It was about three in the afternoon and high summer, the end of July in 1831, when Alexis de Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, reached Detroit via Lake Erie on a steamboat called Ohio. Detroit, Tocqueville reported, was “a little town of two or three thousand souls,” founded by French Jesuits and still full of French families. Earlier in the day, the French-built Catholic church in British Fort Malden, now in Windsor, Ontario, had reminded him of a village near Caen or Evreux, with a rooster-shaped weathervane atop its bell-tower. A Parisian whose aristocratic family was rooted in Normandy, where Tocqueville lies about equidistant between Evreux and Caen, the young traveler sought restlessly for such points of contact between the old world and the new: they were essential helps in making sense of the Americans for his European audience.
Such comparisons failed him. In what Norman village would the bell-tower cock look down on a British soldier of the Highland regiments, fully uniformed in kilt, red tunic, and ostrich-feather cap, and set on guard at the border of the empire; then spin in an east wind to regard “two stark naked Indians, their bodies streaked with dyes, rings in their noses … in a little bark canoe”? The frontier of European settlement was also the border country of empires, where civilizations crossed like the merchants of many languages and religions who streamed through the ancient port cities of the Mediterranean. Unsettlement, movement, the mutual jostling of people displaced by choice or force, was what Tocqueville found in the Northwest Territories. The emblems of European nations that he met on the frontier were fragmented images on the vast canvas of the new continent.
In the American pioneers, the forest-clearing, town-building leading edge of settlement, Tocqueville found a people entirely without terroir. They had, he reported, none of the flavor of a place and its soil, no regional idiosyncrasy or rough peasant culture. The man one met in New York upon disembarking from a trans-Atlantic voyage was the same man one met at the doorway of a log cabin northwest of Pontiac, on the very edge of settlement. Unlike the laborers and aristocrats of France – at least as Tocqueville imagined them – these Americans did not spring from the land and carry its mark in rooted, place-based cultures. Instead, they aimed their vagrant, conquering strength at a continent they were determined to master, indifferent to its detail and variation except where these promised wealth. The European travelers’ wish to see trackless wilderness for its own sake made no sense to their American hosts. As Tocqueville reported – playing up the scene for effect – he and Beaumont had to pose as speculators, then manoeuvre into a faux-casual question about where the least desirable land lay, to get directions to the wilderness.
These directions led them to a woods northwest of Pontiac, in what is now Michigan, which became a set-piece in Tocqueville’s portrait of the new American nation. The setting was of devastation. The first sign of settlement was burnt-over ground, scorched limbs, and trees dead but standing, having been strangled by girdling, stripping a ring of bark to stop sap from circulating. Here, “all the trees seem to have been struck by sudden death,” and “[i]n full summer their withered branches seem the image of winter.” In this deathly forest, a proliferation of weeds and wheat, corn and oak shoots, grew on ground newly opened to the sun. At the center of this crude clearing, dead trees gave way to stumps of trees cut but not yet grubbed up, and amid the stumps stood a log cabin.
In this crude building, with a window hacked out of the log walls and furniture assembled from untrimmed tree limbs still sprouting leaves, a few details pointed to the meaning behind the rough labor of frontier survival. A muslin curtain and cracked teapot promised a gracious domestic life in decades ahead. A bible, a prayerbook, and “sometimes, a poem of Milton or a tragedy of Shakespeare” the cabin’s ties to the past, while a few newspapers maintained a desultory but persistent tie to present events. Other than a deerskin or eagle feathers, Tocqueville mentioned only one pure decoration, one piece of visual display: a map of the United States, stretched to the right of the fireplace, lifting and fluttering in the breezes that passes through cracks in the cabin wall.
The map was an appropriate symbol. If the American pioneers lacked all terroir and pleasure in the details of unsettled land, if the terrain they shaped was haphazardly ugly, they were nonetheless in the grip of a continental vision. Tocqueville, who reveled in paradox, saw in the Americans a heroic spirit deployed for utilitarian ends, the vitality of savage warfare joined with the cool calculation of self-interest. He called the settlers “a race to whom the future of the New World belongs, a restless, calculating, adventurous race which sets coldly about deeds that can only be explained by the fire of passion … that submits to living the life of a savage without ever letting itself be carried away by its charms, that only cherishes those parts of civilization and enlightenment which are useful for well-being.” The American nation, he judged, “like all great peoples, has but one thought, and presses forward to the acquisition of riches, the single end of its labors, with a perseverance and a scorn of life which one could call heroic, if that word were properly used of anything but the strivings of virtue.” Here was something new in the world: heroic effort for everyday purposes, self-sacrificing devotion without self-immolating passion, were the qualities of a people who could achieve the focused violence of conquest and sustain the orderly power of rule. Thus Tocqueville called the Americans “[a] nation of conquerors … whom rivers and lakes cannot hold back, before whom forests fall and prairies are covered in shade; and who, when they have reached the Pacific Ocean, will come back on its tracks to trouble and destroy the societies which it will have formed behind it.”
