- Historic Sites
“full Speed Ahead And Damn The Tomorrows”
Our Frontier Heritage of Waste
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
The compulsion to move about is carried into our living habits. We are always shifting residences—from farm to city, from city to suburb, from one city to another. The Bureau of the Census reported after its last nose count that during the past year 36,000,000 persons had moved within the county where they lived, and another 13,000,000 had shifted from one county to another. Americans shift about so regularly that bank statements, dividend checks, and magazines are delivered with a change-of-address slip automatically enclosed. To live in the same house where we were born, or where our parents were born, is almost unheard of; a few years ago the New York Times considered newsworthy the fact that a California family had lived in the same house for fifty years, a journalistic judgment that the London Times would have considered incomprehensible.
We learned our habit of musical chairs from our pioneering ancestors. The frontiersmen must move, for ahead lay riches and opportunity: untrapped beaver streams, veins of gold, rich pasturage, virgin fields, rising land values—all the ingredients of the better life that was the universal American dream. So they pushed on—toward opportunity. The outer fringe of pioneers—the restless “squatters” who made the first clearings—usually shifted from five to seven times during their lifetimes, slashing away a few trees, building a rough lean-to or cabin, planting a few crops—then succumbing to the migratory fever and moving on to begin the process anew. Travelers in the Ohio Valley during the early nineteenth century reported abandoned farms, even though uncleared lands were still available. Their owners had been lured onward by hoped-for better lands in Indiana; they would soon leave Indiana for Illinois, Illinois for Missouri or Iowa.
The restless mobility bred into the frontiersmen by three centuries of migration westward has remained a heritage of the American people. Nor has the habit been totally discarded with the industrialization and stabilization of society. An American child moved frequently from place to place by his parents develops less of an attachment to a community than does a European youngster reared in the home of his parents and grandparents. He will be more inclined to move himself, and in turn to infect his children with “movingitis.” We Americans remain unusually mobile because of our frontier background.
People moved to better their lot socially as well as economically. Horace Greeley, it should be remembered, did not urge his fellow New Yorkers simply to “Go west, young man”; what he said was “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.” That was the magic phrase: “Grow up with the country.” The dream of every ambitious young man was to step aboard the escalator of cheap lands and ride upward to a higher place in the social order. This could best be accomplished in frontier communities where unexploited resources, rising land values, and a plastic society allowed a higher rate of vertical social mobility than anywhere else in the world. The unshakable belief that the next move westward would open the gates to a fortune and a spot in the elitist upper crust was the hope of all, and a primary triggering impulse that underlay the western movement.
The endurance of that dream helps explain the basic differences in the social attitudes of Americans and Europeans today. The British taxi driver who calls you “sir” is mirroring his social background in a class-oriented society; the American driver who calls you “Mac” is doing the reverse. One is the product of the highly stratified society observed by Karl Marx in nineteenth-century England, the other of a social order where frontier opportunity had blurred class lines. British travelers in midnineteenth century America never realized that the term “gentleman” was properly applied to all men because all were prospective “gentlemen”; instead they took delight in reporting such usages of the term as “He and another gentleman had been shoveling mud,” or “Two gentlemen were convicted and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for horse stealing.” Frontier opportunity was an alchemist’s stone that profoundly altered the social structure.
This is not to suggest that a classless society thrived in the successive Wests. Social organisms instinctively divide themselves according to the status and ability of their component parts; pioneer communities had their elitist groups and their lower classes almost from the beginning—the “better element” and “common folk” in the language of the day. A visitor in pioneer Indiana was not far wrong when he sniffed that two classes were discernible there, “the superior and the inferior—the former shaved once a week, the latter once in two weeks.” Distinctions did exist, even though the basis for division might seem strange to Europeans.