America’s Post-Frontier Hangover

America binged on expansion, relying on land grabs as an engine of growth and a way to externalize racial hatred. Historian Greg Grandin asks, without a frontier, what can America be?

Will Meyer | Longreads | March 2019 | 17 minutes (4,498 words)

In the small New England town where I live, Hadley, Massachusetts, the common lies a few miles from the mishmash of corporate chains that make up the town’s economic center. A quiet residential neighborhood surrounds the common. It is a grassy patch, left vacant most of the year, save for occasional festivals and craft fairs; open space to be utilized as needed, hardly disturbed otherwise. Adjacent to the college towns of Northampton and Amherst, not much happens in Hadley. I go for walks around my neighborhood most days and seldom run into many people. The common feels like an oasis, a fleeting yet contained sliver of vastness.

In 1995, the Hadley Historical Commission installed a plaque on the side of a rock, near the end of the common, between where it meets the main road and a paved rail trail. The plaque commemorates the “17th Century Palisade,” a wall that was “3 fingers thick and 8 feet high” in 1676, 100 years before the American revolution. The “fortification,” the plaque states, “was one mile long by 40 rods wide.” Most saliently, however, “Hadley was then a frontier outpost which felt threatened by Native American attack.” In other words, the settlers built a wall (around the corner from where I live now) both to assert their settlement and ward off perceived threats — namely the brown-skinned Other the United States was founded, at least partially, to pacify and remove.

The settlers didn’t stop (or, let’s be honest, start) at the Hadley palisade; the so-called march of progress across America was powered by “Indian removal” and situated within the ideological myth of a ballooning frontier, where expansion was idealized as a way to diffuse the conflicts and tensions of a nation founded as much on paradoxes and exclusions as it was on “self-rule” or anything resembling “democracy.” The frontier, argues NYU history professor Greg Grandin in a provocative new book The End of Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, was the genesis of and fodder for a continuous mechanism by which both simmering class resentments and boiling nativism were funneled outwards, “as a proxy for liberation” from whatever happened to be ailing the country. “Expansion became the answer to every question,” writes Grandin, “the solution to all problems, especially expansion.” For centuries the frontier conveyed boundless movement and conquest, from Massachusetts to the Philippines, but for Grandin, Trump’s nagging threat of a “big, beautiful wall” represents the frontier’s ultimate contraction; a “monument” to its “final closing”; or, “America’s new myth” onto which a similar set of grievances can be projected.

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Grandin’s book starts in Puritan New England, where “God made way for his people by removing the heathen and planting them in the ground,” according to an unnamed Puritan. The settlers were motivated by “fears,” according to historian Bernard Bailyn, “of what could happen to civilized people in an unimaginable wilderness and fears of racial conflicts in which God’s children were fated to struggle with pitiless agents of Satan, pagan Antichrists swarming in the world around them.” Still, the drive to move westward beckoned. In the early decades of the 18th century, Scotch-Irish and German migration pushed settlements into western Pennsylvania on religious terms — a “struggle between popery and true religion.” However, as the settler project barreled onward, so did the narrative. By 1751, Ben Franklin, in a pamphlet called the “Observations Concerning the Increase in Mankind,” helped to frame America’s colonial ambitions in secular terms, substituting “Christ’s Coming” with “social progress.”

The zeal to venture beyond the Mississippi allied the founding fathers, many of whom, like Washington, were land speculators and wanted access to land not permitted by the Royal Proclamation.

