1/10/11 - the frontier closes

In today's excerpt - in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner pronounced the American frontier closed, reflecting the fact that America now controlled the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the twenty-five year war against the Indians had ended. That, coupled with the economic depression of 1893, formed the background in which America sought to open new frontiers through imperialism—following the lead of England, France, Germany and other European countries by capturing Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and briefly Cuba in the Spanish America War of 1898. It was an era when America had just ascended as the world's wealthiest country; an era when newspapers routinely used the terms "manliness" and "manhood" to describe the highest virtues of politicians and businessmen; an era in which only seven out of almost one hundred countries on the planet were fully independent; and an era in which Rudyard Kipling penned the poem "White Man's Burden" to describe the virtues of Anglo-Saxons and the virtuous aim of colonization:

"One of the historians who arose to explain the success of American expansion was a University of Wisconsin professor named Frederick Jackson Turner, Turner too believed that the northern German forests had formed the Teuton, that the British Isles had formed the Anglo-Saxon, and that American greatness was part of the [Teutonic/Anglo-Saxon] westering. 'Forest philosophy,' he wrote, 'is the philosophy of American democracy [and] the forest clearings have been the seed plots of American character.'

"By this time the United States was a continental nation of seventy-six million people, spread across forty-five states. America occupied more land area than all other countries except Russia and Canada.

"In 1893, the thirty-five-year-old professor Professor Turner, in a speech before the American Historical Association in Chicago, announced, 'Now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.'

"The idea that America's frontier was gone stunned westering White Christians. Roosevelt was one of the first to sense the revolutionary qualities of Turner's thesis. As John Judis explains in The Folly of Empire, 'For Roosevelt ... the closing of the frontier [meant] the loss of those elements in national life that made Americans virile and vigorous, stimulated their taste and aptitude for competition, and gave them a strong and unifying sense of ... solidarity. Roosevelt worried that with the absence of battle, Americans would grow soft and overcivilized. ...'

"In addition to concerns about the end of the frontier, in 1893 the United States economy sank into its worst depression ever. Six hundred forty-two banks closed and an incredible sixteen thousand companies shuttered their doors. The most actively traded company on the New York Stock Exchange—National Cordage—went belly-up. Giant pillars of the economy such as the Northern Pacific Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad crumbled. America had experienced economic downturns before, but this was much bigger, lasting for four frightening years, from 1893 to 1898. At one point, four million workers were idle—more than one-fourth of a labor force of fifteen million—at a time of no government support for the unemployed.

"Not surprisingly, anxiety about overcivilization increased. Kristin Hoganson, associate professor of history at the University of Illinois, writes in Fighting for American Manhood, 'The depression of 1893 exacerbated anxieties about manhood, for unemployment resulting from the depression led to fears of male dependency. Rather than providing for their families, as men were expected to do, thousands failed to fulfill this basic male responsibility.'

"Overseas expansion was seen as a cure-all for the triple whammy of overcivilization, economic depression, and the end of the frontier. Battling Others for their land would enhance the American male's barbarian virtues and secure profitable markets. ...

"The United States was not the first White Christian country to the imperial feeding frenzy. By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain had fifty colonies, France thirty-three, and Germany thirteen. More than 98 percent of Polynesia was colonized, 90 percent of Africa, and more than 56 percent of Asia. Across this broad swath of planet, only seven countries were still fully independent nations. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge expressed America's 'empire envy': 'The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places of the earth. It is a movement which makes for civilization and the advancement of the race. As one of the great nations of the world, the United States must not fall out of the line of march."


James Bradley


The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War


Little, Brown and Company


Copyright 2009 by James Bradley


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