Americans have always been a people who loved freedom and the spirit of individuality.
These unique characteristics have existed since the colonial era in America. The settlers at Plymouth colony left England with the idea of religious freedom, but it wasn’t until the 1700s, when colonists began to move west toward the Appalachian Mountains that these characteristics became more ingrained on the American psyche.
Much of early American history is about the acquisition of western lands and how Americans adapted as we kept expanding west. From the end of the American Revolution to the late 1840s the US acquired millions of acres of land through negotiations, purchases and wars.
As fur traders, trappers, pioneers, and farmers moved to newly available western lands, Americans had to keep adapting to the primitive conditions which inspired a sense of self-reliance and individuality. According to historian and sociologist Frederick Jackson Turner, that self-reliance and individuality influenced the sense of freedom that set Americans apart from their European ancestors.
Turner, who wrote The Significance of the Frontier in American History, told us that the frontier was constantly expanding with each generation. The history books called it Manifest Destiny, and it became a religious crusade as Americans felt they were ordained to push across the North American continent.
It started when we won the American Revolution and acquired the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and Mississippi River. It continued into the early 1800s when Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France and into the 1840s as the US split the Oregon territory in a treaty with England. The Manifest Destiny crusade finally closed when the US went to war with Mexico and won what later became the Southwestern states.
In Turner’s thesis, he broke up the frontier into four stages — each with its own boundary — beginning with the Appalachian Mountains, moving to the Mississippi River, then to the Missouri River where it takes a North-South direction, and finally the Rocky Mountains. In each of these stages, the idea was that new frontiersmen and frontierswomen had to begin all over again with a pioneering lifestyle that gave Americans a truly original identity based on the characteristics stated above.
With each new frontier, new settlements evolved from a wilderness lifestyle. Settlers had to hunt, fish, and farm, build their home on their own, and provide for themselves. There were no services that we use today and take for granted. As solitary villages and farming communities later turned into towns and cities, local governments were formed. Civilization took shape, societies formed, and laws were written to bring some order.
This happened over the course of only a few generations. Jefferson died in 1826, but only 22 years after his death, the US stretched from coast to coast. And even though the moniker Manifest Destiny didn’t take hold until the 1840s, western expansion was already gaining steam in the 1770s as pioneers like Daniel Boone were chopping their way through Cumberland Gap to reach Kentucky and Tennessee.
The asset here was that political authority was nonexistent as the US government was still too small and unable to keep up as Americans moved west. Settlers had no regulations on where to settle, how to use their land, and property taxes didn’t exist yet. With no government, pioneers had unbounded freedom.
The liability was that Native American lands were stolen. As president, Andrew Jackson forced many off their lands, and later presidents did the same by forcing Native Americans onto reservations after the Civil War.
Since the late 1800s, there has been no more room to expand, no more places to start over again. This brings up a question: Has the lack of expansion caused Americans to lose its identity? It’s not evident in every realm of life yet, but it seems as if Americans did an about-face, focusing on government as the solution to our problems when history has taught us that government is more of a problem. It doesn’t seem like we have a sense of self-sufficiency as Americans favor more government safety nets.
Henry Thoreau said it best when he criticized the US government’s restrictions on its citizens: “That character which is inherent in the American people has enabled this country to accomplish all that it has, and if government hadn’t gotten in the way, it would have accomplished more.’’