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20160723 Significance of Frontier in American History



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This is a collection of essays written from 1893 to 1910 and covering dramatic changes in American society. The end of frontier meant the end of unlimited supply of agricultural land that fed not only immigration from Europe, but also formation of immigrants into Americans – peoples with strong individualistic core and deeply suspicious of government who had very little use for it. So the main idea was to recognize and then describe what is coming next, which was big government democracy.


I The Significance of the Frontier in American History

This is a key article in this collection. It describes history of American frontier and how it defined American culture. There is a very interesting point on difference between French and British approach: French was a trading frontier that did not encroach on Indians territorially, while British was a farming frontier that practically took land away from Indians and created settlements of Americans continuously pushing further and further West. The key factor was a very cheap land that provided ownership opportunity for everybody because all attempts to limit squatting and maintain elite ownership of land failed. Another point was that frontier promoted formation of American identity out of diverse European identities of new immigrants. Yet another point was increase of internal market and corresponding decrease of dependency on Britain with western expansion. However further west individual land ownership was decreasing and state nationalized control increasing because over time government power increased. However as long as western frontier existed it was main source of democratic nature of America, maintaining continuous tension against Eastern elitists and Southern slave-owners.

II The Problem of the West

This is about problems of the West circa 1896 as problems of American development. Author looks at the West not as geographical notion, but rather as a special type of social organization and culture. He again reviews history and West vs. East vs. South and concludes that its continuous expansion created a very special circumstance and with completion of Western movement the problem is to work out social ideal and adjustments for the whole America.

III The Significance of the Mississippi Valley in American History

This is detailed review of development of Mississippi Valley from sociological point of view with its movement from practically unrestricted competitive individualism to powerful democratic government build on culture developed in conditions of freedom.

IV Social Forces in American History

There are nearly 20 years between the first and the last part of this book. The end of frontier was far in the past by 1910 so author could discuss dramatic changes that occurred after frontier was closed. The most important was industrialization of America that led to switch of the main American type from a farmer into employee, sometime immigrant from rural farming family, but sometime new immigrant from Europe. The Country became interconnected by railroads and communication lines supporting huge amounts of goods, services, and information moving between people all over the country. This merge of country into one huge network of markets led to dramatic increase in federal government and its limitation on individual freedoms, especially in commerce. Author points out that cultural change that occurred also was in core American values: if for the pioneer the source of resources was unlimited nature around frontier and government was an evil that limited his use of resources, then for employee government become necessary protector of democracy and his access to “fair share” of resources produced by industrialized economy: “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”.


For me these old essays are interesting not only as historical artifact, but as eyewitness description of period in American history not unlike ours when old method: back then expansive farming being substituted by industrial economy regulated by big government; while in our time this big industrial / service economy is falling apart due to automatization and globalization and it is not clear what will be next. I hope that eventually idea of unalienable and marketable (rentable) equal rights for natural resources will take root and everybody will have enough such property to provide for acceptable living and ability for free people to pursue whatever activities they deem most effective in obtaining whatever ends they want to obtain.




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