The Untransacted Destiny: William Gilpin

The Mexican War with its territorial acquisitions realized Benton's twenty- year-old dream of westward expansion but ironically put an end to his career in the Senate by bringing the slavery issue to a head. The same years of decision matured the thinking of a young associate of Benton's who was to become the principal heir of his geopolitical thought, as he had been of Jefferson's. This man, William Gilpin, born in 1813 and therefore thirty years younger than his mentor, had grown up in a distinguished Philadelphia household of which Andrew Jackson was an intimate. One brother was a Democratic appointee in the consular service, and another, Henry D. Gilpin, a lawyer of literary and artistic interests, was prominent in the fight against Biddle's Bank of the United States and became Attorney General in Van Buren's cabinet.

William Gilpin himself was a personal friend of Jackson, who appointed him to West Point. Although he was not graduated from the Academy he served for a time as a volunteer officer in the Seminole War. In 1838 Gilpin went to St. Louis as editor of the Missouri Argus for the express purpose of securing the reelection of Benton and James Linn to the Senate. Yet a further step toward identification with the Benton tradition was Gilpin's accidental meeting with Fremont on the trail to Oregon in 1843. He went out to Walla Walla with Fremont; pushed on westward by himself to spend two months as a not over- welcome guest of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver; participated in the convention for establishing a government in


Oregon, March, 1844; took back to Washington the petition drawn up at this meeting asking for American occupation of the territory; and became an expert adviser to Benton, Buchanan, Polk, and other statesmen in those crowded months of Manifest Destiny.l

But this was only the beginning, for within a year Gilpin emerged as a major in Doniphan's famous First Missouri Volunteers-. After the victory over Mexico he commanded expeditions against the Pawnees and Comanches. A decade later, having cast the only vote for Lincoln in Jackson County, Missouri, he was one of thirteen men who accompanied the president-elect from Springfield to Washington. He served in the a volunteer bodyguard of one hundred who slept in the White House during the first tense weeks of the new administration, and was appointed by Lincoln as the first governor of Colorado Territory.2

The appointment was appropriate on several grounds. Not only had Gilpin earned it according to the canons of party politics; his military abilities were essential because of the danger of a Confederate effort to seize the territory. Besides: Gilpin had been a prominent writer and speaker about the West for fifteen years. His utterances on this theme include two letters on Western matters published in government documents in 1846; several articles in magazines during the 1850's; and a collection of public addresses published in 1860 under the title The Central Gold Region. The Grain, Pastoral and Gold Regions of North America. In 1873 he brought out a revised edition of this work entitled The Mission of the North American People; and in 1890, at the age of seventy-seven, he published an even more elaborate treatise called The Cosmopolitan Railway. This impressive body of writing, extending over more than forty years, gives Gilpin a claim to be considered the most ambitious student of the Far West during the second half of the nineteenth century. Despite the grandeur of many of Gilpin's ideas, his writings bear directly on practical politics, in the style of open-air stump speaking. His prose has many traits in common with Benton's- the headlong rhythms, the hyperboles, the devices of ornamentation--but there is one important difference. Where Benton's oratory is in the polemic mode of Congressional debates and


reaches its full development only when it can take the form of an attack on an adversary (the East, the Past, the British Empire, anti-expansionists, and so on), Gilpin is too much a bardic seer to argue with anyone. He is a mystic, burning with certainty, striving to convey to his audience the contagion of his own ecstatic vision. He seems to himself to be uttering self-evident axioms rather than pleading a lawyer's brief.

Gilpin takes over from Benton the theory of a succession of empires arising along a "hereditary line of progress" culminating in the Republican Empire of North America.3 Just as each successive empire of the past has been superior to its predecessors, according to a general law of progress, so has each successive phase of American development emerged upon a higher level with its westward thrust. This theory, so flattering to the West, becomes a guiding command to the American people in moments of decision. Only by a heroic response to the challenge of universal history can the nation fulfill its mission, which Gilpin describes in apocalyptic language:

The untransacted destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent--to rush over this vast field to the Pacific Ocean--to animate the many hundred millions of its people, and to cheer them upward . . . --to agitate these herculean masses--to establish a new order in human affairs . . . --to regenerate superannuated nations. . . to stir up the sleep of a hundred centuries-to teach old nations a new civilization--to confirm the destiny of the human race--to carry the career of mankind to its culminating point--to cause a stagnant people to be reborn--to perfect science--to emblazon history with the conquest of peace--to shed a new and resplendent glory upon mankind--to unite the world in one social family--to dissolve the spell of tyranny and exalt charity--to absolve the curse that weighs down humanity, and to shed blessings round the world! 4

The material means for bringing about this millennial consummation was a Pacific railway. In contrast with Whitney's plan for a northern transcontinental route, and various other schemes for a railway from Memphis or New Orleans via El Paso, Gilpin was certain that the line must be built along a central route, passing through his adopted home town of Independence, Missouri, and traversing the Rocky Mountains by way of South Pass. Such a railway, bridging the American continent and


destined to serve as the line of communication between Europe and Asia, would inaugurate a new era in human affairs by bringing to maturity the North American Empire.

