America: Modes of Expansion

The three settlement patterns that emerged in the American colonies in the century or so before independence—New England’s attempt to copy its namesake across the Atlantic, the Tidewater economy of plantations feeding cash crops to Old World markets, and the fusion of immigrant traditions that was giving birth to American frontier society—were anything but fixed. By the time they had finished taking shape, they were already blurring into one another at the edges, and responding in various ways to the new influences brought by further waves of immigration. Still, the patterns are worth watching, because they played a significant role in shaping the modes of expansion that would define its age of empire in a later century.

The New England pattern, as already mentioned, had two sides with profoundly different possibilities for expansion. While many people from rural New England moved westward with the frontier, nearly all of them abandoned the settlement patterns of their home for the freer, more flexible frontier way of doing things; the village greens, town meetings and Puritan attitudes of the New England countryside sparked few imitations elsewhere. The waterwheels and shipyards of New England’s nascent mill towns and cities turned out to be a more enduring contribution, driving the first wave of an industrial revolution parallel to the one that transformed England not long before.

The frontier pattern also had a twofold form, though the dividing line there was different. The classic frontier society of independent subsistence farmers emerged at a time when the inland reaches of the middle colonies had no transportation links to the coast except a few muddy trails, and remained viable only when distance or geographical barriers replicated this condition. Elsewhere, as roads, canals, and (eventually) railroads began to wind their way westward, inland farmers discovered that there was ample money to be made by shipping grain eastwards for local use and export, and plenty of ways to spend that money on manufactured goods shipped west in exchange. That’s why the Appalachians, for example, which remain a challenge to transportation even today, kept the old frontier pattern long after the frontier itself had vanished out of sight over the western horizon, while upstate New York morphed into a prosperous mix of farms and mill towns as soon as the Erie Canal and a network of feeder roads opened it up to efficient freight transport.

In the Ohio River basin, the first of America’s many wild Wests, the industrial system from New England hybridized with the export-oriented reworking of the frontier settlement pattern to create a new and extremely successful human ecology. Along a network of navigable rivers and canals spilling north to the Great Lakes, towns sprang up, and those that had good sites for waterwheels—the prime mover of industry in the days before coal—normally transformed themselves into industrial cities as soon as population permitted. The space in between the towns was given over to small farms, most of them family-owned and operated, which produced nearly all the food needed locally and also raised grains and other bulk products for sale. It turned out to be very easy to extend this hybrid system further west across the northern and central Mississippi basin, and the idea that it could and should be extended straight across the continent ended up freighted with feelings of very nearly religious intensity as the 19th century unfolded.

The two parts of the hybrid—the rising mill towns and industrial centers, on the one hand, and the agricultural hinterlands on the other—had conflicting interests of great importance, but until 1865 both sides had a very good reason to find grounds for compromise. That reason, of course, was the existence of a radically different system of human ecology on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line.

The plantation economy of the Tidewater region, like the economies further north, adapted to changing conditions as westward expansion proceeded. Unlike New England’s rural economy, it could expand: across the southern half of the new nation, wherever climate and geography made it profitable to put large acreages into cash crop monocultures, above all cotton, plantations spread west. They had to spread, because the plantation economy had a critical weakness: like all cash crop monocultures from Roman latifundia to the latest agrobusiness models, Southern plantations stripped fertility from the soil. The equation’s a simple one: growing one crop repeatedly on the same acreage uses up the nutrient base of the soil, and in a farming economy dominated by cash, a farm that invests the money necessary to restore soil fertility will always be less profitable, at least in the short term, than a farm on new soil that concentrates on cutting costs and maximizing profit.

That specific equation is one form of a much more general rule. As providers of raw materials for industry in another nation, the plantations of the South were the business end of a wealth pump; the Southern states may not have been directly ruled by Britain but, economically speaking, they were as much a part of the British Empire as Canada or India. The Southern upper class, like upper classes in Third World nations today, benefited substantially from their role as guardians of the pump’s intake pipe, but the fertility stripped from Southern soils to provide cheap cotton for Lancashire mills still represented wealth pumped out of the Southern states for the benefit of Britain. New lands had to be brought into the system to keep the pump fed without beggaring those who fed it.

The expansion of the plantation system brought it into a complex relationship with the frontier society that moved westward ahead of it. Regions that were unsuited to plantation farming in the South, like regions that were difficult for transportation technologies in the North, became enclaves of the old frontier pattern, and where these were large enough, they became enclaves of support for the Union once the Civil War broke out—the northwestern third of Virginia, which broke away to become the state of West Virginia, and the eastern hill country of Tennessee were strategically important examples. Elsewhere, as plantations spread, the frontier society was absorbed into the plantation system. Some frontier folk rose to the top—Jefferson Davis, US senator and Confederate president, was born in a log cabin in rural Kentucky in 1808, when it was still well out on the frontier, less than a hundred miles from the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born eight months later. (One family went south, the other north; it’s by no means impossible that if the families had chosen differently, the two men might have ended up filling each other’s places.) Most of the others became the poor white not-quite-underclass of the rural South, and provided the South with the bulk of its soldiers in the Civil War, just as their equivalents further north made up a very large fraction of Union soldiers.

