Democracy and Progress in America: The West


Democracy has been connected with the idea of progress since the early days of the Revolution. The idea implicit in the rift with Britain was the embracing of a progressive view of history, in which society is moving forward, increasing in sophistication, civilization, and material well-being. With the beliefs of the Enlightenment and the thesis of Natural Law prevalent at the time, the founders settled upon democracy as the ideal vehicle for American, and human, progress. Thus, from its inception, democracy in America was linked to the idea of progress.

From the early days of the Republic to the mid-nineteenth century saw the first shift in the conception of progress with relation to democracy. Condorcet's Equisse d'un tableau historique des progres de l'esprit humain, published in 1790, was first experienced in English translation in 1825, and had an immense influence on political and social thought in America. According to Henry Nash Smith,

The most influential aspect of Condorcet's theory of civilization was the notion that all human societies pass through the same series of social stages in the course of their evolution upward from barbarism toward the goal of universal enlightenment. (218)
The promise of American democracy was twofold. America, as an essentially new society, free from the traditions and restrictions of the Old World, was the ideal philosophical testing ground for the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and Natural Law; the open space of the continent provided the perfect spatial component. "The comment was frequently made that in America one could examine side by side the social stages that were believed to have followed one another in time in the long history of the Old World." (Smith, 219)

The push toward colonizing the continent was therefore intimately connected with the idea of progress--the countryside itself a visual and physical emblem of democracy, the symbol of human civilization. In addition to the celebration of the land, those who searched, colonized, and worked it were celebrated as well. Smith indicates that the ideal of the yeoman farmer, so connected with Jefferson's agrarian themes, became the symbol of freedom and democracy in America. Those pushing out to new territories, according to public belief and mythology in the early to mid-nineteenth century, were living the social progress afforded by American democracy. Frederick Jackson Turner, in his important 1893 essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", found that the West, and the yeomen who settled it, embodied the very progress of civilization.

American democracy was born of no theorist's dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came stark and strong and full of life out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier. (Smith, 253)
Yet as the frontier closed, as Turner asserted in his paper, the association of democracy and progress with the land seemed to be ending. Smith's critique of Turner's hypothesis leads us into the next phase of democracy and progress: "He had based his highest value, democracy, on free land. But the westward advance of civilization across the continent had caused free land to disappear. What then was to become of democracy?" (257)

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