Thoughts on the conquest of the American West

Long have I held a deep interest in the history and development of the American nation state – and most particularly, perhaps, the westward expansion to the Pacific during the nineteenth century.  For a number of interesting reasons, the conquest of the American West holds a peculiar and romantic place in our historical lexicon.

I’m just now reading Hampton Sides’ “Blood and Thunder“, a wide-ranging history of the American south-west based loosely around a biography of Kit Carson.  Apart from some florid descriptive language in places, it is most excellent and readable.  Reading it has begged some questions about the American West, perhaps most particularly about native Americans and their relationship with “European” America both then and now.

Mr Sides reports that Colonel John Washington, leading a US Army expedition into Navajo country in 1847, said this of the Navajo: “they must learn to cultivate the earth for an honest livelihood, or be destroyed”.  This was and is a general principle, rightly or wrongly, true of all hunter-gatherer cultures faced with exposure to technically advanced agricultural societies. The subsequent forcing of those hunter-gatherer nomads into a sedentary and agricultural lifestyle would – and did – destroy much of their culture.

It begs deeper questions about hunter-gatherer nomads in general, and about native American cultures as they were in the nineteenth century.  We in “the west” valued and still value the right to own property – yet we questioned the right of entire peoples to hold land undeveloped and wild, as property through which to roam as nomads.  There are those who would argue that inherited wealth and private property are of themselves bad things: I am not among them. Lennon’s “Imagine” I consider to be a childish dirge, not trenchant social comment.

But those same people who argue against inherited wealth would find no problem in arguing that native Americans (and indeed aboriginal peoples elsewhere in the world) should be able to collectively inherit and hold vast tracts of land in order to facilitate nomadic or hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

In the face of the relentless and inexorable westward expansion of the United States, the native Americans could never have held onto their land by any kind of “right”, only by main force – an area in which they could never have hoped to prevail against the Americans for long.

The Navajo, Sides’ writes, had “no concept of individual land ownership or constitutions or the rule of law or the delegation of political authority”. Their traditions were radically different. They had no point of meeting with the American invaders at all.

Who was right? The concepts of private ownership of property, constitution, the rule of law and political authority are what has enabled “the west” (in the  21st century sense meaning a culture that is broadly Anglo-Saxon yet open to others, Judaeo-Christian yet secular, capitalist yet not against other ideas, and fundamentally based in the rule of law) to prosper and grow so far and so fast.

Was the culture of 19th century America “better” culture than the native American cultures that were so casually and brutally destroyed? Are we better men and women than nomadic hunter-gatherers? Are we better than those who eschew the rule of law, private property and constitutional politics? Are we in “the west” culturally superior to they?

As individuals, almost certainly not – as John Steinbeck says – “I think we’re just as bright as the cave-men, and that’s pretty bright in the long run”. But collectively, culturally, in the mass, I do think that “the west” – hypocritical, violent, immoral and amoral, wasteful and destructive, IS morally superior to hunter-gatherer societies. The minute we question that inherent superiority, we have already lost.  Too many of us do question it – it is the “lack of civilisational self-confidence” spoken of by right-wing Canadian journalist Mark Steyn.

Why do I think this? Look at how in the last 150-200 years, the lot of the common person has improved. Look at the lives of those Navajo in the 1840’s, and then at the lives of the common folk in America and Europe in the 1840’s.  Then look again at 1910, and 1960, and today, and marvel at how much better off we are.  Lower infant mortality, fewer deaths in childbirth, more disposble income, more leisure. More hygiene, more health, better diet, better living conditions. All of those improvements come through technological innovation, and that technological innovation is allowed and encouraged because we live in a culture that respects private ownership of property, respect for the rule of law, and constitutional political arrangements.




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