Daniel Henninger applies Frederick Jackson Turner to the current crisis. In 1893 Turner argued “westering” defined American character, especially individualism. Henninger notes “Turner’s purpose wasn’t to idealize America but to try to understand the wellsprings of its remarkable and self-evident success.” It tells us something today: “The current crisis is the result of a world gone madly long on real estate. Daniel Boone, the famed American frontiersman, went belly-up speculating on Kentucky land. He moved on in 1788 and paid his debts. So should we, without losing sight of the American frontier, where we discovered the rewards of risk.” Stereotypes in drama moved west – the French fop became the English courtier became the East Coast dandy; the rough, resilient English hero became an American revolutionary, then, finally, frontiersman. Royall Tyler’s describes his “Americanization” of those traditions in his preface to The Contrast: Our free-born ancestors such arts despis’d; / Genuine sincerity alone they pris’d; / Their minds, with honest emulation fir’d; / To solid good — not ornament — aspir’d.” It lies in that brief middle period which transferred the Restoration’s comedy of manners to American soil; soon, we see our cowboys and then hardboiled dicks proud western heroes, laughing at the foppery of the East Coast.
Certainly, that same spirit enlivened the presidential campaign; in the end, it was rejected by voters – wary voters in an uncertain time. Still, the other vote was an openness to another risk – was there ever a “riskier” candidate than Obama about whom so little was known? And, in such times, almost half of America chose candidates with the virtues and vices Henninger quotes:
“From the conditions of frontier life,” Turner believed, “came [American] intellectual traits of profound importance . . . coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil.” These, he said, are “the traits of the frontier.”
We remain open (naive or responsible, fooldhardy or brave) & active. When people speak of the uneasy truce between conservatives concerned with national defense, financial open markets, and a social conservatism they fail to recognize all three rest on the frontier vision. If we value individualism, have confidence in our ability to find solutions, and apply to all a ‘restless, nervous energy,” we also know what we don’t want. We embrace personal responsibility and remain uncomfortable with social engineering: as an approach to defense, in heavy regulation of our markets, and in our private lives. We retain an historical sense. History is full of risks – some that paid off and some that didn’t. But our history, by its nature, doesn’t restrain us. Paying for our mistakes, we move on, hoping to make fewer the next time around. But making mistakes, we suspect, is living.