The plantation society, then, had to expand in order to survive. The mixed farming society further north was not quite so dependent on expansion, but desired it intensely, and population pressure from a booming birthrate and a steady flood of immigrants backed up that desire with potent economic pressures. While the Mississippi valley was free for the taking, both systems could expand without coming into conflict, but by the late 1840s people on either side were looking westward across the arid west to the Pacific, still distant but too close for comfort. That’s when the national debate over the shape of America’s human ecology—framed south of the Mason-Dixon line as a debate about local autonomy, and north of it as a debate over the ethics of slavery—began to spin out of control.

There were plenty of other issues involved, to be sure. Across the board, on almost every point of national policy that touched on economics, the measures that would support the plantation economy of the South were diametrically opposed to the measures that would support the industrial and farming economies of the North. Trade policy is one good example: to the North, trade barriers and protective tariffs to shelter rising industries from competition by the industrial behemoth of Britain were simple common sense; to the South, free trade was essential so that British markets would remain open to Southern cotton. The endless debates over Federal funding for canals and other internal improvements is another: investments that were essential to the expansion of the Northern economy were useless to the plantation system—which is why it was the North that wove a web of canals and railroads from the Hudson River to the upper Mississippi, while the South built few railways and fewer canals, and relied instead on shallow-draft riverboats that were adequate for getting cotton to market but for very little else, an economy that would cost the South terribly once war came.

Still, the issue that couldn’t be resolved short of war was the future shape of America’s territorial expansion. That’s why Southern leaders, for all their belief in the virtues of local autonomy, bitterly opposed any compromise that would give the people of each newly settled territory the right to decide whether or not slavery would exist within that territory. That’s why the South backed the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico so fervently in 1844 and 1845, and why so many Southerners in the decades before the Civil War supported the Order of the Golden Circle, a society that advocated the outright military conquest of Mexico, Central America, northern South America and the islands of the Caribbean, so that the plantation economy would have ample room to expand. Meanwhile, north of the cotton belt, younger sons of farmers looked hungrily westwards at the Great Plains and imagined farms of their own, if only slavery could be kept out—and that, in turn, is what made “Bleeding Kansas” the scene of a decade of terrorism and guerrilla war between pro- and antislavery factions, and lit the fuse that finally went off at Fort Sumter.

By the time the war ended at Appomattox Court House four lean and bloody years later, four points had been settled for the foreseeable future. The first was that victory in the wars of the next century would be determined not by which side had the best generals—the South had them, hands down—but by which side had a bigger industrial base, a larger population, and a greater willingness to chuck the traditional rules of war and treat enemy civilians as a military target. The second point was that if wealth was going to be pumped out of the South, and of course it was, it was going to benefit the United States—more precisely, the industrial states of the North—rather than England or any other foreign power.

The third point was that the United States had become a major military power, capable of fighting and funding both sides of one of the 19th century’s biggest wars, and potentially capable of intervening in the affairs of Europe if it came to that. Every major European power had military attachés prowling the battlefields of the Civil War, and this was partly because that uncomfortable reality was beginning to dawn on politicians in Europe’s capitals. Partly, though, it was because the technological advances of the 19th century had as dramatic an impact on the battlefield as elsewhere, and the Civil War provided a disquieting glimpse of how repeating rifles, improved cannon, ironclad ships, and rail transport could transform warfare. Most of them drew exactly the wrong conclusions—a point we’ll discuss in some detail later on in this series of posts—but the fact that they were there points up the extent to which America, a backwater in world affairs fifty years previously, had become much less so by 1860.

The fourth point, though, was the most crucial for the theme we’re exploring here. The end of the war was also the end of the debate over the mode of American expansion. The plantation economy wasn’t abolished—textile mills in the North depended on Southern cotton just as much as mills in the English Midlands did—but the door was slammed on its hopes of expansion as a series of Homestead Acts threw open the Great Plains to the family-farm model of the Northern economy. Questions of public policy that had been central to prewar debates—trade policy, internal improvements, and the rest—were settled for the rest of the century to the North’s satisfaction. The wealth pump kicked back into gear without the safety valve of new lands, and the South’s relative prosperity in the prewar era gave way to a regional depression that didn’t end until after the Second World War. Meanwhile, protected by tariffs and trade barriers, supported by federal investments in railroads and the like, and buoyed by the wealth pump, the Northern economy boomed.

