Expansive and exclusive is the paradoxical mentality of the frontier from Trump’s Wall to Offa’s Dyke. Can anybody live on a non-existent border, and how have they done it? Owen Dudley Edwards looks deep into a line of no breadth.
ORIGINS OF DOOMSDAY TRUMP?
Let us take a trip with Trump for a moment, fantasy-land running at full belch, ground rules pinched from TV kids’ programs chief being Trump is perpetual President virtual President if not virtuous President in spite of which he will run for-re-election in 2024 (when you’ve broken one amendment in the US Constitution you’ve broken them all) and so we are in full campaign mode, America is Exceptionally Great except that it was electorally stolen while Trump won it and will be small until Trump is back in the White House spelt with a capital S. Far be it from us to taint Trumpspeak with the faintest twiddle of truth, but there is an intellectual or at least post-intellectual basis for this myth however far beyond Trumpmind. It originates in the Irish Frontier. The Irish Frontier doubtless means nothing to President Trump other than the potential makings of a snob golf course, thus constituting a new Bunker where all is Hitler Heaven, although he denounced Hillary Clinton for going on a goodwill mission to Northern Ireland schools when First Lady thus hazarding the lives of her Secret Service protectors. His ‘nothing’ admittedly holds more than the minds of Messrs Boris Johnson and Michael Gove who won their Brexit referendum by forgetting the Irish Border’s existence while declaiming their right to control it. But the Irish Border merely follows Euclid’s line which has length but no breadth: the Irish Frontier is the real thing, the chart-topper, the Pandora’s box-office whence flew all of our human ailments which Seamus Heaney may yet have undermined by adding Hope.
THE UNINTENDED LYING-IN FOR FRONTIER BIRTH
The United States Frontier naturally reaches its reductio ad absurdum in Trump, the Everything which is Nothing, but in its heyday it was a National Myth of impressive even original substance. While racist the Frontier thesis was also anti-racist, how Hegelian! Its racism imagined itself the explanation of American democracy while eliminating native Americans from consideration in the process, which at least was symbolically accurate in theory since most of them had been eliminated in practice. The anti-racism of frontier theory can best be followed by observation of its gynaecological process. Behold therefore The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore Maryland USA founded in 1875 pioneering where History was to be professionalised via the USA’s first Graduate Seminar in American history over which Professor Herbert Baxter Adams founder and secretary of the American Historical Association presided working from a desk said to have been Carlyle’s and aided by some other furniture once belonging to Frederick the Great. These were no mere souvenirs of American tourism. They affirmed the true Teutonic origins of the United States via Saxon tything-men, Norman constabulary, Vikings up the creek, &c., all antecedents of democracy proving it necessarily Nordic. Baxter Adams had won his doctorate from Heidelberg, started his Hopkins Seminar in 1882, receiving as students in 1883 the 26-year-old Virginia-born and Georgia-trained lawyer Woodrow Wilson and the future racist hagiographer of the Ku Klux Klan Thomas Dixon Jr, who readily accepted the underpinning of their veneration for the old South and its slave-masters by Adams’s diet of Teutonic ancestors. In 1884 the Seminar enrolled Frederick Jackson Turner star graduate of the University of Wisconsin, born in Portage, Wisconsin in 1861. Portage’s motto is ‘Where the North begins’ although its county (Columbia) borders westward on Dane county which housed the Wisconsin State Capital and University at Madison, Wisconsin having been admitted as a state in 1848 when the University was founded. Portage had 603 inhabitants in 1850 and 2879 at Turner’s birth, the newcomers including in 1855 Turner’s father Andrew Jackson Turner born in 1832 in Schuyler Falls (western New York state). As his name implied Andrew Jackson Turner was born in the Presidency of the first President from (bellicose) frontier antecedents and identified with white democracy which Jackson’s enemies called demagogy. Schuyler Falls roars in the extreme north-east of New York state on the USA’s northern frontier, bounded in the north by Quebec, in the east by Vermont, Andrew Jackson Turner almost forced westward when he sought a frontier that beckoned other than south whose immigrants were rapidly swamping New York city. After unsuccessful settlement in Michigan Turner’s father went further and reached little Portage, rapidly becoming editor of its local paper and member of the infant Republican party founded in Wisconsin in 1854, then state assemblyman and Mayor as his son was growing up. Baxter Adams was only eleven years’ older than F. J. Turner but came from Shutesbury, a declining 17th-century foundation in western Massachusetts, bypassed by railroads, while Turner had seen his father become railroad commissioner and railroad booster as Portage held its pivotal place given originally for its river-traffic where the Fox and Wisconsin rivers joined. Baxter Adams and his Southern students were in fact celebrants of democracy seeking to conserve and purify it by abridging it, Adams grimly conscious of the Massachusetts built by his ancestors now falling politically under Irish Catholic control (in Turner’s first year at Hopkins, on 3 January 1885, the first Irish-born Mayor of Boston took office), while Wilson and Dixon abominated the extension of voting rights to freed black slaves and supported white Southern restoration of ‘aristocratic’ rule: Baxter Adams, Wilson and Dixon would have identified their political enemies with corruption.
