A history of how America’s conception of its borders reflects its changing identity.
From the time of the country’s founding, the frontier has had mythical significance, symbolizing limitless opportunity and grand ambition. Today, that expansive idea has been replaced with that of an isolating border wall. In an authoritative and compelling analysis, Bancroft Prize winner Grandin (History/New York Univ.; Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, 2015, etc.) traces America’s evolution from the 18th century to the present, as expressed in the metaphorical meaning of frontier. “Where the frontier symbolized perennial rebirth, a culture in springtime,” he contends, the wall now reflects “a conspiratorial nihilism, rejecting reason and dreading change.” The author locates the mythology of the frontier in an essay by historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who “emancipated the concept of ‘frontier,’ unhitched it from its more mundane earthbound means—used to indicate a national border or a military front—and let it float free as an abstraction” that signified “an aspiration.” The vast, open West portended political equality and unlimited natural resources, independence and individualism: deeply held—though idealistic and overly romantic—values. Democratic values surely did not shape pioneers’ treatment of Native Americans, who were slaughtered, displaced, and forcibly segregated; nor of African-Americans, who never shared in the apparently bountiful economic and political rewards of westward expansion. Virulent racism infected the concept of frontier during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, which was characterized by the brutal campaigns of the Indian Removal Act. At a time of fast-paced change, urban growth, and economic volatility, Jackson promised to rein in government intrusion and restore “primitive simplicity and purity.” Throughout the 19th century, Grandin amply shows, the nation became involved in wars in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, the Pacific, and Southeast Asia that redefined the relationship of frontier to domination, exploitation, and “the panic of power.” Trump’s border wall, writes the author, “is a monument to disenchantment,” resentment, and rage.
An engaging and disquieting analysis of America’s recurring choice between “a humane ethic of social citizenship” and barbarism.