However, revamped narratives do not a settlement make. Force is required as well. In order to settle western Pennsylvania, in 1763, the Scots-Irish Paxton Boys, a vigilante-style militia group “rampaged through western Pennsylvania, murdering scores of Conestoga, scalping their victims and mutilating their corpses,” Grandin writes. The Paxton Boys come up several times throughout the book, not because of their uniqueness, but due to the continuity they represent — one that would be later expressed by a nascent Ku Klux Klan and today’s border militias. At the time of their activity, although they were doing what was, in their eyes, necessary to push the frontier forward, they were also acting at the edge of what was acceptable behavior. Before the American Revolution, the bounds of migration were contested, and policed both by the British Crown as well as, in some cases, the Church. For example, when Quaker authorities put a high bounty on two men who had, in a fit of retaliation, killed “friend Indians,” it was the Paxton Boys who came to the murderers’ aid, charging the “old log jail” these men were held in, ultimately forcing their release.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 sought to bound the frontier, cutting it off at the Mississippi river; it threatened to punish those who pushed into Indian land. George Washington said it had to “fall.” In fact, Washington invested in frontier lands. As Grandin notes, in order to skirt royal authorities, he “instructed his ‘locator’ — as private surveyors were called — to venture west ‘under the guise of hunting game.’” The zeal to venture beyond the Mississippi allied the founding fathers, many of whom, like Washington, were land speculators and wanted access to land not permitted by the Royal Proclamation. The Declaration of Independence addresses this obliquely, suggesting that the Crown had incited “merciless Indian savages” to wage war on settlers, implicitly affirming that vigilantes like the Paxton Boys were in fact acting within the bounds of acceptable behavior necessary to push the nation forward.

The frontier was both the question and the answer to pressing questions of the day. As the fledgling nation was forming, conflicts arose around what kind of republic it would be: a slave state, an agrarian one, a merchant’s nation? Madison helped to formulate that the new republic could be all of these things, with the caveat that you could “extend the sphere” to reconcile different passions and interests. Grandin quotes historian Peter Onuf, who posited that westward expansion allowed for “a kind of permanent revolution,” one where each additional conflict and subsequent victory provided glory, and thus ammunition, to keep the frontier barreling west. First, “Louisiana in the first decade of the 1800s was applied like salve to all of the sores that afflicted the new republic, an answer to every doubt, the allayer of every threat,” Grandin says; then the War of 1812 against the British and the Creek, the Mexican-American war, and the pacification of Native Americans continued this “kind of permanent revolution.”

In the early decades of the 19th century, consensus about how to move forward frayed. On the one hand, Thomas Jefferson represented a kind of moderate view: He respected Native Americans “as rational beings,” Grandin notes, “capable of choosing between assimilation and extermination.” (This is “moderate” in the sense that it is not just unconditionally pro-extermination.) Then there was John Quincy Adams, the nation’s sixth president, who was an abolitionist and against Indian removal (though still in favor of expansion generally). And of course there was Andrew Jackson, who cut his teeth as a very successful general. His success stemmed, at least in part, from the brutality with which he fought. “Jackson kept the skulls of the Indians he killed as trophies,” Grandin writes, “and his soldiers cut long strips of skin from their victims to use as bridle reins.” To unseat Quincy Adams, Jackson built an anti-aristocrat coalition, engaging the nativism and racism of an ascendant working class. Vowing to thin the federal government, he ran on states rights and small government, which, as Grandin describes, was “mobilized to defend a system of racial dominance.” In many ways, Jackson was an answer to Quincy Adam’s restraint: “remove Indians, wage war on Mexico, and defend and expand slavery.” Jefferson and the coalition of other founding fathers saw the Jacksonian coalition as a threat. “He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place,” Jefferson said, emphasizing his character traits. “He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions … His passions are terrible … He is a dangerous man.”

The threat they saw wasn’t only Jackson’s “terrible passions,” but rather, as Grandin puts it, “the threat of an increasing numbers of illiterate, unpropertied male voters (Andrew Jackson’s key constituency).” Specifically, “How to stop them from coalescing into a faction — a ‘Labor Party’ — and casting their ballots for a program trespassing on property rights.” The solution, of course, was, again, to orient outwards, dangling the promise of a plot of land on the frontier and the freedom that could stem from it. Yet, there were tangible limits to this myth even then. Grandin explains that it was difficult for working class urbanites to up and move.

Former Confederates and Union soldiers agreed on nearly nothing, only that the army should pacify Western tribes, Grandin writes.

