December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
Our Frontier Heritage of Waste
Historians of the future, looking back on the twilight years of the twentieth century, may designate the mid-1970’s as worthy of that supreme accolade accorded only the most significant dates in history: to serve as a dividing point between chapters in their textbooks. If they do, their judgment will be based not on the Watergate scandals (they would know that Grant and Harding had occupied the White House in the past and that human frailty could occasionally tarnish even a President), or even on the bitter conflict over the “Imperial Presidency” (they would be aware that Congress and the President traditionally had vied for power and that authority had fluctuated between the two in unpredictable cycles).
Instead, those historians might recognize the mid-1970’s as a turning point in national development because suddenly, almost without warning, the American people were advised by their leaders that they must abandon a way of life to which they had been accustomed for three centuries. They were told that they could no longer squander the natural resources with which their continent was so richly endowed. Those resources, seemingly inexhaustible, were in increasingly short supply; food, energy, and raw materials were diminishing at a rate that could mean disaster for today’s generation, let alone those of the future. The “land of plenty,” Americans were told, could within a few years become a “land of want” unless they changed their life patterns drastically.
This rude awakening began with the Arab oil boycott that followed the Yom Kippur War of 1973; the United States, its people learned, was dependent on foreign producers for an ingredient essential to the economy. This was bad enough, but worse were the continuing alarms that sounded over the next months-from the President, from the United Nations, from commissions, from experts, from anyone who could speak with real or pretended authority. Shortages of oil, gasoline, and natural gas would continue and worsen unless the nation practiced voluntary belt-tightening. The nation’s farms could no longer keep pace with the world’s needs; mass starvation was possible within a decade without population controls. Dozens of items essential to the economy were so scarce that the industrial machine might lumber to a halt at any moment; we were underproducing plastics, paper, steel, cotton, copper, propane, nylon, acetate yarns, penicillin, cement, aluminum, vinyl, paints, electrical items, and on and on and on.
The people of the United States were shocked by these unpleasant facts, but the experts who voiced the warnings were just as shocked by the popular reaction. For the great mass of the people simply refused to listen. Savants and politicians and newspaper editorialists might paint the future black, but most Americans refused to remove their rose-tinted glasses. The fifty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit might grace the statutes, but, within months of the fuel crisis, highway speeds were creeping back into the sixty-mile range; Los Angelenos bound for Las Vegas were so eager to lose their money that special police patrols were necessary on weekends to convoy reluctant motorists at legal limits. Administrative efforts to curb the use of gasoline by drastic price increases were rigidly resisted by congressmen more closely tuned to the public’s wishes than the President. President Carter used a week of press conferences and television appearances to try to convince the nation that some form of energy saving was “the moral equivalent of war” in meeting “the greatest challenge that our country will face during our lifetime,” fully anticipating that such a plea would reduce his popularity by fifteen per cent. Even then only forty-five per cent of the public tested in opinion polls thought the energy situation was worse than “fairly serious.” Americans were too accustomed to squandering their heritage to change their ways; full speed ahead and damn the tomorrows.
Why does this heedless attitude persist? Why do Americans blindly mortgage the future rather than curb their enjoyment of the present? That is a question of enormous complexity, answerable only by an analysis of the national character. My purpose is to isolate one strand of our history that seems to me particularly important in understanding our current dilemma. This is the fact that our culture originated and solidified during the three centuries that the nation was expanding westward.
Expansion began with the first settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, at Philadelphia and Charleston. From these outposts the population spread slowly over the interior, reaching the crest of the Appalachians before the end of the eighteenth century, moving across the Mississippi Valley during the first half of the nineteenth, engulfing the Pacific Provinces and the Great Plains in the second half. From the beginning to the end of the nation’s formative period, expansion was a dominant force in the lives of its people. Not until 1890 could the director of the census announce that an unbroken frontier line could no longer be drawn across a map of the United States separating the settled and unsettled portions of the continent.
The frontier did not “close” in 1890, of course; population continued to shift westward during the twentieth century, and still shifts today. But the census announcement foretold the future; the era of the conquest of untapped virgin resources was drawing to a close. Today, with the cries of the conservationists ringing in our ears, we are experiencing the first shock waves of that closing, and more are inevitable.
During those three centuries of westering, the American people enjoyed a degree of opportunity for individual selfadvancement unknown elsewhere in the world. Basic in frontiering was the altered ratio of man to land; in Europe and the settled East, land was scarce and men were many; in the advancing West, land was plentiful and men were few. Each move forward opened fresh resources to exploitation: furbearing animals to be trapped, mineral riches to be mined, lush pasture lands to be grazed, virgin soils to be cultivated, timber to be stripped from the hills. Here was opportunity unlimited for the ambitious and the energetic.
Moreover, these virgin resources served as an avenue of escape from poverty and subservience. Those with the skills and wherewithal for pioneering were offered a recurring opportunity to better themselves economically and socially. That few found the pot of gold at the end of their rainbows made little difference; all were certain that their luck would be better. This was the American dream during the nineteenth century, and that dream helped shape the habits, attitudes, and ambitions of generations of Americans. Those attitudes persist in the frontierless land of today and underlie the problem of the nation’s leaders who would reshape the nation’s temperament to the realities of the modern world.
