Chapter 3

The Untransacted Destiny: William Gilpin

William Gilpin was a follower and advisor of Benton who had traveled the Oregon Trail, spent time with the Hudson Bay Company in Vancouver, and served as a major in the Mexican War. Gilpin believed, as had Benton, that North America was at the height of a progression of empires, and that each movement westward carried the empire to increased greatness. Gilpin saw the Pacific railway as the means by which to fulfill the "untransacted destiny" of the America people. Built along a central route, the railway would carry America westward with the frontier farmers as the front line of expansion. And although Gilpin seemed to agree with Douglas about the primacy of individual farmers in the the development of the West, most of his sympathies were with Benton: both hated Britain, loved Jefferson and Jackson, and viewed Asiatic trade as the sure way to incalculable prosperity for the U. S.

In addition to these familiar beliefs, however, Gilpin invoked the German geographer Alexander von Humboldt's notion of the "isothermal zodiac" as further support for his vision of the American future. This zodiac was a zone in the northern hemisphere about thirty-five degrees wide--centered around the 40th degree of latitude--in which the greatest empires of the world had flourished (China, Persia, Greece, Spain, Britain, etc.). The advancing "Republican Empire of North America" would consummate the western tendency of empire and become the greatest world-historical power yet. Invoking Humboldt's conception of physical nature as an organic whole, Gilpin argued that the topography of the American continent itself guaranteed a society of integration, harmony, and union--a theory which buttressed the Western sectional prejudice against history and in support of adaptation to nature.

Geography could also be used to support the case for superiority of the East, however. Contemporaneous with Gilpin's arguments, the Swiss scientist Arnold Guyot argued in the late 1840s that the maritime zone of every continent was superior to and maintained economic control over all other regions. Guyot's theory was music to the ears of his Atlantic seaboard audience: he assured them that just as U. S. civilization was derived from Europe, so would the Atlantic seaboard--the most European of America's regions--always be the dominant region in the New World.

Chapter 4