The Myth of the American Frontier

Infinite Frontier

The eternal return of American expansionism.


We’re going to confront the national-security crisis on our southern border,” President Trump said on February 15, as he announced a state of emergency under the National Emergencies Act. “We’re talking about an invasion of our country,” he continued, “with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs.”

Trump’s “state of emergency” was a new legal gambit following his failure to win congressional support for a border wall, but the sub-Boschian picture of criminal invasion from the south was at the center of his incendiary 2016 campaign and has never been far from the surface of his presidency. Trump styles himself a modern-day Cassandra: Mexicans and Central Americans are crossing the border to kill US citizens, he insists, and only he is sounding the alarm.

Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America presents this delusional episode as merely the latest chapter in an old American dilemma. As early as the days of Thomas Jefferson, official American mythmakers cast the United States as a frontier nation, one defined by its sense of the boundless possibilities, personal freedom, and natural riches waiting over the western horizon. The individualism, mobility, and wealth that the frontier represented seemed to set the United States apart from all other countries, fostering the idea that American progress could be infinite and that, because the United States was a country uniquely oriented to the future, it could serve as a progressive model for all humankind. But the frontier’s advance across the continent has always doubled as a tale of bloody conquest—of Native Americans, Mexicans, and farther-flung peoples. And every open frontier eventually arrives at its end, the place where it turns into a closed border.

The myth of an infinite frontier in 19th-century America also papered over the conflict raging in the United States as working-class movements for greater social and economic equality—some of them antislavery and even antiracist—were diverted by westward expansion, military expeditions, and xenophobic panics. Since the literal frontier closed more than a century ago, the conceit of limitlessness has served to justify expanding America’s borders into first a worldwide military empire and then commercial globalization. Grandin’s book demonstrates that American myths about open frontiers have always been dangerously simplistic, covering up inequality and violence both at home and abroad. The relentless crisis of the Trump presidency has been a long time coming, Grandin shows: the spasms of a country reckoning with the loss of its foundational myth, the myth of limitlessness.

In his first inaugural address, in 1801, Thomas Jefferson presented a utopian view of territorial expansion. America, he said, offered “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” On a continent “kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc” of Europe, white Americans could build free, self-governing communities of political equals. This vision of political equality among free men was genuinely utopian, powerful enough that Frederick Douglass, in his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” hailed the Declaration of Independence—the slaveholder Jefferson’s most iconic work—as the vital source of “saving principles” for Americans hoping to make their country genuinely free.

But the “exterminating havoc” that Jefferson imagined Americans avoiding was also the reality of the very frontier that he helped to open. The American Revolution was a revolt by settlers in pursuit of self-government. But the American revolutionaries also wanted the trans-Appalachian West for themselves and were forbidden from claiming it by a royal proclamation.

George Washington, like many of the other revolutionaries, had participated in the brutal fighting in the French and Indian War—the American version of the Seven Years’ War, which saw Britain, France, and their allies clash from Ohio to India—and he had scouted out the bountiful lands west of the 13 colonies. Among other things, the American Revolution that Washington helped lead was a grab for these lands, and the violence of the century-long conquest that followed was unrelenting: Scalping, enslavement, rape, and revenge killings were the currency on all sides, with the balance of forces almost always favoring the advancing settlers and the soldiers who fought their wars. Washington may have been many things, but among them was the first real-estate speculator to become president.

In its early days, western conquest took a less belligerent form. The “founders’ coalition” of coastal elites, who governed the United States for the first 50 years of independence, were, for the most part, believers in the rule of law. Until Andrew Jackson entered the White House, they mostly shied away from openly embracing the genocide and conquest that continental settlement implied, preferring legal and diplomatic measures. With Jackson, however, came an American expansionism of an entirely different order. Jackson was not shy about the violence that came with resettling already settled land, and political fortune in the young democracy favored the bold and bloody-handed.

The only president known to have personally driven a “coffle” of enslaved people to market, Jackson set about establishing from the beginning of his presidency a white-man’s democracy at the expense of everyone else. Under him, the American republic took its frontier wars southwest, where US fighters brought the scalping techniques they had learned on earlier frontiers and established the border where Trump postures today. According to the report of Gen. Winfield Scott, the commander of the US forces in Texas, volunteer soldiers led by the future president Zachary Taylor made “Heaven weep…. Murder, robbery & rape on mothers & daughters, in the presence of the tied up males of the families, have been common all along the Rio Grande.” Jefferson Davis and another president-to-be, Franklin Pierce, also led troops in the campaign. It was the crucible of an era, a democratic time inseparable from bloody conquest.

