Manifest Destiny




The landscape of 19th century America, the landscape that produced Abbey, Carson, and Leopold, was markedly different from the environment in which readers of this blog find themselves. Just think for a moment how different your own life would have been at the turn of the 20th century… No cars, airliners, or computers — you might have seen or read about a demonstration of electric lighting somewhere. You would most likely live in an urban setting, regardless of future misconceptions about a mostly rural America, and you are surrounded by filth and disease. Yet, you know there is more to America than meets your eye. Your ancestors and predecessors of the 19th century found an entire continent just waiting for their plows and their ideals. Vast tracts of unspoiled wilderness still lay just to the west, and that knowledge buoyed their optimism. Even if they never saw those lands, their children would, and they would thrive because America had land enough for their descendants “to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” Thomas Jefferson told them so.

The sheer size of the continental nation staggered the 19th century imagination. Travelers and explorers reported mile after mile of hardwood forests to the west of the Appalachian Mountains. Beyond the forests lay unbroken miles of tallgrass plains just waiting for the touch of your plow. Further west lay mountains and deserts, terrible yet enchanting with possibilities: gold, silver, cattle, land — freedom. Finally, a veritable paradise lay at the shores of the Pacific Ocean: the temperate rainforests of the Oregon Territory; the Gold Hills of California. Many reports were written specifically to lure people to the frontier and contained a great deal of misinformation. Some were just plain lies. The growing economy rested on a foundation of continual frontier settlement. Land speculators, railroads, and even the government needed inhabitants in order to validate their existence in the wilderness.

Not that settlers needed much information before deciding to pick up and move west. They tended to migrate in waves. First came the hunter/trapper types — itinerant men, some with families, who might pause long enough to graze a cow and raise some corn and squash. They lived primarily by their rifles and traps, leaving the land largely undiminished when they heard the first report of neighbors. Next came the hunter/farmer — the first true settler — an industrious sort who cleared the land of timber to build a glassed-in farmhouse with stone chimney and raise cows and hogs and grains and vegetables to feed his family. He stayed long enough to see the value of his land — gotten by fiat of a paternal government — rise tremendously, at which point he moved west again. Finally there came the settled farmers and townspeople — doctors, lawyers, merchants, preachers, et al. This third wave came to stay, improved the lands with intensive agricultural methods, built their towns, and brought civilization to country so recently wilderness.

It took a special kind of person to brave this wilderness: independent of mind and spirit, self-reliant, and above all, optimistic. They tended to sort themselves out into three classes: a better sort, the middling sort, and a meaner sort. They were descendants of various northern European stocks — German, Scotch, Irish, Dutch, Scandinavian, and even a few French, in addition to the English majority — achieving unity in the knowledge that this land was not the Europe from which they had escaped, but America. Without hesitation they set about the task of civilizing the wilderness. They worked hard at it. Some may have been manic-depressive, a disorder possibly quite useful to the farmer, rancher, or logger who must work like hell while the sun shines, then sit and wait for a break in the weather, brutally hot or brutally cold, before he can venture out to work like hell again. As Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in his history-making book, The Frontier in American History, “these men were emotional. […] They had faith in themselves and their destiny.”

They worked hard and they built a nation. They built it on a foundation of free lands and democratic principles. Turner wrote that “free lands promoted individualism, economic equality, freedom to rise, democracy. […] In a word, then, free lands meant free opportunities.”

Oh, yes. There were others living on this land — whole peoples who did not share in the nation building effort. Native Americans were pushed along, resettled in reservations to the Southwest, or exterminated. Recently freed slaves tended to huddle in cities east of the Mississippi, though a few found good work on the immense ranches of the West. Chinese laborers were imported to lay railroad tracks and work the mines but were not allowed to own land. Even women, the wives of frontiersmen, had no voice. Each of these groups would have to wait for democracy to reach down to them.

Manifest Destiny was a white man’s notion, encouraged and enforced by a white man’s government. From the times of the Revolutionary War, the United States (at that time a plural noun) had promoted policies designed to gain new territories. George Washington, the son of a settler himself, settled the lands he surveyed. Thomas Jefferson was the son of a pioneer, born in the frontier region of Virginia. Abraham Lincoln, of course, was the very embodiment of pioneer democracy.