The force which pushes America irresistibly onward toward her historical destiny is the westward movement of the frontier, and the standard-bearers in this movement toward the Pacific are the farmers of the West.

Let us not forget [wrote Gilpin in 1846] to estimate magnanimously the unparalleled enterprise now being accomplished, under our eyes, by the pioneers of America, upon the shores of the Pacific. Armies have plunged into deserts, or scaled prodigious mountains-some to conquer, and some to perish. . . Upon the western edge of our Union, at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, there assembled during May, 1843, American citizens with their families to the number of one thousand, each one on himself alone dependent [sic], and animated by impulses driving him irresistibly towards the west. Surrounded by his wife and children, equipped with wagon, ox-team, and provisions, such as the chase does not furnish, accompanied by his rifle and slender outfit of worldly goods, did these hardy men embark upon the unmeasured waste before them. Plunged into the immense plains which slope up to the Rocky Mountains, contending with great rivers, and surrounded by the uncertain dangers of an Indian foe, a government and a discipline, at once republican and military, was created for the common safety and implicitly obeyed by this moving people Arriving after an immense journey upon the unpeopled shores of the Pacific at the season of the closing in of winter, exhausted and destitute, neither despondency nor hesitation palsied for a moment the undertaken work; but with energies overpowering all obstacles, the opening spring beheld farms, houses, mills, and towns, growing apace, as with the pith and sinews of many years. Suffice it to say, that this hardy band, accompanied by 122 wagons, in the short space of five months penetrated to the Pacific, opening and traveling along a road of 1,000 miles of plains and 1,500 of vast mountains, on whose summits the eternal snows are perpetually visible, without other guide than an indomitable perseverance, or other protection than their invincible rifles, and the wives and progeny clustered around them.5

It was the pioneer farmers whom Gilpin represented as demanding "a National Railway to the ocean which they seek."6 This is in some respects nearer to Douglas's view than to Whitney's, for it makes of the individual settler the prime force in the development of the West. But Gilpin's main ideas are Benton's.


He shares Benton's allegiance to Jefferson and Jackson; his hatred for Britain, the Hartford Convention, and the Southern secessionists; his certainty that the Asiatic trade will bring incalculable wealth to the United States; and his vision of magnificent cities springing up along the line of the Pacific railway. To this intellectual patrimony Gilpin adds important new ideas derived from the developing science of physical geography. In particular, he affirms his debt to the "oracular inspiration" and "divine eloquence" of the German geographer Alexander von Humboldt, who was almost as great a scientist as Gilpin said he was.7

The most important idea Gilpin derived from Humboldt was that of the isothermal zodiac, "a serpentine zone of the north hemisphere of the globe" approximately thirty-five degrees in width, whose axis "alternates above and below the 40th degree of latitude, as the neighborhood or remoteness of the oceans modifies the climates of the continents." Gilpin believed that this geographical theory provided a scientific basis for the old idea of the westward course of empire. Along the isothermal zodiac, he pointed out, had arisen one by one the empires that had determined the history of the world-from China and India to Persia, Greece, Rome, Spain, and Britain. The advance of the pioneer army across the trans-Mississippi region was inaugurating the greatest of them all, the Republican Empire of North America, which consummated the westward tendency of the ages and would become permanent mistress of the world.8 "This mission of civic empire," Gilpin proclaims, "has for its oracular principle the physical characteristics and configuration of our continent, wherein the Basin of the Mississippi predominates as supremely as the sun among the planets." 9 In the east and on the west the Mississippi Valley is bounded by a mountain rim so that the continent has a generally concave structure. All parts of the vast interior are drawn into integration by a network of rivers. Asia and Europe, dissected by central mountain chains and plateaus, have produced disunited civilizations constantly at war with one another. But the topography of North America is such that the dominant character of the society developed there will be integration, harmony, union. This conception, which Gilpin had developed in the 1840's, acquired a peculiar urgency as the Civil


War drew near. In 1860 he returned to it with almost desperate insistence: ". . . the holy question of our Union," he wrote, "lies in the bosom of nature . . . it lies not in the trivial temporalities of political taxation, African slavery, local power, or the nostrums of orators however eminent." 10

When Gilpin reaches this point in his reasoning the conception of nature, the physical conformation of the earth, has all but supplanted the theories of expansionism based on the course of empire or the primacy of Asiatic trade in determining the fate of nations. It even overshadows the notion of the frontier farmer as the instrumental force that makes history happen. Physical nature, conceived according to Humboldt's great principle as an organic whole, governs the development of human communities. From the perspective of the physical geographer the continents and oceans, the mountain ranges and river systems group themselves into a system having a supreme and unbreakable order which is at the same time absolutely good. This order will ultimately determine the condition of the civilizations of the earth, elevating the United States above all other nations.

