Freedom and the Frontier
“Look about you and you will see adventurers uppermost everywhere; in the government, in the towns, in your villages, in the country, even. We are a nation of changes . . . . The constant recurrences of the election accustom men to changes in their public functionaries; the great increase in population brings new faces; and the sudden accumulation of property places new men in conspicuous stations.”—James Fenimore Cooper, Home as Found (1838).
In 1806, a Scottish merchant and cartographer named John Melish arrived in New York City from Glasgow, Scotland. Melish’s purpose in coming to America was to, first, inspect his commercial investments, and second, map this new country’s physical and cultural landscape. After taking care of business, Melish embarked on a 1700-mile grand tour of the United States to bear witness to this new society—a society unlike anything known to Europeans.
The result of Melish’s American journey was a two-volume travelogue or what he called a “living picture” of America published in 1812. A few years later, he also produced the first map of the then existing 18 United States and the territories beyond—a map extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
What Melish recorded in Travels in the United States of America in the Years 1806 & 1807, and 1809, 1810, & 1811 was a portrait of a new kind of society that was emerging out of the Revolution and the Founding. In the “Preface” to the first volume of Travels in America, Melish asserted that the cause of America’s greatness was its “rational freedom”—a freedom that was partially inherited from Great Britain and partially taken from the British by the Americans after 1776. Whatever the Americans inherited from their British and colonial past was quickly evaporating, and the freedom they had taken by arms represented the future. The Americans institutionalized morally, politically, and culturally a “degree of freedom . . . unknown in Europe,” and, as a result, had secured “to industry the reward of its merit—peace and plenty.”
New arrivals to America, either visitors or immigrants, would undoubtedly find, Melish noted, “an hospitable reception, and an enjoyment of perfect freedom and security.” The fundamental difference between Europe and America could be summed up in one word: freedom. The equality of conditions that observers such as Tocqueville noted was the result of freedom and independence, which made social equality possible.
Freedom was more fundamental than equality. And what did this new freedom culture look, sound, and feel like to visitors?
The first thing that Melish noticed about “the American character” was its “spirit of stern independence” that “will brook no superiority.” Near the end of his journey, the Scot summed up what he took to be the defining characteristic of the American people:
There is a noble trait in the character of the mass of the American people, that of independence. They place themselves on an equal footing with whoever they come in contact. If they do anything for you, they will have their price, and a good price too; but they will take nothing in a sneaking away: they will never leave it to the honour or generosity of the employer.
The American people presented a new kind of society and even a new kind of moral being to Melish that was unknown anywhere at any time in world history. The Americans were free, independent, equal, self-interested, honest, just, and meritocratic. Men who were independent one from the other were free to create their own destinies, free to choose whom they might marry, free to choose their form of livelihood, free to live where they wanted, and free to form associations with other men and women to achieve common goals.
Post-revolutionary America represented an existential transformation in the nature of human society. The Americans were self-owning, self-governing, self-reliant, and self-made. This new-model man was in the process of liberating himself from the old feudal ties of clan, class, race, or tribe that had united all societies hitherto. The world—the whole world—had never seen anything like what was emerging in America.
America was a moral-social-political laboratory that was being observed closely by the people of the Old World. In America, Melish observed, every man is . . .
conscious of his own political importance, and will suffer none to treat him with disrespect. Nor is this disposition confined to one rank; it pervades the whole, and is probably the best guarantee for the continuance of the liberty and independence of the country.
Where had such a society as this ever existed anywhere before? The answer was, of course, nowhere.
Melish saw in America an extraordinary, if not a primal form of productive and entrepreneurial energy that had no counterpart in the Old World. Wherever he went, Melish found the American people hard at work and pursuing a better life for themselves.
After arriving in Pittsburgh in 1810, for instance, Melish observed, “In the course of my walks through the streets, I heard everywhere the sound of the hammer and the anvil; all was alive; everything indicated the greatest industry, and attention to business.” Further West in Ohio, a farmer told Melish that “Those who were industrious . . . could not fail to lay up a comfortable stock for old age, and for posterity.” This was the beginning of what came to be the American Dream or the promise of American life, which was the prospect that American parents could expect the lives of their children and grandchildren to be better than their own. At the end of his trip, Melish was prepared to announce to the world: “A new era has commenced in the United States.”
