Fantasies of the Frontier


We in the East are mesmerized by the clash of values in the West brought out by the rebellion of self-proclaimed militias and violent resentment against gun-law enforcers, environmental regulators and park rangers.

There is a hearkening to the ideology of the frontier, to the lone woodsman with his rifle who just wants to make his own life in the wilderness and to be left alone by his government.

The romance of the novelist James Feminore Cooper became the theory of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner that the frontier shaped American character starting in the 17th century. The abundance of land created an individualism and social equality that in turn created a society that was markedly un-European and uniquely American.

So it is worth rereading the following passage:

"As the western settler began to face the problem of magnitude in the areas he was occupying; as he began to adjust his life to the modern forces of capital and to complex productive processes; as he began to see that, go where he would, the question of credit and currency, of transportation and distribution in general conditioned his success, he sought relief by legislation.

"He began to lose his primitive attitude of individualism, government began to look less like a necessary evil and more like an instrument for the perpetuation of his democratic ideals. In brief, the defenses of the pioneer democrat began to shift from free land to legislation, from the ideal of individualism to the ideal of social control through regulation by law.

"He had no sympathy with a radical reconstruction of society by the revolution of socialism; even his alliances with the movement of organized labor, which paralleled that of organized capital in the East, were only half-hearted. But he was becoming alarmed over the future of the free democratic ideal. The wisdom of his legislation it is not necessary to discuss here. The essential point is that his conception of the right of government to control social process had undergone a change.

"He was coming to regard legislation as an instrument of social construction. The individualism of the Kentucky pioneer of 1796 was giving way to the populism of the Kansas pioneer of 1896."

That is taken from an address Turner delivered in 1910.

His seminal paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," published in 1893, began by quoting the superintendent of the census for 1890 that "at present the unsettled areas have been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line." Turner did not declare the frontier over so much as note that the census had.

Again and again he would return to the effect of that change, the transformation of a psychology of abundance to one of scarcity, in determining American character.

And so it was that supposed individualists became the advocates of anti-trust laws and transportation regulation. People of the West pressed the federal government to build mighty dams and regulate water usage, to improve crops suitable for the high plains, to promote their region and protect their way of life.

The rhetoric of pioneer individualism lives on in the people who intimidate park rangers, who demand unimpeded weapons commerce and who believe passionately that the government had no legitimate interest in the practices of the Branch Davidians.

Not that these folk grew up in a society where Branch Davidians or Randall Weaver were tolerated. Most came, like Timothy McVeigh, from settled areas of the East. So, of course, had the real pioneers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, often trying to escape the societies where their own lives seemed unsatisfactory.

People espousing the pioneer ideology of self-reliance today are nostalgic for nothing they ever knew. They pine for a myth they know at best from old distortions rerunning forever in television syndication.

Turner wrote, in 1910: "Three hundred years ago, adventurous Englishmen on the coast of Virginia began the attack on the wilderness. Three years ago, the President of the United States summoned the governors of 46 states to deliberate upon the danger of the exhaustion of the natural resources of the nation."

That president was Theodore Roosevelt, Republican, author of "The Winning of the West" and "Wilderness Hunter." The pioneer life was over, even then.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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