THE WILDE DRAWING-ROOM FRONTIER
Turner was no friend of either Irish-Americans or African-Americans, but his background gave him a very different idea of democracy from the rationed version preached in the name of history at the Hopkins, however austerely. Nor would he have found patrician pretension in Maryland a welcome substitute for the egaliitarian warmth of Wisconsin. Turner’s first classes at the Hopkins starred Woodrow Wilson’s reading of his paper on Numismatics at Baxter Adams’s request as an example to new students like Turner of how to study the past. In 1890 Turner won his doctorate, having been permitted to do it on trading posts with ‘Indians’, obviously first inspired by the name and nature of his own birthplace Portage. In 1892-93 the World’s Fair or Great Exhibition was to be held in Chicago, so the American Historical Association (still in its infancy under Adams’s secretariat) agreed to an appropriately local lecture by the obviously local Turner who had joined the history faculty at the University of Wisconsin after Johns Hopkins had licensed him to time-travel. In Summer 1893 he delivered his A.H.A. lecture, on the Significance of the Frontier in American History. It proclaimed a national US myth to replace the existing American self-portraits as relocations of Anglo-Saxon attitudes. It would discover Democracy as not only American, but American born. However Eastern sophisticates might seek to have it dismissed as archaic hayseed or slick salesmanship, it had more claim to progress than its critics possessed or wanted. In the same year Oscar Wilde captured the realities in his A Woman of No Importance when an American young lady tries to educate female English aristocrats:
HESTER: we are trying to build up something that will last longer than brick or stone.
LADY HUNSTANTON: What is that, dear? Ah, yes, an Iron Exhibition, is it not, in that place which has the curious name.
HESTER: We are trying to build up life, Lady Hunstanton, on a better, truer, purer basis than life rests on here.
Turner was transferring the pivot of the United States to the west, with its metropolis Chicago as convenient location but with the entire west for its primacy. It was ready enough to transplant and adopt what it saw as worthwhile inheritances from ancient (white) American traditions such as puritanism revived rather than merely invoked. But it was also very much up-to-date whether reflecting western Populism or newly-born environmentalism. It remained vital into the 1920s when Scott Fitzgerald was a witness come from the west to record the demise of the American dream, and Ernest Hemingway searched for new frontiers far beyond American horizons, and was still receiving pious invocations from Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona campaigning for the Presidency as the Republican candidate in 1964.
