THE INCORPORATION OF AMERICA:
CULTURE AND SOCIETY IN THE GILDED AGE
Chapter 01: The Westward Route
Alan Trachtenberg's The Incorporation of America examines the ways in which corporations influenced the culture and values of post-Civil War America. In the middle of the nineteenth century, corporations were so few that they were regulated by state legislatures on a case-by-case basis. As railroads extended west and the factory system developed in cities, businesses established national markets and soon, industrial perceptions of the "West"--often in terms of geography, natural resources, and myth--arose in the America's collective consciousness.
Although the frontiers were settled prior to the Civil War, a national conception of the "West" did not appear until late in the nineteenth century. The United States' 1848 war with Mexico and their constant conflicts with Native Americans plagued the frontier with a violent history. The different views of who was to possess the land was echoed by America's internal division over how the "West" should be developed.
From railroad publicist William Gilpin's desire to "subdue the continent" for economic gain (1846) and evangelist Josiah Strong's interest in establishing the "West" as a temple of God to President Theodore Roosevelt's "race-history" plan for Anglo-Saxon inter-breeding (1889), disparate views of America's "mission" in the "West" were often seen in religious and economic terms. Trachtenberg notes that it was not until the early 1890's--when the majority of Native Americans had been removed from the land--that the United States developed a common consensus of the frontier.
The fundamental view of the "West" was introduced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 address at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In his speech, Turner noted that qualities usually associated with the frontier--including a strong sense of independence and a strong work ethic--were key elements of the "American" character. Trachtenberg writes that Turner's location of national characteristics in the settled frontier was important for the collective American consciousness because it fulfilled contemporary political and cultural desires for a cohesive account of the "West". Turner's speech also attempted to present history as a "science" and, in the process, professionalize the role of the historian. In reflecting these qualities, Turner's thesis influenced the way Americans viewed the "West" (and themselves) for the next five decades.
The fact that Turner's speech was given in Chicago--a city that was nothing like the "West" and did not seem to share frontier values--exemplified the flaws in his argument. For example, in this racially mixed society, Turner failed to address issues of cultural multiplicity and the real politics occurring in the "West." While the argument glosses over so many pertinent concerns, Turner's thesis became a basis for understanding what it meant to be "American."
Even before Americans subscribed to a cultural myth of the "West," they began to examine the natural history, wealth, and beauty of the area. Landscape painters documented the frontiers with their art and the United States Geological Survey took photographs for informational and aesthetic purposes but, Trachtenberg argues, the most effective synthesis of the beauty and wealth in the "West" occurred when the railroads provided tourists with a chance to view the land for themselves. All of these ventures provided accurate data and also generated support for future endeavors and the development of new technology.
Most of the technology on the frontier was controlled by private corporations and farmers became dependent upon businesses for services such as elevator storage and railroad transport. Prices rose for these technologies as the demand increased and many independent farmers were driven into debt because of the corporations. The high amount of tension between business and agriculture was exacerbated with the Homestead Act of 1862. Intended to provide a "safety valve" for urban workers by offering them cheap land, the Homestead Act ultimately provided industry with an opportunity to expand their grip on the frontier. After purchasing property at low prices, railroads sold the land to individuals and companies for a profit. When additional legislative acts made it possible for timber and mining companies to get into the act, business firmly established itself on the frontier and land became a high commodity. As the "West" moved from being viewed as an unspoiled area to a commercial venture, pop culture reflected these changes in the notion of the "Wild West."
Popular fictions such as dime novels originally presented the "West" in terms that were employed in the Turner thesis. It wasn't until near the end of the nineteenth century that the genres of the "West" succumbed to the influence of corporations. Later in these fictions, the cowboy, a figure who has the reader's respect as an independent man but who is ultimately dependent upon others, appears as a part of the industrialized frontier. This shift, Trachtenberg notes, creates a hero who echoes the qualities of a medieval knight--a hero who is free but well aware of his place in society. This new figure soon rode permeated America's popular conception of the "West."
In an inverted logic, the figure of the cowboy--a representative of Turner's ideological "West"--served as evidence for Turner's myth of "America." To make this myth a reality, Trachtenberg argues, it was necessary to eliminate or incorporate those who stood outside the myth, namely the Native Americans. By subscribing to Turner's thesis, the United States grew to accept the notion of "manifest destiny" and developed military and legal strategies that attempted to make the myth of a culturally homogenized America a reality.
Removal of Native Americans from their tribal lands, a fundamental policy in Indian-White relations, was crucial to the plans. Subsequent laws on detribalization--like 1887's Dawes Severalty Act--offered Native Americans a chance at peacefully resolving their conflicts with their more powerful antagonists. By inviting Native Americans to renounce their tribal customs and enticing them with the prospect of citizenship, these policies allowed the United States to incorporate those who once stood outside of the myth of the "West."
While people such as anthropologist
Lewis Henry Morgan wrote texts that challenged stereotypes of Native Americans
and attempted to place such peoples in a historical context, they were
largely ignored by the masses. Popular myths of the "West" had taken hold
of the American consciousness and through legislation and theories such
as Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, reality was being shaped
to reflect the world most people believed in.