ONE: THE ILLIMITABLE FRONTIER
Imagine, if you will, the sense of awe that seized the first settlers at Jamestown in Virginia in 1607, at Plymouth in Massachusetts in 1620, and at the other landings along the coast of North America in the early decades of the seventeenth century. Here were little English communities hacking out perch sites on the very edge of an unknown land. These pioneers thought they would find in America something resembling the tame, limited, surmountable horizons of England. But they discovered that this new world was absolutely different. The scale was vaster than anything they had encountered before. An immense, almost unbroken forest extended into distances beyond their comprehension. Rivers, greater, wilder, and more magnificent than the grandest stream in Britain, poured out of the continent—the Connecticut, the Hudson, the Delaware, the Susquehanna, the Potomac, the James, the Roanoke, the Cape Fear, the Savannah, and many others. The settlers saw that the land drained by these rivers must be vast, that half a dozen Englands could easily be fitted in along the coast. As the decades went by, they ventured up the rivers to find the headwaters, confident that the highlands where the rivers arose would mark the limit of this new land, and only the huge South Sea lay beyond. But when they finally reached the great chain of mountains called the Appalachians and gazed out from its heights, they were utterly confounded—before them an even more boundless, more astonishing land stretched out to seeming infinity toward the setting sun.
This was the moment when the American character was formed. Whatever limits of class and status that the settlers had brought with them from Britain would fall away to insignificance in this prodigious land. When astute individuals looked toward the limitless frontier that they now knew would beckon continuously on the western horizon, they realized that no king, no aristocracy, however selfish, could crush them. At any time they could cross this frontier and put all of Europe's restraints behind them. This had immense and overwhelming effects throughout the colonies. Americans, whether they crossed the frontier or not, were destined to be forever free.
A sense of democracy and equality spread among the people. The seeds of a future republic were sown. Long before Thomas Jefferson articulated it in the Declaration of Independence, Americans recognized their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But something else came along with the discovery of the illimitable frontier. Americans began to see that they had the opportunity to create a country of a wholly different order of magnitude and of a wholly different concept from even the richest countries of Europe. This new land could not only span an entire continent but could also achieve unbelievable wealth and strength. A new aspiration formed—to build on this marvelous, rich, fortunate continent the greatest and most powerful nation on earth, and to people this nation with men and women who were not only prosperous but also free and happy.
It was a vision unparalleled in history. It was not an ambition for empire. It was not a scheme to subdue other peoples. It was rather a desire for a single people sharing alike in the wealth and blessings of the land, and in the freedom of a society without classes and castes. As the colonies grew and more and more people flooded into it, this dream took on a reality and a certitude that led straight to the American Revolution and beyond.
As the frontier advanced inland, the pioneers became less and less European and "more and more American," as Frederick Jackson Turner, the great historian of the westward thrust, points out.This American not only was independent, but he took as his birthright the authority to travel wherever he wished into the west and to build there a prosperous future with his own hands.
From this immense social movement two ultra-American principles emerged. The first was a deep resolve to gain freedom, democracy, and prosperity, and then to keep them. The second was a related resolve to challenge anybody, whether British overlords or other European powers, who might threaten American security or independence. This determination was brandished in the "Don't Tread on Me!" rattlesnake flag of the American Revolution. Only the older settled towns along the coast expressed much interest in integrating Americans into a global economy. And there was virtually no interest in extending American ideals throughout the world. Americans were focused on their own land and their own freedoms, and they were going to brook no interference from anyone in getting them.
A nation that restricts its leadership to a narrow aristocracy deprives itself of most of its brainpower. Britain crippled itself in this fashion at the time of the American Revolution, with devastating consequences. Britain's leadership, almost entirely drawn from the privileged classes, was so incompetent that it ignored every opportunity to deflect colonial discontent before revolt started, selected generals incapable of conducting effective military operations, and appointed politicians who wrecked every prospect for negotiated peace.