For Grandin, the frontier represents not only a literal space but a political strategy. The strategy was to use the expansion of American power to avoid having to resolve thorny domestic political conflicts. From the beginning, the new country was as divided as any other by class: small farmers pitted against coastal landlords and merchants, laborers against early manufacturers, debtors against creditors. But whenever these agitations threatened to grow into something more radical—sometimes even a cross-racial idea of genuine American equality—the restless energy was displaced into whites-only frontier expansion and racist border wars. Westward expansion is thus only the first chapter in a longer history, Grandin contends, in which foreign policy and domestic rule were two sides of the same coin. Projecting American power onto the frontier and abroad helped to head off reckonings with inequality and domination at home.

In the last decades of the 19th century, settling the continent gave way to a new model of expansion: global commercial and military empire. Gilded Age inequality, coupled with the closing of the frontier, inspired radical labor movements and agrarian populism. In response, many of America’s politicians looked outside the country’s borders for missions that could inspire a new sense of national unity.

Teddy Roosevelt was typical of this tendency: He pressed for genuine reforms at home but hated labor radicals, decried class conflict, and called for a “new nationalism,” powered partly by muscular empire in Cuba and the Philippines. (Roosevelt had made his name as the leader of the Rough Riders on a Cuban expedition, much as earlier presidents had cut their teeth in campaigns along the Rio Grande.) Roosevelt’s political allies, such as Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge, laid out a theory of American empire that claimed the lands of the Pacific and Caribbean as the next stage of the frontier.

This episode of expansion would end the hopes of racial equality for a lifetime. Post–Civil War Reconstruction was already in retreat after the Compromise of 1877. Now, imperial expansion in the Spanish-American War of 1898, which brought Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines under US control, became a rallying point for a white-American fraternity that was already thriving in much of the South. As the war approached, Northern newspapers printed sentimental poems about the patriotism of Confederate veterans, saluting the young soldiers headed to the Caribbean. After his election victory in 1896, President William McKinley made a victory tour of the South with a Confederate badge on his lapel. The banner of secession became standard decoration in the military. White Americans had found a new frontier: one that came with a global mission of “civilization” and commerce but still retained the racism of the West’s conquest.

When the veterans of these early imperialist campaigns returned home, they brought with them the revanchist racial violence in which they’d participated abroad. In one case, white veterans of the war led an insurrection in Wilmington, North Carolina, against a racially progressive, populist Republican coalition, a coup by mob that set in motion what would become a pattern of segregation, black disenfranchisement, and racial terror. Veterans revived the Ku Klux Klan in both the South and the North.

Throughout the early 20th century, as the US military expanded, “redeemed” Confederate symbols persisted in its ranks. Entire units wore the Confederate battle flag in place of the Stars and Stripes. The first flag that victorious US troops raised over Okinawa was the Confederate banner. Likewise, while the United States went to war against fascism abroad, a regime of racial segregation and authoritarianism persisted at home—and even after America became the uncontested leader of the “free world,” it continued to sustain this regime for decades. As the last few years remind us, plenty of Americans have never given up on it.

Although the Mexican border was seldom in the headlines during these decades, the unequal and often racialized ways in which freedom and prosperity were distributed in the US could not have found a better emblem. From the 1920s on, a series of bilateral agreements and unilateral US policies made Mexico—which at one point had been (albeit briefly) a revolutionary social democracy—into a workhouse and reserve labor pool for the United States. With the bracero program in the 1940s and the guest-worker programs later, Mexico provided millions of laborers—who some farmers admitted were rented slaves—to keep down the costs in California’s plantation-style system of agriculture. And beginning with the tariff deal brokered by Lyndon Johnson in the late 1960s, the border became a factory site as well, with waves of plant relocations headed there whenever US companies faced trouble at home, from the inflation and labor discontent of the early 1970s to the economic shock of the 1980s recession that Paul Volcker’s Federal Reserve imposed to curb inflation during Ronald Reagan’s first term.

Grandin’s treatment of that border is among the book’s freshest and most illuminating portions, and also the most disturbing in a work already full of Confederate flags and patriotic gore. The pathology of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, he shows, dates back much further than 2016, or even its founding in the aftermath of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, when Congress created the Department of Homeland Security. US border-security outfits have often been racist redoubts. Going back to the 1920s, Grandin describes Border Patrol agents torturing and shooting migrants, and sometimes handing them over to others for further exploitation. He also shows how vigilante groups have claimed the authority to police the border and attacked and killed migrants for decades.