Likewise, by the 1830s, it was corporations, ranchers, railroads, and speculators who were claiming the best land. And, it is worth noting that another tension that Jacksonian populism skirted was the role and power of the state. While the United States was growing, so were anxieties about too large of a federal government impinging on personal freedom and states’ rights. But this too could be funneled westward: As Grandin elucidates, “endless revolution requires power and force, of the kind that makes — in practice, and despite whatever ideal imagining otherwise — little distinction between politics and economics, between the state and the economy.” Further, he suggests, “An activist federal government had to deploy its full array of political, military, and financial power: to pacify, remove, transfer, settle, protect, punish, irrigate, drain, build, and finance.” The settler project was, of course, an arm of state economic planning; not only did expansion open up space, but it used the engine of growth powered by the frontier to pacify the population rather than alternative tactics such as, say, addressing citizens’ demands.

Speaking of which, it was in the 1820s when two socialist brothers — George Henry Evans and Frederick Evans — were articulating a different path forward. The Evans brothers launched the “Free Soil” movement, advocating the following demands:

Vote yourself a farm;
Down with Monopolists;
Freedom of public lands;
Homesteads made inalienable;
Abolition of all laws for the collection of debt;
Equal rights for women with men in all respects;
Abolition of chattel slavery and wage slavery.

While this program and movement didn’t ultimately succeed politically, its possibility — the formulation of an alternative economic vision with the potential to reign in the frontier myth’s excesses — is an important thread of Grandin’s book. Like the way the Paxton Boys prefigured the thin line between vigilantism and state-sanctioned “law enforcement,” the “Free Soil” movement was a precursor to later expressions of an American reality different from that of a violent settler nation.

“The slaveholders of the South have bought the cooperation of the Western country by the bribe of western lands,” Quincy Adams wrote in his diary. After he was president, Quincy Adams (again, the abolitionist sixth president) was elected as a member of the House of Representatives. In 1836, in anticipation of the already simmering possibility of a Mexican-American War, he gave a riveting anti-war speech on the House floor, warning that Indian removal would lead to a full war with Mexico. He argued “that the kind of settler violence Jackson has made national policy created an addictive cycle of expulsion, expansion, and repression that led to lust for Texas but wouldn’t end with Texas.” In his speech, he directly addressed “the slaveholder sitting in the chair,” Speaker of the House James Knox Polk, rhetorically asking: “Do not you, an Anglo-Saxon, slave-holding exterminator of Indians, from the bottom of your soul, hate the Mexican-Spaniard-Indian, emancipator of slaves, and abolisher of slavery?” Perhaps his most pointed comment suggested that “the banners of freedom will be the banners of Mexico; and your banners, I blush to speak the word, will be banners of slavery.” Despite this fiery opposition, Grandin describes how frontier business hummed along through the war: “As war expanded the power of the presidency — to mobilize men, spend money, tax, extend contracts, make appointments, and distribute land — so it expanded corruption.”

Prescient as Quincy Adam’s speech may have been, the fight over slavery did come “boomeranging” back home, as he warned it would. Grandin writes that “the Civil War destroyed the Jacksonian coalition but not its myths” — which, he says, would require readjusting the nation towards something closer to a “social republic.” After the war, in the last year of his life, Abraham Lincoln launched the Freedman’s Bureau, a social assistance program that aided downtrodden whites and blacks alike. But like Obamacare, it quickly became a dog-whistle, riling the Jacksonians. Former Confederates and Union soldiers “agreed on nearly nothing, only that the ‘army should pacify Western tribes,’” Grandin writes.

This consensus still bound the country, and it would govern the nation forward. Commenting on the march of civilization, future president Teddy Roosevelt, then writing as a historian in his multi-part Winning of the West, wrote that “the settler and pioneer have at bottom had justice on their side: this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but as a game preserve for squalid savages.” And if that wasn’t enough, Roosevelt believed that “good men” ought to “[band] themselves together as regulators and put down the wicked with ruthless severity, by the exercise of lynch law, shooting and hanging the worst off-hand.” Grandin contrasts Roosevelt’s naked nativism with the “Frontier Thesis” of University of Wisconsin professor Frederick Jackson Turner, which he delivered in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair. Turner theorized that the frontier was necessary for what he viewed as the America’s unique economic and political democracy, writing that “free land [and] an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people, made the democratic type of society in America,” and that American democracy “came out of the American forest and it gained strength each time it touched a new frontier.” Turner’s mythical thesis was the perfect fig leaf for nativism like Roosevelt’s because it obscured racial brutality and class grievance while providing a new narrative, one that could be used in the service of what Turner later dubbed an “imperial republic”.