What such a nation meant for the continent was palpable: clearing, settlement, cultivation and also a kind of devastation. What did it mean, how did it feel, to be such a person, one of these new Americans? It seemed to Tocqueville that these calculating conquerors became emotionally flat, almost two-dimensional, and lost the savor of living for its own sake, without some instrumental reward. He described the pioneers as cold-blooded, stiff, austere, and so emotionally isolated that they hardly took pleasure in ordinary sociability. Indeed, he saw them as consumed by their nation-building vision an hardly able to acknowledge the reality of fellow human beings: “Even [the pioneer’s] feelings for his family have become merged in a vast egotism, and one cannot be sure whether he regards his wife and children as anything more than a detached part of himself.” This was, for him, part of the paradox of a “great” people, a nation that would turn the wheel of history, that spent its energy in chilly, deliberate fashion, turning a continent to production and profit, from wilderness to property.
The image of the pioneer as what we might today call a narcissist – self-aggrandizing, emotionally truncated, isolated from others to the point of doubting their reality except as projected aspects of one’s self – was one that would later form a central and enduring image of the second volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. There he portrayed, not just frontier settlers, but Americans in general and, by extension, the democratic personality of the future, as emotionally insensate, among others yet unable to feel them, with each man shut up alone in himself. It is striking to find an origin for this idea in Tocqueville’s observation of Americans’ relation to land and the natural world. Although what struck Tocqueville was the lack of terroir in Americans, that did not mean Americans were not defined by a relation to the land. Instead, they were defined by an abstract and general relation to nature, as a field of economic value which they extracted and exploited wherever they found it, building a nation as they went. This relation to nature was well captured in the abstract image of the nation that Tocqueville saw on the cabin walls of the frontier: the map of the United States spreading across a continent, subsuming rivers and mountains, swamps and deserts, forests and plains within its borders. It seemed to him that its consequences were also palpable in the casual destruction that had turned a Midwestern summer to winter and left trees to decay and collapse as weeds and new crops grew up together under their dead limbs. Although Tocqueville did not trace the emotional economy that tied this chilly isolation to certain kind of world-historical mission on the continent, his intuition was that Americans’ isolation from one another, their evasion of their own warm and passionate energies, and their relentless, muscular, but cold-blooded struggle with nature were parts of a coherent outlook.
Alexis de Tocqueville was an opinionated observer of the American scene, and his judgments were motivated by an intense concern with Europe’s future, which he supposed was presaged in the democratic United States. Even saying this understates the matter: reading Tocqueville, one learns as much about him as about the people he observed. He often seemed to imagine that only refined characters like him were capable of genuine reflection, while others were swept along by the currents of opinion and history, their words and ideas symptoms of the great trends that Tocqueville traced. His writing is thus marked by reluctance to reflect on his own preoccupations and a sharp limit on his considerable gift for imagining his way into others’ experience. He approached the world somewhat as a tremendously bright student of literature might approach a novel that he had been assured was structured by a few major themes, which it was his assignment to discern. For all the acuity of his particular observations, then, his real talent lay in the sharp yet sweeping general claim about such things as “American character” or “democratic experience,” which might or might not exist, and might or might be as they seemed to one uncommonly articulate French aristocrat on a short visit.
For all these reasons, it has been unfashionable to begin a study of American experience with Tocqueville, or, for that matter, to follow him in making American experience a topic at all. Yet there are also reasons to do both things. Tocqueville’s arresting frontier vignettes are a window into a quiet moment within an extraordinary chapter of American social, economic, and ecological history: a settler people’s violent sweep across North America. As Tocqueville recorded in miniature, pioneers burnt hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, strangled and eventually leveled and grubbed up much of the rest, cut the deep and tangled roots of prairie sod with the plow, and drained wetlands and redirected rivers. The scope and vigor of the transformation suggested a military campaign. So did the one-sided warfare that Americans waged on predators. Wolves, for instance, were the targets of more than a century of something like total warfare, including massive poisonings, great bounties, and vaunted expeditions against the strongest and most elusive individuals. This was not the first time human beings had transformed a landscape, and some of the difference from earlier episodes was a matter of more powerful technology, but it was an extraordinary remaking of a continent.
