Postcards From the Frontier: Unmovable American Images

When a reporter for the German magazine Stern glimpses in Barack Obama “the ancient American tale of one single hero in the fight against the system,” or when an Arab poll respondent says he despises predatory U.S. leaders but admires ordinary Americans, both are drawing from a stock of archetypal images that dates back two centuries. The American Revolution might have cut ties with the British Empire, but it did not rid the U.S. of any number of opinionated foreigners. Even those few Old Worlders who came to compliment the civilization of the New, as Lafayette did on his triumphant return to American shores in 1825, felt themselves able to remark mainly on the relative, rather than absolute, qualities of the new nation: the republic had shown, George Washington’s old comrade noted, “progress” since he had last seen it—there had been “wonders of creation and improvement.”

More common were the scolders and scandalized of Europe’s elite. Shocked at the determination of her fellow travelers to cram more baggage on her coach than it could decently carry, a visiting Frances Trollope protested, “No law, sir, can permit such conduct as this.” She elicited the loud reaction of backwoods laissez-faire: “We makes our own laws, and governs our own selves . . . this is a free country, we have no laws here, and we don’t want no foreign power to tyrannize over us.” Mrs. Trollope thought the association of law with tyranny revealing, even if it came from men who had “evidently been drinking more than an [sic] usual portion of whiskey.” It suggested a bias on behalf of convenience as against custom, lawlessness transformed into freedom. And it typified the ways in which Americans drew distinctions between themselves and Europe.

From such collisions, a uniquely American character began to emerge. Or, rather, an entire cast of American characters—images and archetypes that distinguished, and continue to distinguish, the new world from the old. Try as we may to control our image with public diplomacy campaigns, we still see ourselves as others see us, in portraits drawn from long-ago encounters.

The earliest such profiles came from New Englanders like Royall Tyler, whose 1787 play, The Contrast, employed as comic fodder a character who was already an established type: the Yankee Jonathan, whose “indelicacy of diction” and innocence of custom drew the mockery of his more civilized contemporaries. His homely virtues, plus his propensity to sing “Yankee Doodle” (of which he knew an absurdly large number of verses), made him an audience favorite. Jonathan outlasted Tyler’s successful play, grew lankier and wilier, and soon became a staple of American comic theater. He might be a soldier or a sailor. He might be a peddler who delighted in getting the best of every trade. If he left his customers short of cash, he also left them charmed and entertained. In time, Jonathan acquired a blue-spangled coat and red-striped trousers, and with his lean New England features, the Yankee became the personification of the nation, known as Brother Jonathan or Uncle Sam.

If Uncle Sam emerged from the friction between New England and Old, his popular counterpart was a creation of the gap between two Americas, East and West. At the frontier arose an American figure even more novel, distinct, and assertive than the Yankee: the American backwoodsman. The Yankee had sharper edges than the Englishman, but he still had dealings with the world of commerce and accounting; strip away those refinements and you begin to see the outlines of the backwoodsman. He grew from real roots, from the biographies of Daniel Boone, the Kentuckian keen on seizing more elbow room wherever he could get it, and David Crockett, the Tennessean who fought Indians under the command of Andrew Jackson, served in Congress, and died expanding the South into the West at the Alamo. Although these men were rough-hewn enough in reality, their stories quickly spilled over into the realm of mythology. Tale-tellers turned Crockett into a demi-god who could ride alligators or lightning as he chose, master rivers and tornadoes and even keep the sun moving along its path. Above all, he and his fellow frontiersmen were genial and casual killers; whereas old-world tall-talers were often poltroons, their new-world descendants moved swiftly to violence. They killed readily because they killed so often to protect and expand American settlements. It was their purpose. When Crockett died, one admirer lamented that he could hear “a great rejoicin’ among the bears . . . and the alligators. . . . The rattlesnakes come out of thar holes and frolic within ten foot of the clearings, and the foxes goes to sleep in the goosepens. It is bekos the rifle of Crockett is silent forever . . .”

The Yankee and the backwoodsman accounted for the North and the West; that left the South, from which the comic figure of the minstrel emerged to cheer Americans and delight foreigners. The oppressed African laborer had long been a sentimental figure on the stage, groaning under the burden of his lot, but sometime in the early nineteenth century a white man, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, came up with the idea that black people enjoyed their hardship—or if they did not quite enjoy it, they bore it so cheerfully as to make no real difference. From a black stable hand, Rice borrowed a work-song that included the chorus phrase, “Jump Jim Crow.” So long as he was borrowing, Rice also took a blue tailcoat and striped trousers from Uncle Sam and presented the cheerful black man as an official representation of the American character. The minstrel did his work competently, sang, chased women, and endured his bondage with a smile. Within a few years, Rice brought Jim Crow to the New York stage and then to London, where the blacked-up white man took root in British culture as a type to rival the Yankee.

