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Reopen the American Frontier

Let us let the ghosts of the megafauna rise, but let us leave the old imperialists to lie in their graves undisturbed.

Migrating bison herd in Custer State Park, South Dakota. (Ron Sanford/Getty Images)

In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: “Up to and including 1889 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.” This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement.

With this, Frederick Jackson Turner began his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” based on a paper he gave at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago in July of 1893. The frontier, “the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” as Turner called it, had closed.

Turner’s essay has joined the ranks of classics on Mark Twain’s definition: books which people praise and don’t read. But the fact remains that the basic idea of a closed frontier has overtaken its more nuanced origin in Turner’s writings and come to serve as a rhetorical signpost for discussions about American history. The frontier closed in 1890—that somewhat dubious assertion (see Gerald D. Nash’s brief 1980 essay “The Census of 1890 and the Closing of the Frontier” for a sketch of how slapdash a job the 1890 census was) has entered the American consciousness and worried the minds of those given to thinking about our national character, and how it was once tied to the taming of a wild land. I, too, have often fretted with Turner: Our frontier is closed.

I’ve begun to think differently about the frontier, however. Contra the census takers, the frontier didn’t close in 1890. It just got wet. America took a fateful swerve, from being a land power to a sea power, with consequences disastrous for our republic and the continent that nurtures it. We went and got a huge honking navy, and then it was curtains for our continental republic. John J. Mearsheimer lays it out very nicely in The Great Delusion: “Liberalism abroad undermines liberalism at home. States that pursue liberal hegemony invariably damage the fabric of liberalism inside their own borders.” This is precisely what happened when Americans elasticized their frontier and set about liberalizing all four hemispheres.

One can understand the expansionist temptation, to be honest. At the close of the 19th century the United States was very quickly becoming rich and technologically advanced. The Conestoga-wagon-LittleHouseonthePrairie frontier had closed, but many East Coast Americans—who ironically never knew the Turnerian frontier or much of America apart from New York and Boston—were dreaming imperial dreams beyond the United States. Progressives, mainly in the Republican Party, had their eyes, and their countrymen’s tax dollars, set on new frontiers, new wildernesses to allay. Pushed along by East Coast money and Washington political and military power, the frontier moved beyond the coast and out into the Pacific—into the Caribbean, too. With new imperial holdings in Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Samoa, and Wake Island, American Progressives entered the 20th century flush with dominion, and whetted to even further acquisition. Just when you thought the frontier had closed, boom, you up and get an empire.

This new-frontierism has continued from that day to this. Americans went East and West, beyond the bookends of the Carolina and California coastlines. Our imperial-inflected frontiering led us to try taming Europe (good luck with that) by defeating the atavistic Hun in two wars, and to try driving a stake in the heart of Oriental superstition by forcing the Japanese Emperor to de-divinize on New Year’s Day, 1946. We’ve frontiered in Somalia and Bosnia, frontiered in Grenada and Nicaragua, frontiered with the Siberian Expedition, frontiered in Saudi Arabia and Oman, frontiered among the Syrians and the Poles. The frontier didn’t end in 1890, and it didn’t end in America. It got stuck westerly in the mud halfway down the Korean Peninsula, where it remains today, and is now fluttering around easterly somewhere in the depths of Ukraine. NATO and the PACOM are the two farthest outposts of the frontier one hundred and thirty-two years after its putative “closing.”

But is this imperial adventurism really an extension of the American frontier? For Turner, no. The frontier was not “merely advance along a single line,” Turner wrote,

but a return to primitive conditions along a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating the American character.

In this passage, and in Turner’s essay overall, one can see that Turner is speaking of not one frontier, but two. There is the geographic frontier, the one that keeps moving westward. That, I argue, is the part of Turner’s idea that got telescoped out to the far western Pacific and the middle of Eastern Europe. But that is not really what Turner saw as the frontier’s pulse and lifeblood. That would be the inner frontier, the process of men and women going out into the wilderness and being rejuvenated, reborn even, by baptism in the American continent.

