Although a geographical interpretation of American history isnothing new, Meinig’s presentation of the early national westwardmovement shows Frederick Jackson Turner’s classical but simplisticfrontier thesis to be the century out of date that it is.
The United States, as a young country uncertain whether it wasa nation, a federation, or an empire, acted as all three at onceuntil the matter was settled on the field of honor between 1861 and1865.
Meanwhile, many acts were committed which were less than honorable—aggressive, often racist, self-confident Americans overran Indians, Mexicans, and Frenchmen (in Louisiana), and dragged black slaves west with them. Politicians and intellectuals had no power to control this multitude of swarming individuals and little influence over them. Americans were creating a “democraticempire” which was outrunning the institutions and political leadership of the federal system.
Expert contemporaries erred repeatedly in their predictions asto which directions the flow of migration would take. Although there were occasions when individuals and small groups determined whether one town flourished rather than another, one industry waxed and another waned, the westward movement on the whole had a dynamic of its own which contained many surprises and more than a few disappointments.
Meinig gives us new insights into our central national myths, demonstrating anew why it is so frustrating to explain how America operates—we are a contrary, colorful collection of hard-headed folks who can be understood only through bypassing the idealistic stereotypes and studying real people who may not always be particularly likable.
Sources for Further Study
American History Illustrated. XXVIII, September, 1993, p.27.
American Studies International. XXXI, October, 1993, p.103.
Choice. XXXI, November, 1993, p.526.
Contemporary Review. CCLXIII, September 1993, p.168.
Library Journal. CXVIII, June 15, 1993, p.84.