The minstrel’s joy might endure limits, but it continued nevertheless. Lie though it was, this image stayed in the minds of white people both within the United States and overseas. It eventually escaped the boundaries of race, contributing to a picture that showed Americans of all colors and creeds cheerfully pursuing their appetites even when oppressed. The minstrel type functioned not only to excuse slavery, but also to allow America’s white population to wear the mask of oppression. The backwoodsman showed Americans as independent and resourceful. The Yankee portrayed them as capable and determined. The minstrel gave the world a picture of Americans as sympathetic victims.

As the essayist Constance Rourke noted in 1931, when she first distilled these portraits from a survey of nineteenth-century articles, plays, and pamphlets, each American type stayed distinct from the others. Just as the regions from which they hailed could not quite combine into a nation, neither could the archetypes blend into a single national character. Instead, each would be tapped to justify different, and usually irreconcilable, visions of the American mission.

The backwoodsman, having emerged from Indian-fighting, readily served the cause of furthering the frontier, and proponents of westward expansion easily enlisted him in the grandiose rhetoric of Manifest Destiny. A people whose heroes could ride the lightning would not be stopped by a river or a chain of mountains. One could hear clear echoes of Davy Crockett when the journalist John L. O’Sullivan declared that the American people were “the great nation of futurity,” claiming for themselves a “magnificent domain of space and time . . . destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles . . . Its floor shall be a hemisphere—its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens. . . .”

But would the backwoodsman press westward in the name of the commercial North or the slaveholding South? Which is to say, would it be the Yankee or the minstrel who accompanied him into the West? The 1846 war on Mexico struck a number of Yankees as being the product of an unholy connivance between the minstrel and the backwoodsman. James K. Polk, sometimes styled “Little Hickory” after Crockett’s onetime commander Jackson, picked a fight with the nation’s southern neighbor, allegedly to ensure the spread of slavery. In response, New Englanders deployed the Yankee as a voice of dissent. The poet James Russell Lowell created the persona of Hosea Biglow, who in Yankee dialect railed against “the overreachin’ o’ them nigger-drivin’ states” and insisted, “ez fer war, I call it murder.”

If the Mexican annexation shackled the hapless minstrel to the aggressive backwoodsman, the war to preserve the Union seemed to meld Yankee plainspokenness and frontier killing, most famously in the matter-of-fact voices of Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. The grim humor of the backwoods underlay the violence the two suffered, perpetrated, and eventually narrated. In his memoirs, Sherman related Lincoln’s visit to his command early in the war, highlighting the story of an officer who complained, “‘Mr. President, I have a cause of grievance. This morning I went to speak to Colonel Sherman, and he threatened to shoot me.’ Mr. Lincoln, who was still standing, said, ‘Threatened to shoot you?’ ‘Yes, sir, he threatened to shoot me.’ Mr. Lincoln looked at him, then at me, and stooping his tall, spare form toward the officer, said to him in a loud stage-whisper, easily heard for some yards around: ‘Well, if I were you, and he threatened to shoot, I would not trust him, for I believe he would do it.’ The officer turned about and disappeared, and the men laughed at him.” As the critic Edmund Wilson later wrote, this was a “characteristic note” in Sherman—“a certain amount of comedy” despite the impending doom. Here, the flat voice is the Yankee’s, the casual approach to violence the frontiersman’s; together they promised what later came: a war that was all hell.

With the end of slavery seemed to come the Yankee’s triumph over both the South and the West. The armies of the Union triumphed through the application of numbers and mechanical might, puncturing once and for all the mythology of western individualism. The commercial system of the North overspread the West, as banking credit drove the telegraphs and railroads into the new territories. And at around this time, the stories Americans told about themselves shifted ever so slightly: now the braggarts of the West, the Mike Finks and Davy Crocketts who had made the error of aiding the slave power, were getting beaten by little Yankee figures whose acquisitiveness and westward drive stopped for no one.

Yet the war did not do what it might have to give the nation a cohesive image of itself. Lincoln’s highest flights of rhetoric, later chiseled on the marble walls of a classical temple in the nation’s capital, created the language for speaking of a nation given organic life, “conceived in liberty” and “brought forth on this continent.” It was great poetry, but it didn’t take. The regions remained distinct in their vernacular and in their values. And a strange thing happened to the American trio: the Civil War should have seen the Yankee triumphant for good and the minstrel retired; the settlement of the West should have doomed the frontiersman. But the terms of reconciliation in the late nineteenth century demanded that white Northerners not insist on their moral superiority and, instead, acknowledge the heroism of the South. So Jim Crow thrived. The frontiersman was revived. And the Yankee began to fade.