As Tocqueville suggested, the settlers carried, and were carried by, an idea of what their work meant. Indeed, even more than he seems to have realized, the American project of clearing and settling the continent was involved with an interpretation of nature. [It all depended on…] [I think the strongest statements of the providential republic view, at least rhetorically, need to go in here. That way, it’s evident early that this is not just Great Books.]
[All the world was America]
John Locke’s claim that, “In the beginning, all the world was America,” is perhaps the most pregnant passage in his thought. It crystallizes the speculative history that underlay Locke’s political thought. Humanity began, on this account, in a world not yet owned, where no property lines marked mine from yours, and anyone could exercise his natural right to use whatever resources he needed for his survival or convenience. Those who wandered this world were in what Locke called the state of nature, where all were equally free to act as they wished, so long as they did not harm one another. There were no slaves and no masters, no rulers or ruled. Although it was a world not yet owned, it was not immune to ownership: one who used something, whether by clearing a field or gathering apples, acquired a property right in it, which others had to respect. The only limit on this right to acquire property was that the natural men must leave enough for others to satisfy their own needs. History began in a world of extensive liberty and radical equality, organized by a modest dose of natural law, a world without government but infused with without order and principle.
Locke’s state of nature contained the seeds of a much more extensive system of law, the explicit, usually written law of a formal political system. That was not accidental: the point of his imagined “America” was to provide an account of how organized government could come into being as an extension of natural freedom and equality. Government, in Locke’s telling, arose when men in the state of nature voluntarily surrendered some of their extensive freedom in exchange for the security that government provided. The advantage of this theory was that it explained why legitimate government must have limited powers: it was bound by the same natural law that pertained in the state of nature, including respect for property rights, and could exercise only the powers that natural men would have granted it to protect their lawful interests. Natural freedom and equality were speculative postulates, not direct limits on real-world governments, but as the cardinal points of Locke’s political theory they drew a line between those acts of government that subjects must obey, because they were compatible with the consent of free and equal natural men, and those commands that subjects could resist, because natural men would not have consented to them.
This image of a primordial, unclaimed land, where freedom and equality could unfold themselves, had great meaning for the continent Locke used to imagine the beginnings of history: North America. This continent became a present instance of a world before government, a landscape under natural law. This meant that settlers had a chance to replay Lockean history, divide the continent among themselves and make, by common consent, a constitutional government to rule them all. They could take freedom and equality as the premises of a practical enterprise, building an “empire of liberty” westward from the Atlantic. What had been theoretical postulates in Locke’s thought now became cornerstones of a vast undertaking.
It is widely recognized, of course, that discovering an open continent changed the course of European, and world, history. Max Weber, the great German social thinker, reflected that human freedom owed an incalculable debt to a “wind from the west,” the ferment of experiment, new wealth, and open borders that rebels and dissidents could flee across, and it seemed to Weber that such a wind might never blow again. Early Americans, too, endlessly claimed that open land and rational experiments in government made them the pivotal nation in human history, the ones whose success could revive Roman freedom, show the proper form of Christian government, or establish once and for all that a people could govern itself by choice and reason, not chance and inheritance. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Northern ideal of American democracy, as a republic of smallholders, was firmly established, and it was commonplace that a republic of free men, each dignified by making his living through free labor, depended on the availability of free land on the frontier.
What is easier to miss is that early Americans’ ideas were not simply about history, politics, and freedom. They were also about nature: what the natural world was, where its value lay, and how human beings should use it. To see this in some detail, let’s stay a little longer with Locke, where the logic is especially clear. Locke argued, against earlier theorists of natural law such as Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes, that although the world originally belonged to all in common, an individual could turn it into his own property by appropriating or improving so much of it as he could use. This act, creating a legal right of ownership, did not depend on either the consent of the rest of humanity (which was, after all, losing its claim), which Grotius had argued, or the act of a sovereign government to declare “mine and thine,” as Hobbes believed. Instead, property could arise before government, was among the interests that natural men sought to secure by creating government, and thus was one of the limits on what legitimate government could do?
