One of the things that stand out in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is the impact of the frontier on early American society.
Tocqueville observes that the stability of all governments, and especially democratic governments (Tocqueville was writing in the early 1800s so democratic governments were still a pretty new phenomenon) require the people to be happy (or at least not too pissed off). Unhappy people tend to try to “overturn” the state in some capacity: either through revolt or voting the incumbent out of power.
General well-being favors the stability of all governments, but particularly of democratic government, which rests on the disposition of the greatest number, and principally on the disposition of those who are the most exposed to needs. When the people govern, it is necessary that they be happy in order for them not to overturn the state.
Tocqueville saw the existence of the frontier as a key part of what promoted general well-being in early America.
The emigrant from Europe therefore always lands in a half-full country, where industry lacks arms; he becomes well-off as a worker; his son goes to seek a fortune in an empty country, and he becomes a rich property owner. The first amasses the capital that the second turns to good account, and there is misery neither for the foreigner nor for the native.
Earlier democracies such as the Greek democracy of Athens did not have either the luxury of a huge ocean separating it from its enemies or a huge frontier, rich in natural resources, whereas America did.
The result was that early American society was somewhat more harmonious because the frontier presented tremendous opportunities or upward mobility that the early European immigrants never saw in their own countries.
The result was a different value system. Whereas Europeans considered the natural human drives of ambition, desire for wealth, and independence as social dangers that could lead to revolt or rebellion, these exact same qualities in a country with a vast frontier were regarded as noble virtues.
In Europe we habitually regard restiveness of mind, immoderate desire for wealth, extreme love of independence as great social dangers. It is precisely all these things that guarantee a long and peaceful future to the American republics.
Without these restive passions, the population would be concentrated around certain places and would, as among us, soon feel needs difficult to satisfy.
What a happy country is the New World, where man’s vices are almost as useful to society as his virtues! This exerts a great influence on the manner in which human actions are judged in the two hemispheres. Often the Americans call a praiseworthy industry what we name love of gain, and they see a certain cowardly heart in what we consider moderation of desires.
We all recognize how much the environment shapes our own behavior. A good way to eat healthy is to just not keep unhealthy food in your home. If I had it in the freezer, I would eat a pint of ice cream every night. For precisely this reason, I do not keep any ice cream in the freezer.
Tocqueville makes you wonder to what extent America’s rise on the world stage was not any innate cultural quality, that early Americans were smarter or more honorable or harder working, merely that a country with a vast frontier created an environment in which natural human drives worked better.
In Tocqueville’s view, the existence of a frontier seemed to divert a lot of political energy into commerce. In a country like France at the time that was fully settled, a lot of the way that people got ahead was through politics – redistribution of existing wealth rather than the creation of new wealth.
When you have a huge frontier that includes some of the best farmland and access to natural resources on the planet, it’s actually easier to advance by going out and settling the frontier – effectively discovering “new” wealth.
The passions that agitate the Americans most profoundly are commercial passions and not political passions, or rather, they carry the habits of trade into politics.
They love order, without which affairs cannot prosper, and they particularly prize regularity of mores, on which good houses [of business] are founded; they prefer the good sense that creates great fortunes to the genius that often dissipates them; general ideas frighten their minds, accustomed to positive calculations, and among them, practice is more in honor than theory.
One wonders to what extent America’s philosophy of pragmatism was born of the frontier. There is less to be gained by getting all political, just focus on getting things done and you’ll do just fine.
There’s a lot of deservedly negative things that can be said about America, both present and past, but one thing I find nearly everyone agrees with is that it’s still probably the best place in the world to be an entrepreneur. It seems plausible to me that part of this is attributable to the frontier that existed for a long time. If you were an entrepreneur that wanted to get new things done, a country with a vast frontier is a good place to do it.
It’s fairly recent in American history that there hasn’t been a clear frontier. Though the formal settling of the frontier ended around the turn of the 20th century, it seems to be that the first 2/3rds of the 21stcentury still had some of the same frontier character.
If you read about the early founders of Silicon Valley in the 1960s, you can’t help but see how they were largely fleeing the increasing political and bogged down East Coast for what remained of the frontier in California.
Though we now equate Silicon Valley as the obvious center of computing and the Internet, Boston (MIT specifically) was where the early computing research and development started in the 1930s and it appeared to be the clear leader for a long time. It was only in the 1960s that computing emerged in Silicon Valley and not until the 80s or 90s that it really took the lead.
Frederick Jackson Turner noted this phenomenon, calling it the Frontier Thesis. He argued that the American frontier was a key component for the development of American democracy.
He believed that the impact of settling the frontier and how it shaped the pioneers created American democracy.
American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.”
Though I am far from a political expert, I find this idea that the existence of a frontier is essential to American-style democracy interesting and at least worth further thinking. It’s a lot easier to not fight over the same pie when there is a very obvious source of more pies.
If the existence of a frontier is an important source of political stability, where should we look for it? The American frontier was kind of the last obvious one.
And, you can’t talk about the American frontier without pointing out that even it existed only because of the massive tragedy that wiped out the native population. By some accounts, diseases killed upwards of 90% of the native population on the continent before settlers moved in land from the coast. By the time settlers moved West, it only seemed empty because everyone had just died from smallpox. Many that remained were killed by the remains of the Union army following the Civil War. So even if the American West appeared like an unsettled frontier from the perspective of the European settlers, it really wasn’t.
Where then, might we look for a true frontier?
There is cyberspace. In the grand scheme of the internet, I think we are still very early days and the development of public blockchains adds another layer of the cyberspace frontier that still has to be settled.
I’m not sure it’s quite the same though. Humans live in meatspace and it seems to me that there is something different about how the human psyche interprets meatspace frontiers vs. cyberspace ones.
There are some cool and interesting attempts to carve out new meatspace frontiers. Patri Friedman is working on building new cities. While there’s not as much space left as there was two hundred years ago, there is probably more than people think and I suspect that startup cities will be a big growth area over the next few decades.
The other meatspace frontier is space. There are a lot of things about space that make it hard to settle. The lack of oxygen, water, heat and every basic necessity for human life probably top the list, but it’s a long list beyond that.
However, one advantage space has is that it’s really, really big. Like, think about the biggest thing you can imagine, and space is way bigger than that.
Another advantage that it has is that it’s really, really empty. So far, we don’t know of any other lifeforms that would be upset about us moving in.
I don’t know if Turner’s and Tocqueville’s theories are correct, but if it is the case that the existence of a frontier is important for a well-functioning human society then we should probably spend a lot more resources on settling the new frontiers as it would seem to be upstream of a lot of other problems.
Last Updated on April 6, 2021 by Taylor Pearson