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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Western Migration and New States · The West and the East Meet·»

The Spirit of the Frontier

Land Tenure and Liberty.—Over an immense western area there developed an unbroken system of freehold farms. In the Gulf states and the lower Mississippi Valley, it is true, the planter with his many slaves even led in the pioneer movement; but through large sections of Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as upper Georgia and Alabama, and all throughout the Northwest territory the small farmer reigned supreme. In this immense dominion there sprang up a civilization without caste or class—a body of people all having about the same amount of this world’s goods and deriving their livelihood from one source: the labor of their own hands on the soil. The Northwest territory alone almost equaled in area all the original thirteen states combined, except Georgia, and its system of agricultural economy was unbroken by plantations and feudal estates. “In the subdivision of the soil and the great equality of condition,” as Webster said on more than one occasion, “lay the true basis, most certainly, of popular government.” There was the undoubted source of Jacksonian democracy.

A Log Cabin—Lincoln's Birthplace
A Log Cabin—Lincoln’s Birthplace

The Characteristics of the Western People.—Travelers into the Northwest during the early years of the nineteenth century were agreed that the people of that region were almost uniformly marked by the characteristics common to an independent yeomanry. A close observer thus recorded his impressions: “A spirit of adventurous enterprise, a willingness to go through any hardship to accomplish an object.... Independence of thought and action. They have felt the influence of these principles from their childhood. Men who can endure anything; that have lived almost without restraint, free as the mountain air or as the deer and the buffalo of their forests, and who know they are Americans all.... An apparent roughness which some would deem rudeness of manner.... Where there is perfect equality in a neighborhood of people who know little about each other’s previous history or ancestry but where each is lord of the soil he cultivates. Where a log cabin is all that the best of families can expect to have for years and of course can possess few of the external decorations which have so much influence in creating a diversity of rank in society. These circumstances have laid the foundation for that equality of intercourse, simplicity of manners, want of deference, want of reserve, great readiness to make acquaintances, freedom of speech, indisposition to brook real or imaginary insults which one witnesses among people of the West.”

This equality, this independence, this rudeness so often described by the traveler as marking a new country, were all accentuated by the character of the settlers themselves. Traces of the fierce, unsociable, eagle-eyed, hard-drinking hunter remained. The settlers who followed the hunter were, with some exceptions, soldiers of the Revolutionary army, farmers of the “middling order,” and mechanics from the towns,—English, Scotch-Irish, Germans,—poor in possessions and thrown upon the labor of their own hands for support. Sons and daughters from well-to-do Eastern homes sometimes brought softer manners; but the equality of life and the leveling force of labor in forest and field soon made them one in spirit with their struggling neighbors. Even the preachers and teachers, who came when the cabins were raised in the clearings and rude churches and schoolhouses were built, preached sermons and taught lessons that savored of the frontier, as any one may know who reads Peter Cartwright’s A Muscular Christian or Eggleston’s The Hoosier Schoolmaster.

«·The Western Migration and New States · The West and the East Meet·»