In their quest for additional lands, the United States commissioned expeditions such as Lewis and Clark’s, which conducted scientific inquiry as it opened new lands to American fur traders of the early 19th century. The United States fought wars with England, France, Mexico, and the Indians. More importantly, they won. They made deals, and every time they made a deal or won a war, new territory brought them that much closer to the reality of a continental nation. Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory for a song at a time when Napoleonic France needed the money for its own dreams of empire. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were easily won from a weak Mexican government once the United States set their collective mind to the goal. In all, 29 states were admitted to the Union during the 19th Century. The United States doubled and redoubled themselves until they formed a singular concept, spanning the continent from sea to shining sea.

All of this land needed people, and fast. The newly aggrandized federal government met this need with ordinances and acts that encouraged migration and settlement to the west. The Land Ordinance of 1785 contributed a lasting legacy of land divided into townships consisting of 36 sections of 640 acres (one square mile) each. They were to be auctioned off for as little as one dollar per acre. The Homestead Act of 1862 granted 160 acres of Western land, mostly desert, free to any qualified applicant.

Migrants needed transportation to reach their homesteads, so the states and federal government responded with waterways such as the Erie Canal, connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, and roads such as the Cumberland Road, supporting traffic to and from the Old West of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. The Santa Fe Trail to the Southwest and the Oregon Trail to the Northwest were soon carrying goods and settlers to the loneliest points on the map. Then along came the steam-powered Iron Horse — the railroad. In the same year that Congress passed the Homestead Act it also passed the Pacific Railroad Act, thus financing a transcontinental railroad. In May of 1869, a westbound Union Pacific train met an eastbound Central Pacific train near Ogden, Utah. Pounding of the Golden Spike was telegraphed back east, announcing that travelers could now cross the nation in days rather than weeks or months.

This was important because gold, silver and other precious ores had recently been discovered out west. California had its Gold Rush of 1849, with peak production of four million ounces of gold in 1852. Nevada’s Comstock Lode of silver ore was discovered in 1859, and Colorado attracted miners and their retinue to numerous gold and silver rushes throughout the latter half of the century. Again, the government stepped in to assist. After a great deal of discussion beginning in 1850, delayed mostly by demands that Chinese miners be prevented from harvesting precious metals, Congress passed the Mining Act of 1866, declaring that “mineral lands are free and open to exploration and occupation.” The Mining Act, with some revisions, is the law of the land to this day.

Mining for precious metals was not the only subterranean activity, however. Coal production increased 3000 per cent to 14 million tons between 1820 and 1860, then grew to 270 million tons by the turn of the 20th century. With this incredible increase in coal production, Turner could write in 1910 that “[m]ore coal was mined in the United States in the ten years after 1897 than in all the life of the nation before that time.” Mining companies came to be hated giants of industrial greed, subjecting employees to the harshest, most dangerous working conditions while raping the land as they followed veins of bituminous and anthracite ore.

The landscape was also changing on the grazing lands of the West. Where buffalo had so recently roamed, cattle now grazed. Even land that could not support buffalo was turned to pasture. Ranching was pursued wherever the land would not yield crops or gold. Of course, these deserts and semi-desert shrublands could not support many head per acre, so ranches tended to become large as homesteaders quickly discovered they could not survive on 160 acres, selling their land for just enough to move further west.

In spite of this headlong rush for free lands granted to homesteaders, miners, and railroads, the American population was actually becoming more and more urbanized. Historian Dayton Duncan notes that while the American population grew 16-fold during the 19th century, its urban population increased 139-fold. In fact, for every homestead granted, 20 farmers moved into the city. American cities grew first on the Atlantic coast, followed canals, rivers, and turnpikes to the Mississippi Valley, then took root along the railroad tracks that soon ran capillary-like to nearly everywhere on the continent.

This new urbanization of America, the third wave of settlers, believed in Manifest Destiny to an extent unconsidered by the first wave of simple hunters or the second wave of migrant farmers. The civilized settlers of towns and cities across America read with fervor the words of Herman Melville in 1850:

God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience, our wisdom.

America had, in less than 100 years, risen to fulfill its Manifest Destiny. Lands that were once merely overrun with Indians were now inhabited by democratic pursuers of an increasingly industrial economy. These zealots had created a fiercely democratic society based on the availability of free lands that could be exploited for agriculture, minerals, or transport, the essential ingredients of commerce. But even before her destiny was achieved, there were those who could see potential problems on the American landscape.

A literary genre evolved in which prescient writers could warn of the dangers to America’s rush to exploit her lands. Henry David Thoreau wrote of his experience on Walden Pond, an experiment in resistance to the industrial revolution with its debtor society and indifference to Nature. “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature,” he wrote in Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Thoreau railed against that noisy new technology that each day broke into his Solitude, saying of the railroad, “few are riding, but the rest are run over.” He recommended living thriftily within one’s means such that “to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime.” In a statement completely contradictory to Manifest Destiny he concluded, “Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth.”

