An Intricate Society


March 04, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — WASHINGTON--Unheard amidst the roar of war was a small report from the Census Bureau. It resonates with the largest themes of American history: By 1990 half of all Americans lived in metropolitan areas -- 39 of them -- with populations of one million or more. We have passed a milestone on a journey from what we once were proud of being to what we never wanted to be.

One hundred years ago the superintendent of the 1890 census reported, ''The unsettled areas have been so broken by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.'' Three years after this report of the closing of the frontier, a 31-year-old historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, wrote what still ranks as the most influential essay in American historiography, ''The Significance of the Frontier in American History.''

His thesis, simultaneously inspiriting and unsettling, was that for America, geography had been destiny. The abundance of Western lands explained, he said, the nation's development, moral as well as material. It shaped our democratic values of egalitarianism, individualism, pleasure in physical mobility, confidence in social mobility and faith in the possibility of rebirth through a fresh start out yonder, over the next mountain. In short, optimism.

But it was a peculiar optimism. It made the idea of progress problematic: If the ''unspoiled'' -- by population -- frontier was so fine, what was progress to be?

Turner's thesis was, in part, another declaration of independence, this time from European antecedents. The pedigree of our values, character and institutions ran not east across the Atlantic but west across the Alleghenies and the wide Missouri.

Turner's thesis implied American exceptionalism, a uniqueness and exemption from the rest of the world's woes and vices. It also implied that Americanism was unexportable. However, in the 1890s American energy leaped outward in ''the splendid little war'' with Spain that presaged America's entry into world history.

Turner's theory called into question the Jeffersonian tradition. Jefferson is considered the quintessential American optimist. But he was sanguine about democracy only for societies unlike what we have become.

He said, ''cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens'' and government could be virtuous only ''as long as there shall be vacant lands.'' Urban workers, merchants, financiers (''speculators''), all are sources of corruption when ''piled up upon one another'' in ''pestilential cities,'' which he considered ''sores'' on the body politic.

When the first census was taken in 1790, 90 percent of Americans lived within 100 miles of the Atlantic. But westward was the course of empire for Americans fleeing European, and then East Coast, congestion.

In fact and fiction, Americans came to define freedom as a function of physical space and particularly the West's vastness. Daniel Boone fled west from the sound of axes, Natty Bumppo escaped into the wilderness from ''the temptations of civilized life,'' Huck Finn lit out for the territories where novelist Willa Cather (raised in Red Cloud, Nebraska), experienced ''the inconceivable silence of the plains.''

The problem was -- is -- this. The frontier may be fine for the flowering of ''natural virtue.'' But if freedom is found beyond the sound of a neighbor's ax, then the idea of freedom has no connection with the idea of, or need for, civic virtue.

When freedom is defined in terms of space, what becomes of the idea that man is a political animal, fulfilled in civic life? (Civic, civilization, citizen, city -- these are all words with a common root.) An idea of freedom, and hence of government, formed by the idea of the frontier did not prepare Americans for today's America.

As recently as 1930 only 13 million Americans lived west of the 100th meridian which runs near Dodge City, Kansas. Today, even the West is feeling congested.

In 1893, the year of Turner's essay, a friend who had been a student at Johns Hopkins when Turner studied there -- Woodrow Wilson -- wrote: ''Slowly we shall grow old, compact our people, study the delicate adjustments of an intricate society. . . .''

Rapidly we grow dismayed by the intricacies of our society and the fact that civility is a casualty in America's cities. This could be because we have an attenuated idea of civic responsibilities, an idea unsuited to a compact people.

The latest war has loosed an extraordinarily intense collective feeling from Americans. Clearly this nation, though steeped in the severe individualism of the frontier notion of freedom, has a yearning for the community feeling that comes from collective undertakings. As America passes the milestone that marks the advent of a metropolitan majority, the question is whether any enterprise other than war can tap that yearning.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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