Adam Smith, the great Scottish philosopher who laid the foundations of classical free-market economic theory, understood the disastrous path Britain was following and offered a solution in his monumental work The Wealth of Nations. He called for the consolidation of Britain and its American colonies into a single federated nation, with all its parts having equal representation in a unified parliament. But by the time Smith's book came out in 1776, it was too late. The colonies declared their independence on July 4 that year, and Britain's leaders were determined to bring the colonies back under their heel by military force, not compromise.
But regaining America by military force was a hopeless task so long as the Americans remained defiant. Britain was unable to bring its greatest strength, the Royal Navy, to bear against the thirteen colonies, because they were a land power, not a naval power. Though militarily weak, the colonies covered so vast an area that Britain could not possibly control more than a fraction of it at any time. The moment British forces departed a region, it would become free again. If the Americans were unwilling to return to British rule, Britain could never conquer them.
Adam Smith and other Britons appreciated this fact, but they did not have the authority to change national policy. Smith recognized that the ruling elite's unwillingness to face reality would result in calamity and would ruin Britain's last chance to have a major role in the development of a great new world power. He predicted that, in about a century, America would outstrip Britain in wealth, population, and strength, and that the disparity between the two would accelerate in the years beyond. If Britain could work out a union with America, its importance would be enhanced for a significant epoch to come. But, whether part of a union or not, Britain was destined in the end to become merely an appendage to the greater whole, because the English-speaking world's population and power were going to be centered in America, not England.
The first great success of the American patriots came on October 17, 1777, when a British army under John Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga on the Hudson River in upstate New York. Burgoyne had gotten into an impossible position because of abominable leadership. British general William Howe, instead of moving his large army up the Hudson from New York City to assist Burgoyne, took it instead to capture Philadelphia. Burgoyne, cut off from all help, had no choice but to capitulate.
The surrender created a sensation in Britain. Belatedly, the leaders realized they were on the wrong track. In March 1778 Parliament repealed all legislation offensive to Americans (the infamous Sugar Act, the Tea Act, the order closing the port of Boston, the law mandating quartering of troops in colonial homes, and so forth), and in April the government sent a commission headed by the Earl of Carlisle to offer the Continental Congress what amounted to complete independence, with the only proviso that the Americans recognize the British sovereign. This was, in effect, what came to be called "dominion status," which London later granted to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. If this offer had been made any time before the surrender at Saratoga, the thirteen states most likely would have accepted it, and they would have become the first British dominion.
But the overture came not only after the Americans had realized Britain's incapacity to reconquer them, but also after they had seen the great advantages that would accrue if they no longer were tied to British apron strings. The radical Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense, published in Philadelphia in January 1776, had pointed to one great benefit of total freedom—Britain could not drag the Americans into European wars in which they had no concern. Already, then, Americans were wary of the "entangling alliances" that Thomas Jefferson would later warn against in his first inaugural address. These alliances, they saw, would limit American sovereignty and would divert attention and resources away from the main task they already recognized, that of conquering the North American continent.
Besides, the Americans had the alliance that absolutely guaranteed our independence. The French had been waiting for the opportunity to strike down Britain. They had been humiliated by the British in the Seven Years War (1756-63), had lost Canada and most of their other colonies, and wanted revenge. The colonists' victory at Saratoga showed the French that by allying with the Americans they would be on the winning side. On December 17, 1777, they informed the American diplomat Benjamin Franklin that they would recognize the independence of the United States. On February 6, 1778, the French signed treaties of amity and commerce and of alliance. These made it certain that Britain and France would go to war.
Another European power, Spain, joined the fight on April 12, 1779. The Spanish refused to acknowledge American independence, hoping only to recover the territories it had lost to the British: Gibraltar, seized in 1704, and Florida, lost in 1763. After declaring war, Spain played a spoiling game—seizing West Florida (then running from Natchez on the northwest to Pensacola on the southeast), trying to arrange a truce between the British and the Americans, and searching for any way to keep the Americans from reaching the Mississippi River. France was no help to the Americans. In 1780, the foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes, pushed for a truce proposed by Czarina Catherine II of Russia and Emperor Joseph II of Austria. The plan would not recognize American independence and would leave the British in control of Maine, the northern frontier, New York City and Long Island, and the major seaports south of Virginia.