What was the “new era” launched by America? What was this new society that was emerging out of the revolutionary-found period? How was this new society different from what had come before, and how was it different from all other societies?
When the Declaration of Independence says that it is a fundamental moral truth that all men are created equal; that they are endowed with fundamental, natural rights; and that the purpose of government is to protect those rights, what does all that mean in practice? When the Constitution establishes, limits, and defines the powers of the federal government, how are those powers to be implemented in practice? How do those principles cash out culturally, socially, politically, and economically? What was the way of life that issued from such a political order?
The post-revolutionary period of American history from 1790 to approximately 1850 saw the working out and implementation of the Founders’ moral and political principles. It represented the final death knell of the premodern world and the birth of a modern, liberal capitalistic society. This new society that was coming-into-being was characterized by several traits: an ethic of self-interest, a culture of self-governance and self-reliance, a society of freedom and social mobility; a politics of laissez-faire government, and an economics of entrepreneurial free-enterprise.
It was the dawn of a new age.
Ideas Have Consequences
What did the founders’ classical-liberal moral and political philosophy mean in practice for individual Americans?
Under revolutionary republicanism, duty and obedience were rejected as political virtues and replaced by a radical form of self-governance. The individual—not the community, the tribe, the fatherland, the Church, or the king—was now viewed as the chief organizing principle of society, and all individuals in this free society would be treated as equally free and independent. Each person was to be recognized and treated as an end in himself.
As James Fenimore Cooper, America’s first great novelist, put it in his essay on “The American Democrat”: the “intention of liberty . . . is to leave every man free to be the master of his own acts.” Where and when in world history had a social philosophy such as this ever been tried before?
This new view of the individual and his relationship to the rest of society was as much a moral-cultural revolution as it was a political revolution. The individual in America was now defined by his status as a free moral agent, which was the cornerstone of this new republican society. The individual was responsible for his or her own actions (i.e., to choose between right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice, productive and unproductive) and was therefore responsible for rising or falling according to one’s own moral merit. Self-control (an old virtue) was now combined with self-reliance (a new virtue).
The system of natural liberty meant that individuals were subject first and foremost to the rewards and punishments of the moral laws of nature because of their own choices and actions. Nature can be a harsh mistress that judges vice with no admixture of sympathy or mercy. Freedom and republican self-government put all the burden on individuals to take care of themselves and their families. Everyone in this new society was responsible for his or her own destiny. They were expected to pursue their wellbeing on their own and with no coerced, rights-violating assistance from government.
Government was no longer viewed as necessary to hold society together other than to serve as a neutral arbiter between separate, distinct, and sometimes conflicting individuals. And yet, remarkably, order and harmony emerged out of liberty and the right of individuals to pursue their self-interest and happiness. In a free society, wrote Cooper in 1838, “social intercourse must regulate itself, independently of institutions.” And this is precisely what happened.
From this republican revolution burst forth new moral, cultural, and economic forces that reconstituted American society. Nothing contributed more to this new vitalism and explosion of energy than did the related ideas of individualism, freedom, and rights, which recentered the moral universe away from the old order defined by the “common good,” self-sacrifice, duties, and compulsion.
The principle of individualism held that the individual is self-owning and self-governing; the principle of freedom required the absence of physical coercion or interference, which meant that individuals were to be left alone to order their affairs; and the principle of rights served as a social-ordering mechanism that created and protected expanding spheres of freedom for individuals interacting with one another in civil society.
These new moral principles were the most powerful force unleashed by the Revolution and the Founding. As a result, with the obvious exception of slavery, the United States became the freest nation in world history in the century-and-a-half after 1776.
A New Kind of Society
The creation and operation of a new constitutional-political-social order reoriented the way Americans thought about their lives and futures. Ordinary Americans in particular saw new opportunities that had not been afforded to their ancestors. The freedom that came out of the Revolution and the Founding removed all kinds of traditional barriers that had formerly inhibited and limited the actions of millions of Americans. As a result, Americans of all social classes were now free to work hard, to be entrepreneurial, and, most importantly, to be rewarded for their work and enterprise.