What are those frontier-engendered habits and attitudes that distinguish the American character? One national trait, traceable in part to our frontier heritage, is that most criticized today: our heedless wastefulness of our resources. Throughout our history, visitors from overseas have been shocked by our reckless spending of nature’s riches; travelers today find but slight improvement. The United States is known as the land of the paper towel, of disposable tissue, of no-deposit-no-return bottles, of throwaway beer cans, of the bag within the bag within the bag at the supermarkets. American machines are viewed by visitors as cunningly contrived for premature obsolescence within a disgracefully short time; American homes have been compared to reverse assembly lines deliberately designed to reduce the gadgets with which they are stocked to rubble so that replacements will be required.
My awakening to the national compulsion to destroy came during a year spent as a visiting professor at Oxford University. In England, I soon learned, your pound of plaice from the corner fishmonger came wrapped not in a spick-and-span new bag, but in yesterday’s copy of the Oxford Mail . There the handkerchief, often slightly soiled, reigned supreme over disposable tissue. There the empty wine bottle was returned to the neighborhood pub rather than cast into the dustbin. Perhaps nothing brought the cultural difference home to me more vividly than a letter from my bank—a highly respectable and affluent financial institution—which arrived in a used envelope that had been addressed to the bank, then readdressed to me. Not even the smallest savings-and-loan concern in the United States, I realized, would stoop to such economies; every letter would be written on embossed stationery, probably with a multicolored letterhead, and with the names of thirty-eight vice presidents crowding the margin.
Why this difference? Our wastefulness is a habit taught us by our pioneering ancestors. As the frontiersmen moved westward, they were confronted with such an abundance of natural riches that their exhaustion was inconceivable. Why bother to conserve amidst such plenty? If asked about posterity, they were likely to answer: “What has posterity done for me?” So they exterminated, or nearly exterminated, every animal species of value, the beaver and buffalo being the most notable examples. They grubbed out mineral wealth by destroying the countryside; strip mining and sluice mining were commonplace even though they left the countryside an unsightly shambles. They slashed away the timber, and moved on. They mined the soils of their fertility, leaving behind unsightly fields, gullied and worn. There was no need to conserve; the resources were inexhaustible. There was no compulsion to protect the landscape; moving on to an unspoiled countryside was easier and more profitable.
So destruction became a virtual obsession among frontiersmen. To those in forested areas, the tree was an enemy—a symbol of the savagery of nature—that must be removed. Pioneers cut every tree in sight, even those needed for shade, shelter, windbreaks, even maple groves useful for sweets. The true Westerner’s ideal was a flat field, beautified perhaps by a smoking factory. Once the land was cleared, the destruction continued. Farmers in that day knew about fertilizers and crop rotation, but they preferred to butcher the soil, then press ahead to virgin fields. “Why, son,” boasted one Nebraska farmer, “by the time I was your age, I had wore out three farms.”
So it was that moving became a habit of the pioneers, and of their descendants. This was noted by nineteenth-century travelers; it is noted by visitors from overseas today. Americans, they say, are perpetually on the move. We live in automobiles. In 1973, of the 210 million people in the United States, 121,383,381 were licensed drivers, operating 125,156,876 automobiles and trucks over nearly 4,000,000 miles of surfaced roads, burning 105,944,521,000 gallons of gasoline, and killing 55,800 persons yearly.
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.
These class distinctions differed, however, from those in established societies in the relative ease of access to the upper strata. Society on the frontier was atomized, with no established group in control. Instead, a power vacuum existed at the top, beckoning the able and the ambitious. The relative ease of economic self-advancement for the fortunate few was determined by no set guidelines. Class distinctions were difficult to maintain where a servant girl might marry the community’s leading citizen (by no means unusual along the frontiers, where women were few), where the town ne’er-do-well could be skyrocketed to riches with a turn of his shovel in a placer mine, where the poorest farmer could reap a fortune with a lucky land speculation. The class structure was more “open ended” in such regions than in the settled East or Europe.
Equally fatal to traditional distinctions were two popular attitudes universal along the frontiers. One was belief that monetary wealth, not distinguished ancestry, was the measure of social eminence. What a man was, not what his family had been, determined his place in society. “Out west,” a British visitor noted, “the one question is ‘what can you do,’ not ‘who was your father?’ ”
Just as important was a universal refusal to recognize that class lines did exist, even when they were apparent. The lowest figure on the social totem pole saw his lot as only temporary, soon to be replaced by affluence and prestige, and acted accordingly. When a stranger in a pioneer town spoke of “servants,” he was rudely reminded: “There are no servants here; all are hired hands.” When a worker was asked who his “master” was he answered: “I have no master. My employer is Mr. So-and-so.” Servant girls expected to be treated as equals and made part of the family. If, wrote a housewife from the Michigan frontier, a servant “was not invited to sit at first table with company, not included in invitations,… not called Miss Jane or Miss Eliza, she was off in a moment.” An Ohioan lost a crew of hard-to-get workers when he neglected to invite them to breakfast with the family; a honeymooning couple was abandoned by their driver when they tried to have one meal by themselves.
