Category Archives: Historiography

Long rifles and red tape

With summer here, I’ve been able to dig into some of the books I’ve got stacked up, waiting to be read.  A few days ago I finished Malcolm J. Rohrbough’s Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1850, which I bought a couple of years ago.

One of the prominent themes in this book is the role of government in the organization, settlement, and development of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century frontiers.  The federal government secured lands to be settled by winning wars or negotiating treaties with foreign powers and Indian tribes.  It established the ordinances to survey this land, sell it to private citizens, set up territorial governments, and transform the territories into states.  It defended the frontier’s inhabitants from external threats.  It contributed to the development of trade and communication routes, and obtained commercial outlets for the settlers’ commercial goods (i.e., securing the right to navigation of the Mississippi and use of the port of New Orleans).

Also notable is the eagerness with which many frontiersmen formed their own government institutions, and the things they allowed those institutions to control.  Many frontier communities established local courts with power to set prices and regulate moral behavior.  If you lived in some eighteenth-century settlements, you could find yourself hauled before a magistrate for cursing or sleeping with somebody who wasn’t your spouse.

A replica of the log capitol of the short-lived State of Franklin in Greeneville, TN. The original was erected in the 1780’s; this reconstruction dates from the 1960’s. From Wikimedia Commons

This is interesting, because it runs against the notion a lot of people have of the early frontier.  It was supposed to be a place where you could get away from authority.  The men and women who settled the early West were supposedly hardy, independent-minded souls who wanted nothing from anyone, only land where they could carve a living out of the wilderness with their own two hands, free from the oversight of the settled societies back east.  They were like characters out of an Ayn Rand novel, except they were dirt poor and carried long rifles.

Right?

Well, sort of.  Various sorts of people went to the early frontier for different reasons, so we make blanket generalizations about them at our peril, but it’s safe to say that many of them were more comfortable with institutions of authority than we often assume.  When the settlers near the Watauga River in northeastern Tennessee found themselves outside the reach of effective government in 1772, they didn’t sit back to enjoy a state of blissful anarchy; they set up a five-man court with laws patterned after those of Virginia.  In 1776, they petitioned the governments of Virginia and North Carolina to annex them.

My point here isn’t to write an apologia for interventionist government based on historical precedent.  One can find many instances in which early frontiersmen actively resisted government agencies.  Frontier people weren’t really eager to welcome government just for its own sake.  When they established courts, passed laws, and obeyed the laws of territorial governors, it was generally because there was something in it for them.

What most settlers ultimately wanted, I think, was land and livelihood, so when a government institution could help them secure these things, they let it happen.  The Wataugans wanted to farm their land unmolested by renegades and riff-raff, and their provisional government of 1772 was the best means to accomplish it.  Similarly, other frontiersmen could tolerate or even support territorial governors who wielded almost dictatorial power under federal ordinances because it meant law and order and secure land titles.

In other cases, frontiersmen acted against government authority when it interfered with their desire for land and livelihood.  Federal authorities often had their hands full trying to keep settlers from encroaching on land reserved to Indian tribes by official treaties.  The Franklinites weren’t shy about negotiating their own treaties and waging their own wars with the Cherokee in spite of the fact that their actions had no legal standing as far as the governments of either North Carolina or the United States were concerned.  And, of course, the reason the Wataugans had to establish their provisional government in the first place is because they had settled across the mountains in direct violation of British authority.  In these instances, law and government stood in the way of land acquisition rather than ensuring secure enjoyment of it, and thus frontier inhabitants cut through the red tape by acting on their own.

I therefore submit that it’s a drastic oversimplification to say that inhabitants of the early frontier wanted independence and freedom above all else, if by “independence and freedom” we mean liberty from any government authority whatsoever.  They were out to build lives for themselves where land and opportunity could be had, either with the aid of law and order or in defiance of it.  The nature of their love-hate relationship with government depended on what it could do for them at any given time.

None of this should surprise us, except that the archetype of the autonomous frontiersman casts such a long shadow over American history.  After all, by welcoming government as long as it helped them secure their lives, liberties, and property and resisting it when it hindered them from doing so, these settlers were basically acting out the same relationship between Americans and government that’s been going on for over two hundred years.

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Filed under Historiography, History and Memory, Tennessee History

The messy reprieve of 1850

In America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union, published this month, Fergus Bordewich recounts the various controversies that the architects of the Compromise of 1850 tried to resolve and the process by which that decade-long reprieve for the Union made its tortuous way through the halls of the Capitol.  The expansion of slavery was central to the whole affair, but this core issue manifested itself in a number of intertwined controversies whose complexity may surprise readers used to abridged accounts of the compromise as only one of several steps toward the Civil War.

