March 18, 2010

The American West

Conventionally everyone understands that the American West was a zone of opportunity for the new Republic. Had it not existed the Republic would have had no hinterland to rely on and is unlikely to have turned itself into the greatest Democracy in the world- the arsenal of Democracy- that it later became. That perception may make sense from a historical perspective- but during the American founding the West was a source not of hope but of worry for the original leaders of the United States. John Jay, Supreme Court Justice, diplomat, politician and one of the authors of the Federalist Papers warned his country men in 1787 that 'the Western country will one Day give us trouble- to govern them will not be easy'. Jay's expectations were confirmed when it was proved very difficult for Congress to sell land to appropriate people in the West during the 80s and 90s. Those whom Congress wanted out West were not those who wanted to go. The problems of the West though went far deeper and attacked the very nature of the nascent Republic- we need to understand two in particular in order to understand the way that the West, even at this early date, affected the trajectory of the United States.

The West was not unpeopled before Congress started selling off land. It was populated by Indians and the same dynamic that had worked when Britain controlled America, worked when the Federal Government tried to control the outer reaches of the colonies. The colonists wanted to expand- to go further West and to get more land. The central government though would have to fund the consequences of that- aggression against the Indians repaid with war from the Indians. The consequences would create armies and taxes. Whether in London or Philadelphia, ministers were aware of the need to be gentle but found their subjects obstinately not so. This problem created the need in the 1790s for Washington to form an American army and immediately to make that army march on the Indians- ie to reform it into a body that could fight and win an Indian war. Immediately this created, as Alexander Hamilton and others desired, a continental American imperium rather than a Republic whose ultimate safeguard was the absense of a standing army. It shifted the balance towards the Federal Government and away from the States.

Secondly its worth noting what these Indian wars and colonial expansion created, America annexed chunks of what is now the United States. Again this brought an interesting issue to light and again the way that the state dealt with it created the conditions for America to become Lincoln's and then Roosevelt's America. As Gordon Wood argues, the American solution was ingenious and unique. Rather than creating an empire as the British had done: either through making the new territory subject to the Federal government or subject to the states forever, the Americans opted for a process of transition. Each new area would attain statehood after a certain population had been reached and before then would be governed federally. A couple of things followed naturally: firstly the major winners in the deal were the Western Colonists, but the major losers were the original states. Their power would be diluted by new states. The Federal Government was a winner because its power rose as the territory increased. What we have here is a slow change in the powers of one state or two states relative to all the others- a change introduced by the American's method of dealing with the West.

Jay was right in his analysis to suggest that the West was difficult to govern. The Whisky war of 1794 caused when Washington imposed a tax on Whisky (a commodity that western farmers liked because they could transform produce into alcohol which preserved longer and could therefore be taken East and out to the sea) reminded Americans of that. The decisions that they took, both in the support of the West against the Indians and in the creation of new states threatened in the long term to change the nature of their regime. If the American regime was born out of old Whig ideas, that standing armies meant tyranny, that the states should govern themselves, then the decisions taken in the early republic changed those principles into something new- a durable imperial Republic.