The settlement of the rest of the continent followed promptly, and it followed the Northern pattern. The military technologies that had broken the South were turned on those First Nations that still defended their tribal territories, with even more devastating effect. European military attachés—yes, they were still prowling around during the Indian Wars; the United States was a continuing object of interest to all the major European powers throughout the 19th century—wrote admiringly that the Plains tribes were the finest light cavalry in all of history, but they were still unable to hold their own against repeating rifles, Gatling guns, and a systematic campaign of extermination directed against the buffalo that provided the bulk of their food. As the tribes were driven onto tiny, barren reservations, white settlers streamed onto their land, laying out the same pattern of towns and farms that had succeeded so well further east. It would not succeed anything like so well on the plains, and further west it would not succeed at all, but the first signs of its failure went utterly unnoticed for many decades.

Still, in the age of the railroad, the West simply wasn’t that big any longer, and the shores of the Pacific put a hard limit in the way of further territorial expansion. During the heady days of the 1840s, when it was still possible to forget the cost of war, American politicians seriously debated the invasion and conquest of all of Mexico—they settled for half—and during the Oregon Territory controversy of the same decade, a substantial faction had demanded the seizure of what’s now the southern half of Canada’s four westernmost provinces, even if it meant war with Britain. Cooler heads prevailed in each of these debates, and by the last decades of the 19th century, nobody was seriously suggesting either option: Britain by then had far and away the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced military, and the idea of absorbing the rest of Mexico into an expanded United States ran headlong into a pervasive racism that would not have tolerated the idea of millions of Mexicans suddenly becoming American citizens.

The modes of expansion that defined 19th century America thus ended before the century did, and that hard fact ultimately launched America into its age of overseas empire. We’ll discuss that next week.


Those of my readers who might happen find themselves within reach of rural Pennsylvania over Memorial Day weekend this year might be interested to hear of a conference then and there that will discuss many of the themes I’ve been covering in this blog over the last half dozen years. Its name? The Age of Limits. I’ll be there, and presenting; so will Carolyn Baker, Dmitry Orlov, Gail Tverberg, and Tom Whipple, just to name the big name speakers. It’s intended for those who have grasped the fact that the age of abundance is ending, and want to discuss what can still be done as industrial society unravels. It should be a worthwhile time; I hope to see some of you there. Check out for the details.

End of the World of the Week #13

One of the embarrassments of history, at least for anyone who believes in the ability of human beings to learn from their mistakes, is the way that the same bad ideas keep on being rehashed under new labels every few decades. The so-called “Law of Attraction” marketed so vigorously a decade ago in a variety of New Age products—basically, the claim that if you want something bad enough, the universe is obligated to give it to you—is a case in point. The previous time it was new and hot was in the 1920s, and it helped feed the clueless optimism that drove the stock market bubble that crashed so disastrously in 1929; it became new and hot again during the last decade, and helped feed the same clueless optimism that drove the real estate bubble that crashed so disastrously in 2008.

Apocalyptic thought is well supplied with similar examples. One of them is the notion, very popular for centuries, that the Book of Genesis could be used as a template for the history of the world. Genesis describes the process of creation as taking six days, with a day of rest to follow; 2 Peter 3:8 states that a day of the Lord is as a thousand years; equate the Millennium, the thousand years of Utopia that’s supposed to follow the Second Coming, with the thousand-year day of rest at the end of the week of creation, and you’ve got a world history six thousand years long. Figure out the location of the present year in that six-millennia sequence, and you know the date of the Second Coming.

Of course that’s the difficult part, and for something like fifteen hundred years, prophets imitated Harold Camping by coming up with dates for the apocalypse, on that basis that rolled on past without any noticeable result. The apocalyptic frenzy around the year 1000 AD was driven by exactly this calculation; any number of prophets had insisted that the birth of Christ marked the beginning of the sixth day, so the end was clearly nigh. When it didn’t arrive, other prophets decided that the Crucifixion was the beginning of the sixth day, and predicted 1033 AD as the big date; they were just as wrong, of course, but it didn’t keep others from trying the same thing later on.

It’s not often remembered that Archbishop James Ussher, who notoriously calculated the date of the Creation using the Bible as his guide, was still working under the Book of Genesis paradigm. His date of 4004 BC for the beginning of the world implies that 1996, exactly 6000 years later, would mark the Second Coming. Those interested in exact dates will probably want to know that God said "Let there be light" at 9:00 am on October 23, 4004, so the end certainly should have arrived at the same date and time in 1996. That it didn’t can probably be credited to the essential cussedness of things.

—story from Apocalypse Not