Nor was this insistence on equality confined to the “common folk”; the “better sort” were just as eager to prove that they were no better than their neighbors and hence entitled to the same treatment. One pioneer housewife, dismayed at seeing a guest dip her fork into the serving dishes, offered to serve her. “I’ll help myself, thank ye,” she snapped back. “I never want no waitin’ on.” Those with more possessions than others apologized rather than boasted, saying that carpets were “one way to hide the dirt,” a fancy table “dreadful plaguy to scour,” and that kitchen conveniences were “lumberin’ up the house for nothin’.” “In the West,” wrote a French traveler, ”… every man with a coat to his back is a gentleman, quite as good as his neighbors.” This was the frontier creed, whatever the realities of the social structure.
These attitudes, bred into generations of Americans during their three centuries of westering, persist even today. Our distinctive social democracy encourages Americans to believe that the upper levels of society are not automatically closed to them, places a higher value on merit than on ancestry, and minimizes hereditary prestige as a factor in the escalation process. That view was captured by a cartoon published some years ago showing an Englishman saying disdainfully to an American hostess: “It is a defect of your country that you have no leisure class.” “But we have them,” she answers, “only we call them tramps.”
By opening the gates to all the aspiring and worthy, frontiering contributed to the emergence of another unique facet of the American character. This was the compulsion to work hard. As early as 1633 the Massachusetts General Court decreed that “No person, householder or other, shall spend his time idly or unprofitably, under pain of such punishment as the court shall think fit to inflict.” Here was voiced the frontier creed. For in the early West endless labor was essential not only to the individual’s personal success but to the welfare of society. Forests must be cleared away, stumps grubbed from the ground, trees burned, cabins built, crops planted, the necessities of life fashioned from nature’s materials. Each individual’s efforts were a measure not only of his own success but of the success of the community in its struggle for survival. Those who failed to contribute their share were shirking their duty to society no less than to themselves. They were branded as social outcasts, and were driven out or “hated out” of the community. Work thus became a habit as well as a necessity, not simply in regions swayed by the Puritan ethic, but on all frontiers. Even the games played by pioneers were insidiously contrived to masquerade work as play; barn-raisings, and logrollings, and husking bees, and quilting parties might be pleasureful for the frontiersmen, but they served a practical end that was even more essential.
This habit of work has become, after three centuries of pioneering, a compulsion of the American people. We labor endlessly, not simply to achieve success, but because society decrees continuing hard labor even for the affluent. Social pressures no less than individual ambition drive Americans into ulcers, heart attacks, and premature death. There is no time in the United States for the noontime siesta that eases pressure in Latin lands, the leisurely tea hour that is one of Britain’s most sacred traditions, the lingering over a glass of wine at a sidewalk café that is a treasured practice in Paris or Rome. Instead, the typical American gulps his meal at his desk or at a quick-service restaurant, flirts with speeding tickets as he rushes to business appointments, and glories in boasting that he works harder than his neighbor. Even the cocktail hour, the one socially acceptable leisure period allowed by the nation’s mores, is devoted to the consumption of beverages of such lethal intensity that the maximum degree of rejuvenation is achieved in the minimum space of time.
Today, as I have suggested, the national mores are changing as the United States adjusts to the same closed-space world that has shaped European civilizations for generations. The gospel of hard work is losing its appeal as machines increasingly assume the burdens of production; the coffee break, the two-martini luncheon, the popularity of tennis and skiing and golf and other time-consuming sports, and the mounting demand for a shorter work week all testify to the fact that endless labor is no longer a social necessity. Mobility, both spatial and social, is gradually slowing in the United States, at the same time that it is increasing in the developed countries of the Old World where industrial opportunity assumes the role of frontier opportunity in America’s past. And certainly today, if we may believe our political leaders and headline writers, wastefulness is a luxury that vanished with the free lands of the West.
What does the future hold for a frontierless United States? Historians should stick to the past; those who do speculate about the future are notorious for their inaccuracies. But I am foolhardy enough to venture that during the mid-1970’s the nation experienced its first hint of basic changes that lie ahead. Unless I am mistaken, our children and grandchildren will be forced—by decree and public pressures—to substitute conservation for their traditional wasting of natural resources. They will be required to adjust to a society in which physical mobility is slowing as individual opportunity lessens with the expansion of the corporate business structure. They will rearrange their ambitions as they realize that the upward social mobility which has gone handin-hand with physical mobility is increasingly difficult in a society that is gradually stratifying. And they will witness a restriction on individual freedom as governmental controls are extended to assure an equitable allotment of the dwindling natural resources.The years that lie ahead, in other words, may produce what the great historian of the frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner, once called the “Europeanization” of the United States. If that transformation does take place, the mid-1970’s will have truly served as a watershed in our history.