THE UNIQUE US FRONTIER
Maryland had been a slave state uneasily remaining neutral when the Civil War broke out in 1861; that way after 1865 it retained the Cavalier aura wound around the ghost of the defeated Confederacy without sharing its humiliation of occupancy by northern Federal troops. The wrongs of the white South and its recovery of Southern control would have wagged many tongues in Baltimore: Turner came from a west which had never enjoyed the luxury of rebellion and was despised by the Atlantic coast accordingly. In a brilliant construct he enveloped his thesis in a romantic doom more nostalgic and more scientific than that of the Confederate South: the proclamation by Francis Amasa Walker supervisor of the US Census that as of 1890 the frontier had closed ending the creation phase of American history. It ensured that the only frontier meant by Americans was the western expansion. In vain did Wilbur J. Cash in his fashionable The Mind of the South (1940) speak of ‘the frontier the Yankee made’ whereby anger at post-war Reconstruction had confirmed Southern cultural unity and durability. In vain had American expansionists preached the capture of Canada as a national goal in 1812, in 1844, in 1867 and 1870: the last attempts had been ludicrous Irish-American adventures hoping to swap its conquest with a US-conquered Ireland, the anti-US Canadians easily annihilating the invaders. And in vain had the southwestern frontier with Mexico won Texas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and California for the ravenous USA in 1848. The American frontier was the west, forever moving, remorselessly settled and its original inhabitants slaughtered across three centuries. The frontier’s death-notice by Francis Amasa Walker, and its exhilarating obituary by Frederick Jackson Turner, ended the continuous lines of western expansion, whose huge fragments still continued (Oklahoma was opened up to white settler occupation in 1890, Arizona and New Mexico were not admitted as states until 1912, and Alaska (now the largest state in the USA admitted 1960) became a huge and perilous hunting-ground in the 1890s gold-rush, immortalised in the fiction of Jack London. Trump spins the wheel full circle by announcing that he will enter Alaska’s Republican primary in 2022 to defeat the Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski who courageously voted for finding him guilty at his impeachment trial; whether he will do so by supporting anyone and everyone entered against her, or by resurrecting himself as candidate, remains unknown. Appropriately for his denial of climate change, he may be frozen out.
FREE LAND FOR THE LAND OF THE FREE
‘Up to our own day’ asserted Turner ‘American History had been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.’ This created mental pictures of mutual support and goodwill among the frontiersmen, although it also played a vital — or deathly — part in settler conflict, while common white hostility to the native Americans often bred at least temporary unity.
After his death new research by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKittrick suggested that while the frontier was still in the process of forming, it produced genuine egalitarianism, but about ten years after it had settled into a self-regulating society, infant villages, embryo towns, counties in self-government, elected officials, &c, class had entrenched itself, snobbery began its rule, individualism pushed its way into competition more than collaboration, and the west suffered more and more subjection from capitalist big landowners, railroad tycoons, unscrupulous lawyers, &c. As Rodgers and Hammerstein pointed out in their musical Oklahoma (1943) set in the eponymous state’s territorial days (1890-1906) separate frontier stages warred against one another, satirically celebrated in the musical’s song ‘The Farmer and the Cowboy should be Friends’ where the cowboy resents the farmer’s fencing the wilderness and the farmer accuses the cowboy of sexual freedom with the farmer’s ‘womenfolk’. Oklahoma brilliantly mixed frontier myth and hard-bitten reality; its omissions are also instructive notably that in what had been officially ‘Indian Territory’ up to 1890 there isn’t a native American in the entire show. The musical’s plot even turns on a girl’s quarrel with her young man whose lyrical frontier myths turn out not to be reality, and their reconciliation is complete when he kills an unscrupulous rival who had endangered their lives — the killing being legalised by the chorus, in other words frontier democracy could express itself in lynch law. The cowboy remains the hero, though with the implied Turnerian warning that his day will be short and the idyllism of his existence may be enhanced by homicidal rather than cultural exchanges with his native neighbours. But the frontier myth became the American ethos, affirming that democracy was American-made, product of unique circumstances of free land, making a full-blooded reality of what had reached America as paper-thin European theories. The English scholar Howard Temperley contrasted persistent American election of law-and-order officials such as sheriffs or judges, and western frontier Canadians whose law and order came from the Royal North-west Canadian Mounted Police (‘Mounties’), authority in the USA thus officially coming from the people and in Canada from Queen Victoria. Turner’s great pupil, Marcus Lee Hansen, applied the frontier thesis to European immigrants many of whom also mingled comfortably with frontier whites when they had managed to reach free land while their fellows suffered grim exploitation and social ostracism in Eastern cities. And the fact that the Turner thesis became generally accepted as a national character or myth was in itself testimony to US democracy in strength and depth. The lecture had been to an audience of fellow-historians, sometimes employing startling new vocabulary required by the emerging social sciences, published in the American Historical Association’s learned proceedings and although attractive and sometimes beguiling in style very much the work of an author with no quest for popular appeal. But it took hold of the American imagination from coast to coast as the most satisfying answer to the perpetual American self-interrogation on what the USA was, even if it was very much a child of the 1890s facing the unknown in its note of doom and decadence, almost an invitation to despair about a future without the safety-valve of the frontier which hitherto drained away its misfits and misanthropes to be reborn in the exhilaration of secular evangelism. Imagine England discovering its identity from a lecture to the Royal Historical Society!