And how could we know this, according to Locke? “God, when he gave the World in common to all Mankind, commanded Man also to labor, and the penury of his Condition required it of him. God and his Reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e., improve it for the benefit of life….” Locke continued, “God gave the World to Men in Common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest Conveniencies of Life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the Industrious and Rational (and Labour was to be his Title to it;)….” There were two sources, then, for Locke’s view of natural property, both deeply involved in the human relation to nature. First was the curse of Adam, the command to labor that accompanied expulsion from Eden. This, however, is not purely a curse in Locke’s hands: rather, those who obey the command are a morally favored group, the “industrious and rational,” and it is to them that the world really belongs. The second source of Locke’s view was an interpretation of the human predicament in the natural world. People were needy, vulnerable, and poorly provided for by “un-assisted nature,” but the world’s stinginess, and humanity’s “penury,” need not be permanent. Instead, when men mixed their labor with the world, it bloomed, producing a hundred times or more the wealth it yielded when “un-assisted.” Property, which guaranteed to owners the fruits of their work, was the rational response to human needs in a world that met those needs abundantly when fertilized with labor, scarcely at all when left fallow. Locke persistently referred to land that had not been turned to property as “waste,” a word with a double sense: of resources squandered or not used, an affront to the “industrious and rational,” and also emptiness, a sense rooted in its origins in the Latin vastus, a desolate space. The natural world, so far as it had not come under the fruitful power of labor, was empty, incomplete.
For Locke, contemplating the natural world and the human place in it revealed principles that were binding on social and political life. This was true because humans were part of nature, and nature, in turn, pervasively exhibited divine purpose in the harmonies of its design. So far as human purposes were legible from nature’s design, they were natural law, part of the world’s fabric. Thus, though natural men were free and equal with regard to one another, they were subordinate to God, the divine legislator, and not at liberty to defy the design that nature expressed. As Locke memorably put it, “nature must be altogether negated before one can claim for oneself absolute liberty” – a course of action that he was not recommending. Instruction in divine design came from rationally contemplating nature, a task that required discipline and effort, since, like precious metals buried underground, the principles of divine law “do not present themselves to idle and listless people.” Therefore, as making nature fruitful required forging a virtue out of Adam’s curse of labor, so learning the duties of natural law itself required people to join the industrious and rational, for whom the world was made. The world taught humanity that they should subdue it with labor to make it bloom, that it belonged to the industrious and rational; but this truth was clear only to those who had labored to discern it.
[The material on exclusion of Native Americans and on settler colonies.]
The settlers of the United States followed Locke in how they described their right to the continent and their duty to develop it. This meant that they gave their continental project a distinctly environmental justification. Other imperial claims to land and jurisdiction relied on Christian conversion and the theory of just war (Spain in Latin America), utilitarian accounts of progress for backward civilizations (the British in India), and the need for humanitarian intervention in violent, rights-abusing societies (the Belgians and others in central Africa). The American claim rested distinctively on an interpretation of the human place in nature, which made clearing and settlement both a right and a duty. Using the continent productively was the basis of the nation’s claim to it in the first place, what legitimated pushing aside its original inhabitants, and the national task Americans had adopted.
This does not exactly mean that Locke’s writings on legitimate government, the origins of property, and natural law should have rested alongside Milton on the rough-hewn mantel of Tocqueville’s archetypal settler. It is true that early Americans were broadly literate, often with a rudimentary sense of law, and frontier settlers, as much as the drafters of the Declaration of Independence, did make Lockean claims to the land. The point, though, is that regardless of whether they read Locke or the many jurists who followed him on these points, Americans developed a public language, a proto-democratic way of talking about the national identity and project, the proper uses of government and duties of citizens, a whole civic vocabulary of praise, exhortation, and reprimand, that rested on the same view of nature that founded Locke’s philosophy. In doing so, they were of course engaged in the practical business of politics: finding phrases and arguments to motivate fellow citizens, align interests conveniently with principles, and deal with the immense, grittily practical, and often bloody work of nation-building. They were also, however, making a philosophical choice. They were aligning the country with a view of nature, and the human place in it, that was one point in a controversial set of debates. Like the broadly Lockean view that entered the public language of the United States, the alternative positions also tied ideas of nature to theories of political and personal freedom. The American engagement with nature grew out of a broader debate on the same themes, one closely connected with some of the most essential issues in politics, value, and knowledge.
A public language will not serve its purpose in a democracy unless it resonates with the experience and identity of everyday people. If they cannot recognize themselves in its phrases, it will have only the abstract clink of official ideology. For this reason, public language about nature interacts with environmental imagination, the ways that citizens perceive and encounter the natural world as they work and play, and how nature fits in their religious, civic, and intimate lives. The choice of public language acknowledged that environmental imagination already fit a broadly Lockean image. It was also, however, a choice to honor and propagate the sort of environmental imagination that fit this image, and to honor less the other ways a person might encounter the living world. Much of the rest of this book is devoted to understanding what these choices entailed, where they placed Americans within the spectrum of environmental imagination available in their time, and what Americans have done since with this legacy of public language and environmental imagination.