The Myth of the American Frontier Still Shapes U.S. Racial Divides

By Opal, J. M.; Associate Professor of History and Chair et al. | The Canadian Press, December 20, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Myth of the American Frontier Still Shapes U.S. Racial Divides


Opal, J. M., Associate Professor of History and Chair, History and Classical Studies, University, McGill, The Canadian Press


The myth of the American Frontier still shapes U.S. racial divides

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: J.M. Opal, Associate Professor of History and Chair, History and Classical Studies, McGill University

When Americans study their 19th-century history, they tend to look at its great conflicts, especially the epic clash over slavery. They are less likely to recall its broad areas of agreement.

But what if those agreements are still shaping the present? What if Americans are still coping with their effects? The steep inequalities between white and Black wealth in America, for example, has a lot to do with a 19th-century consensus over public lands.

Land grants from British officials to colonial families date back to the 1600s in North America, but the general idea took on new life with the 1801 presidential election of Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia slave-owner and radical who saw all white men as equally superior to everyone else. To provide them with farms, he purchased Louisiana from Napoleon.

Rights of soil

Jefferson's Democratic party organized the sale of public land in small units on easy credit. When settlers fell behind on payments, Congress gave them more time in repeated Relief Acts during the 1810s and 1820s.

President Andrew Jackson followed in the 1830s by expelling some 70,000 Choctaws, Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws and Seminoles from their farms and villages. White families poured into the stolen ground with their slaves, creating a Cotton Kingdom that quickly spread from Florida to Texas.

By the time the Senate debated the General Pre-Emption Act of 1841, which gave settlers first claim to buy frontier plots at regulated prices, the United States had tens of millions of acres at its disposal. With so much room for everyone but the Indigenous inhabitants, pre-emption had wide support.

The senators did argue over the pre-emption rights of immigrants from Britain or Germany. By a vote of 30-12, however, they decided that European-born settlers had the same claim to the continent as native-born citizens. As Democratic Sen. Thomas Benton put it, all men were equal when it came to "the rights of property."

During this same discussion, a member of the rival Whig Party moved to put the word "white" into the bill so that no Black settlers could make pre-emptions.

This passed 37-1.

In sum, a bipartisan goal of early U.S. foreign and domestic policy was to insure that white families could easily acquire real estate -- then, as now, the major asset for most households. This was never the case for Black Americans, who were seen as a separate and hostile "nation" within the country. …

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