THE FRONTIER IN INFANCY AND KINDERGARTEN
Turner’s frontier thesis was most vulnerable in his insistence on its uniqueness, and thus the USA’s exceptionalism. Frontiers creating free land could also apply to many other parts of the globe. We are miserably ignorant of the native American frontiers in their antiquity through millennia. But the Turner frontiersman had also begun centuries before English invaders reached Virginia. It began down the road, on the Anglo-Scottish borders, a deep frontier variously disputed among Romans, Britons speaking Old Welsh, Angles, Danes and Norwegians, and Scots, with incursions from Picts, Irish, and Manx. Donnchadh or Duncan King of Scotland began as Prince of Cumbria, and Mac Bethad or Macbeth who defeated (but did not murder) Duncan in 1040 was himself defeated in 1054 by Sigurd or Siward Jarl of Northumbria, Mael Coilm or Malcolm who overthrew Mac Bethad in 1057 was killed when fighting William Rufus at Alnwick (Northumberland) to be followed by long land-grabbing conflicts alternating in ensuing centuries with endless petty raids and battles amongst local tribes and chieftains. The effect was to make the Anglo-Scottish border a dangerous place for strangers, discouraging invading English or recriminatory Scots, a barrier more to the advantage of Scots rather than English, but when James VI inherited the English throne in 1603 the deep frontier was no longer desirable, and James used self-exile of the former rebel Ulster chieftains in 1607 to have British borderers transferred to Ulster, the king and his London government where possible granting and sub-granting lands from which the native Irish Catholics were now dispossessed. Ulster became a British Protestant frontier having been an Irish Catholic fortress from its Christianization. The Britishness was another myth. James proclaimed himself King of Great Britain a year after becoming James I of England, but the English Parliament rejected constitutional union with the Scots for a century and the title never became fashionable until Scottish nationalism raised its thistle-head in the late twentieth century. Ironically, the only notable rebaptism of territory in Ulster apart from bad translations from Gaelic was the city and county renamed ‘Londonderry’ replacing ‘Doire’ the old pagan homage to sacred oak and the old Christian cult of St Columba. But the newcomers were chiefly transplanted Borderers rather than Cockneys signed off by the London livery companies. Their religion was initially an extreme evangelism which in Ireland was initially low-church episcopalian with little use for bishops (who in any case were Crown appointments sometimes drawing their incomes without even visiting their bishoprics). Fermanagh in south central Ulster stayed like that, with few Presbyterians to this day, but as Presbyterianism took shape in opposition to Royal episcopalism, a majority of Ulster’s Protestant immigrants self-defined as Presbyterians. Whether in the Borders or from Scotland religious power depended on clerical eloquence. Frontier folk rejected ritual and deferred to such sermon-makers as John Knox had been. From December 1688 when Irish Catholics rallied to the cause of the ousted James II and VII, Protestant settlers fled to the larger towns in western Ulster above all Londonderry which sustained a 105-day siege rallying to the preaching of the Reverend George Walker, in fact an episcopalian but an effective inspiration for endangered and starving Presbyterians. The episcopalian Church of Ireland in times of peace demanded its tithes from practitioners of all religions and none, ultimately driving many eighteenth-century Presbyterians to seek new freedom and land in North America, where they found cheap or free land was largely limited to piedmont and hillside particularly in the great Appalachian mountain-chain through central Pennsylvania, western Virginia and the Carolinas, the future states of Kentucky and Tennessee (east) and Alabama (north). What was happening was in fact Turner in reverse. The frontiersman was older than the frontier. The most obvious example was General Andrew Jackson, winner of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 (against UK forces led by an Irish episcopalian general), conqueror of the Floridas from Spain, most popular Presidential candidate from 1824, President from 1829 to 1837, son of Ulster Protestants whose other sons were born in Ireland, proud of his birth in honest poverty in the Carolinas, and wealthy frontier nabob in Nashville, western Tennessee. He was the Trump of his time.