Thoreau was just two years the senior of Walt Whitman, an American poet who greatly influenced the environmental movement of the 20th century. Whitman decried the tyranny latent in Manifest Destiny, exhorting us to “resist much, obey little,” as in “To the States:”

To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States,
Resist much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved;
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth,
ever afterward resumes its liberty.

Whitman also sensed trouble ahead for disciples of the Industrial Age, as in this excerpt from “To a Locomotive in Winter:”

Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering;
Type of the modern — emblem of motion and power — and pulse of the
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here
I see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.

Clearly, not all of America’s authors were as optimistically assured of the rightness of Manifest Destiny as was Melville. This was the time of America’s literary fruition. Literary notables to emerge from 19th century America included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain, and Henry James. While they wrote of pioneer days, they did so with nostalgia for days gone by before we even had a chance to enjoy them.

Much of their subject matter deals with the loss of frontier in America, and its replacement by the commercial class of third wave settlers. This closing of the frontier was academically established by a young historian named Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893. Turner had noticed a statement by the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 that “Up to and including 1880 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.” Over the course of a spectacular career (for a historian), Turner turned that statement into a thesis of American history through first an essay, then popular speeches, then a book, The Frontier in American History. While today’s historians debate the validity of Turner’s thesis, at the turn of the century it was taken as gospel. The American frontier was forever gone, lost in the achievement of Manifest Destiny. While vast areas of desolate frontier lands (those with fewer than seven inhabitants per square mile) remained, what was lost was the promise of free lands to “the thousandth and thousandth generation” of Americans. The frontier was a social process or, as Turner termed it, “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” that could never again be used as a generator of American democracy.

Turner noted four revolutionary changes in the last decade of the 19th century: 1) The supply of free land was no longer a factor in American development. 2) Capital had so concentrated in the hands of a few fundamental industries, e.g., coal, cattle, and railroads, that a significantly new and different economy had arisen. 3) The United States had recently embarked upon unprecedented imperial missions overseas. And 4) economic disparity between the rich and the poor had resulted in unparalleled political divisiveness on the question of Socialism. This schism would result in the rise of the Populist party at the turn of the century, and a long period of Democratic Party White Houses in the 20th century.

Turner’s thesis was greeted enthusiastically both within academe and without. Theodore Roosevelt converted to Turner’s view of America — so did Woodrow Wilson. All of America, in fact, came to believe that Manifest Destiny had been achieved and America would now benefit from industrialism without the distraction of having to tame the wilderness. When Turner retired from his teaching duties at Harvard in the summer of 1924, he settled down in Madison, Wisconsin, to write. As it happened, his neighbor two doors down was none other than Aldo Leopold, recently returned from the frontier lands of New Mexico, who corroborated many of Turner’s theories with what he had himself seen of disappearing wilderness.

While Turner’s thesis was at heart an optimistic one, it also revealed the downside of “progress.” Environmental problems became more pronounced and more widely known at the turn of the century, such that Turner was forced to admit in 1910 that “[t]hree years ago the President of the United States summoned the governors of forty-six states to deliberate upon the danger of the exhaustion of the natural resources of the nation.” Wisconsin would soon, in fact, be nearly completely deforested — the state’s pine forests were gone by the turn of the century; the hardwoods would follow within the next 25 years. America’s bird life was suffering mightily at the hands of civilization: The heath hen was hunted to extinction by 1932. Migratory waterfowl populations had dipped to precariously low numbers while Aldo Leopold was still a young boy growing up along the Mississippi flyway. The passenger pigeon had already succumbed to America’s taste for squab. Leopold would later reflect on a monument to the pigeon in A Sand County Almanac, saying:

Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?

And again, the federal government responded to the needs of America. Gifford Pinchot, a forester subscribing to new theories of scientific forest management, had recently become chief of the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry. He was a close friend and advisor to Theodore Roosevelt when the original Rough Rider became President in 1900. Together they began the U.S. conservation movement. In 1905, Roosevelt signed the Transfer Act that handed responsibility for the nation’s forest lands to the new U.S. Forest Service, with Gifford Pinchot as its chief. The lands held as Forest Reserves more than doubled to 150 million acres between 1903 and 1907, at which time they were officially designated National Forests. The utilitarian conservation of America’s National Forests would ensure “a perpetual supply of timber for home industries, preventing destruction of the forest cover which regulates the flow of streams, and protecting local industries from unfair competition in the use of forest and range,” as proclaimed in the Forest Service’s first mission statement.

