Frontier No More

February 8, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Posted in US History,, war and violence | 6 Comments

The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. By Greg Grandin. 384 pp. Metropolitan Books. 2019.  $18.00.

Back in January, some members of my women’s community, the Grail, watched two episodes of PBS’s Frontline. Titled “America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump,” the investigation traces how the collapse of Obama’s promise of unity led to the Trump campaign and administration unleashing rage and polarization in the country. Like many Frontline productions, the documentary is well-made and informative.

Throughout the four-hour program, however, I kept thinking about how the focus on Obama and Trump left out a great deal of the history that led up to the current “great divide.” I was thinking about this because I was at the same time reading Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.

Grandin is an historian at NYU here in New York, and the author of several prize-winning books. In The End of Myth, he explores how the myth of the frontier—of an endless, expanding American territory, and then, endless economic riches, underpins the whole of US history.

Even before the Revolution, according to Grandin, the prospect of moving ever westward, and then globally, to expand an individual’s fortune, functioned as a safety valve for the class struggles of an increasingly industrialized world. A primary cause of the Revolution was King George III’s order that the British colonies extend no farther than the Appalachian range. The king had given the land west of the Appalachians to the indigenous tribes that had fought with the British in the French and Indian War ((1754 to 1763). George Washington sent men to appropriate this land, long before the British tea tax.

But the strongly racist dimensions of the American belief in unlimited borders became clearer during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who drove Indigenous people west on the Trail of Tears and used language that makes Trump sound moderate. At one point, he bragged about collecting Indian skulls as trophies.

The Mexican-American War (1846-48) was fought during the same period that the working classes in Europe were rising up against the ruling classes in the liberal revolutions. But for the United States, any such class dissatisfaction was projected out onto the Mexicans, who were vilified in language that would sound very familiar today. We eventually stole more than half the territory of Mexico and extended the endless frontier to the Pacific coast. In the early 1890s, the Harvard historian Frederic Jackson Turner wrote about the wonderful “myth of the American frontier” without any mention of the racist undercurrents of that myth.

But it was the Spanish American War of 1898 that established the template for the new economic frontier of the 20th century. The ten-week war, won by US naval strength, gave the US permanent control over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and shorter-term control over Cuba. This was the next phase of American imperial expansion.

Equally to the point, the Spanish-American War provided a safety valve for the hostilities between North and South generated by the Civil War. Former Union and Confederate soldiers fought side by side and former Confederate generals led some of the attacks. Subsequently, the Confederate flag began to be carried in parades in the US, a sign of American unity. For Grandin, this appropriation of land in the Caribbean and the Pacific led to the globalization of the American frontier, leading to US domination of global markets after World War II..

By the end of the century, this class-and-race-charged US penetration of the global economic frontier had also come to an end, leading to the 2008-2009 recession and the rise of Donald Trump. And this is perhaps the heart of Grandin’s analysis: Trump’s invocation of the border, and renewed demonization of the same brown-skinned people exploited by Washington and Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt is symbolized by the border, and the wall there that Trump demands. This border, Grandin explains, is the reversal of the endless frontier that served as a safety valve for American conflicts throughout history.

So the divisions generated by attacks on and resistance to the Obama presidency, followed by the rise of DJT, are an important chapter in the history of American division, but they are by no means the only, or the first chapter. To understand the entire story, try reading Grandin’s splendid documentation of the evolution of the myth of the frontier into the metaphorical shrine that is the current US border wall.


This review appeared in the February 2020 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.


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