THE ORIGINAL TRUMP
Similarities in character and achievement may be contradicted by reputation. Jackson became a left-wing idol in the twentieth century, credited by liberal historians with a natural love of the people, venerated (for his crudity) with the same embarrassing ecstacies exhibited by Marxists on discovering an articulate member of the working class. Trump elicited similar reactions from the English Right, ready to declare him with the voice of the forgotten man, the tribune of the common people, the benefactor of the poor and despised: with at least three thousand liquid miles dividing them, the English Right was in no danger of having to meet and greet the American forgotten man. (This becomes less paradoxical when we remember how many Right-wing gurus in US and UK started their careers as Marxists.) Both were the oldest President ever when elected, Jackson taking office at 61 which remained older than that of any US President entering office until Dwight Eisenhower became President at 62, then Reagan was 69, beaten by Trump at 70. Both Jackson and Trump were exceptionally self-obsessed in private as well as in public, but Jackson, a military man of little education, seems to have taken pains to ensure his mouth would firmly obey his orders. Once addressing a crowd on St Patrick’s Day he stated ‘my mother often did speak to me about Ireland and the way in which the rich oppressed the poor in that country’: to Irish or Irish-American listeners that meant if you were Catholic that the Irish Protestants oppressed the Irish Catholics, if you were a Presbyterian that the Irish Protestant episcopalians oppressed the Irish Presbyterians, if you were episcopalians that the rich Irish episcopalians oppressed the poor Irish episcopalians, and if you were a rich Irish episcopalians you would not be listening to that speech and probably would not be in America. Before he became President, when people asked his views on contentious public questions he referred them to his speeches in the Senate which were forceful but opaque on his preferences. His more memorable utterances such as ‘The Bank is trying to kill me, but I shall kill it’ when opposing the recharter of the Second Bank of the United States were good rallying-cries while carefully avoiding specifics on subsequent alternative policies. Trump’s mouth is his master, with such memorable results as ‘Nobody has better respect for intelligence than Donald Trump’, but each won valuable mileage as the simple patriot too honest to be intelligent, much as Mr Michael Gove warned his Brexit dupes against experts. Turner assumed that the frontier thesis explained rugged individualism (which Herbert Hoover campaigning for the Presidency in 1928 called ‘the American system’), and Trump hitch-hiked on that, despite originating in no more rugged frontier than American finance.
THIS LAND WAS STOLE BY YOU FROM ME
This land is your land,
It once was my land,
Before we sold you
You pushed our Nations
To the Reservations,
This land was stole by you from me.
— Pete Seegar version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’
Trump became the ultimate frontier fraud, heir to Turner frontiersman. Inevitably the frontier had produced its own frauds in its own time, all the more when selling the west followed its settlement, whether in corrupt deals and legal swindles, or in family entertainment, wild west shows, frontier reminiscences or novels, theatre productions or riveting movies. But how authentic was its Ulster Scots legacy? Superficially it was faithful enough. The Borderers settled in Ulster, fulfilling government profits and political wishes to disperse the native inhabitants, while government favoured its own religious and family protegees, breeding deep frontier-folk suspicion of London and Dublin governments: American frontier domicile refurbished the hostilities covert or open between natives, settlers, colonial and London government later transferred to American state and federal government. For four Irish centuries Norman-English kings and Tudor queens had been presiding sometimes reluctantly over aristocratic adventures with land transferred from chieftains and all other ranks to English magnate ownership, but being aristocratic however recently mobile in England and ruthless in Ireland the new lords became Gaelicised or lost enthusiasm for rich lands needing seemingly endless slaughter. The Ulster plantation from 1607 endured where its predecessors had not, because it moved so many Borderers of all classes from Britain to Ireland. Their Calvinism informed their own consciences, believing they were settling In Ulster and displacing literally damned Papists by the orders and designs of an urgent God of far more importance in their lives than an untrustworthy and half-Papist Stuart king, while the Elizabethan plantation lords, who had devastated and annexed as much of Munster as they could, were the monarch’s greedy courtiers gift-wrapped in the pretty poetry of Edmund Spenser and Walter Raleigh. Borderers inherited a war culture, while their fellow-Calvinists in East Anglia and Devon might have liked resumption of war against Catholic Spain of which the peace-making James I had deprived them. It was religious war in Ulster in 1641 whose report put arms in English Calvinist hands and would cut off King Charles’s head in 1649. The ousted Irish Papists had risen and avenged the theft of their lands sometimes with horrific brutality against the Protestant civilians which naturally increased in the telling. They had acquired effective allies from Spain, some of them second-generation Irish, hardened by the Thirty Years’ War, led by red-haired Owen O’Neill whose victory at Benburb in June 1646 cost Protestant forces 2/3000.
