D. W. Meinig, THE SHAPING OF AMERICA . A Geographical Perspective of 500 Years of History: Volume II: Continental America, 1800-1867
"Chaos theory" postulates that in any series of events with even a small percentage of randomness, though the chances of predicting the outcome of any one action can be high mathematically, the odds of correctly forecasting the final state very quickly become negligibly small. Applied to weather, it explains why forecasts diminish in accuracy the further into the future predictions are attempted. Applied to human migration, it illuminates the problems American statesmen, commercial and agricultural interests, and individual citizens faced; every proposed solution to the recurring crises of the republic were based on a vision of the futureCand human nature being what it is, most visions were combinations of self-interest and wishful thinking.
Meinig traces the chaotic history of this era in terms of human migration, transportation, the economy, and politics. His starting point is the Frontier Theory of Frederick Jackson Turner, who postulated the existence of successive borderlands where advancing explorers, trappers, miners, and pioneers met the challenges provided by climate and indigenous peoples. Meinig finds Turner's model too simplistic and too deterministic. Meinig's own vision is that of one region's being opened up here, another there, each migration the result of choices by common Americans who were determined to acquire new land and exploit every economic opportunity, come what may. If this meant "shoving the Indians aside" or ruining the environment, so be it.
The crassness of this policy can be observed in both the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812. These expressions of expansionism, the one peaceful, the other military, equally ignored the fact that people already lived in the areas to be acquired. Jefferson did not inquire about the wishes of the French in New Orleans or the Indians west and north of St. Louis. Madison and the War Hawks not think of consulting the Canadians (and though they knew that New Englanders opposed war with Great Britain in 1812, they outvoted them). Eliminating restrictions on commerce, removing foreign empires from the borders, and ending the traditional fear of Indian attack on frontier settlements were more important than the tender feelings of a relatively small numbers of people who were, in any case, sure to be overwhelmed within a short space of time. The workings of "natural law" assured that Americans would be the future possessors of the entire continent.
The reality of the West was not that simple. The Indians refused to vanish; there were French in New Orleans, Hispanics in the Mexican Cession, Mormons in Deseret, and Britons along the northern boundary. Nor were the pioneers uniformCNew England, the "Midlands" (a Pennsylvania-Virginia mix), Virginia, and South Carolina extended their cultures west along parallel lines, constantly colliding where rivers, canals, and mountain passes brought their paths together. New groups of immigrants arrived, Irish congregating in northern cities, Germans heading for the Middle West. Religious bodies and utopian communities moved en masse to new locations.
The resulting diversity in regional populations could be seen even among Afro-Americans. Blacks came out of the Tidewater tobacco tradition, the South Carolina rice fields westward into the Cotton Kingdom, the complicated creole culture of Louisiana, and the freedmen workers of the cities. Proposals to abolish slavery by whatever means came up against the question, "then what?" The South could neither live with nor without the Blacks, and nobody wanted to pay the taxes necessary for any peaceful emancipation scheme. Deep-seated racism in every part of the country combined with practical common sense and fear resulted in the rejection of suggestions that Blacks could become small farmers, wage laborers, factory workers, or be sent back to Africa.
Similar problems impeded a just resolution of the "Indian problem." Try though sincere politicians, ministers, and citizens might, the fact was that the Democratic empire in the process of being created was out of control. Men who believed themselves ruling from Washington were, in fact, helpless to stop the pioneers from doing as they wished. Treaties were not deliberately violated as much as they were irrelevant. Aristocratic John Quincy Adams could stand firmly behind the Cherokees in Georgia, but he could not prevent the Georgians from entering their lands; and he could not stop his successor, Andy Jackson, a man of the people, from packing the lot off to Oklahoma.
The dominant group came to be the Yankee. Although true Yankees remained confined to New England, where they defiantly repelled efforts by immigrants to dilute the purity of either their ethnic identity or their morality, their institutions and ideas spread steadily westward and eventually southward as well. The Yankee emphasis on education, commerce, and industry underlay the rapid advance of technology and urbanization. Because Yankees were willing to use immigrant labor, almost all immigration came to the North. Significantly, immigrants preferred the Midland regions which combined the most attractive aspects of Pennsylvania and Virginia into a new "American" culture.
