- The Significance of the Frontier in American History
Land, Labor, Revolution, Slavery, Indian relations, Party politics, Ideas of liberty, Economic fluctuations, Warfare
I had intended to begin my review of this book of essays by recommending that every subscriber to the Journal of the Early Republic read and ponder it. That was before I noticed the list price. Given the price tag, my first recommendation is to try to persuade your college or university library to acquire more than one copy of it. This strongly positive recommendation is not based on a conviction that every essay here provides the last word on its subject, but that the collection exemplifies a powerful and rewarding perspective on antebellum American history with wideranging implications, one that may well help shape a coming generation of scholarship. A salient contribution of the anthology is its demonstration of the international quality of present scholarly innovation in the field of American history.
This volume views the century from 1763 to 1863 as united by a competition, often violent, over the domination and exploitation of the North American continent. The acquisition of land and of labor to work it are obviously central to such a perspective. Specific issues (including revolution, slavery, Indian relations, party politics, ideas of liberty, economic fluctuations, and warfare) are viewed as they arise within this context.
The individual contributions to the collection exemplify solid, original scholarship. The Atlantic vision of American history, which has been so rewarding for over a generation, is implicitly enlisted by these authors in the service of their approach. Embracing their common perspective by [End Page 389] no means determines the content of the historical essays here, it is important to note. Chapters vary considerably in subject matter, at least by conventional categories: Besides economic, social, political, and diplomatic history, they include intellectual history, religious history, and the history of reform. Contributors are free to disagree on significant issues, such as how well the economy of the United States was performing in the 1790s. The excellent documentation the contributors provide significantly enhances the value of the collection. This review essay will address the anthology and its viewpoint as a whole, but does not undertake a full description and evaluation of every separate chapter.
Andrew Shankman of Rutgers University, Camden, the editor, leads off with an introductory essay. Presumably he is primarily responsible for defining the scope and purpose of the anthology, a credit to his historical vision. Shankman calls attention to the contrast between the British Empire of the eighteenth century, when the economy of the empire flourished on the basis of slave agriculture in both North America and the West Indies, and the empire’s emancipation of its remaining slaves in 1833. With prosperity came increasing concentration of wealth among the settlers, and those who were less well-off led the way west, inevitably provoking conflicts with the native inhabitants. Those nations themselves were driven to heightened perception of what they had in common, and to forge alliances with one another to resist European intrusions.
The rest of Shankman’s introduction points out many—but by no means all—of the implications of these collected essays. The War of 1812 falls into place as a continuation of the Revolutionary War, fought to secure the borders of the new nation, and successfully too: if not in Canada, then at least against Spain in the Deep South, where the war consolidated U.S. control of West Florida and paved the way for the takeover of East Florida within a few years. Before long, the anthology begins to focus more and more on the westward expansion of slavery, and the extent to which the slaveholders enlist the support of the federal government on their side as criticism of their labor system mounts in the North and overseas. Shankman’s volume undertakes to unify the whole period from colonial times to the Civil War in terms of expansion, slavery, and Indian dispossession.
The editor and contributors seek to provide...