Prologue: Eighteenth-Century Origins

One of the predominant theorizations of American identity--grasped in part by people like Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Whitman--is explicitly expressed in Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 "frontier" hypothesis; namely, that American society has been shaped by the westward pull of a vacant continent. Through an analysis of the social thought and literature from the 18th century up to the time of Turner's address, this study aims to examine the impact of the West on the consciousness of Americans.

Early British policy toward the North American colonies centered around the mercantilist ideal of dominion over the seas and control of world trade rather than that of the agrarian empire brought about through expansion into and settlement of the vast, rich lands of the continent. The acquisition of the Mississippi Valley lands from the French in 1763 raised the issue of whether or not England could long remain the political and economic center of the colonies if widespread agricultural expansion were to proceed. English policy continued to encourage settlers to the colonies to remain close to the sea, where they could play a role in the colonial economy and where colonial administration could be efficiently exercised. Yet America gradually grew to think of itself as a continental nation, one separated from Europe and subject to different laws of development.

"Westward the course of empire makes its way," Bishop Berkeley had suggested in the 1720s, and Benjamin Franklin soon envisioned America as the future seat of a vast British empire. American poets such as Philip Freneau wrote utopian odes about expansion into the paradisaical lands of the West. Thomas Jefferson suggested that Americans liked plenty of space and would soon be settling in areas west of the Mississippi River, perhaps even into South America. Walt Whitman would later write of a "Passage to India," a route which would make real the widely-held vision of a transcontinental trade with Asia. The influence of this idea is explored in Book One, while Book Two provides a survey of that distinctly American mythological figure, the hunter/pathfinder who leads the way into the frontier. Book Three examines the prevalence of the idea of the agrarian paradise, the "Garden of the World" in which the good society could take root.

Chapter 1