In this era of Make America Great Again baseball caps and undeserved nostalgia for an unjust past, it is a welcome tonic to read a well written, engaging historical overview of the settler colonialism that drove this country’s creation. The historian Greg Grandin’s new book The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America fits that bill perfectly.
The End of the Myth shows how the “Founding Fathers” of the United States held up westward expansion as a crucial part of the prosperous future they saw for white men in North America. Benjamin Franklin’s version of political economy described the vast lands of the continent as a safety valve that ensured families would grow, wages would stay high, and demand would keep up with supply. For Thomas Jefferson, Grandin writes, “The ability to migrate wasn’t just an exercise of natural rights but the source of rights, or at least their historically necessary condition. Liberty was made possible by the right to colonize, letting freemen, when their freedom was threatened, move on to find free land and carry the torch from one place to another.” And in James Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10, Madison argues that citizens spread over a large space are less likely to “discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.” Madison wrote that by extending the size of the country, “you take in a greater variety of parties and interests,” thus avoiding mob rule or consolidation of power in the hands of a few.
Grandin shows how wars against Native Americans led to wars of conquest outside the U.S., including in Latin America. By the Trump Era, Grandin argues, these wars had largely run their course, resulting in a retreat to increasingly brutal U.S.-Mexico border repression as a symptom of the U.S. empire’s inward turn.
The fixation with expansionism did not diminish with time. In 1824, President James Monroe wrote, “There is no object which as a people we can desire which we do not possess or which is not within our reach.” And, as the white men at the helm of the new nation’s government all agreed, what was within their reach was theirs to take.
Disagreements emerged among the governing classes about how to deal with the Indigenous populations living on land that white elites and their settler underlings felt entitled to. Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder who saw himself as a man of the Enlightenment, argued that Native Americans should be compelled to assimilate into white society and give up their hunting and fishing grounds to settlers. This assimilation was to be accomplished through predatory debt: Jefferson explained that when “debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.” Of course, if they resisted, Jefferson wrote, Native Americans “must see we have only to shut our hands to crush them.” Ultimately, Jefferson was willing to accept extermination if forceful persuasion failed.
On the more completely bloodthirsty end of the spectrum, Andrew Jackson dispensed with any pretenses to kinder, gentler conquest. As a lawyer, Jackson profited significantly from theft of Native lands by processing white settler claims. By the time he was elected president in 1828, Jackson’s approach to westward expansion relied on three core policies: Indian removal, war with Mexico, and the defense and extension of slavery. Rabidly racist, Jackson threw supremacist raw meat to his low-income, sparsely educated white base. As Grandin writes, “Jacksonian settlers moved across the frontier, continuing to win a greater liberty by putting down people of color, and then continuing to define their liberty in opposition to the people of color they put down.”
In Jackson’s first term, the Indian Removal Act pushed tens of thousands of Native Americans off their lands, opening it up to poor whites who otherwise would have been increasingly malcontent in overcrowded cities. Those lands also became part of the slave economy.
War as Empire Building
The U.S. war on Mexico, declared by President James Polk in 1846, deepened cycles of racist hatred in the service of empire building. At the end of his life, Ulysses S. Grant looked back on his role in helping to win that war and called it “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Rape and slaughter of civilians and war refugees was common. A U.S. officer described the atrocities: “The smiling villages which welcomed our troops on their upward march are now black and smoldering ruins, the gardens and orange groves destroyed, and the inhabitants have sought refuge in the mountains.” He concluded, “The march of Attila was not more withering and destructive.” “All-Mexico” Jacksonians pushed for the annexation of the entire country. The eastern U.S. press fed war fever by picturing Mexicans as barely human, with the New York Herald describing Spanish, African, and Native American mixing in Mexico as leading to the “imbecility and degradation of the Mexican people.” The Herald’s editor pronounced, “Amalgamation has always been abhorrent to the Anglo-Saxon race on this continent.”
