Historian Greg Grandin’s Frontier Thesis and the Ecological Imagination

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, books, African American history, historians

Anthony Chaney is a scholar of American history and culture, and author of Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness, (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

In a terrific essay in The Nation, Yale historian Greg Grandin weaves current controversy over the New York Times’ 1619 Project into pointed restatements of his argument in The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, his 2019 book recently published in paperback.

Historians who’ve criticized the 1619 Project point to unsubstantiated claims and an over-reading of the role of slavery and anti-slavery activism in the construction of American political freedom, especially during the Revolutionary period. Grandin writes largely in support of the 1619 Project, of its general thrust and tone, without directly disputing the specific criticisms. Yet he also implies, in agreement with critics, that the Project’s argument is too narrow.

Slavery alone didn’t deliver the material prosperity upon which American political freedom was founded, and the concept of enslavement alone didn’t define for white Americans what freedom was. In Grandin’s view, the genocidal destruction of indigenous Americans and the dispossession of their lands through continuous western expansion prepared the ground for slavery.  With expansion and dispossession, slavery expanded; the two worked in lockstep. Both constitute “the country’s founding paradox: the promise of political freedom and the reality of racial subjugation” (138).

The procedure Grandin describes is not unfamiliar. Settlers invaded Indian land, triggering hostilities; federal troops were then sent to vindicate the settlers’ freedom to invade. “This dynamic,” he writes, “in which danger caused by the United States going over the line pulled the U.S. over the land, was repeated over and over” (66-67)It was during the Jacksonian era, however–the period of Indian Removal and the Second Middle Passage–when the expansion-slavery nexus crystalized and generated a lasting politics. Grandin calls it the Jacksonian political coalition: “minimal state, the racialization of any welfare-providing bureaucracies, the sanctity of property rights, individualism, and a definition of freedom as freedom from restraint” (106).

Read entire article at Society for U.S. Intellectual History

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