Grandin doesn’t say a lot about the Cold War, perhaps because some of the themes in his book were eclipsed in those decades in an America struggling for global hegemony. The story picks up again with the 1990s, when American expansionism came to mean stitching the world together under liberal capitalism, supposedly the first step in a push toward universal prosperity. In many ways, the decades following the fall of the Soviet Union were a return to Gilded Age form: American nationalism advertised itself as the postnationalist progress of market liberalism, from Warsaw to Shanghai.

Grandin provides a vivid account of the politics of international trade and financial liberalization in the 1990s. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton agreed that, with the end of the Cold War, the United States had been presented, along with political hegemony, a new frontier on which to recover its moral supremacy. Only cranks and reactionaries could think that their breed of globalization was bad, and the Clintonites delighted in debating throwbacks like Ross Perot, the eccentric billionaire businessman and fierce critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), while slighting opposition from the labor unions and the Congressional Black Caucus. Pushing international trade made the Democrats seem progressive: Wasn’t globalization the wave of the future? Republicans, too, embraced the chance to be future-oriented multilateralists, a nice symbolic compensation for a party run by traditional elites—people like Bush—who were now increasingly dependent on white Southern voters.

In this allegedly borderless new frontier of global capitalism, actual borders only mattered more. NAFTA exemplified a pattern of economic integration on deeply unequal terms that went back to the bracero and other guest-worker programs, with the inequality enforced by limiting mobility across the border. This is why Trump’s militarization of the border is nothing new. Every time that guest workers, trade, or naturalization programs bring the various national economies closer together, parallel initiatives—often linked to political bargains and legislation—have built fences and swollen the Border Patrol.

Reading Grandin, it is clear that the ICE union’s endorsement of Trump—like much else that happened in 2016—is just a new fractal in a pattern that is centuries old. It is hard not to see, in the book’s assemblage of bloody tropes “in the mind of America,” how Trump’s rhetoric and actions resemble those of Andrew Jackson, with ICE as his irregular and violent frontier troops and MAGA his answer to Jackson’s white-man’s democracy. The parallels are haunting, which is the point: We are haunted. Whatever else he is, the man in the White House is an American poltergeist.

As Grandin demonstrates compellingly, the notion of an infinite frontier has helped Americans evade a material dilemma. This continent’s wealth is finite and, past a certain point, zero-sum; the same holds true for the entire planet. Our uses of that finite wealth are deeply interdependent: Your labor is my rest, and my drudgery makes room for your “doing what you love.” These material constraints pose problems for the American desire to be free and left alone in a community of equals—the formula of the Declaration of Independence, and of most canonical American politics ever since. Yet the more we accept the equality of others, the more constraints we have to take upon ourselves. The point of politics is to engage with these problems, to set the terms of our interdependence as well as our independence, and this requires setting limits.

In short, as the myth of the frontier collapses, American democracy encounters limits, and the road ahead forks. Pointing left are the egalitarians, who take equality seriously, both among citizens and, ideally, among nations, and who therefore speak of the limits we may have to accept on our own appetites and convenience—that is, our freedom, the mythic prize of the frontier. Gesturing right is the Jackson-Trump line of white chauvinists, who aim to resolve the problem of limits by announcing that not everyone can be equal or free. As with the current president, they celebrate walls for keeping out the foreign, the poor, and the dark, reducing the polity to a gated community. Like Jackson’s Democrats, they accept that the relative prosperity and freedom of those inside the country’s borders persist partly because they have their boots on other people’s necks. “How else can it be?” ask these hard-minded realists. “The border is everywhere,” as left activists point out today, has always been the slogan of the Jacksonians, albeit without the note of criticism.

The Jackson-Trump white chauvinists, however, are not the only expansionists in Grandin’s story. The other line of trouble is more tragic and subtle. Grandin devotes evocative pages to Frederick Jackson Turner, the influential progressive historian who argued in the Gilded Age that the frontier had shaped the American character in a unique combination of individuality and egalitarianism, a true democratic temper. Turner was named for his father, Andrew Jackson Turner, who was named for the president, and young Frederick grew up in the Midwest, where he saw some of the last cruel wave of Indian removals. Yet he whitewashed the image of the American frontier, portraying its history as a diorama of ineluctable progress. Although Turner declared the frontier closed at the end of the 19th century, he also described it as having prepared Americans for their new role as a model democratic people for the world.