Fortunately the British rejected the proposal and were powerless when a French fleet under the comte de Grasse turned back a British fleet under Thomas Graves just off the Virginia Capes on September 5, 1781. This action blocked any relief of a British army under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, forcing him to surrender to George Washington and a French force under the comte de Rochambeau on October 19, 1781.
This disaster at last convinced the leaders of Britain that they could not resurrect the thirteen colonies, and in February 1782 Parliament resolved that the war must be ended. In March, the ministry of Lord North resigned. Its erroneous policies had brought on the war and it had conducted the unsuccessful campaigns in America. The Marquis of Rockingham formed a new government and appointed the Earl of Shelburne to initiate peace talks. When Rockingham died in July, Shelburne became prime minister but continued to guide negotiations with the United States. Shelburne's appointment was a fortuitous accident for the Americans. He wanted a generous peace to entice the United States into some sort of federation, since he hoped to recapture most American trade for Britain.
The principal American peace commissioners—Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams—hoped, along with many other Americans, to secure the whole of British North America in the peace treaty. This, of course, was not going to happen. Britain felt obligated to give back Florida to Spain, and Canada was largely inhabited by descendants of French settlers, who had little interest in joining an English-speaking union, and by Loyalists, who had left the colonies because they did not support the Revolution. Nevertheless, the hope to join Canada with the United States was a will-o'-the-wisp that American leaders pursued for decades after the war. It was a solid indication that the Americans intended, from the very beginning, to dominate North America. Indeed, the Articles of Confederation, under which the thirteen states united after independence, reserved a place for Canada as the fourteenth state.
What the United States Congress did lay claim to as a matter of right was the entire region from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River. These claims were based on royal charters that defined the territories of certain colonies as running "from sea to sea." In 1763 Britain had renounced any claims beyond the Mississippi, ending arguments that the colonies reached the Pacific Ocean, but colonial leaders insisted that they did extend to the Mississippi. The British government had taken little notice of these claims, forbidding settlement west of the mountains in 1763, and extending Quebec to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1764, thus incorporating into Canada all the Northwest region that was to become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
American negotiators ignored the settlement line of 1763 and the transfer of the Northwest to Canada. They insisted on gaining the entire region that Britain possessed in the West. In the very first decision relating to the boundaries of the new nation, American leaders got it right. They knew pioneers were bounding over the Appalachians every day, and they were determined to guarantee them and the generations to come the immense expanse between the mountains and the great river.
To the south, the Spanish—who claimed all territory west of the Mississippi—had driven British garrisons out of their posts east of the river and had occupied the east bank as far north as Natchez. Not only that, but the Spanish, strongly backed by the French, pressed the British to draw the frontier of the thirteen states as close to the Appalachians as possible. Under no circumstances did they want Americans on the Mississippi, demanding free passage on the river and expecting New Orleans to be a free port for their exports and imports.
Jay and Franklin, who opened negotiations with the British in Paris, simply disregarded the Spanish and French boundary proposal. In October 1782, Lord Shelburne, after learning that a French and Spanish assault on Gibraltar had failed, took a hard line with the Americans. He demanded that the entire Northwest remain under British sovereignty and that it be settled with Loyalists. Jay and Franklin absolutely refused to accept this; they agreed only to pay claims of Loyalists who had been deprived of their property by the patriots and also accepted a northern frontier essentially running through the Great Lakes to the Lake of the Woods between present-day Minnesota and Ontario.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from How America Got It Right by Bevin Alexander. Copyright © 2005 by Bevin Alexander. Excerpted by permission of Crown Forum, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.