The Shaping of America

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

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The Shaping of America

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

This impressive volume is the first of a projected three-volume work tracing the historical geography of the American people. The second volume, “Continental America,” which is scheduled for publication in 1989, will carry the theme to 1915, and the final volume, “Global America,” scheduled to be published in 1992, will bring it to 1990. The author of this magisterial series, D. W. Meinig, is the Maxwell Professor of Geography at Syracuse University and is in the first rank of American historical geographers. Three of his earlier works, The Great Columbia Plain: A Historical Geography, 1805-1910 (1968), Imperial Texas: An Interpretive Essay in Cultural Geography (1969), and Southwest: Three Peoples in Geographical Change, 1600-1700 (1971), have earned for him this enviable reputation not only among geographers but also among historians of the American West.

The line between the historian and historical geographer is not always a clear one. Both historical geographers and historians have long since abandoned the idea that the geographical environment is the controlling factor in human experience. It is somewhat simplistic to assert that geographers are more concerned about where an event took place while historians are more concerned with when it happened; both are concerned with why and how events take place, and both hold that human life is best explained in the context of a particular time and a unique spatial arrangement. What differentiates the two disciplines is emphasis, as the title of Meinig’s book clearly indicates.

Meinig is interested in how America’s physical and human world was shaped: Thus, not only human interaction but also natural spatial relationships are critical to his narrative and analysis. What emerges from his text in the mind of his reader is, therefore, something akin to a series of overlay transparencies on a map of the Atlantic rim, each indicating a special variable (such as slavery or the British Loyalists after the Revolution) which is seen in geographical terms over time. If there has been no movement of peoples, there is no new overlay, and Meinig thus has little or nothing to say on the subject. If a change has occurred, however, he describes a new landscape. For example, his book only hints at the latent resources of Canada but examines in detail the changing distribution of peoples and land in the Canadian Southeast. Among the strengths of this kind of analysis is its emphasis on turning points, because all changes in human movement alter geographical relationships in highly significant ways. The effect of events such as the disruption and dispersal of the French Protestant community and the struggles to control the East African slave coast looms large in Meinig’s book.

Meinig is explicit and careful in elucidating the changes that occurred in the Atlantic basin. The rise of capitalism is a critical axiom in his work. It contributed substantially to a variety of European “imperialism”—a term he uses in a generic sense rather than as historians of nineteenth century Europe apply it. To Meinig, imperialism is the age-old process of the encroachment of one people upon the space of another, ending in the intruders assuming power over the initial inhabitants. He clearly states in his preface that this was neither a bloodless process in Africa, South America, the Caribbean, or North America nor one devoid of intense conflict among the competitors for empire. The relationships, events, and processes which brought people to the space that is now the United States are the primary concerns of Meinig’s book. He also clearly shows that when Europeans or their descendants moved to other areas of the rim, they, like the original peoples on the rim, fell within the power of the managers of empire. In fact, Meinig’s discussion of the disintegration of the British Empire focuses on this difficulty of managing an empire whose populace considered itself citizens rather than colonials.

If capitalism and imperialism are implicit aspects in Meinig’s thinking, trade—as a process, fact, and development—is explicitly stated as being critical to understanding the opening of the New World. The goal of the European adventurers was scarcely imperial at the outset. They...

(The entire section is 1747 words.)

The Shaping of America Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

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.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, June 15, 1986, p. 913.

Library Journal. CXI, August, 1986, p. 145.

Library Journal. CXVIII, June 15, 1993, p.84.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 24, 1986, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, August 17, 1986, p. 12.


(The entire section is 64 words.)