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WagontrainOur friend Brad Birzer’s musings on his trip to the West (God’s country, the home of all good men, etc.) raise some important issues. As someone who still calls the West home, and misses it desperately (even when he is there) I understand how it can breed melancholy. A stunningly beautiful landscape with stunning and usually pleasant weather, sadly, attracts people who prioritize those things above God, family, and other goods that might have kept them at home; small wonder, then, that the West has moved into moral disorder over the last few decades.

On Dr. Birzer’s more important point, the problem of western expansion, I would like to simply encourage him in further beating up on Thomas Jefferson—always a good thing, and particularly appropriate in this instance. It probably was inevitable that Americans would settle the bulk of habitable North America. From their beginnings, Americans have been a restless people perhaps too enamored of adventure and material self-betterment. Our national character is not perfect, but it is a thing we must recognize. However, that this expansion was made far more harmful to America and Americans as well as the peoples who “got in our way,” is beyond question. Old fashioned greed, being a part of our fallen nature, is to be expected, but was made far worse by a combination of racism and power. When our thug-in-chief at the time, Andrew Jackson, decided that peaceful, law-abiding Cherokee, living in European-style settlements, were to be removed with deadly force because their land was too valuable to let them keep, we saw the worst in America come forth. Most westward expansion was far more morally ambiguous than this, with blame and praise earned on both sides, but expansion was almost always made worse by a progressive drive on the part of the government.

Central in making westward expansion damaging to America were two government programs: Jefferson’s land system and the Homestead Act. Jefferson’s system for laying out towns, counties, and other land groupings dispensed with the traditional American concern to found ordered towns, then spread people out to villages and homesteads. From a community-centered way of life, his insistence on large, square blocks of land, nice and even and equal (“just like the French”) isolated families on their farms, destroyed habits of town-building, and resulted in people on the plains going literally insane from loneliness. Our cities, towns, and rural areas all have been immensely impoverished by the rigid uniformity and hostility to natural clustering inherent in Jefferson’s Jacobin land planning.

As to the Homestead Act, the government “gave” people false hope, leading thousands to settle on pitifully small plots of land in areas where soil was thin and weather savage. Many died, more gave up and went back east to factories. And even those who succeeded did so, all too often, by preying upon the week. And, of course, the Act further isolated Americans from one another. Many groups tried to settle together, and many succeeded (the most truly Irish city in America? Butte, Montana). But the Act scattered too many Americans to the winds.

So, Brad, as in so much else, you are right to blame Jefferson, and more generally the progressive programs of the government. Americans were going to spread west, but we need not have lost so much of ourselves (and done so much harm) in the process.

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3 replies to this post
  1. One additional minor point, Bruce. I adored Jefferson as a student (pre graduate school student, that is). I had a wonderful MA advisor, Anne Butler, who made me aware of how intimately and necessarily character is tied to biography. When I praised Jefferson, she began to push me on his moral (immoral and amoral) qualities. While she and I have very different political and economic views, I learned an immense (probably beyond calculation, frankly) amount from her regarding the nature of the human person and that relationship to action and history. I learned this from her and her husband, Jay, in and out of the classroom.

  2. I realize this is an older essay, but I missed it the first time around, and I would like to humbly request more essays on Jefferson. I appreciate the different perspectives on Lincoln afforded and have determined that I can neither love nor hate the man (I simply can’t believe war was the only way), but while I can’t say I adore Jefferson, as an avid vegetable gardener, I can’t see how he was all bad even if eccentric in some unattractive ways. I really long to visit the gardens at Monticello! But if anyone can convince me I ought to dislike him more intensely, it would be you.

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