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.
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.
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.