One of these controversies involved California, where (by a stroke of either remarkably good or remarkably bad fortune) the discovery of gold shortly after the acquisition of that future state from Mexico forced the nation to quickly come to terms with the question of its admission to the Union.  The admission of a new state threatened to upset the delicate balance between free and slave states in the Senate, and both opponents and apologists for the spread of the peculiar institution put forth various proposals for the organization of territories gained in the Mexican War—an outright ban on slavery, popular sovereignty, an absence of any restriction on slavery whatsoever, and so on.  Combined with this dispute over the fate of slavery in the former Mexican territories, and related to it, was a bitter controversy involving territorial claims by Texas.  Texans insisted that their state’s jurisdiction extended west of the Rio Grande into present-day New Mexico, whereas New Mexicans denied encroachment on what they believed to be their own domain.  These disputes emerged at a time when passions about the fate of the peculiar institution and the federal government’s role in upholding it were at a fever pitch.

Into this web of controversy and contested suggestions for untangling it stepped Henry Clay, member of a generation of elder statesmen for whom the coming debate would be their last great act on the national stage.  Clay’s proposal to cut the Gordian knot of the dispute over the fate of slavery in the territories called for the admission of a free California, the restriction of Texan claims to eastern New Mexico, an abolition of the slave trade in the nation’s capital, a more effective fugitive slave law, and freedom from congressional interference in the interstate slave trade.

Clay feared that if these measures were presented to the Senate as a unit, extremists on both sides would balk at passing it.  That is precisely what happened, as opponents of slavery led by William Seward denounced the stiffer anti-fugitive provisions and the expansion of human bondage into the Mexican cessions while slavery advocates such as John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis claimed that prohibitions on the spread of he peculiar institution into the territories threatened the South.  Debate on the “omnibus” bill combining Clay’s proposals became so heated that at one point Mississippi’s Henry Foote drew a pistol on Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton.

Meanwhile, the crises which the compromise was meant to address continued to escalate, with delegates from nine slaveholding states meeting in Nashville to consider possible courses of action.  Among those possibilities was secession from the Union, a drastic measure ultimately repudiated the convention’s more moderate attendees.  After the packaged compromise proposals went down to defeat, Stephen Douglas herded the measures through the Senate separately; Texas was mollified with payment of her debts, a tougher fugitive slave law passed despite opposition from a few northern politicos, and California gained admission as a free state.

Adroit maneuvering by Speaker Howell Cobb secured passage of the compromise measures in the House of Representatives, even though hard-liners on both sides of the expansion and slavery debates continued to contest the implications of the individual provisions.  The beefed-up Fugitive Slave Law was a particularly bitter pill for Whigs in the North to swallow.  Despite continued tension, and the fact that the compromise ultimately proved to be a reprieve rather than a cure for sectional animosity, Bordewich concludes that it was a laudable political success, staving off as it did a rending of the Union and subsequent war which he claims the government was ill-prepared to face in 1850.

America’s Great Debate could benefit from additional attention to the way in which the country at large reacted to the wrangling in the Senate.  Some chapters take the reader on short forays into the disputed Texas-New Mexico border region, but for the most part Bordewich does not stray far from the halls of power in Washington.  Nor does he stray far from the conventions of narrative history; readers looking for intensive analysis and overt engagement with the secondary literature should look elsewhere.  Taken on its own terms as a straightforward narrative political history, however, this is a solid account, making effective use of published primary material and offering an intimate look at the inner workings of politics at the national level during the tumultuous mid-1800’s.

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A new collection on Rev War cavalry

…is coming out this fall.  Cool!

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Imprisoned Patriots

Carl Borick has a new book out, examining the plight of Revolutionary War prisoners in the South.  This one ought to be worth a read.  Borick previously published a book on the 1780 siege of Charleston, which I recommend, and organized a fantastic temporary exhibit on the occupation of that city at the Charleston Museum.

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Reconsidering Andrew Johnson

Dr. Paul Bergeron probably knows more about Andrew Johnson than anyone else does, so his newest book ought to be well worth a read.  Check out this article on Bergeron’s work in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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I’ve got a few remarks on the O’Reilly brouhaha

…over at the Abraham Lincoln Institute blog, in case anybody’s interested in reading them.

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Ed Bearss’s favorite Civil War books

Ed Bearss is a living legend when it comes to the history of the Civil War, so it was about time somebody asked him to name his favorite books on the subject.  I think his choices were pretty good.  Check it out.

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