What came out of the Revolution and the Founding was a new kind of free, liberal, and capitalistic society. Revolutionary republicanism liberated the individual and the individual’s relationship to government and to the rest of society. Men and women were now free to form new kinds of voluntary relationships and associations to help them pursue their material and spiritual values.
Post-revolutionary American society was unlike anything seen anywhere, anytime before. As American revolutionaries worked out the logic and meaning of the individual-rights philosophy at the heart of their revolutionary project, they came to see that the rights to life, liberty, property, and, most of all, the right to the pursuit of happiness could only lead to one Archimedean point: a new morality of self-interest.
What else could the right to the pursuit of happiness mean? The individual’s right to life and the pursuit of happiness could only mean that individuals have, by definition, a moral right to pursue what is in their interest tempered by the rights of others. It could mean nothing else.
America’s revolutionary Founders were, in many ways, the first philosophic statesmen in history to reconceptualize and institutionalize the role of self-interest in human affairs. For millennia, the idea of self-interest, or its uglier form of expression as “selfishness,” was denigrated and condemned as the antithesis of morality. With America’s revolutionary founders, however, the idea of self-interest was becoming recognized not only as a grim reality of human nature but as the proper source and necessary end of human action.
This new morality of self-interest (“rightly understood” as Alexis de Tocqueville described it) liberated individuals to pursue their private, personal interests rather than the guilt-ridden dictates of Christian love or the undefined, collectivist notion of the “common good.” At the deepest philosophic level, the Founders’ recognition and acceptance of the morality of self-interest signaled the dawn of a new moral age.
The rest of the world was not quite ready for what was happening in America at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Americans were in the process of creating the world’s first truly free society—a society where all individuals (minus the glaring exception—obviously—of slavery) were free to govern themselves and to pursue their own freely chosen values.
The new nation that burst forth from the Revolution and the Founding was unfathomable—indeed, it was dizzying—to Old-World spectators, newcomers and visitors, some of whom could not comprehend the new social reality that was emerging in Britain’s former colonies. All the old assumptions about what held society together were being blown up in America.
“Go West, Young Man”
As if all this change were not enough, the moral and political revolution of 1776 was accompanied in the decades thereafter by a social and demographic revolution that reshaped the contours of American society. Freedom and the existence of an ever-expanding, ever-moving western frontier were the two primary forces reshaping American culture in the decades after 1776.
The Revolution unleashed first tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to start the Great Migration over and around the Appalachian Mountains. After the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the passage of Northwest Ordinance in 1787, hundreds of millions of acres of vacant and unused lands were now open for settlement and cultivation. Starting in the 1790s, streams of wagon trains made their way through the Cumberland Gap and other pathways through the mountains to chase the setting sun and the fertile lands of the American West.
The freedom to leave or escape the congested East and to move to the boundless spaces of the West served as an active solvent breaking down the old social adhesives and traditional forms of social organization that had once kept colonial society unified and stable. The roots and ties that had formerly bound families and communities together became shallow and tenuous, and the social-political hierarchies and patronage relationships that defined colonial life were dissolving quickly. The old world of the traditional Puritan community was coming apart at the seams.
The most important and remarkable development during these decades was the emergence of what we might call a frontier culture, which outran and moved beyond the existing political and civil institutions back East. Americans of all descriptions began to move from town to town, from state to state, and from territory to territory in a steady stream of migration that mostly moved in a westerly direction. Some families lived semi-nomad lives and chased the ever-fluid frontier, sometimes moving every couple of years. It was not uncommon for a family to move five or six times.
In 1837, Francis J. Grund (1804-1863), a Bohemian-born German who came to the United States as a young man, published a two-volume study of American life and culture titled Americans in their Moral, Social, and Political Relations. Grund was fascinated, like virtually all Europeans who had come to America, with the culture that had developed in the trans-Appalachian West. According to Grund,
the universal disposition of Americans to emigrate to the western wilderness, in order to enlarge their dominion over inanimate nature, is the actual result of an expansive power which is inherent in them, and which by continually agitating all classes of society is constantly throwing a large portion of the whole population on the extreme confines of the State, in order to gain space for its development. Hardly is a new State or Territory formed before the same principal manifests itself again and gives rise to a further emigration; and so is it destined to go on until a physical barrier must finally obstruct its progress.