Gilpin derived his faith in the benevolence of nature from Humboldt, whose mind had been formed in the optimistic intellectual climate of the eighteenth century. But the tendency to identify nature with the specific geographical setting of the North American continent gave to the term a much narrower reference than it had for eighteenth-century thinkers. Where in that earlier day nature had usually been conceived as a force permeating the physical universe, a vast system of relationships, even, in Pope's phrase, a "clear, unchanged, and Universal Light," 11 the nineteenth century had tended to fix attention on this or that specific aspect of the great whole and had seen nature more and more concretely. Thus a science of physical geography; which in one direction invited the observer to contemplate all the continents and the seas of the earth as parts of a single harmonious pattern, could in another direction focus attention upon the relation of organic life to its environment in a very limited area. The first of these tendencies was broad and cosmopolitan; the second restrictive and even provincial. The first was appropriate to a citizen of the world like Humboldt; the second to a


nationalist and sectionalist like Gilpin. But the two tendencies, so different in their consequences, were aspects of a single ruling idea.

The cosmopolitan Humboldt's doctrine could be made to nourish American nationalism and Western sectionalism in yet another way. If the earth is the final arbiter of human destinies, then the student of society should direct his gaze toward nature rather than to history. The important thing about man is not his past, not a cultural tradition, but his biological adjustment to his milieu, which is a matter of the present and of the future. This inference from the science of physical geography coincided neatly with that hostility to the East and to Europe which formed so important a part of Benton's and Gilpin's sectional chauvinism, Yet if Humboldt's thought yielded conclusions like these it was because Gilpin was merely using geography to rationalize a well- established Western prejudice. The same science could be made to support an exactly contrary, if equally prejudiced, view of the relation between East and West. At the moment when Gilpin was invoking geography to prove that the West was certain to dominate the East, a European geographer whose affiliations were with the Atlantic seaboard was using the new ideas to prove that the East would always dominate the West.

Arnold Guyot, a Swiss scientist who came to this country at the invitation of Louis Agassiz in 1848 and subsequently had a long and distinguished career on the faculty of Princeton, delivered a series of lectures in French at the Lowell Institute of Boston in January and February, 1849. 12 Translated by Cornelius C. Felton of Harvard under the title The Earth and Man, the lectures had an enormous vogue both in the newspaper press and in repeated reissues of the book. Guyot sees North America as a continent just emerging into world history, toward which the old nations of Europe, "exhausted by the difficulties of every kind which oppose their march, turn with hope their wearied eyes ...." He agrees with Gilpin that

the simplicity and the grandeur of its forms, the extent of the spaces over which it rules, seem to have prepared it to become the abode of the most vast and powerful association of men that has ever existed on the surface of the globe.


And Guyot's itemized list of the geopolitical advantages of North America likewise recalls the philosophers of manifest destiny:

The fertility of the soil; its position, in the midst of the oceans, between the two extremes of Europe and Asia, facilitating commerce with these two worlds; the proximity of the rich tropical countries of Central South America, towards which, as by a natural descent it is borne by the waters of the majestic Mississippi, and of its thousand tributary streams; all these advantages seem to promise its labor and activity a prosperity without example. It belongs not to man to read in the future the decrees of Providence But science may attempt to comprehend the purposes of God, as to the destinies of nations, by exclaiming with care the theater, seemingly arranged by Him for the realization of the new social order, towards which humanity is tending with hope. For the order of nature is a foreshadowing of that which is to be.13

Yet Guyot is far from agreeing with Benton and Gilpin that the United States should abandon its ties to Europe and accept its relation to Asia as defining its future. What, he asks,

would become of the present destinies, the entire future of this continent, were it necessary to cross the desert table lands of California and their high mountain ranges, in order to reach the Mississippi from the Atlantic coast What would become of its important relations with the Old World, if America, averted from the civilized nations, looked only towards the Pacific Ocean and China? 14

The civilization of the United States is derived from that of Europe: Europe thinks, America acts; and only in a true marriage of these complementary principles can America achieve her highest development.15 Thus the Atlantic seaboard, fronting toward Europe, will always be the dominant region in the New World. A Boston audience could hardly have been displeased to hear that ". . . both in point of nature and of history, the maritime zone of every continent enjoys a superiority over all others not to be questioned or disputed." "It is in this region," Guyot declared, "...that life is unfolded in its most intense and diversified forms...." All civilized nations have lived on the margins of oceans.

And in this new world of North America, now entering on its great career among the nations under so many happy auspices, is it not on the shoals of the Atlantic that life is developed to its most active, most


intense, and most exalted form? Is this merely a chance consequence of the accidental debarkation at that point of the colonists of the Ancient World? No, gentlemen, brilliant as may be the prospects the West may aspire to from the exuberance of its soil, life and action will always point toward the coast, which can only derive fresh accessions of prosperity from the prosperity of the interior.16

Guyot's shrewd perception that the East would long be able to maintain its economic control over the West contained a hard core of truth upon which Western regionalisms other than Gilpin's were to wreck themselves.

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