FDR basically understood that the best way to short-circuit the brutally of the Turner Thesis was to take its premise … seriously.

As the westward frontier was declared closed, new ones were opened. Woodrow Wilson called America’s post-Civil wars “a great revolution in our lives,” adding that “No war ever transformed us quite as the war with Spain transformed us.” But how it transformed the country is very revealing. In a chapter titled “The Pact of 1898,” Grandin describes how the Spanish-American War not only redefined the frontier as something that would cross oceans, but it united Union and Confederate soldiers in a shared project of murdering brown-skinned people in foreign lands. “The overseas frontier — wars in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Haiti — acted as a prism, refracting the color line abroad back home,” Grandin writes. “In each military occupation and prolonged counterinsurgency they fought in, southerners could replay the dissonance of the Confederacy again and again. They could fight in the name of the loftiest ideals — liberty, valor, self-sacrifice, camaraderie — while putting down people of color.” What was significant about this pact, though, is that it solidified a military nationalism — one where rising through the ranks could provide a livelihood and a career path to the many. Crucially, however, it not only expanded the frontier outwards to new reaches, but it expanded the race war beyond America’s borders — channeling an unresolved internal conflict to be fought offshore everywhere from the Philippines and Guam to the “boonies” in Vietnam, in places where soldiers would ceremoniously plant the Confederate flag, including in Japan during WWII and in Afghanistan.

Even as America expanded to new imperial frontiers, it wasn’t finished moving west on the mainland. At the turn of the 20th century, sheriffs and marshals — ordered by judges — murdered over two hundred Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the borderlands. But, Grandin notes, the violence was carried out both by agents of the law as well those who acted outside of it. “Night-riding groups” like the Mounted Rifles, the White Owls, and the Wolf Hunters got in on the action — murdering, lynching, and inciting terror on the border. The line between law enforcement and vigilante was thin because, as Grandin explains, groups like The Texas Rangers (known for brutality against both indigenous people and mestizo, or mixed-ancestry, Mexicans and Mexican Americans) metamorphosed from an outlaw group to an office of state law enforcement in 1902. A decade later, when a group of Mexican radicals called for a “Liberating Army of Races and Peoples” to violently transform the American Southwest into a “social republic” for people of color, the Rangers responded with mass executions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. These tactics continued into the First World War — under the guise of protecting vital wartime resource extraction, the Rangers and other vigilante groups attacked Mexican Americans who were organizing, forming unions, or demanding the right to vote.

This was happening as the frontier was finally disappearing, transforming into what we now think of as the border. (American armies had, during the Mexican-American War, marched all the way to Mexico City, but after the war the US gave the densely inhabited territory south of the Rio Grande back to Mexico; the US was uninterested in assimilating so many Mexicans, and one supposes the Americans realized genocides and forced removals are easier to carry out in the countryside than in cities.) In the beginning, a relatively open southern border included the occasional Customs House or checkpoint intended to restrict the migration of Chinese people. It was Teddy Roosevelt who first cleared 60-feet of brush along the border to identify its contours. The early 20th century brought draconian immigration laws targeting more groups than just the Chinese: first the Immigration Act of 1917 — which imposed literacy tests and further restrictions on Asian immigrants — and then came the 1924 Immigration Act, which, among other things, formed the United States Border Patrol. “White supremacists took control” of the new agency, Grandin writes, “and turned it into a vanguard of race vigilantism,” as it absorbed Ku Klux Klan members and “faux frontier” groups like the Woodmen of the World, Foresters of America, and the Eleven Tribes of the Improved Order of Red Men. “Border agents” of this era “beat, shot, and hung migrants with regularity,” Grandin writes, as the patrol had “absolute immunity.” The New Republic even noted in 1931 that the country’s “general policy towards aliens … would delight the most fanatical member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

