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For one hundred years—roughly between the ratification of the United States Constitution and 1890—the “extended republic” James Madison described in The Federalist did indeed extend, from sea to shining sea. As Americans settled each new swath of territory they sought and received recognition as states of the Union, equal to all states that preceded them, including the original thirteen. This great period of American empire-building far exceeded anything done subsequently (for example, the acquisition of territories from Spain in the late 1890s) and proved far more lasting than the ‘scramble for empire’ undertaken by the European states during that time. America became what Jefferson wanted it to be: an “empire of liberty,” that is, a union of free and equal states, with republican regimes securing the natural rights of all its citizens in principle and of most if not all in practice.
The question of the exact terms and conditions of American federalism, especially the status of the states within it, was answered in principle by Abraham Lincoln in his speeches and in practice by the Union armies in the Civil War. The pseudo-republican oligarchies of the states that formed the Confederacy were defeated, although they reconstituted themselves to a substantial degree, in different form, after Reconstruction ended. States’ rights could no longer serve as a carapace for slavery, although it would so serve for legal racial segregation for much of the next century. But the Union had survived.
The year 1890 saw another, less stark but still unsettling crisis. For the past century, the migrations of Americans to the West had relieved the older states of the need to address the worst economic and social tensions modern industrial societies had faced. Now, however, the United States effectively had become an island, bordered by oceans on each side, the Caribbean in the south, and to some extent the Great Lakes in the north. It was a giant island, but an island nonetheless. With immigrants still coming in from Europe, with industrialism and urbanization intensifying in the East and Midwest, what would become of the country? Could the regime of commercial republicanism sustain itself against populist and socialist ideologues who sought to exploit these pressures? Could federalism withstand pressures to ‘nationalize’ everything—that is, bring it under the rule of the central government to the diminution of the state governments?
The historian Frederick Jackson Turner framed perhaps the most high-level expression of this anxiety. In his 1893 paper presented to the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in Chicago, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner argued that it was the settlement of the frontier, fostering the character of Americans as independent, self-governing yeoman farmers, which had (to coin a phrase) made America great. Not so much Christianity, not the principles of the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, and surely not any biologically-based racial superiority over the American Indians, but the frontier itself, the virtues the cultivators cultivated along with their crops, gave Americans the moral fiber needed to make them a strong, free, and united people. With the closing of the frontier, the elimination of the conditions of this character-building way of life, would Americans not succumb to moral decline, and ultimately lose both their empire and their republicanism? The ‘Turner thesis,’ as it came to be called, galvanized academic and even journalistic discussion for decades thereafter.
Not only professors and pundits saw this problem, however. As it happened, an ambitious young politician named Theodore Roosevelt had already published two volumes of his book The Winning of the West, in the years immediately preceding Turner’s study. The young civil service reformer from New York City, who had ‘gone West’ himself, to the Dakotas, after his beloved wife’s death in 1884, also argued for the importance of the frontier in forming the American ethos through its rugged way of life. Roosevelt understood the West not so much as a land for peaceful if rugged farming as an arena for warfare pitting semi-civilized Americans against uncivilized Indians. The West built not only the steady, yeoman virtues of Jeffersonian agrarianism but also and above all the martial virtues of George Washington. Whereas Europeans (so long as they stayed in Europe) could only exercise those virtues against other civilized nations, with all the moral hazards attendant—most spectacularly—in Napoleonic despotism; and whereas if Europeans abandoned such ambitions, as proposed in projects for “perpetual peace” such as that proposed by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, only to risk a softening of spirit, moral decay, Americans had solved the problem by advancing civilization without colonization—that is, without keeping newly-won territories in political subservience to the ‘Mother Country.’
Whether one argued for Turner’s yeomanry or Roosevelt’s militias and posses, or some combination of them, as the inspiriting conditions of American courage and self-government, the dilemma of the 1890s remained the same: How will Americans perpetuate their republican regime and empire, now that the frontier has closed?
Roosevelt also saw another danger, outlined in the 1890s by the British naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan. As far back as 1787, in The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton had argued that oceans are as much highways as they are barriers; as a Caribbean-born transplant to New York, he needed no book to teach him that. By 1890, technology had made this obvious to everyone, as steam-powered vessels having replaced the old sailing ships and telegraphs making ‘messaging’ nearly instantaneous. These improved means of transportation and of communications had strengthened European empires; by Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Britannia not only ruled the waves but about one-fourth of the land on earth and about one-fifth of its population, while France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and even Belgium had substantial holdings as well.
Will Morrisey is William and Patricia LaMothe Professor Emeritus of Politics at Hillsdale College, and is a Constituting America Fellow; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.
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