The Empire Redivivus
A second great boom in settlement beyond the Mississippi began with the gradual recovery from the Panic of 1873 and lasted until the disastrous winter of 18851886. During this period four new trunk railways were pushed through to the Pacific, the range cattle industry expanded northward over the plains into Wyoming and Montana, and bonanza wheat farming with mechanized equipment made its appearance in suitable areas like the Red River Valley of Minnesota and the San Joaquin Valley of California. Between 1870 and 1880 the population of Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado increased from a little more than half a million to one million, six hundred thousand. By 1883 Kansas led the Union in corn production, with a yield of more than one hundred fifty million bushels. Settlement was almost equally rapid during the early 1880's in the Dakotas, the Pacific Northwest, and the Rocky Mountain states. The northern Atlantic seaboard, both in its own right and as financial agent for Europe, was much more deeply involved in this surge of agricultural expansion than it had been in any previous one. Eastern capital financed the railroads, Eastern insurance companies bought the mortgages upon which so much of the development of farm lands was based, many of the great cattle companies were owned in the East or in Europe, and a large proportion of the new migration to the West--almost half of it, in fact was made up of European immigrants, Scandinavians, Germans, English, who entered Atlantic ports and were taken by rail road halfway across the continent to lands in the West.
It is not surprising that enthusiasm for the development of
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the West became widespread in Eastern cities. The end of reconstruction in the South allowed the attention of the public to turn away from postwar problems. The triumphant Republican party was committed to support of westward expansion by its platforms, as well as by the interest of prominent members who held stock in such Western enterprises as the transcontinental railways. The conquest of the wilderness acquired some of the coloring of a moral imperative that had characterized the struggle to preserve the Union, as is indicated in the comment of an editorial writer for Scribner's Monthly in 1872 who predicted that a certain adolescent boy would soon be "winning honor and doing his duty on Western plains, tracing iron arteries through the heart of the con tinent, or seeing God's wonders face to face on the dizzy crests of the sierras."1
A good illustration of Eastern acceptance of the boosting spirit of the West in this period is the encyclopedic gazetteer compiled by Linus P. Brockett under the title Our Western Empire: or the New West Beyond the Mississippi, published in Philadelphia in 1882. Brockett, a native of Connecticut, was something of an official Republican writer, author of campaign biographies of Grant and Colfax. His work is a systematic compilation based on hundreds of printed sources and an extensive correspondence with men who knew the West firsthand. It is a digest of what the general public knew about the West at the height of the boom. As might have been expected from his political associations, Brockett enthusiastically assails the myth of the desert:
Nearly the whole region lying between the Mississippi River and the
Brockett will not even admit that the interior basin beyond the Rockies is a desert. The trans-Mississippi as a whole, he concludes, is destined to be the garden of the world." 3 Having demonstrated the abundant fertility that furnishes the
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economic basis for Far Western development, Brockett is prepared to elaborate the ancient dream of empire. He points out that when Bishop Berkeley prophesied the future of America,
The empire which he then saw in vision . . . was composed of the
With these triumphant affirmations, the desert has been effaced from the map, and the image of the garden of the world has been spread over every square mile of the United States to the utter most western margin of the fortunate land. The final merging of the notion of an American continental empire and the myth of the garden yields a single image of great imaginative force. But in the process the idea of empire has lost its transitive reference. It no longer beckons onward toward the Pacific and the Far East, but becomes, like the myth of the garden, an introspective, even narcissistic symbol. The intelligible field of speculation about the destiny of America is correspondingly narrowed. Always devoid of reference to the past, and indifferent to Europe except as a foil to make America seem more glorious by contrast, the tradition of manifest destiny in this fashion loses the
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concern with Asia that had formerly given it a certain breadth of intellectual reach.
The completion of the Union Pacific in 1869 had failed to draw European trade with the Orient across the United States, largely because the Suez Canal offered a cheaper route to European shippers. American imports from Asia proved to be but a negligible part of the freight carried by the transcontinental railways less than two per cent, for example, in 1883.5 The renewal of interest in Asia that was to come with the Spanish American War and the occupation of the Philippines was still in the future. Instead, a century of speculation concerning the West and the destiny of America focussed itself about Walt Whitman's question of what the Great Mother Continent meant with respect to the human race. The answer of the 1880's may likewise be expressed in Whit man's words: the continent, especially the developing West, was "a refuge strong and free for practical average use, for man and woman." 6 This is a strongly anti-historical conception, the more so for the utopian overtones that are present in most of its versions. The character of the American empire was defined not by streams of influence out of the past, not by a cultural tradition, nor by its place in a world community, but by a relation between man and nature--or rather, even more narrowly, between American man and the American West.
This relation was thought of as unvaryingly fortunate. The myths of the garden and of the empire had both affirmed a doctrine of progress, of gigantic economic development, even though the myth of the garden at the same time implied a distrust of the outcome of progress in urbanization and industrialization. Neither American man nor the American continent contained, under this interpretation, any radical defect or principle of evil. But other men and other continents, having no share in the conditions of American virtue and happiness, were by implication unfortunate or wicked. This suggestion was strengthened by the tendency to account for any evil which threatened the garden empire by ascribing it to alien intrusion. Since evil could not conceivably originate within the walls of the garden, it must by logical necessity come from without, and the normal strategy of defense was to build the walls higher and stop the cracks in them.
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These inferences from the myth of the garden will be recognized as the core of what we call isolationism. The attitude toward the past and toward the outside world which the doctrine implies, its foreign policy, is related through the myth of the garden to a domestic policy. The society which is imagined as growing up in the protected West is in theory (although hardly in fact) based on a minutely specified type of agriculture--the cultivation of family-sized farms by virtuous yeomen. The society is therefore homogeneous. There are no class divisions, no employers or employees, and the manners and tastes of each of the inhabitants resemble those of all the others. The notion of class cleavage, like any notable eccentricity of outlook or behavior, can be recognized on sight as alien and therefore depraved. But by a fortunate provision of nature, that guardian of Western (and American) interests, such aberrations are quickly remedied by the sanative influence of the soil, as is set forth in the doctrine of the safety valve.
One of the most striking characteristics of the myth of the garden of the world, with its tableau of healthy and virtuous farmers laboring in fertile fields, is its vulnerability to economic disaster. Its autarchic doctrine of economic progress received fullest development at the moment when the Northwest was be coming dependent on the world grain market and thus was being involved economically in the most intimate fashion with the course of events in Europe and even in Asia. Yet the claims and promises of the myth were based on faith in the beneficence of nature in the West, without regard to disasters that might threaten other regions or other countries. Indeed, since the myth affirmed the impossibility of disaster or suffering within the garden, it was unable to deal with any of the dark or tragic outcomes of human experience. Given a break in the upward curve of economic progress for the Western farmer, the myth could become a mockery, offering no consolation and serving only to intensify the sense of outrage on the part of men and women who discovered that labor in the fields did not bring the cheerful comfort promised them by so many prophets of the future of the West. The shattering of the myth by economic distress marked, for the history of ideas in America, the real end of the frontier period.