Grandin does an effective job of putting mid-19th century U.S. politics into a global context. He points out that in 1848, European countries saw worker revolts which were ultimately defeated but led to radical reforms, including pensions, welfare, education, and health care. As to workers in the United States in the same period, Grandin explains, “instead of waging class war upward —on aristocrats and owners—they waged race war outward, on the frontier.” During the 1848 presidential election, Zachary Taylor, who won the presidency, was pictured in a popular political cartoon sitting atop a pyramid of skulls holding a bloody sword.
After the civil war ended, westward movement of whites went into overdrive. Under the Homestead Act, the federal government gave almost three hundred million acres of public land to around four hundred thousand families. As Native Americans continued to be pushed off their ancestral lands, the largest chunks of territory seized went to the most powerful corporations and conglomerates. These giveaways were tied to massive corruption and fraud in the U.S. government of the 1870s and 1880s. This period also saw the opening of new overseas markets for U.S. agricultural and manufacturing exports.
By the 1890s, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner would write that the frontier “was a magic fountain of youth in which American continually bathed and was rejuvenated.” Turner, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who presented his “Frontier Thesis” at the World’s Congress of Historians and Historical Studies in 1893, also wrote, “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” Grandin stresses how influential Turner was on other historians, and shows how much Turner played down the less flattering history of “American development.” Dismissing the importance of enslaved Africans in building US wealth, Turner wrote, “When American history comes to be rightly viewed, it will be seen that the slavery question is an incident.”
Grandin contrasts Turner’s airy generalizations with brutal realities on the ground. Those realities are accurately depicted via the pronouncements of Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote, “The settler and pioneer have at bottom had justice on their side: this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages,” and Andrew Jackson, who encouraged soldiers under his command to “pant with vengeance” and turn themselves into “engines of destruction” while butchering Creeks.
In 1890, the U.S. census office stopped using “frontier” to describe any western territory, noting that given the large white population in the west, “there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.” But overseas expansion soon gobbled up new lands beyond the continental United States. Washington’s 1898 annexation of Hawai’i and declaration of war on Spain started the process, soon to be followed by the seizure of Puerto Rico, Guam, and Manila, and the establishment of a protectorate over Cuba. In 1902, Woodrow Wilson, a firm believer in U.S. wars of conquest in the Pacific and the Caribbean, praised these developments, saying, “We made new frontiers for ourselves beyond the seas.”
These new wars served to unite confederates with their former enemies in the north. In Grandin’s words, “In each military occupation and prolonged counterinsurgency they fought, southerners could replay the dissonance of the confederacy again and again. They could fight in the name of the loftiest ideals—liberty, valor, self-sacrifice, camaraderie—while putting down people of color.”
The Border and the Frontier
Throughout the 20th century, U.S. presidents used the word “frontier” to build support for wars on foreign soil. John F. Kennedy used it to describe the Vietnam War and various Third World counterinsurgency campaigns. Ronald Regan argued that his own counterinsurgency wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Angola were on the “Freedom Frontier.” Then, in 1989, George H.W. Bush said, “We saw the frontier beyond the stars, the frontier within ourselves. In the frontiers ahead, there are no boundaries.”
Grandin argues that limits to seemingly interminable U.S. wars began to appear after George W. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2004, W. told the world, “We will extend the frontiers of freedom.” But, Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished” notwithstanding, the outward push turned into an endless slog. Grandin writes: “Had the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq not gone so wrong, perhaps Bush might have been able to contain the growing racism within his party’s rank and file by channeling it into his Middle East crusade, the way Ronald Reagan broke up the most militant nativist vigilantes in the 1980s by focusing their attention on Central America.” Instead, thousands of broken young men and women were cycled out of Bush’s wars back home to a nation hollowed out by stratospheric military spending, fiscal austerity, and massive job loss due in part to trade agreements like NAFTA, which a Clinton cabinet member had referred to as “the moral equivalent of the frontier in the nineteenth century.”