As the 20th century progressed, the frontier metaphor was adapted to new imperial projects: be it the Cold Warriors who used it to justify further military adventurism, Bill Clinton’s use of it justify an ever-growing “globalized economy,” or even today’s asshat tech entrepreneurs who promise that Mars will be the next, and ultimate, frontier. But attempts to claim the frontier metaphor for different ends have also been broached by the likes of figures such as Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr.

FDR proposed the idea that his National Recovery Administration was the predecessor to “the great American frontier,” since it acted as a “safety valve against depression.” In response to simultaneous economic and ecological crises, “the government resettled families, put people to work, planted trees, restored the loam, reseeded soil, expanded national parks, returned land to Native Americans for pasture, and tamped down the dust,” Grandin writes. FDR basically understood that the best way to short-circuit the brutally of the Turner Thesis was to take its premise — that there can’t be democracy in America without some sort of socioeconomic mechanism that’s forcing it — seriously, and to come up with alternative mechanisms, other than a violently expanding frontier, which can act as socioeconomic levelers. Despite the fact that the era’s history is marred by racism — such as Japanese internment and the fact that African Americans were cut out of New Deal programs — FDR’s administration was radical in its quest for economic leveling; they earnestly considered both adopting land redistribution programs, such as those that were taking place in Mexico at the time, and borrowing Mexico’s idea of guaranteeing social rights in the Constitution, which seems almost unthinkable today. (The will to nip constitutional language around social rights in the bud was strong. In 1952, Puerto Rico attempted to amend its Constitution to guarantee rights to work and government benefits, which members of Congress vehemently blocked for fear that Americans might demand those things as well.)

King sought to orient the consciousness of the country away from the violent frontier and towards a social frontier that could combat a wilderness of segregation.

For his part, Martin Luther King, Jr. believed the United States “was trapped by its own myth,” according to Grandin. King said that “[America is] a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation.” He argued that African Americans were the inheritors of a reality that was “as harsh and demanding as that of the pioneer on the untamed frontier”; and that “this country has socialism for the rich” but “rugged individualism for the poor,” a double standard which also stemmed from the frontier myth. King sought to orient the consciousness of the country away from the violent frontier and towards a “social frontier” that could combat a “wilderness of segregation.” King’s fight against “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” and towards “a beloved, social community” would ultimately cost him his life. But King understood what was at stake and what needed to be done to change course.

Nixon’s southern strategy targeted “the drug problem” from Mexico, and Jimmy Carter built a border fence, pointing America’s never ending race war (back) towards the border. “Increasingly,” Grandin writes, “in the last decades of the twentieth century, it was the border, not the frontier, that captured the national mood and concentrated its imagination” — because it was “a two-thousand-mile-long margin to which racist extremism was regulated.” During the Reagan years, the U.S. lost nearly two million industrial union jobs due to high interest rates set by the Fed in 1979, Grandin says. The interest rates not only choked factories, but farmers as well who were straddled by debts they couldn’t repay, leading to what journalist Joel Dyer said amounted to “massive poverty and despair.” The effects of the high interests rates “were used to pry open the Mexican economy,” Grandin writes, setting the stage for what eventually become NAFTA. Like the farmers and factories in the U.S., the same high interest rates rocked Mexico’s debts. This allowed the U.S. to use loans as leverage, forcing the country to “privatize state-owned companies, cut spending, remove controls on investment, weaken labor law protections, and wind down the land reform” program (which FDR’s cabinet members once admired). After being hung out to dry by the U.S. financial weaponry, the country had to ultimately change its Constitution, scratching out the social rights it once guaranteed to its citizens — the result of the 1910 revolution against U.S. capital.