Freedom and the frontier unleashed an “expansive power” in the souls of those men and women who traveled west and now lived at the “extreme confines of the State.”
Naturally, these pioneers and settlers brought with them their inherited manners and mores, which in turn were reshaped by a new environment. Over time, though, the isolation of frontier life bred a new moral and social ethos, the likes of which had never been seen before. Families were largely isolated from one another, separated by miles and wastes of forest, which meant that they became more and more self-reliant and self-governing.
Frontier families stood ready to conquer nature and subdue the wilderness. They cleared their own land, built their own homes (usually with the assistance of neighbors within a thirty-mile radius), made their own tools, furniture, and clothes, broke their own land, planted and harvested their own crops, drew their own water, hunted for their own meat, and protected their own home and family. Nature was unforgiving and relentless, and life on the frontier was brutally hard and full of privations. For those who lived on the western edge of the frontier, life in this state of nature could sometimes be, as Thomas Hobbes described it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Moral profligacy often led to destitution or death.
Thrown upon their own resources, men became strongly independent, which in turn bred both confidence and a suspicion of meddling but absentee government officials. The freedom and harsh realities of the frontier bred a sense of autonomy, independence, self-confidence, and what we have come to call “rugged individualism.”
In the trans-Appalachian west, a new kind of society was emerging unlike anything seen anywhere in the world at any time. There was one principal advantage to settling west of the Ohio River, according to Manasseh Cutler, one of the principal explorers and founders of Ohio, which no place on earth could boast, “that, in order to begin right, there will be . . . no inveterate systems to overturn.” They were beginning de novo.
With every passing decade after 1790, all of the old social hierarchies and rooted communities that had defined the early seaboard colonies and certainly the Old World were dying. Everything was moving and in a state flux. A new civilization was being created.
The strongest environmental force shaping the manners and mores of this new civilization was the fact that the American frontier was constantly being moved, extended, and replicated in a kind of Nietzschean eternal recurrence. The first frontier was the Atlantic shoreline for incoming Europeans, and then there was in successive order the piedmont, the Appalachian Mountains, the Mississippi River, the Missouri River, the Rocky Mountains, the Salt Lake Basin, and finally, the Pacific Ocean. American society in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries was defined by an ever-turning cycle of birth and rebirth.
As generation after generation of men, women and children chased the frontier for some 300 years of American history, a unique American culture was forged as men and women confronted the crucible of nature directly in a life and death battle. The pioneer was forced to accept and adapt to the environmental conditions that confronted him. Each new frontier was different from the others, thereby requiring new skills and modes of living. The farming culture of the Mississippi Valley was, for instance, different from the ranching culture of the High Planes.
The frontier was also a place of near total freedom, where the long arm of the State barely reached. Society developed there naturally and spontaneously. Men and women were no longer constrained by the manners and mores of the Atlantic seaboard or Europe. The habits and bonds of custom that had formerly held society together were splintering along the frontier. Nor were men conditioned to sacrifice for the “common good” or to obey the commands of government.
Freedom from government force meant that individuals had to become self-owning, self-starting, and self-reliant. The alternative was not jail but penury or worse. The pioneer was allergic to the idea of the government telling him how to live his life. Self-government was his ideal.
Slowly over time, the pioneer transformed the wilderness into a new, proto civilization—a unique civilization that was increasingly different from the Old World. This constant return to the primitive conditions of frontier life meant that the American character was, at least in part, continually being renewed in its most distinctive form: the rugged individualist.
This uniquely American ideal (there is no French, German, Italian, or Russian version of rugged individualism) was borne of the combination of freedom and the frontier. The frontier meant freedom of opportunity and everything that came with it. Out of this process, came a new way of life and a new social philosophy that can be identified as Americanism.
Nothing was more important in affecting the mind and character of the American people in the post-Founding years than the new realms of freedom and space that were given to them by the Constitution and the westward moving frontier. The combination of freedom and the frontier led to an explosion in productive economic activity and endless trading, which created a continental marketplace defined by a natural division of labor and a harmony of economic interests.
The West meant opportunity, and millions of Americans and immigrants from the Old World headed toward the Mississippi and beyond in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Freedom and the frontier are what made America, America.
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