It is this second frontier that we forgot about when we made the fateful transition from land power to sea power, from continental to maritime nation. We sold our soul for some cruisers and aircraft carriers. But our hearts are forever in the bayous, grasslands, and forests of our native soil. We Americans are not British, not islanders fated to roam the seas like Polynesians or Vikings. We are a landed people, tilling soil and making homes in the earth. In doing this we become ourselves. Our closest civilizational cousins are not Europeans but Mongolians and Navajo. We range land, not water. The Southern Agrarians and the Western cattlemen, then, and not the military adventurer or the imperial proconsul in Manila or Havana, is who we are at heart. We need the frontier, for it is only there that we know and meet our destiny to become Americans.

“The wilderness masters the colonist,” Turner wrote.

It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs, any more than the first phenomenon was a case of reversion to the Germanic mark. The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.

Turner is at odds here, trying to birth the civilizational frontier out of the transmogrification of the European into the American in the wilds of the West. But it was always the interior transformation that we were after. Going native is who we are. And I think it is high time we came home from the deserts and jungles of the world and worked on becoming Americans again. At the burnt end of our empire, Minerva’s owl having flown off sometime during the Obama Administration, we can turn around and see that it was just half of Turner’s thesis that was ever worth keeping. It is not that we ought to civilize others, but that we ourselves must be civilized in the wilderness. We are Americans when we are “in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois,” when we are arrayed “in the hunting shirt and the moccasin.” Instead of hitching our American nature to an abstract, and after Turner’s heyday increasingly eugenicist, notion of progress, we should have stayed in “the Indian clearings” and on “the Indian trails.”

It is not too late to do this. It is not too late to reopen the American frontier in every heart by going into the American land and living on it like true sons and daughters of the continent. This time, though, instead of an inexorable westward “wave,” let there be an ingathering of the exiles, from all corners of the globe where the imperial diaspora has reached. The American continent needs saving, and we, who have become so civilized by our imperium that we are able to incinerate the planet many times over at the touch of a button and the turning of a key, need rewilding—bad. Going among Indian clearings and meandering on Indian trails would go a long way toward teaching us how to be our own masters again, and to give up the cheap substitute of lording it over others.

It is not just Americans who need saving. Consider how the betrayal of our national character has hurt our homeland. When I drive across the country I see endless fields of corn and wheat and soybeans, for example. Virtually none of these crops are consumed locally. Oceans of chemicals are pumped onto Nebraskan and Iowan fields so that those fields will grow fat with grain, but then much of the bounty of the American heartland is put on trains and trucks and then on ships and ferried out to the wide world beyond. We poison our land and water to compete in a global grain market, when there are Americans on our streets who are hungry and destitute—it is insanity squared. We don’t realize it, but we have ourselves become colonized by our own imperial ambitions. And our land is made serf to the globalized world, a cog in a faceless machine. So many acres of wheat, bound for destinations far beyond the United States. This is no frontier. This is slow death and the dissolution of our national soul.

I propose a new initiative: Homesteading. On farmland. Anyone who wants to grow crops or raise livestock for personal or local consumption—with “local” defined as anywhere you can see from the roof of your Cherokee log cabin—should be allowed to take over a part of a massive Big Ag latifundia. Farms are drowning in debt—let the federal government step in, maybe, and pay off the mortgage in exchange for title to the land. After, say, 30 years of homesteading, the recovered land could be deeded over to the homesteader, on the condition that it will never be sold to anyone who will not also live on the land and work it for personal and local sustenance. Homesteading is not the first step toward reconquering nature, but toward letting nature reconquer North America. As Big Ag is thus broken up, the spaces in between the homesteads will naturally rewild. And in this wilderness, communities will form, instead of the neo-feudalism of globalist agricultural conglomerates.

Hearts always brighten when hands are caked with a little mud and dung. It does a man good to hear coyotes bay at night and roosters crow at dawn. A horse on the hoof and lightning draping the horizon make us more human, more American. We wilt in office buildings, but come alive in God’s country.

Psychiatrists will probably go out of business in droves as we return to our American roots. Fringe benefits all over the place.