In spite of this, at any given time there were many potential future Americas. Meinig asks, what would have happened if the Mexican government had listened to its experts and European advice to recognize Texas as an independent state? If the United States had not declared war in 1812, would the flood of American immigrants into Ontario province eventually have led public opinion there to favor joining the southern colossus? If Spain had sold Cuba, would there have been the dispute over western lands which led to the Civil War?
The spread of canals, railroad lines, and roadsCall so logical in our usual textbook presentationsCis shown to be almost as haphazard as the delineation of state boundaries. Few foresaw that deforestation would lead to opening coal fields, thus condemning some promising cities to obscurity and elevating others; few could guess which river city would flourish and which failCsurely, many thought, the juncture of the Mississippi and the Ohio was the logical place for a great metropolis. If Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois had been laid out east to west, rather than north to south, the political debate over slavery would have been far different than it was.
Essential for understanding the alternative futures that such debates embodied is realizing that American expansion was not westward but outward. In the decades following the Louisiana Purchase, Americans looked at Florida and Canada, even Cuba and Haiti, more closely than Texas, California and Oregon. In time Liberia, Hawaii, China and Japan experienced influxes of Americans. As this expansionism created an empire, Americans had to come to terms with the various types of imperial organization possible. Should they establish Protectorates, govern through indigenous rulers, gerrymander boundaries to make Americans the majority (as in Louisiana and California), appoint military or civilian governors, reduce the natives to dependency, or remove them to preserves and attempt to acculturate them? Unsure which option was most suitable, Americans tried them all. What Americans were agreed upon what that their new type of empire was good, just, and proper. As a consequence, expansionCwhether by purchase, diplomacy, annexation, military conquest, or settlementCwas the policy of every administration from Jefferson to Johnson.
The reality of empire complicated political theory both for those who saw their country as a federation and those who believed it should be a nation. In the form of debates over federal support for industry and transportation, political parties staked out ideological positions which were soon outdated by events. As religious and cultural leaders were left behind by the migrating millions, as political leadership was so embroiled in vain and often petty quarrels that every attempt at resolving sectional disagreements was at best an expedient, Americans went off on their own by land and by sea. The best which could be managed by Jefferson, Jackson, and Polk was to maintain such order as possible, abetting the process of creating new states out of territories and acquisitionsCwithout causing the Union to disintegrate in the process. The Mexican War, however, created too much strain. Southern leaders, believing their region had been cheated out of huge territories by the peace treaty and then having to defend their central institution from abolitionists, first tried to claim their share of the national patrimony, then moved toward secession.
It is understandable that many Americans were beset by contradictory feelings during this era. Seeing themselves buffeted by forces beyond anyone's control, yet certain that, somehow, all this was their own doing, they responded by taking pride in their very diversity, perverseness, and gigantism. They gloried in their relentless growth and energy, quarreled over every possible issue, and devised institutions whose genius seem to lie in finding compromises while avoiding coming to grips with the fundamental problems. In the end, the democratic empire was vast and complex almost beyond description, much less within the bounds of political control or moral suasion. The will of the people, expressed indirectly by billions of individual choices in creating the regions and the particular outward thrust of each era, not the plans or plots of presidents and congressmen, determined the fate of the republic.
Southern secession was the result of one region's attempt to act upon this view of America's essential character, but the concept of nationhood triumphedCimposed by Northern arms on a section of the country which had prided itself on its democracy, its culture, and its institutions. Regionalism was not dead, but it was no longer master. By 1867, when the purchase of Alaska brought the American empire to its final stage, the United States was a nation modeled on Yankee ideasCa continental state based on industry and commerce, linked by federally-supported railroads, protected by a proud, victorious army. The South had been reduced to subordinate provinces, but it was by no means clear that the North would succeed better in imposing a new culture on Virginia, South Carolina and Virginia than the United States had previously been able to change Frenchmen, Mexicans, and Indians into Americans. Nevertheless, with the divisive issue of slavery now put out of the way, Americans looked forward to fulfilling their destiny as a free peopleCthe creation of an American nation.
On the periphery was a French-English Canada on the way to self-government, a Mexico in turmoil as French troops withdrew, Havana crowded with former Confederates, and the West Indies undergoing emancipation. The European empires were in retreat, American democracyCdespite all its faults and flawsCwas in full ascendancy. New waves of immigrants crowded the ports, eager to fill the cities and countryside of the territories most recently wrested from its possessorsCthe Great Plains and the mountain West. America was not only a transcontinental state, it was transoceanic as well.