The Frontier and American History

america history

After the Revolutionary War, delegates to the Constitutional Convention realized that the country needed a strong national government. But they argued bitterly over how such a government should look, especially whether it should have a centralized, executive branch that would control state legislatures or one with three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) that were structured to check each other. They also disagreed over the question of whether federal laws should be vetoed by state governors or by the national legislature.

Amid such controversies, the convention moved forward. Edmund Randolph, the tall governor of Virginia, opened the debate with a long speech decrying the evils that had befallen the country under the Articles of Confederation and stressing the need to create a powerful national government.

James Madison had such a plan on his mind for years. It included a centralized, highly-structured federal government with three branches that were designed to check each other. It was a far cry from the loose confederation of independent colonies with their shared currency and shared militia. But it was the best proposal that could be put forth.

One of the most important elements in the growth of American nationalism was the advance of the frontier. In the earliest days of our history, we see in the primitive little townships of New England the germs of processes that have been repeated at every western advance. Complex European life is sharply precipitated into primitive conditions; and that process, the rebirth of civilization, the fluidity of American development, the constant contact with primitive simplicity, furnishes the forces dominating American character.

At the Atlantic frontier this evolution of American society was illustrated in the Indian problem, in the disposition of public lands, and in the extension of political organization. The settlement of these and similar questions for one frontier gave rise to legislation for another; and a study of the law that developed during one period gives the student a fair idea of what will be developed during a later period.

The great movement westward influenced the whole body of American legislation and of the national character. But the historian should not regard this as a mere secondary effect of the slavery problem. The advance of the frontier influenced legislation in many other areas, as well.

In the early years of our history, we see the influence of the frontier in the debate over internal improvement legislation. This was a very great topic of discussion in which grave constitutional questions were discussed, and sectional groupings appeared in the votes. Moreover, the progress of the frontier played a vital part in the growth of American power and influenced American attitudes toward foreign policy. When that movement was at its height, the United States was a dominant power in the world. And it was that dominant power in the world during much of the second half of the 19th century. Its rise to world pre-eminence was not easy nor quick. It was a struggle fought in the blood of the people and carried on by men with an ever-increasing sense of responsibility to our country and to the world.

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