The Shaping of America
Chaos theory postulates that in any series of events with even a small percentage of randomness, though the chances of predicting the outcome of any one action can be high mathematically, the odds of correctly forecasting the final state very quickly become negligibly small. Applied to weather, chaos theory explains why forecasts diminish in accuracy the further into the future predictions are attempted. Applied to human migration, it illuminates the problems nineteenth century American statesmen, commercial and agricultural interests, and individual citizens faced; every proposed solution to the recurring crises of the republic was based on a vision of the future-and human nature being what it is, most visions were combinations of self-interest and wishful thinking.
D. W. Meinig traces the chaotic history of this era in terms of human migration, transportation, the economy, and politics. His starting point is the Frontier Theory of Frederick Jackson Turner, who postulated the existence of successive borderlands where advancing explorers, trappers, miners, and pioneers met the challenges provided by climate and indigenous peoples. Meinig finds Turner’s model too simplistic and deterministic. Meinig’s own vision is that of one region’s being opened up here, another there, each migration the result of choices by common Americans who were determined to acquire new land and exploit every economic opportunity, come what may. If this meant “shoving the Indians Out of the way” or ruining the environment, so be it.
The crassness of this policy can be observed in both the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812. These expressions of expansionism, the one peaceful, the other military, equally ignored the fact that people already lived in the areas to be acquired. Thomas Jefferson did not inquire about the wishes of the French in New Orleans or the Indians west and north of St. Louis. James Madison and the War Hawks did not think of consulting the Canadians (and though they knew that New Englanders opposed war with Great Britain in 1812, they outvoted them). Eliminating restrictions on commerce, removing foreign empires from the borders, and ending the traditional fear of Indian attack on frontier settlements were more important than the tender feelings of relatively small numbers of people who were, in any case, sure to be overwhelmed within a short space of time. The workings of “natural law” assured that Americans would be the future possessors of the entire continent.
The reality of the West was not that simple. The Indians refused to vanish; there were French in New Orleans, Hispanics in the Mexican Cession, Mormons in Deseret, and Britons along the northern boundary. Nor were the pioneers uniform-New England, the “Midlands” (a Pennsylvania-Virginia mix), Virginia, and South Carolina extended their cultures west along parallel lines, constantly colliding where rivers, canals, and mountain passes brought their paths together. New groups of immigrants arrived, Irish congregating in northern cities, Germans heading for the Middle West. Religious bodies and utopian communities moved en masse to new locations.
The resulting diversity in regional populations could be seen even among African Americans. Blacks came out of the tidewater tobacco tradition, the South Carolina rice fields westward into the Cotton Kingdom, the complicated creole culture of Louisiana, and the freedmen workers of the cities. Proposals to abolish slavery by whatever means came up against the question “Then what?” The South could live neither with nor without the blacks, and nobody wanted to pay the taxes necessary for any peaceful emancipation scheme. Deep-seated racism in every part of the country combined with practical common sense and fear resulted in the rejection of suggestions that blacks could become small farmers, wage laborers, or factory workers, or be sent back to Africa.
Similar problems impeded a just resolution of the “Indian problem.” Try though sincere politicians, ministers, and citizens might, the fact was that the democratic empire in the process of being created was out of control. Men who believed themselves to be ruling from Washington were, in fact, helpless to stop the pioneers from doing as they wished. Treaties were not deliberately violated as much as they were irrelevant. Aristocratic John Quincy Adams could stand firmly behind the Cherokees in...
(The entire section is 1805 words.)