As the American maritime empire dies and the market for tankerloads of corn and soybeans diversifies, the swaths of the Big Ag latifundia not homesteaded should be laid open to the wild things that owned our continent until just a few generations ago. Gigantic herds of smelly, stampeding bison should kick up prairie dust across a thousand miles of inland America. And if anyone wants to Jurassic Park some woolly mammoths back into existence, then that would be fantastic. Let the mammoth cry and the buffalo grunt be the muezzin of our land. A saber-toothed tiger or two would jazz up any township in this new dispensation. I envision an America snorting and roaring and free.

I’m far from the only one advocating for this kind of thing. A 2020 National Review article by Santi Ruiz, for example, describes how bison are slowly making a comeback in the United States. Spurred on by “megafauna nationalism,” many on the American right are now calling for a rewilding of America. But the real work on the ground appears to be being done by some of the Indian tribes, which are dedicating parts of reservations for raising up bison herds. Ruiz mentions the Rosebud Sioux, who are “bringing the buffalo home” on behalf of the Great Sioux Nation.

This is a good start. But at the mention of the Great Sioux Nation we must pause and steel ourselves for what has to be done next. The rewilding of America will have no moral meaning without the restoration of America to the Native Americans. Our imperial project started with them, recall. Frederick Jackson Turner talked of Europeans going among the Indians and discovering what it means to be an American. This is all well and good if one is of European stock. It looks very different if one is an Indian.

Turner is conflicted in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” about this, arguing that “the effect of the Indian frontier as a consolidating agent in our history is important.” To me, it is the Indian that will civilize the rest of us—we need not see Indians as “a common danger, demanding united action,” as Turner wrote of the westward-moving whites. The common danger was Europeans. Indians failed to take united action, and were overrun. This is a crime which must be set right.

The Great Sioux Nation is leading the way in bringing the bison back. Let’s go whole hog and bring America back, too, by deimperializing the continent our forefathers wrested away while we deimperialize the government they bequeathed to us. Rewilding America has to start with smoking a peace pipe with the people who were here first. If the buffalo roam but the Sioux are still in corrals, then the same un-American sadness will still haunt our land, and we will all be the poorer for it.

We lose nothing, and gain everything, by becoming, in this way, Americans again, or for the first time. Remember that the European came out in us too strongly when we went west. We did not become Indian, did not become American enough, not nearly. White men tried to take the place of the buffalo, to go roaming off in glory instead of letting the wild beasts gallop towards the distant hinge joining land and sky. As if sensing an imperial competitor, white men slaughtered bison in droves and left their skinned carcasses to rot in the sun. There were 60 million bison in Thomas Jefferson’s day, but just a few thousand left in Frederick Jackson Turner’s generation.

It is time to let those ghosts rise, and look on as the buffalo run free again. Let there be great swooping and stampeding fauna, the eagle and the mustang at play, and a revival of the prairie grass and the redwood, the flora fit for our land. The Louisiana delta shall stick its tongue out into the Gulf of Mexico, the swamps that sponge up the hurricane surge shall grow thick and pungent once more. Piney Appalachia and taiga-like Minnesota, all the patchwork of the landscape vibrant and alive again. MAGA…by filling her with some good, old-fashioned “savagery” and so de-Europeanizing her forever.

Let us let the ghosts of the megafauna rise, but let us leave the old imperialists to lie in their graves undisturbed. The Progressive Republicans of yore, especially, should be left to molder in peace. Theodore Roosevelt made laudable attempts to protect the environment and preserve the wilderness. But imperialism undid those. The Progressives couldn’t have it both ways. The American Empire was the last burning-off of the European in us, the final Hegelian turning of the transplanted Enlightenment. That was never our soul, all those sorties and bombing runs, all those freedom of navigation operations and forward operating bases. Let’s sell our battleships to the Hawaiians, who will need them to defend against yet another land power in maritime imperial drag. As for us, let’s go back into the depths of the continent, reopen the frontier in our hearts, and be, at long last, Americans.

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

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