In the decades after the Civil War, foreign influences exacerbated the divisions between America’s regions. Overseas capital flowed through the investment banks of Wall Street and into the western frontier. British banks backed American railroads and ranches, betting on profits to be reaped from the West. These foreign loans, so readily extended in boom times, aroused the hopes of would-be frontiersmen who then turned surly as boom gave way to bust. By the 1890s, Americans in the once-unsettled lands could no longer claim to ride lightning; instead they chafed under the burden of foreign debt. Protest movements arose to denounce the influence of finely tailored Europeans seeking to rob America of its independence. The protesters also took aim at the competence and loyalty of the Yankee. “The money lenders of America, who are advocating our present financial laws, are the soldiers of England on the soil of the United States,” wrote the best-selling William Hope Harvey in 1899.

The great, gentle satire of the period deployed the three American archetypes together for a final outing in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—L. Frank Baum’s use of the self-deprecatory Yankee (the Scarecrow), the violent backwoodsman (the Tin Man), and the cheerful burden bearer whose minstrel-mask belies his competence (the Cowardly Lion), resonated with Americans then and afterward. But, echoing the temper of the time—Baum wrote the book even as Harvey was circulating his anti-banker screeds and William Jennings Bryan was readying his second run at the presidency—the Yankee is divorced from his commercial origins. The Scarecrow has the Yankee’s gangly intelligence, but he is a farmer, not a trader. The money power—the Emerald City—is run by a fraud of a Wizard. The old Yankee archetype had fractured, and the sharp bargainer and peddler was on his way out of American mythology.

It’s hard to say just when the Yankee made his last appearance on behalf of the Republic. Although political circumstances made him heir to the Bryanite suspicion of money power, Franklin Roosevelt otherwise inhabited the Yankee persona completely, employing aw-shucks modesty and storytelling to conceal his talent for sharp dealing. And as late as 1962, when Robert Frost went on a semi-official visit to the Soviet Union and began reciting “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” to the men who had driven barbed wire and concrete down the middle of Berlin, the American government deployed a dry Yankee wit to stand in its place.

Not long afterward, the last great group of Yankee foreign policy makers foundered on the rocks of Vietnam. Ironically, as David Halberstam pointed out, the Yankee heirs to a tradition of deal-cutting and negotiation mistook themselves for backwoodsmen, called upon to show “strength and toughness” to the last. The historian Robert Dean argues that this generation of American foreign policy makers, nearly all of them members of the Eastern establishment, strove mightily to fit the frontier archetype—to their detriment and the country’s.

This, however, did nothing to break the spell of the backwoodsman, from the Reagan years to the present. George W. Bush faithfully invoked the spirit when he said American soldiers would catch Osama bin Laden if they had to “smoke him out”: “I want him, hell, I want justice and there’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said ‘Wanted Dead or Alive.’” Beyond the White House, Americans still enjoy their frontier myths. Coming soon to a theater near you: with his bullwhip and pistol, Indiana Jones defies international treaties on the disposition of cultural artifacts, bests native populations, and takes their sacred articles (for their own good; they don’t even know how to use them). As the film scholar Eric Lichtenfeld notes, the descendants of the backwoodsman now represent America to the world: in action movies, the casually violent, boastful hero stands in for the whole country—“Arnold Schwarzenegger is the War on Terror,” as an ad campaign for one of the now-governor’s movies claimed—and rakes in more box office overseas than at home.

At the same time, the Pew Global Attitudes surveys and other studies of anti-Americanism tend to show that throughout the developing world, despite disapproval of U.S. foreign policy, citizens of other countries genuinely like and admire Americans, seeing them as hardworking, innocent of, and even themselves oppressed by, U.S policies. Not surprisingly, then, the minstrel still makes the occasional appearance overseas. Sometimes the image applies even to American leaders. Whether Bill Clinton was a “black president” and a victim of “persecution,” as Toni Morrison alleged, Clinton endured gamely and publicly a set of indignities, which, in turn, boosted his popularity abroad. As the cultural critic Greil Marcus noted recently, the persecution of Clinton made him a “great minstrel” and a sympathetic figure, suffering what one writer in a Spanish newspaper called an “inquisitorial persecution.”

In this era of backwoodsmen and minstrels, the Yankee’s great-grandchildren still quietly endure—the nation’s financial markets and corporate boardrooms are full of them. But we no longer see in their skills evidence of the American character, which we have become so accustomed to describing in martial terms that our CEOs and their employees support a sizable niche market of books telling them they’re warriors, really, and not merchants at all. That is too bad, particularly in an era where the United States could use more canny negotiators and fewer warriors, at least if it wishes to show it has something better than a protection racket to offer its neighbors—all of whom have discovered the pleasures of doing business with the Chinese and the Europeans. That would take an American self-image as sharp dealer, a peddler with the best of the world’s products at his disposal, a smooth talker who’s able to take you for everything you’re worth and leave you happy: a Yankee come home.

Eric Rauchway is professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America.

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