In 1649 Protestant rule and settlement were restored under the iron hands of Oliver Cromwell and his generals, but for the rest of the century the Ulster frontier subsequently sustained itself in perpetual fear of a Papist genocide. Cromwell’s veterans found themselves well paid in land confiscation across the rest of Ireland. Turner’s beguiling phrase ‘free land’ would have been regarded by Puritans and Catholics as a joke in viciously cynical taste if applied to seventeenth-century Ireland. But the Ulster frontiersmen’s land ownership was the abiding perpetuation of mutual hatred, Catholics forced up barren mountains and otherwise reduced to the worst land where they hungered down the generations at the sight of the rich soil which once had been the birthright of their peoples. The gains, hatreds, fears of the frontier folk bred a sense of equality among them against what they saw as the aboriginal Gaelic Catholics, kept warm by a simmering resentment against government unreliability and favouritism. The eighteenth century threw aside Protestant fellowship which had intermittently flourished when fear of Papist insurrection and recapture of former Catholic lands seemed an ugly possibility. The ruling Anglican Church of Ireland (whose most lucrative benefices went to English divines) kept wealth and social control from the Presbyterians as far as possible, partly because they feared the Presbyterians might take over the Church of Ireland as in 1689 they had taken over the Church of Scotland. As the century advanced many Presbyterians despaired of Ireland and made their way to colonial America where many of them found relatively poor land, and were readily mobilised against the native Americans and later against colonial governments and ultimately against George III himself. Their normal hostility to the native Americans seems a natural evolution from their enmity to the native Irish. In both frontiers the Ulster Calvinists urbanised partly from the need to unify in self-defence from the natives, virtual stockades becoming villages and then towns. Free land was often a euphemism for free bloodshed. The frontier as specified by Turner left them behind as the villages took form and grew, but flareups against the natives rekindled in urbanising settings on both sides of the Atlantic. The word ‘boy’ was a Protestant usage in would-be heroic terms, perhaps valorized by the Apprentice Boys who closed the gates of Londonderry against the French and Catholic soldiers seeking to reinstate the Catholic James II and VII. ‘The Protestant Boys’ to the tune of ‘Lilliburlero’ (with much superior lyrics) commemorated the courage and intransigence of ‘the loyal and true’ while making it clear they stood against treacherous kings and venal governors as well as against their Papist neighbours. Over in the USA the most glaring expression of their pre-Revolution death squads were ‘the Paxton Boys’ self-christened from Paxton near Berwick-on-Tweed just inside the Anglo-Scottish Border at its extreme east, emigrants to and later from Ulster, famous for their land-hungry massacre of Christian native Americans in 1763-4 after which they marched on Philadelphia with apparent lethal intent from which they were only stopped by negotiations with the colonial authorities. A quarter-century later ‘the Proud Boys’ led a march on the seat of US government, the Capitol, which President Trump applauded, worked up, and apparently joined for a time.
And, in the words of a 25-year-old Edinburgh Festival Fringe musical ‘THE RETURN OF BURKE AND HARE’, Transplant Surgery is What It’s All About!