Chapter 17


The Empire Redivivus

Between the Panic of 1873 and the winter of 1885-86 four new trunk railways were pushed through to the Pacific, the range cattle industry expanded over the plains into Wyoming and Montana, and mechanized wheat farming appeared in areas like the Red River Valley of Minnesota and the San Joaquin Valley of California. This period saw a great boom in settlement beyond the Missippi, as the population of Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado more than doubled and the Dakotas, the Pacific Northwest, and the Rocky Mountain states grew rapidly. Eastern capitalists had a greater hand in this surge of agricultural expansion then ever before, buying the farmland mortgages and owning many of the great cattle companies. Eastern attention turned from postwar problems to Western development, and the victorious Republican party supported expansion for reasons of platform and pocketbook--many of its members held stock in the railroads now criscrossing the continent.

Linus P. Brockett's Our Western Empire: or the New West Beyond the Mississippi reveals Eastern exuberance about the growth of the West, celebrates the triumph of agriculture over the myth of the desert and heralds the advent of a continental American empire based on the agrarian paradise of the garden of the world. Brockett's empire is a static, intransitive one, notable for its lack of reference to further westward movement or a "passage to India." The character of the American empire was thus defined by a relation between man and nature--the virtuous yeoman toiling on his family-sized farm--which ignored both the experiences of history and the larger world community. The myth of the garden implied simultaneously a fortunate plenitude and a distrust of industrialization and urbanization; only virtue grew within the garden, while all evil influences were an alien intrusion from without.

The foreign policy derivable from this formulation is isolationist and corresponds to a vision of domestic society as self-reliant, classless and homogenous. The myth of the garden's inability to deal with the tragic aspects of human experience--disaster and suffering--and its wilfull denial of the forces of world economy--the Northwest, for example, relied increasingly on European and Asian grain markets--ultimately brought about its demise. Simple economic hardship would soon destroy the myth's influence and close out the frontier period in American history.

Chapter 18