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U.S. Inception: The Frontier Spirit
by   Richard   Rieben
Written – 19 April 1976
 
Oscar Handlin wrote: "In the hearts and minds of those who fought it ... the Revolution was already consumated before the first shot was fired. Even had the political developments taken some other turn that permitted the colonies to remain within the empire, the Americans would still have been a nation apart."

The advance of civilization has never been carried forward by any social institution or structure, but only by individuals. At most new stages of the advance of civilization, the social structures, initially built by individuals, come to limit and restrict further advancement ... there is a move to conventionalize and conform to established ways. The discovery and settlement of the New World was crucial to the advance of civilization. Europe at that time was consolidating the achievements of the Enlightenment; the restrictions of new structures were coming to be felt.

The Americans were different because they were Europe's misfits. For whatever particular individual reason, whether they felt that they themselves did not or could not fit and came to America as indentured servants or whether they had been rejected by Europe and were sent to America as convicts or political or religious dissidents, the Americans had a sense for adventure which set them apart from other Europeans (for most, the voyage itself was a major adventure; for some, such as the convicts and dissidents, they had flirted with danger in an European context and had thus set themselves apart). The idea of experience in the colonial period has to be understood in the context of the kind of people involved.

The experience in the New World was a combination of the physical environment, the distance of effective authority, and the specific kind of people who had come to deal with this situation. In large part, the American people were already distinguished and "a nation apart" before they even came to America. The American environment proved to be the catalyst in the experience which evolved and bequeathed the substances of an actual nation with common ideals and a common territory. The idea that Americans were a "nation apart" would have resulted equally as well had the people who went to America gone to some isolated part of the European continent with similar physical hardships to overcome and with a similar lack of European authority. The same experience did not occur earlier with the Spaniards in Latin America because the Spaniards were from a nation built on conquest and subjugation ("a society organized for war," it has been termed) in which there had been no overriding history of freedom, but only one kind or another of rule. Coming off the "running-board" of the Enlightenment, there were enough people in Europe unwilling to stop short within established structures: they kept running in a diverse, but mass, movement to the New World. All the ideas which were to distinguish America and set it apart had their beginnings in Europe and found some degree of realization on the soil in the New World.

The experience of America was not the especial virtue of the environment, nor even of the newness of that environment. The experience was distinctive to the kind of people who were not satisfied or did not fit into the European experience of that time. Independent-minded people with ideas of their own and with convictions which led them to be dissatisfied with the conventional, and with a strength of mind to launch protest or resistance and/or head for the frontier, these are the kind of people who determine a "frontier atmosphere" and who make the frontier experience what it is and must be. This is a principle which holds true today as well in such places as Alaska and, to a lesser extent, Australia. The colonial Americans were set apart because, by and large, they were misfits to begin with - and misfits with a specific distinction: they had been infected (some of them quite seriously) with the ideas of the Enlightenment; they were forward-looking misfits.

The communities of the New World formed, split, re-grouped, factioned, scattered, dissolved, and re-formed ... the very structure of social life was in a state of almost chronic flux because, essentially, the members of the communities were misfits of varying types - they were not a breed of people who would be contented with social structures of any kind, such as they knew them to be. But the needs of the environment kept throwing them together (against their personal judgements) until they had, of necessity, to formulate a pragmatic and satisfying principle of community. The one element which nearly all the settlers had in common was their desire to be individually distinct and different ... they were misfits and this was their common bond. It was the inability and lack of desire (apathy) to cope with social structures which led to the flux of the American settlements as communities and which led to a resolution of this chronic state of conflict by the evolution of a new concept of social structure.

Economics was an inherent part of the whole colonial venture: the right to be different (though even this was not clearly formulated as such) implied the right to trade as one was wont, on one's own terms. As a distinct aspect of the colonial experience, the structural conflicts of the economic system were still too much a part of the Old World way of thinking (due to the continued trade with Europe on European terms) and the issue was never satisfactorily conceptualized or resolved down through the present day.

All of the foregoing is not to say, of course, that the Puritans or others were communities of individuals, but the very agitation which had driven them to the New World was the essential lesson learned by the new generation of American Puritans - if what their parents had accomplished in separating themselves from an oppressive and "wrong-thinking" world was possible, mighten't the youth as well entertain individualistic fantasies with a sense of their being less fantastic and more possibly realistic? The new generation that grew up in America were raised by people with some degree of unconventionality and in a setting which facilitated such divergence. The new generation extended the distinctiveness of their misfit parents. They had the stress on difference inoculated by the example of their parents; they had an environment that allowed them to be more different than their parents had, perhaps, ever conceived; and they had a very vague, second-hand concept of European conventions and authority. The impetus to the new generation within America came primarily from the example set by the nature of their spirited, restless, adventuresome, dissatisfied parents who retained the germ of agitation even in their new found contendedness ... the strife of life in the wilderness further impelled the young to see in their parents a breed of people who got what they wanted by their own efforts. Especially visible to the youth was the fact that their parents had sought as individuals to satisfy their own desires and consciences. The settlers had not been a people given to acceptance of "things as they were," if they thought that they could do better (or even no worse) on their own.

 

copyright © 2005 by Richard G. Rieben