Grandin’s take on Barack Obama is a welcome contrast to mainstream punditry that offers rosy, misty-eyed assessments of Obama’s tenure in the White House. Grandin convincingly lays out how Obama’s election was red meat to homegrown racists, their ranks swelled by returning vets. Obama’s commitment to Clinton-style trade deals did nothing to improve conditions for the millions of Americans living in poverty. Although he managed to serve two terms, the economic impact of trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea, along with his tepid approach to regulating the banking sector that had almost tanked the economy in 2008, gave plentiful ammunition to right wing faux-populists. As Grandin notes, “[Obama] kept reaching for a center that no longer existed, that he seemed to think he could reconstitute by the power of his rhetoric and infiniteness of his patience.”
The End of the Myth argues that by the time of the Obama administration, the safety valve of externally directed aggression via warfare on the periphery was no longer working. In Grandin’s view, “The country lost its ability to channel extremism outward, and the kind of chaos that the United States had released in the Persian Gulf was increasingly mirrored at home, in an escalating spiral of jihadist massacres, mass school shootings, and white-supremacist and masculinist rampages […] the violence that had been associated with moving outward in the world, which gave the illusion of leaving problems behind, now just accumulates.”
Grandin sees the U.S.-Mexico border as a prime site of that accumulation of violence. The border has long been a source of racist terror. The KKK played a key role in the anti-Mexican terror campaigns of the early 1920s, when whites responded to an influx of cross-border refugees from the Mexican Revolution with horrific violence. The Klan had more than a million members at the start of the 1920s, with 200,000 of them in Texas. In addition to demonizing and terrorizing Jews and African Americans, Klan members targeted Mexican migrants as far north as Oregon. Along the border, the New York Times observed in 1923, “The killing of Mexicans without provocation is so common as to pass almost unnoticed.” The KKK, which had infiltrated both local police forces and state national guards, was often behind such murders.
White supremacists clamored for restrictions on Mexican immigrants in the early 1920s, but business interests profiting handsomely from the toil of brown bodies kept legal barriers to cross-border travel to a minimum. But, Grandin explains, “Having lost the national debate when it came to restricting Mexicans, and fearing they were losing the larger struggle in defense of Anglo-Saxonism, white supremacists took control of the newly established U.S. Border Patrol and turned it into a vanguard of race vigilantism.” Klan members joined the Border Patrol in large numbers, and sated their hatred of brown people by beating, shooting, and hanging migrants.
Contemporary white racism toward brown people was blatantly exploited by Donald Trump in his improbable seizure of the presidency. At the border, Grandin observes, Trump policies build on past deportation regimes and “[turn] structural cruelties into spectacular cruelties.”
To ask the question that has been on the lips of everyone I know since November 2016, what is to be done? Here is Grandin’s take, which rings true to me, in the conclusion to his book’s epilogue:
Maybe after Trump is gone, what is understood as the political “center” can be reestablished. But it seems doubtful. Politics appears to be moving in two opposite directions. One way, nativism beckons; Donald Trump, for now, is its standard-bearer. The other way, socialism calls out to younger voters who, burdened by debt and confronting a bleak labor market, are embracing social rights in numbers never before seen. Coming generations will face a stark choice – a choice long deferred by the emotive power of frontier universalism but set forth in vivid relief by recent events: the choice between barbarism and socialism, or at least social democracy.
Following that summation, The End of the Myth closes with “A Note on Sources and Other Matters” that is packed with references to works consulted in its writing. The range of sources is an impressive testimony to Grandin’s meticulous attention to detail. He is certainly a left-wing dissident, but there’s nothing doctrinaire or formulaic about his approach: He writes to uncover the truth and elucidate, not to preach. He challenges conventional wisdom while writing in a lively engaging voice that is both articulate and penetrating in its insights. He has packed The End of the Myth with so much fascinating history that, like me, you may feel compelled to read the book a second time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Ben Terrall is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has appeared in CounterPunch, In These Times, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Noir City, January Magazine, and other outlets.
Disclaimer: Greg Grandin is a NACLA board member