Working the same ground but from a vitally different perspective was the preservationist movement led by John Muir. In 1867, the 29-year-old Scottish-American naturalist walked 1000 miles from his Wisconsin home to the Gulf of Mexico. He then turned toward the Pacific, visited Yosemite Valley, and embarked upon a life-long mission to preserve and protect what little remained of America’s pristine natural wonders. His efforts resulted in formation of the Sierra Club, and eventually succeeded in gaining Yosemite’s designation as America’s second National Park (after Yellowstone) in 1890.

The philosophies of John Muir and Gifford Pinchot would soon meet head-on in the Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park. The City of San Francisco wanted to dam the Hetch Hetchy for a municipal water supply. John Muir, the preservationist, said we may as well “dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” To which Pinchot, the conservationist, replied that whatever injury may accompany the substitution of a lake for the swampy floor of the Hetch Hetchy Valley “is altogether unimportant compared with the benefits to be derived from its use as a reservoir.” San Francisco got its dammed water in 1913. The “greatest good for the greatest number” has held sway in nearly every court battle since.

In response to the emerging crisis in wildlife resources, Theodore Roosevelt asked Congress to designate certain lands as federal game refuges. One Congressman denounced the President’s proposal as “the fad of game preservation run stark raving mad.” The bill died, prompting the President to ask, “Is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island a Federal Bird Reservation?” He was informed the island was already federal property, so he said, “Very well, I so declare it.” In this way, Pelican Island, off the Florida coast, became the nation’s first wildlife refuge in 1903.

Meanwhile, technological advances were occurring regularly as the 20th century dawned on America. The closing of the frontier had been achieved in large part due to the immediate implementation of recent technological advances. The windmill, barbed wire, railroads, Morse Code and the telegraph, the McCormick Reaper, the Colt revolver, and a network of irrigation systems to water the arid lands west of the Mississippi River had all played vital roles in the winning of the West. Now the inventions of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were introduced: electric lighting and the telephone. In 1903, the Wright Brothers made their first flight in a powered aircraft. That same year, Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company, using assembly-line manufacturing techniques to build tens of thousands of new Model T automobiles each year.

The U.S. population, which had not topped 10 million by 1820, would swell to well over 100 million before 1920. Where the population had been less than 10 per cent foreign born at the beginning of the 19th century, by the end of that century some metropolitan areas in the east were only 30 percent native stock. Such rapid changes in technology, manufacturing, and demographics forced lurking social issues to the fore. Workers’ revolts were common, and were ruthlessly quelled by captains of industry with the aid of their allies in government. The Woman Suffrage movement was gaining momentum under the leadership of such women as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It is difficult for us to imagine a nation in which women had no vote. Their cause was delayed by other issues such as the temperance movement, which harbored many of the same advocates, and Negro emancipation after the Civil War. Nonetheless, women’s suffrage would not be granted across the nation until well into the 20th century. Rachel Carson was 13 years old when the 19th Amendment, extending voting rights to women, was ratified in 1920.

American society became increasingly stratified through the winnowing effects of commerce and industry at the turn of the century. Increasingly, special interest groups — conservationists, feminists, and socialists alike —turned to the federal government to right the wrongs of the nation where previously they would have turned to the states or to themselves.

This sense of belonging to a greater entity — the United States was now definitely a singular noun — combined with the news of horrors coming out of Europe, led the U.S. to reluctantly shed its isolationist ideology and become involved in World War I. As part of the effort, the Forest Service supplied the lumber for barracks, trenches, and aircraft, requiring a pronounced increase in timbering activity and a scaling-back of recreational development on national forest lands.

After Armistice Day, Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief and returned to the task of improving their lives at any cost. While the economy boomed, ethics went bust. Warren G. Harding’s Presidency was among the most corrupt, and several members of his Cabinet were forced to resign amid scandal. Americans were largely inattentive because times were good. The typical citizen could now afford to buy an automobile. The atypical citizen was beginning to travel by air. Charles Lindbergh successfully flew the first solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, in 1927. The times were heady, if dry due to Prohibition, as emerging technologies reached down to the masses. Unfortunately, these seemingly good times were brought to a screeching halt with the Stock Market Crash of October 29, 1929, precipitating the Great Depression.

