While many historians and Americans reject the historical perspective of “Westward Ho,” the newer studies have done just that. They have stripped away much of the romanticism of this time period and exhumed the human and environmental costs of American expansion. The newer narratives offer little glory, and accent the savagery of western civilization. But we should not forget the role of the West in shaping the rest of the world. Here are five reasons why.
Early modern Europe is a period of transition. After the rise of the Byzantine Empire in the East, western civilization began to deteriorate in literacy and organization. But Christian religion slowly reasserted itself in Europe and the Western world. During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church established a centralized position in western Europe and the Holy Land became a contested territory. During this time, the West suffered the consequences of many successive crusades, with the first of them resulting in great European atrocities.
Throughout western history, different strands of ideas have influenced its interpretation. Some argue that the western past was triumphant and virtuous, while others hold a more tragic view. The shift in orientation has been documented in two influential surveys, The Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Limerick and It’s Your Misfortune and No One’s Business by Richard White. Both documents synthesized the scholarship of the 1960s-1980s. One of them argued that conquest had brought misfortune to the victors.
Many modern historians of the American West echoed Turner’s “frontier thesis.” Some of them went so far as to further expand and amend it. Still, few challenged the importance of the frontier and questioned the exaltation of westward expansion. This trend continued until the 1960s, when anti-imperialist protests in the United States, notably in Vietnam, spurred a change in the interpretation of Western history.
The Reformation began in Europe. It led to the Industrial Revolution. The United States and France followed suit. This period was also marked by the birth of democracy in the West. The French and British Empires joined the world stage, and in just a few short decades, the West began its modernization. The New World’s expansion was accompanied by the creation of new nations. By the mid-nineteenth century, many Westerners became less religious, but the majority still held on to Christian beliefs.
After World War I, the expansion of Western powers resulted in a dramatic change in the societies they conquered. Railroads, telegraphs, and factories helped connect Western nations. As a result, the Western world became increasingly united, but also faced many challenges. Great Britain and the United States emerged as the world’s dominant powers. France and Austria-Hungary also became dominant global powers. After World War II, the Soviet Union emerged as a rival power, leading to a political contrast between the East and West.
Besides the historical significance of the Western World, it has a cultural significance as well. A western history education teaches us about the culture and traditions of our past. The study of western civilization has grown dramatically in recent decades, with the formation of the Western History Association. This association has dozens of active members and a shared mission. You can join the organization and benefit from their rich history! If you want to learn more about the Western World, join the association.