For Grandin, Turner is an emblem of all the moderate reformers and liberals who like to pretend that the founders’ coalition was never broken, that the original American promise has now been realized in a regime of mildly regulated markets at home and multilateralism abroad. In 2019, they are the liberals who just want to return to the days of 2015, when the Obama administration was pushing trade liberalization via the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and it was all too easy for them to ignore Obama’s stringent immigration policies. The Trumpists reject the hard work of democratic politics, but, as Grandin shows, liberals also evade it, either by ignoring its importance or by invoking bromides about globalization’s “open” world.

There aren’t many heroes in The End of the Myth, but Grandin does offer us some, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, who fought back against state and vigilante violence along the southwestern border both before and during World War I. Grandin also gives us favorable glimpses of those rare members of the elite in the early republic who saw the horrors that Jackson’s vigilante frontier democracy was preparing. “Are you ready for all these wars?” asked John Quincy Adams, forecasting conflicts between white and indigenous peoples, between slave and free communities, but also giving Grandin a prophetic formula for the frontier’s expansion beyond America’s borders in the next century.

Grandin also finds sources for an egalitarian response to the material constraints on American democracy in Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive advisers, such as the economist Rexford Tugwell, who was sympathetic to a program of deep reforms and saw the frontier as a source of dangerous American ignorance that needed to be overcome; and in Martin Luther King Jr., who toward the end of his life began to direct his energy toward anti-imperialism and democratic socialism.

Grandin is well aware that his argument here is not new. Hegel, in his lectures on the philosophy of history, argued that Americans would never have politics until they ran out of frontier and had to turn to face one another. Alexis de Tocqueville mused that the frontiersmen, once they had grimly extirpated everything between them and the Pacific, might turn back to harry their own countrymen. In 2010, the legal scholar Aziz Rana published The Two Faces of American Freedom, which argues, like The End of the Myth, that American democracy has always been defined by its fraught relationship to racial domination at home and imperialism abroad. Grandin gives us a vivid update of this argument for a time when Jackson’s ghost is once again roaming the land, otherwise known as the Trump era.

What politics follows from turning to face one another and reckoning with the necessary limits to our freedom? Grandin posits “socialism, or at least social democracy.” This encompasses a pretty broad spectrum, but if you agree with him, then Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren—or at least someone else who is moving the Democratic Party toward a deeper engagement with inequality and economic power—will likely fit the bill. But there are some harder questions as well, which have to do with the issues of international order and domestic nationalism that Grandin’s book helps foreground. In a world of international trade and capital movement, are “open borders” an expression of democratic solidarity, or just a radicalized version of the Clinton-style global expansion of markets? To oppose Trump, should progressives revive the patriotic images of egalitarian democracy that developed around the Union side in the Civil War? Or does intellectual clarity require looking to the defeated margins, to the Wobblies and the last Adams in the White House? How much can a specifically American politics hope to achieve when our neo-frontier fantasy of infinite growth has also become key to the ruling ideologies in China, Russia, India, and Brazil? Should it be gratifying to revanchist American nationalists to reflect that these new authoritarians learned their legerdemain from us? And should it comfort despairing liberal internationalists to consider that, in this respect, our frontier experience has indeed made us the universal model of humanity?

Grandin doesn’t answer these questions, but he does show what we will have to overcome to address them: the American attachment to political fantasy, to visions of progress that gloss over our inequalities and our failure to achieve true democracy, and, above all else, to the myth of a boundless frontier. Fantasizing limitlessness is a bipartisan practice, almost a constitutional norm, and if there is one consistent lesson from American political history, it is that those who point to limits usually lose. But facing limits is exactly what we have to do. When we ignore them, we also ignore the real inequality and domination that we impose on the millions who fall on the wrong side of the border, the color line, or the latest “meritocratic” exam.

One basis of hope is that, while the planet’s resources are ultimately finite, solidarity doesn’t have to be. The perverse genius of nationalism is to turn strangers into siblings, willing to sacrifice for one another. The hope of the democratic left has always been that this is not the only, or the best, form of solidarity, and that understanding the limits we face in common can help to power a politics of common care. If people will fight and die to preserve so many lies and half-truths about what ties them together—Manifest Destiny! White supremacy!—maybe we can also work to grapple with the crises that bind us together in a world cut up by borders and still feverish with delusions of limitless frontiers. n

Ad Policy