The North American frontier contributed greatly to today’s American culture. For nearly 150 years before independence, the Appalachian mountain range had been the American frontier, separating civilization from wilderness. When North America gained independence and became the United States, however, people began to move more freely across the frontiers, into the unknown. The land belonged to them now, and they were free to explore it however deeply they chose claiming at will what land they saw. One can explain American development as the existence of a large area of free land constantly receding, and American settlement advancing westward.
The difference in American institutions from those of any other nation is that American institutions have a way of adapting themselves to the growing, changing nation for which they were imposed. In addition, American development has shown itself to be not only an advance along a single frontier, but a cycle of returning to primitive conditions along a constantly moving frontier line, then settling and civilizing those areas. The American frontier is also unlike that of any other country in that most other countries have developed in a limited area of which they knew the boundaries, meeting and conquering other developing nations around them. But in the case of North America, the frontier was where savagery and civilization met, and nobody knew what lay beyond it. The settlers of North America had no idea that the continent they had begun settling was so enormously vast; they simply took nature as it came. The pioneers’ necessity to cope with natural barriers and survive in near anarchy, in essence being self-sufficient, has greatly affected the American culture of today. One of the areas affected by the frontier experience was politics.
People on the frontier had to deal with whatever life brought them and make the best of it. They learned how to be very individualized, pushing their way through whatever barriers nature presented. This individuality has led Americans to develop a government that facilitates individualism. We, the Americans, are usually suspicious, untrusting, and paranoid of the government because we like to be independent, individually solving whatever problems arise in our path to the goal. This mentality is shown in the nation’s protests to the government’s increasing tyranny and intervention in our personal lives; however, a changing, growing nation requires changes in government.
We believe in individualism, and we apply this belief to all aspects of our lives. In the so-called “Wild West”, government does not pay as close attention to people’s actions, and this was where the vast majority of the nation’s reforms we know today originated. For example, initiative, the right of the citizens to initiate a new law into the legislature; referendum, the citizens’ right to directly vote a law into action instead of passing it through the legislature; recall, the citizens’ to vote a corrupt legislator out of office by way of petition; and term limits were all reforms born in the West. The reason for the government’s low involvement in Westerners’ daily lives is that for centuries, even to this day, many parts of the West have still been developing their society, civilization, and state governments. In the East, where we have always been on the civilized side of the frontier, people tend more to accept the government’s rules, mentally coming to the conclusion that there is nothing they can do about it.
But in the West new ideas for reform are constantly being born. Of course, there must be a compromise between a totalitarian government and complete anarchy; too much government restricts freedom while too little government does not provide the convenient government services we may take for granted, and allows society to get far too out of hand. The United States of America is a diverse but tolerant social mixing pot. Unlike most other nations, America is a safe haven for many, many races and religions. People of a particular race or ethnic group usually live in clusters, minimally interfering with outsiders; taking this into mind, however, many immigrants are still amazed by the high level of tolerance America holds.
Our tolerance comes from the fact that so many ethnic groups arrived here during the settlement, and that the black African slaves intermingled with the white community enough to earn that tolerance. Furthermore, in the West many different types of people can settle without upsetting one another because of the vast empty space out west to separate them. In addition to our toleration of race and religion, America gives more privileges to its women than most other countries. This anomaly results from the fact that during settlement the women were required to do certain mandatory work. They had nearly the same status as men in most aspects of their lives.
In the fully civilized society of modern America, however, women are not required to do the same jobs as men, and are thus on a lower status level. To this day, however, compared to other nations American women still have many more rights such as owning land, voting, and performing men’s jobs. Education is another aspect of social life affected by the frontier. Public schools were necessary to educate children at the time of settlement. No sooner than the pioneers arrived here than the first public schools were set up. Our society today is still affected by this craze to learn. America is constantly encouraging its children to stay in school, and American colleges are some of the best in the world. The frontier also affected modern American economy.
During settlement, people did not need or want a government to interfere with the country’s economy. Thus a laissez-faire economic system was established. Laissez-faire is a term to describe an economy in which the government interferes very little in day-to-day economic activity, and such a system is very closely related to capitalism. Economy in America is one of speculation and risk taking; America was settled so quickly because of the fact that everything was abundant and extremely available or easy get. Speculation was in fact not a great risk at all at that time, and even now, so people would take great risks knowing that the odds were so greatly in their favor. Still today, Americans nearly throw their money into whatever new company they think has a chance, and, not surpsingly, often come out richer than one could dream. Americans also have a strong technological bias, and are a people of tools and gadgets, so to speak.
We have been such an inventive country because of the fact that we always needed to devise some way to get around an obstacle we found in nature. Another way, perhaps one of the most important, in which the frontier has drastically affected modern American life is psychologically. Americans in general enjoy solving problems or puzzles, and Americans will usually at least make an attempt to solve any problems that confront them. This problem-solving personality in many Americans goes back to the fact that there were innumerable tasks and problems set before the average settler each day: How do I get across this stream? through this forest? build something on this forest? keep the wild animals away? get food to eat?.. It is easy to see that the settlers had no choice but to solve these problems one way or another, or they would die.
One negative aspect about the psychology of our society is that we are one of violence-more violent than many other nations on Earth. This way of violence with us resulted from the fact that out on the frontier when there was no government, each man would have to settle his own problems, and if it involved violence or killing, so be it. No one would even notice. Everyone would always be fully armed because they knew what people would do to solve a conflict. Although we are a violent people, however, we believe in egalitarianism, that everyone is equal in status. There were simply so many types of people, rich or poor, that worked in the same way, earning money the same way, that a class system was not important. American psychology was deeply impacted by the frontier experience.
The frontier experience was very important in shaping modern American culture. American development, moving from the known into the unknown, has drastically affected the way Americans live and function today.