American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers – 1: Introduction

Author: Rajiv Malhotra.

Editorial Note: As part of the IK Masters Series, we re-publish a 2009 paper (book chapter) by Rajiv Malhotra on American Exceptionalism, published in the book,The Challenge of Eurocentrism: Global Perspectives, Policy, and Prospects. Given current events transpiring in 2020, this paper is all the more relevant, and gives us a broad no-nonsense perspective on the evolution of the USA. The incisive purvapaksha and the unemotional detailing is to be noted.

The Myth of the Frontier is our oldest and most characteristic myth, expressed in a body of literature, folklore, ritual, historiography, and polemics produced over a period of three centuries. According to this mythic-historiography, the conquest of the wilderness and the subjugation or displacement of the Native Americans who originally inhabited it have been the means to our achievement of a national identity, a democratic polity, an ever-expanding economy, and a phenomenally dynamic and “progressive” civilization. The original ideological task of the Myth was to explain and justify the estab- lishment of the American colonies; but as the colonies expanded and developed, the Myth was called on to account for our rapid economic growth, our emergence as a powerful nation-state, and our distinctively American approach to the socially and culturally disruptive processes of modernization.

Slotkin 1998, p. 10

The Making of a Supernation 

A popular misconception, even among many intellectuals, is that Americans have no deep history or any particular culture. It is thought that Americans are a “young country” with no historical or cultural baggage. A consequence of this is that American thought may sometimes present itself as culturally neutral, without a Eurocentric or America-centric bias. Hence it is seen as being free from the historical and cultural contexts with which other nations’ thinking gets interpreted. The American voice has thus seemed more universal than others because of this perceived freedom from past contexts. 

Indeed, American public leaders emphatically insist on the uniqueness of America based on its historical trajectory. But this view betrays a lack of understanding about the very intense and prolonged traumas that shaped the United States. The United States is the result of a special combination of history and geography. Its founding cultural capital, with race and Christianity as the strongest components, was brought from Europe, and this sense of various European pasts provided a starting point for identity building. But the factor that made the critical departure from European culture was America’s geography, inhabited by natives who were very different from Europeans. It was the geographical disconnect from Europe, and hence separation from the European historical identities, that helped form American character amidst clashes with various non-European civilizations. On the one hand Americans brought and retained their historical identities of European pasts, which were amplified by mythmakers. On the other hand, the vulnerability and geographical isolation across the ocean was intensified by encounters with the radically different cultures of Native Americans. This tension between historical continuity and geographical discontinuity mutated the various European identities. Over time these coalesced into something uniquely American. White settlers believed that their destiny and authority to expand their land occupation was God’s will and grand plan for Earth. From the early 1600s until the late-1800s, the entire land mass of what is now called the United States was occupied under such a presumed mandate from God. Blacks were brought over from Africa and made into slaves in order to till the land—and to fuel the huge agrarian economy that created early America’s wealth. God’s civilizing teleology was used as justification for horrendous acts. 

Against this unique background, Americans produced a system of values in order to perceive themselves as an extraordinary people. Many American historians have referred to this as “American exceptionalism”: America’s self-ordained right to step out of the restrictions of morality, ethics and even law that bound everyone else, and apply its own rules to deal with others. This exceptionalism was developed in the context of the Frontier, and depended on the characterization of Native American “others.” The land mass that was the target of takeover at a given time became known as the Frontier; hence the Frontier was always expanding and shifting to new opportunities for takeover. All sorts of stories were reported and fabricated about what existed in this frontier. 

Courageous men, called frontiersmen, who ventured forth brought back bounty along with exotic and heroic tales of the inhabitants there. Many frontiersmen saw the native inhabitants of America as savages. Defined in this way, savages were dangerous and had to be captured and controlled. Even as the frontiersmen were violently subduing the natives, intellectuals and policymakers debated whether the Native Americans could. Many believed that by converting them to Christianity they could accomplish this task, while others asserted that the Native Americans could not achieve social parity with the new settlers even if they became Christians. 