Central American countries also opened up their economies — corporate frontiers? — to “mining, large-scale biofuel production, and transnational agricultural corporations,” Grandin writes, as a result of the Central American Dirty Wars of the 1980s. Many on the left are fond of pointing out that NAFTA (and other trade deals like it) open borders for capital, but not people. The reason NAFTA was attractive to investors was because it lured the promise of cheap labor; in order to keep their promises, restraints had to be created to limit the movement of migrants. NAFTA became law in 1994, the same year Clinton rapidly expanded border security — with bigger walls, more agents, and all of the latest technology. Clinton expanded the force and reach of the punitive state, Grandin notes, passing a number of “punitive” bills relating to terrorism, crime, and immigration; his advisor Rahm Emanuel “urged him to target migrants in the ‘workplace’ … [and to achieve] ‘record deportations of criminal aliens’.”

All this said, Grandin points out that even the New York Times rightly assessed NAFTA for what it was: a mechanism to move wealth upwards. Unlike FDR or MLK’s social leveling mechanisms and vision for a socially oriented state, NAFTA did nothing to reconcile the tensions between inequality and democracy first identified in Turner’s thesis. Grandin’s last chapter describes border vigilantism from the 1970s onwards. It starts with a high-school neo-Nazi group who stage “war games” at the border, where they would “hunt” and “rob” migrants. Grandin suggests that such vigilantism stemmed, at least in part, from Vietnam vets and those who grew up on Vietnam war movies. This resulted in the murders of one hundred migrants in San Diego alone in the early 90s. The border patrol, at this time, hadn’t reformed its ways, either, and routinely engaged in “beatings, murder, torture, and rape, including the rape of girls as young as twelve.” A New York Times reporter, John Crewdson, revealed that these types of abuses were systemic, encouraged by officers in high command. The abuses even included, Grandin notes, “‘stress’ techniques later associated with the war in Iraq.” By 2000, the border violence became slightly more well-known due to national attention, as “witnesses began to report seeing men wearing camouflage and driving civilian vehicles, shooting and killing migrants.” More border militias, composed of white supremacists who were often veterans, continued to terrorize migrants, and their efforts extended into the heartland of America. “The border is no longer in the desert, it’s all over America,” claimed the chapter head of the Kansas City Minutemen Civil Defense Group. “Cruelty, by this point, was a way of establishing symbolic dominance over foreigners,” Grandin writes. “But it was also a badge of contempt for the political establishment and all its leaders and institutions,” which were unable to offer anything besides war and rotten trade deals. In the Obama years, as more veterans came home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, “vigilantism surged anew in a more aggressive form,” Grandin says. He quotes one veteran who suffered a brain injury after four stints in Iraq, who said, “For me, it is therapeutic to come down here and join my fellow veterans,” because, according to Grandin, “Guarding the border … helps [him] make ‘new memories.’”

“The wall … is a monument to disenchantment, to a kind of brutal political realism,” Grandin says. Trump’s campaign shot leftward on issues of trade, globalization, and even elite plutocracy in an appeal to discontented voters, but the appeal, of course, was fraudulent, and the ersatz populist has instituted massive tax cuts for the rich, slashed services for everyone else, undermined even the most anodyne corners of the federal bureaucracy, and rattled his saber all over the world. His signature issue is racial scapegoating via his (unlikely) promise to build a wall, a physical manifestation of a closed frontier. Grandin’s book gives readers a chance to glimpse American history — its myths and self-proclaimed “exceptionalism” — through a new prism. However, Grandin’s biggest achievement isn’t his critique of the frontier mindset as much his rearticulation of a perennial conflict, a struggle that was taken up by the “Free Soil” movement, FDR, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — to turn away from race war and militant nationalism and towards that thing the Cold Warriors fought so hard to suppress. Grandin’s last sentence doesn’t mince words: “Coming generations will face a stark choice — a choice long deferred by the emotive power of frontier universalism but set forth in vivid relief by recent events: the choice between barbarism and socialism, or at least social democracy.”

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Will Meyer is a writer and musician. He is editor of The Shoestring, a local online publication in Western Massachusetts.

Editor: Dana Snitzky