Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture

By Elizabeth Fenton | Go to book overview

2
Pleas for Democracy: Federalism,
Expansionism, and Nativism

When Frederick Jackson Turner first articulated his frontier thesis in 1893, he illustrated early U.S. concern over the future of western North America with a passage from Lyman Beecher’s 1835 polemic A Plea for the West. Treating Beecher’s Plea as one of the “most effective efforts of the East to regulate the frontier,” Turner cites the reverend’s warning that although it might appear to bear the promise of liberty and prosperity, the nation’s territorial edge is in fact most vulnerable to despotism and ruin: “A nation is being ‘born in a day.” Beecher reads within Turner’s text,

But what will become of the West if her prosperity rushes up to such a maj-
esty of power, while those great institutions linger which are necessary to
form the mind and the conscience and the heart of that vast world. It must
not be permitted …. Let no man of the East quiet himself and dream of
liberty, whatever may become of the West …. Her destiny is our destiny.1

Beecher’s Plea was an apt choice for Turner, whose own thesis held that the frontier could no longer absorb the pressures of national discord. “The democracy born of free land,” he explains, “strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as

-37-

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