Common Sense and the American Frontier

Common Sense and the American Frontier {
AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac, File
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On March 4, 1897, Grover Cleveland left office for the last time. His second go-round as president of the United States is often used as a milepost that marks the end of the Frontier Era in American history. The so-called Wild West had come and gone, but so had the era on Republican domination of the Presidency and Reconstruction of the South.

In just 32 years, between 1865-97, the American republic swallowed up half of a continent after it took mostly English colonists and American republicans roughly 245 years, from Plymouth Rock to the onset of the Civil War in 1861, to reach the eastern bank of the mighty, muddy Mississippi and establish constitutional governance.

How did this explosion of territorial gain happen in such a short period of time?

Common sense easily explains this rapid expansion, but with history departments everywhere operating under the thumb of identity obsessed ideologues, common sense has often been pushed aside in the name of highfalutin theory. So, in honor of those who came before us, here were the main impediments to territorial acquisition in the pre-Civil War era.


Between 1620 and 1861, the United States and its forebears, British colonies, faced stiff competition for hegemony in North America. British colonists had to wage brutal wars against Swedes, the Dutch, the French, and the Spaniards, all of whom were funded and supplied in one form or another by powerful empires in Europe. Later, when the colonies seceded from the British Empire, the new American republic had to compete with the British, French, Spanish, and Russian empires for supremacy of North America.

European empires were not the only competition, either. Prior to the onset of the Civil War, several Native American polities were powerful actors in their own right. Densely populated societies like those of the Iroquois confederacy and the Five Civilized tribes (which was still around during the Civil War) presented obvious barriers to territorial growth for British colonists and American republicans. When you add it all up - European empires, indigenous confederacies, and lust for money and power - the slow start to America’s transcontinental transformation becomes easily understandable.


While pre-Civil War had railroads, and sophisticated canal locks, and access to global shipping routes on the high seas, technological innovation didn’t really seem to explode until the Civil War ended and subsequent Republican administrations supported policies that encouraged a massive influx of British capital into the country, which was eagerly funnelled into America’s quest to build transcontinental railroads. By the end of Cleveland’s second term, no less than six transcontinental railroads had been built: the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific, the Southern Pacific, the Milwaukee Road, the Great Northern, and the Santa Fe. The six main arteries provided the republic with plenty of offshoots. The frontier? A thing of the past.


Another common-sense issue holding back the growth of the American republic was slavery. Not only is chattel slavery brutal and inefficient, thus being bad for both society and economy, it’s a political liability, too. Expanding westward prior to the Civil War meant debates, sometimes violent debates, in Congress over whether or not the territories should be free or slave. It meant two very different societies had to compete against each other in colonizing the newly acquired territories. Bleeding Kansas and the struggle for Missouri were the end results of American territorial acquisitions up until 1865.

Once chattel slavery was eliminated from American society, it became much easier for everybody to define what kinds of polities should emerge west of the Mississippi.


Competition, technology, and slavery were the three main impediments to westward expansion, but sometimes ideology is lumped in together with these three. The reason ideology is sometimes lumped in there with the other three is because there was not a strong desire for the United States to ape Europe’s empires. Thus, in the minds of some, and this is especially true of American libertarians, a conclusion is drawn that Americans were against empire, and that republican institutions are inherently anti-imperial. Unfortunately, there is too much highfalutin theory in this argument, and not enough common sense. The Americans didn’t want to get involved in European power politics because it was dangerous to do so. But this didn’t mean Americans were against territorial expansion. Quite the contrary.

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