America: Expansionary Politics to 1877

In the class to this point we have seen the evolution of America: from the first contact of European natives, to the explosion of Civil War and reconstruction. Underlying this narrative, there are many themes which we can see when we examine the underlying story. I think perhaps the most cogent theme to examine is that of expansion. Expansion, of control over lands, of political hegemony, and of economic power underlies the story of America at this point in time. The beginning brought the Europeans, in their hunger for land, gold, and other riches to expand throughout the Americas, driving out and dominating Native populations. This tradition of expansion was then continued by the newly sovereign United States in the concept of manifest destiny, as the expansion the United States into the western frontier. Further, it was a question of expansion that was the underlying issue that set off Civil War itself. As AJBEANE noted, one of the drivers of the compromises that preceded the civil war was whether the institution of slavery should be allowed to expand. This dichotomy between containment and expansion drove the divide between North and South as each feared that if it were not to have it play out as it wished, it would lead to an expansion of the other’s political power. The drive to expand, in political power, in national land, in economic clout drove many men’s actions as the United States grew out of the seeds of European conquest, it seemed necessary that the nation must expand. This expansionary mindset perhaps drove the frontier mindset as well, as through the view of expansion, there are not fixed borders, but rather fluid boundaries which were merely frontiers to be explored and conquered.

Westward Expansion

In his writings, Turner talks about the frontier and its gradual expansion westward. I find this aspect of American history to be very interesting. It is fascinating to look at how the American’s at the time went about claiming new land. Turner mentions how the frontier was the “meeting point between savagery and civilization.” (Turner) This is very important because it shows how little they new of the land beyond the frontier, and how there were still “savages” there that needed to be conquered. In the years leading up to 1800, the newly formed government was focused on many things: making sure it didn’t collapse, the XYZ affair, pirate wars, and eventually the election of 1800 and all that Jefferson’s presidency would bring. The government was not focused on the native peoples west of the border. It seems while historians focus so intently on the formation of the nation that there is not much to be said about the frontiersmen until the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791. The frontier was not a safe place to live because as America stretched farther and farther west, the Indian’s land was once again being encroached upon. Wilentz devotes a portion of Chapter 5 to talk about the expropriation of Indian land. William Henry Harrison was a major character in the buying of Indian land. He completed the Greenville Treaty with nearly a dozen tribes which gave the US land rights to southern Indiana, most of Illinois and parts of Wisconsin and Missouri for “two and a half cents or less per acre.” (72) While they were buying this land from the natives, they were taking complete advantage of them and buying it for far less than its worth. Most natives were not happy, “‘The white people…,’ one Shawnee chief complained, ‘destroyed all that God had given us for our support'” (72) While the frontier was a means of expansion and “a steady movement from the influence of Europe” (Turner), the government did not care how detrimental of an action it was from the Indian’ point of view.

AJBeane spends a good amount of time talking about how Europe influenced the westward expansion of the United States and many of the points they make are quite pertinent to my post. They raise the point that what America really wanted at this time was to form their own identity and not be associated with Britain or Europe in any way. Americans didn’t want to be known as coming from German heritage or French or any other European nation, they wanted to be their own entity and by expanding westward they were happy to be moving farther away from Europe and its stretching, global influence.


The Expansion of the American Frontier

With the independence of the United States, the frontier states looked to expand the countries borders west. This expansion was no small feat and required the full attention of the government to deal with native tribes over land disputes. According to Turner, the frontier was, ” the outer edge of the wave — the meeting point between savagery and civilization” (Turner). This belief that they were the tamers of this savage land allowed them to feel no qualms when they infringed on native land. It is important to note that Turner does point out that, “the environment is at first too strong for the man” (Turner). This shows that they acknowledged that expansion into the frontier would not be an easy job but with time that, “little by little he [can] transform the wilderness” (Turner). Also Turner mentions the, “European germs developing in an American environment” which shows that the American people were trying to create their own identity (Turner). The American people did not want to be known for, “German germs” but as, “a new product that is America” (Turner). As America’s frontier expanded, “it meant a steady movement from the influence of Europe” (Turner).

As the movement from Europe increased, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their historic expedition. When they were gone the bones of a Mastodon were excavated and put on display at the Philadelphia Museum. This is important because they wished to associate this creature with the new image of America. With the then still recent defeat of Britain, America needed to prove its ability to survive as an independent country. Jefferson thought that a good step forward would be an animal that was thought to hunt many other predators such as lions. This is symbolic because the national animal of Britain was a lion which signifies that the Americas were able to defeat them. While the Mastodon did not become a national symbol the concept of it shows how prideful that America felt at the time which it needed to survive the early years of being a new country.

Frontier Disputes Between French Indians and British

At the beginning of Chapter 18 of American Colonies, Taylor describes the Seven Years War.  As a background, Taylor explains how the fight for Indian alliances tore the North American settlements apart—especially the British and the French. After the conquer of Louisburg by British colonists, the French immediately proceeded to build “tow new forts at the head of the bay of Fundy to hem in Nova Scotia to the west” (428). Britain then saw this movement as well as French movement in the frontier in Ohio as an encroachment upon their territory, which ultimately led to small skirmishes in the Ohio territory (429). Retaliation by both sides led to what is now known as the Seven Years War. After a few British defeats (Washington, and Braddock) Britain launched a full scale attack on the French (under the leadership of Montcalm) with “45,000 troops” and eventually captured Quebec from the French causing them to surrender.
Now, both Jennifer and Sylvia both thought that Taylor’s account of the economic and geographical disputes between France and Britian, as a pre cursor to the war were “overwhelmingly negative [in the] view of the British.” I tend to disagree with this statement, although I understand why it may seem this way. Taylor provides several primary sources to account for this dispute between countries, some of which are Indians (somewhat neutral POV)(426-427). I think that Taylor may simply be embodying the tone of British colonists—one of disrespect and distrust of foreigners.  As Taylor explains the British so vastly out numbered the French, it became hard to have an incentive to be amiable to the Indians or the French. Thus, Taylor rightly accuses the British. Overall, though Taylor would benefit from having a more neutral stance, by further explaining the French side, to prove his point about the instigations and negative points of the British.