Once the land mass had been taken over, the Frontier was declared “closed” by the Census Bureau after 1890 because there was no further land left. In 1893 historian Fredrick Jackson Turner advanced what would become known as “The Turner Thesis,” which said that every generation of Americans was more individualistic and democratic than the last because of its interaction with the Frontier. Then president Teddy Roosevelt, who was well aware of Turner’s thesis, successfully convinced Americans that the Frontier had to expand overseas. Roosevelt oversaw a huge buildup in the U.S. Navy, which led to the invasions of the Philippines and Central America. Manifest Destiny had gone global—as it continues to do to this day. Thus the geopolitical events we are witnessing today are not an anomaly but are the continuation of a very old American trajectory. 

The metaphor of the Frontier has sustained itself in the national culture and is invoked in popular entertainment, advertising, political rhetoric and in Americans’ sense of being a uniquely exceptional people. This collectivity of thought has been referred to in academic literature as the “American Myth of the Frontier.” However, Turner and his followers (including politicians, academics, and artists) focused only on the positive aspects of the Frontier in forming the American character and setting the United States on the road to becoming a superpower. Looking at America from a different perspective, we can also identify the darker aspects of the Myth of the Frontier. We can see how the descriptions and justifications that first developed for dealing with Native American tribes have become so deeply entwined in the national Myth that they shape American policies to this day. Although “the other” has changed his location, his race, and his cultural identity, he may find his role in the American Myth to be not so different from the role played by Native Americans. 

Besides being a physical place that shifted and expanded over time, the Frontier is also a mythic space. It represents that which is to be conquered/controlled, including such things as the Space Frontier, the Science Frontier, and the New Age Spiritual Frontier. Each of these has its specialized frontiersmen who venture out as opportunistic adventurers in unchartered territory, to become hardcore experts at understanding the mysterious “wilderness” waiting to be captured, and to return home as heroes of American Civilization. This is the quintessential American entrepreneurial spirit that fuels its enormous creativity as a nation. 

The Frontier is not only external but also internal, that is, located physically inside the space controlled by Civilization. These internal frontiers are the threats from within that must be vigorously suppressed in order to prevent chaos. In the early days the American Pilgrims were very tough and unforgiving on policing discipline internally within their settlements. Subsequently the Black slaves became the internal threats. Later on the internal frontiers consisted of Chinese laborers within America, the freed Blacks in the Jim Crow era, Asian immigrants, and Japanese interned during World War II. Today’s internal threats include gays, polygamists, Muslim Americans, illegal immigrants, among others. 

While the frontiersmen represent American Civilization, the others (uncivilized/savages) consist of both those who are deemed harmlessly exotic and others who are dangerous. These two kinds have been seen as “noble savages” and “dangerous savages,” respectively. While the polygamists in Texas today might be benign and exotic “noble savages,” the outspoken American Muslims are monitored as “dangerous.” Many institutional mechanisms have evolved to support the frontiersmen in dealing with various kinds of savages—ranging from co-opting the savages to serve as functionaries of civilization, taming them into “civilized” American citizens, and containing them in prisons and shelters. 

America evolves as these threats get assimilated and domesticated, or controlled and suppressed, or obliterated by genocide. Each such encounter produces a new and upgraded version of American civilization. Thus the early settlers called themselves “English” and referred to the “savages” as Indians. But once the settlements also had non-English Europeans (i.e., Germans, etc.) the “us” became known as Christians and the other side was called Heathens. Then came the era in which many Native Americans got converted to Christianity, so this Christian/Heathen discourse was replaced by the notion of White/Non-White people. At first only Protestants were considered White, and the Irish had to resort to violence to be allowed to join White labor unions. The book, How the Irish Became White, by Noel Ignatiev describes this process (Ignatiev 1996). Once the civic religion had expanded from Protestantism to include Catholics as well, Jews were still left out, and they had to fight their way into Whiteness—as described in the book, How Jews Became White Folks and what that says about Race in America, by Karen Brodkin (Brodkin 1999). Each frontier encounter has thus expanded not only the physical territory but also amended the Myth to include more people as insiders. 

This article, however, shall focus primarily on the early formation of the Frontier Myth in encounters with Native Americans, and then summarize at the end the implications as the Frontier continued to expand further.

To be continued …

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, author, speaker, thinker and public intellectual on contemporary issues as they relate to civilization, cross-cultural encounters, spirituality, and science.  He studied Physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi and did his post-graduate education in Physics, View More

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