Chapter 20

The Garden as Safety Valve

Horace Greeley was the most prominent exponent of the American agrarians' notion that the availability of free lands beyond the frontier would operate as a safety valve to lessen the possibility of social and economic unrest in the East. His response to the Panic of 1837, the exhortation to "Go West, young man, go forth into the Country," and his later endorsement of the 1846 National Reform program demonstrate his belief in the safety valve's ability to establish an independent agrarian yeomanry on the public lands of the West. Greeley, like George Evans, argued that citizens given the opportunity to work for themselves would do so, and therefore the encouragement of frontier settlement would lessen the possibility of strikes by urban workers. This notion can be found in political thinking throughout the 17th and 18th centuries--from Governor John Winthrop to British colonial policymakers--and had traditionally been used to encourage individual economic self-reliance and assuage British concerns about industrialization in the colonies.

American independence fostered a different national image, that of America as a refuge for oppressed populations of the world. Washington and Jefferson had celebrated the fortunate influence of free land on the developing American society, contrasting their hopeful conceptions of the rich opportunity of the West with the poverty and urban depravity of Europe. In 1829, Senators Robert Y. Hayne and Thomas H. Benton charged New England industrialists with opposing westward emigration because it would inspire factory laborers to leave the manufacturing states for the land states and the chance to become independent freeholders. Twenty years later Congressman Josiah Sutherland of New York opposed the Homestead Act precisedly because of this potential to raise the costs of labor and manufactures.

The Republican Party adoption of Evans's safety-valve theory in the 1850s made it official doctrine, but it did not make an end of unemployment and social problems. Very few settlers on the agricultural frontier came from eastern industrial centers, largely because they lacked both the money needed to transport their families to the free public lands and the needed farming skills to survive once they got there. The influence of the safety-valve idea throughout the nineteenth-century owes much to its relation to the myth of the garden of the world and to its ability to suggest that nature would provide what the industrial cities could not. The safety-valve theory also ominously implied that the ultimate disappearance of free land would make America into another Europe, that the ills of the Old World would eventually make a home in the New.

Southern apologists for slavery such as Thomas R. Dew and George Fitzhugh suggested that when the free land was all settled, continued Northern belief in progress and free labor would bring about factional struggle and mob violence and necessitate a military despotism. The only alternative, claimed these dissenters to the cult of progress, was to resort to slavery to control the threatening insubordination of the laboring class. In arguments like these the overtones of "safety-valve," from its first invocation by Greeley as an alternative to industrial strikes, reveal a covert concern with the protection of the property of the rich against the potential violence of the poor. Melville's Clarel (1876) captures the anti-democratic implications of the safety- valve in its suggestion that the settlement of the West can only temporarily stave off a class war which will announce the "arrest of hope's advance" in the once-promising New World.

Chapter 21