The Death of National Civility

           In recognizing the contradiction within the official ideology of frontier expansionism- between the faith in a “final purpose” of the frontier's progression; and a regression to the individual's early stage of development and the society he emerges from- and how it relates to the understanding and stability of the 19th century faith in Imperial Progress, we must first look at how the American identity was created to shape it.. Through the occupation of “free land,” its recession, and the inevitable march forward to new free land, an individualistic atmosphere bred the sense of opportunity and drive needed to create the capitalistic mindset that justified imperialist action.

            As the West moved forward, it found that it had to copy the East's evolution of civilization- a “return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line [which helped] furnish the forces dominating American character.” (Turner 38) Migration west led to a continual rebirth of civilization, meeting savagery head-on in an attempt to ensure its dominance over inanimate nature. Trade relations with Indians sprouted more and more Army posts, serving as a hub for new settlers wanting protection and security, while providing an initial jumping off point for new exploration in unknown territory. Discoveries of salt provided the necessary freedom from long journeys back to the East, helping to develop the independence of the western people. An abundance of animal life attracted hunters and traders; fresh grasses attracted the rancher; and fertile soil attracted farmers. Pioneering settlements were sold to land purchasers and settlers as cheap lands ensured a steady migration. This produced three essential effects in determining the identity of the western population: a blended “American” nationality from a mix of immigrant races, a decreased dependence on European powers through new American merchants, and a new legislation based on the influence of the emerging economy of the west. Free land created the necessary opportunities for this competent economy by securing its political power through ideas of  individual success. Thus, the “growth of nationalism and the evolution of American political institutions were dependent on the advance of the frontier.” (Turner 52) As the frontier became the catalyst for individualism, an anti-social antipathy to government control was spawned. Democratic notions of labor were thought to reduce the possibility of corruption, maintaining a “pure” relationship to the land: [The Westerner] has this advantage, that when he returns home he takes off his  coat and takes hold of the plow. This gives him bone and muscle, sir, and preserves his republican principles pure and uncontaminated.” (Turner 57)

            But this brought about dangers as well as success. The same individualism that spurred the American economy brought about a sense of selfishness, which “rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit.” (Turner 58) This  led to the disintegration of ethical conduct concerning certain practices. Lax business relations, inflated paper currency, and wild-cat banking were all connected to the ideas of self-promotion that individualism promoted. Subsequently, education and religion were imported from the East and churches and universities sprang up all over the west, effectively disciplining the mind and arming the conscience along with the heart. The resulting mentality was thus characteristic of the western frontier:

  That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—  these are traits of the frontier. (Turner 61)

            This provided the American ideology with the unquenchable thirst for opportunity and success needed to promote and justify imperialistic mentality. Individuality gave way to notions of  superiority and the inevitable display of force that accompanied it.   

            Civilization's war on barbarism was extracted from the frontier and used to influence national and international relations. In “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court,” Mark Twain identifies this ideology as inherent in America's mentality and writes his book as a warning against self-righteous ideas of “progress:” “Hank self-destructs not in spite of but because of his utopianism, because the knowledge that he brings to the Middle Ages is inescapably a form of power that follows laws operating independently and mostly outside the awareness of their subjects.” (Sewell 141)

            The Utopian idea of progress central to Twain's story thus becomes nothing more than another form of literary imperialism. “I wouldn't have traded it for twentieth. Look at the opportunities here for a man of knowledge, brains, pluck and enterprise to sail in and grow up with the country.” (Twain 41) Just as Morgan's sense of discovery of a world devoid of civilization leads him to desires of possession and domination, we can see a similar logic take hold of American ideals surrounding economic and political affairs, namely the territorial conquest and domination of other, less civilized peoples.

            Though Hank may be subtle about his desires for global domination, the United States certainly is not. Just as Twain's character jumps at the opportunity to acquire wealth, territory, and sovereignty through the guise of the blessings of civilization, so too does America.  “Morgan's exploits often allude simultaneously to the histories of U.S. Manifest Destiny and European colonialism, thereby linking U.S. Policies...with the imperial practices of the European powers.” (Rowe 127) Through a close understanding of  the relationship between the frontier's mythical gift of progress and the similar values  inherent within Morgan's own ideology, we can see that the West is nothing more than another version of the colonial and imperialist endeavors of the European powers. Civilization is used as a tool to be justified by divine right in order to assert the formal policies of U.S prosperity. “Unlimited power is the ideal thing when it is in safe hands. The despotism of heaven is the one absolutely perfect government. An earthly despotism would be the absolutely perfect earthly government, if the conditions were the same, namely, the despot the perfectest individual of the human race, and his lease of life perpetual.” (Twain 51) Hank Morgan and the American nation take on the role of a father figure, leading the ignorant “children” to higher forms of cultural existence through the adoption of their values.

            An example of this is free trade. While the concept of awakening workers to the rights over their own labor to negotiate their own wages may sound beneficial, a hidden subtlety is manipulated by capitalist powers.. Due to a lack of organization among working classes; and the  ruthlessly oppressive spirit of the people who set their wages, an imperialist scramble for exploitable labor in various colonies ensues: “That is, the very economic principle that...Twain imagined might liberate the industrial worker from the exploitation of capital and eventually free the colonial subject from imperial domination in many cases turned out to be the basis for a new imperialism.” (Rowe 131)

            The Berlin Conference is indicative of this, allowing European powers to meet and divide up  commercial jurisdiction in Africa. We can see that by this time, imperialism has mutated into interests of established dominance in a foreign nation's trade and markets, rather than in simply controlling its physical territories. Thus, we see this “free trade imperialism” as “beginning in greed, developing by the desire for commercial advantage, and concluding with the theft of land and murder.” (Rowe 132) Twain writes his novel at precisely the same time as the Berlin Conference, representing through his characters how capitalism, new technology, and zeal for imperial expansion works together to produce human suffering and indescribable misery, while reproducing slavery in new ways.


 “They were freemen, but they could not leave the estates of their lord or bishop without his permission; they could not prepare their own bread, but must have their corn ground and their bread baked at his mill and his bakery, and pay roundly for the same; they could not sell a piece of their own property without paying a handsome percentage of the proceeds, nor buy a piece of somebody else's without remembering him in cash for the privilege...” (Twain 65)

            Even if the people of the occupied countries do not want the presence of this civilization, they are dismissed or ignored, exemplifying the control and genuine power they must submit to. In this way do we understand capitalism, feudalism, and imperialism to be commonly related to one another due in part to the economic exploitation of the general public. Whether it is American slavery, the powerless “freemen”of the 6th century, the African people, or our betrayal of the Filipino revolution that we are talking about, we realize that these groups are interchangeable in their forced subjection to imperial rule: the emergence of age-old forms of “domination with the progressive claims of nineteenth-century capitalism.” (Rowe 139)

            It is apparent to us then, the contradiction of frontier expansionism and how we come to understand its influence on 19th century imperial progress. Through the continual regression to an early stage of development dictated by new lines of settlement, America established its independence and character. Civilization breathed ideologies of superiority into political life, paving the way for new ideas of imperialism to establish itself in notions of free trade. These ideas have not since left the American ideology as new documents like “The Project for the New American Century” (http://newamericancentury.org/statementofprinciples.htm) use language like “United States' global responsibilities,” and “necessary military strength” to prepare the world for our “leadership,” and are signed by virtually everyone in our Executive Administration. We must then reevaluate, reassess, and reeducate our moral sense of duty if we are to preserve the democratic principles that promote the freedom from oppression.

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