The Depression did not immediately affect everyone in America. It rolled out from Wall Street over the next several years, hitting different sectors of the economy at different times. In general, however, the nation went from an unemployment rate of less than two per cent in the middle of the ’20s to nine per cent in 1930 and nearly 24 per cent in 1932. That year also saw industrial production slowed to 40 per cent of its capacity, and the stock market at ten per cent of its pre-Crash level. To make matters worse, intensive agricultural practices in the West reaped a grim harvest as dry, windy conditions settled into the southern Plains from 1933 to 1935, resulting in the Dust Bowl that drove myriad farmers and settlers off the plains and further west.

The nation turned once again to the federal government for help. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, the beginning of 16 years of New Deal policies generally credited with bringing about the nation’s slow economic recovery.

Meanwhile in Europe, the Great War never really ended but merely took recess in order to regroup. Hitler rose to power. By 1939, Europe was again fighting and Japan was waging war in Asia and the Pacific, yet America tried desperately to remain neutral. This ended on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the first time American territory had been attacked in the 20th century. Germany declared war on the U.S. shortly thereafter, and America was soon committed to military theaters around the globe.

The War Years greatly affected American life. More than 16 million Americans served in the armed forces — 292,000 died in battle. Beyond this a tremendous effort was undertaken to produce the machinery of war, which had lain dormant since 1919. Gasoline and other materials were rationed. Women were recruited in unheard of numbers to work in factories that had never before seen a female employee. The nation’s efforts resulted in unconditional surrender from Hitler’s Germany after unrelenting aerial bombing reduced German manufacturing capabilities to zero. The Japanese were largely defeated after the firebombing of Tokyo had reduced that wooden city to ashes, but the U.S. sent a clear and unequivocal message to the rest of the world (most especially the Soviet Union) with atomic bomb blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.

America again turned inward after the war, turning assembly lines that had so recently produced tanks and bombers to the task of producing cars and airliners. Communism became the great external threat, so the nation endured communist witch hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and embarked upon a series of military conflicts involving the Soviet Union in Southeast Asia. The federal government, which had grown tremendously in the first half of the 20th Century, continued to expand its influence, its budget and its workforce. Where federal government expenditures at the turn of the century amounted to no more than $400 million annually, by 1960 that number would reach $90 billion, with federal employees numbering nearly nine million.

This was also a time in which people were beginning to realize the environmental wrongs of the first half of the century. Manifest Destiny was not achieved without great cost to the environment. The population had doubled again, reaching 200 million before 1970, as metropolitan areas sprawled across the continent, connected by the new Interstate system of high-speed highways. Wilderness became dear. The bald eagle, our national symbol of pride, was on the verge of extinction due to hunting and degradation of habitat. Lake Erie was pronounced dead, and the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire due to pollutants pouring into the stream from industrial plants. Finally, an Apollo spacecraft took a photograph of the Earth as it returned from the Moon. Never before had we seen ourselves from space. Never before had we felt so small, so fragile.

All of which led to the ecology movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. President Richard M. Nixon declared the Environmental Decade, and the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. Millions of Americans came to believe something was wrong with the environment, and it was up to them to fix it.

This change in attitude was the result of several factors that defined the first half of the 20th century: the closing of the frontier, the rise of technology in everyday life, and the works of several great writers. They were not without their detractors. As Alexis de Tocqueville had noted 100 years earlier, “Nothing is more annoying in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. A foreigner will gladly agree to praise much in their country, but he would like to be allowed to criticize something, and that he is absolutely refused.” The environmental wrongs decried by Abbey, Carson, and Leopold cast them as foreigners in their own land, a land where material conveniences came to outweigh environmental rights, even democratic principles.

Rather than be defeated by the problems they saw, Abbey, Carson, and Leopold rose to expand the horizons of science and philosophy, creating new fields of environmental study where none had previously existed. Frederick Jackson Turner predicted these advancements in 1914 when he wrote:

But if there is disillusion and shock and apprehension as we come to realize these changes, to strong men and women there is challenge and inspiration in them too. In place of old frontiers of wilderness, there are new frontiers of unwon fields of science, fruitful for the needs of the race; there are frontiers of better social domains yet unexplored.

Abbey, Carson, and Leopold were the children of pioneers, raised in the Old West of turn-of-the-century America. They listened to the stories of their parents’ pioneering struggles. They read the works of Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and John Muir. They believed in the spirit of America and wanted only to set their country back on the right track of environmental awareness and stewardship. As Turner wrote, “In spite of his rude, gross nature, this early Western man was an idealist withal. He dreamed dreams and beheld visions. He had faith in man, hope for democracy, belief in America’s destiny, unbounded confidence in his ability to make his dreams come true.” It may well be that no American writer fits this description better than does Edward Abbey, to whom we now turn.


Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: