to the early beginnings of the American Civil War. Following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, the newly acquired territories under American jurisdiction had to decide whether they would institute or abolish the institution of slavery. Pennsylvanian Congressman David Wilmot proposed the prohibition of slavery in the west to the House in 1846. Known as the Wilmot Proviso, the law would prevent the institution of slavery in the acquired territories outright. Unfortunately, Wilmot’s proposition did not pass in the Senate, where Southern interests dominated the upper house of Congress.

Bleeding Kansas, often referred to as the “Tragic Prelude” leading to the American Civil War.

The question of slavery in the western territory of Kansas eventually boiled over into an armed conflict that would prove to be consequential in the lead-up to the Civil War. In 1854, pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” and anti-slavery “Free-Staters” would clash over whether the Kansas Territory should be admitted into the Union as a free or slave state. Known as “Bleeding Kansas, the incident had major political implications on the power exerted in the Senate, as the two Senators representing Kansas would also represent either pro-slavery, Southern interests, or anti-slavery, Northern interests. Eventually, Kansas would be admitted into the Union as a free state on January 29, 1861. Just two months after Kanas’ admission into the Union, the Batte of Fort Sumter would tear the nation apart for four bloody years.

Turner identifies the institution of slavery as regional preservation that no longer stood the test of time in a rapidly expanding nation. Turner writes:

“The fierce struggle of the sections over slavery on the western frontier does not diminish the truth of this statement; it proves the truth of it. Slavery was a sectional trait that would not down, but in the West it could not remain sectional. It was the greatest of frontiersmen who declared: ‘I believe this Government can not endure permanently half slave and half free. It will become all of one thing or all of the other.’ Nothing works for nationalism like intercourse within the nation. Mobility of population is death to localism, and the western frontier worked irresistibly in unsettling population The effect reached back from the frontier and affected profoundly the Atlantic coast and even the Old World.”

The Confederate States, which championed states’ rights and the institution of slavery, had to be confronted on the battlefield as the United States was forging a place for itself in the modern world. The mid to late 19th century of statesmanship and nation-building was at its all-time high. In Europe, the Germans had fought in a series of wars that would ultimately unite the German states under a unified German Empire. In Italy, the Risorgimento united the Italian states under the unified Kingdom of Italy. It was the frontier in the United States, which so drastically changed America’s political landscape which led to the abolition of slavery and ultimately the “unification”, if you will, of the United States. The American Civil War, in turn, could also be nicknamed the War of American Unification as American identity began to emerge.

III: CONTEMPORARY APPLICATION

Turner’s Frontier thesis is an extraordinary account of the history of the United States, the formation of the American identity, and the roots of American nationalism. In today’s contentious political and social landscape, it’s often the case for subjects of this matter to be dismissed entirely. However, I believe there to be significant merit in the contemporary application of the Frontier thesis in the 21st century. For starters, the term “frontier” and its image, while American in nature, has not left the public’s vocabulary. The internet, which has been described as a unique cyber frontier, has conjured up many of the same attributes associated with the Frontier thesis. In a very “McLhuanistic” comparison, the frontiersman or outlaw roaming the wilds or deserts of the American Old West shares much in common with the web surfing reactionaries of our day. Both have been displaced from modern society, but will separately have to apply themselves in a frontier of wilderness or information. Both the wilds of the west and the social media environment breed a new, rendered type of person. This violent quest for identity or vindication is seemingly paralleled with the Frontier thesis. In a 1977 interview with Marshall McLuhan, McLuhan states:

“Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. It is only the threat to people’s identity that makes them violent”

McLuhan continues, stating:

“People in all times have been this way. In our time, when things happen very quickly, there’s very little time to adjust to new situations at the speed of light. There is little time to get accustomed to anything.”

Apollo 11 proved that space exploration and colonization may open the doors to a new frontier.

There’s often a phrase muttered on the internet, “Born too late to explore the world, born too early to explore the galaxy, born just in time to explore the internet.” As new frontier’s open in the near future, perhaps there’s also a chance for Turner’s Frontier thesis to be applied in space colonization. As early as 1960, in the midst of the Space Race, President John F. Kennedy referred to space as the “New Frontier” in a speech of the same name. Just nine years later, the U.S. Apollo 11 mission would send the first men to the Moon.

In 2006, NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale gave a speech to the 2nd Space Exploration Conference in Houston, Texas, outlining NASA’s intentions to colonize Mars. In Dale’s speech, she remarks that if the Moon’s natural resources can be harvested to sustain permanent life, the Moon would serve as a “refueling stop on our highway out into the solar system.” And now with recent attempts to colonize the Moon under the Artemis program and the many strides being taken by SpaceX to colonize Mars, the space frontier may not be a far stretch of the imagination. Could there be a new formation of identity through a similar fashion outlined in Turner’s Frontier thesis? It’s not exactly certain, but as we have learned throughout history, when mankind is alienated, new societies begin to take shape out of the virtue to change. The people of those societies change, their identities change, and thus their mark in history is left out of the virtue to begin anew.

Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier thesis is an excellent interpretation of American history and identity. We learn how the land which was tamed by the pioneers eventually tamed the nation as a whole. And following the conclusion of the American Civil War, the United States would finally enter the global stage as a world power. It was through sheer grit and bloodshed that the American identity had formed. From it, we can learn about the America of today, the formation of the American identity, our modern frontiers, and the frontiers to come.

Edward D. Curry is an independent journalist and a self-described history and philosophy buff.

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