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The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History

The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History: Volume 2: Continental America, 1800-1867

Copyright Date: 1993
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 656
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  • Book Info
    The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History
    Book Description:

    WhenVolume 1of Donald Meinig's sweeping history of America was published, reviewers called it "a masterpiece in the best and old sense of the word" (Alfred W. Crosby,Southwestern Historical Quarterly), "a standard work in its field" (William Cronon,New York Times Book Review), and "one of the classic amalgamations of geography and history in the current literature" (Kenneth C. Martis,Journal of American History). In this new volume, the second in a projected four-volume series, D. W. Meinig again provides a fresh interpretation of the American past, bringing his special geographical perspective to the years between 1800 and 1867, the period when the nation experienced a dramatic expansion in territory, population, economy, and political tension that culminated in the Civil War. As in his first volume,Atlantic America,Meinig assesses the characteristics of regions and political territories and the relations among them, examining the dual roles played by geopolitics and ethnoculture in the shaping of the United States.Meinig emphasizes the flux, uncertainty, and unpredictability of the expansion into continental America, showing how a multitude of individuals confronted complex and problematic issues. He discusses, for example, Jefferson's options regarding the Louisiana Purchase and the effects of his decisions on the Louisianians, and later controversies about U.S. pressures on Mexico and Cuba. He carefully traces the expansion of distinct regional societies and the social and geographical repositioning of various peoples (Indians, African-Americans, and subgroups of each). He describes and assesses the emerging patterns of cities, waterways, roads, railways, and attempts at national planning. And he presents the geopolitical alternatives considered in dealing with initial secessions, and the ragged tearing apart of the nation in 1861. Throughout, Meinig places the United States in its broader North American context, focusing on its relations with Canada, Mexico, and the West Indies.Richly illustrated with maps, plans, and scenes, many of which were specially prepared for the book,Continental Americais at once an invaluable complement to and a penetrating critique of more ordinary American histories.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17252-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. x-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    D. W. Meinig
    (pp. xvii-xx)

    • Prologue
      (pp. 3-4)

      The United States began in a spacious frame—the world’s largest republic, obviously rich in potential if as yet modest in development. And just twenty years after its formal independence, it was, at a single stroke,doubledin area. During the next fifty years an even greater expanse of territory was added so that by midcentury the United States was more thanthree timesits original size.

      The creation of the outer framework of the Republic is a geographic topic worthy of close analysis and speculative reflection. However “natural” and matter-of-fact this broad, compact, almost symmetrical transcontinental belt of territory...

    • 1. Doubling the National Territory: Louisiana
      (pp. 4-23)

      In 1800 the United States was one of the world’s largest states. Extending broadly inland from the Atlantic, spanning the Appalachians and fronting upon nearly the entire length of the Mississippi, its boundaries (as yet uncertain in some sectors) encompassed about 900,000 square miles (fig. 1). Few Old World empires exceeded it in size; no single nation or kingdom rivaled its extent. In simplest geographic terms, apparent to all at the time, it was a country divided into two grand parts: east and west, seaboard and interior, old and new. The American people were eagerly expanding into the newly opened...

    • 2. Pressures on the Borders: Southward
      (pp. 23-41)

      The Louisiana Purchase gave the United States its first territorial frontage on the Gulf of Mexico. Narrow at first, little wider than the Mississippi, it was a position immediately broadened in claim and soon made broader still in common readings of its geopolitical implications.

      With the extension of the country’s borders to this tropical sea, a whole circuit of coasts—Florida, Cuba, Yucatán, Mexico, Texas—suddenly took on new meaning for Americans, and before long such places were being declared to be of compelling national interest. For the Gulf of Mexico was an inner compartment, “a Mediterranean with two outlets,”...

    • 3. Pressures on the Borders: Northward
      (pp. 41-58)

      In 1800 the boundary between the United States and British North America extended halfway across the continent. It was a varied and indirect line, traced most of the way along rivers and watersheds and broad looping bi-sections of the Great Lakes for more than 2,700 miles between the Bay of Fundy and Lake of the Woods. And it was an uncertain line in several sectors, for complications arising from inaccurate maps and ambiguous identity of streams in treaty definitions had yet to be resolved. More important for our purposes was the varied human geography of this elongated zone and the...

    • 4. The Reach Westward: To circa 1830
      (pp. 58-77)

      When Thomas Jefferson made his wonderful announcement of the Louisiana Purchase on the Fourth of July, 1803, neither he nor anyone else knew just what had been obtained. None of the parties involved—least of all the Americans—knew of its bounds or much about its character. Uncertainty over its extent was not just because of inevitable disputes as to where such lines should be drawn but because no one had a map of the features relevant to their placement. Europeans had been vigorously probing, measuring, and appraising their New World for more than 300 years, but a large portion...

    • 5. Shoving the Indians Out of the Way
      (pp. 78-103)

      Thomas Jefferson, in a letter accepting congratulations on the Louisiana Purchase, emphasized that this wonderful addition to the Republic (“not inferior to the old in soil, climate, productions & important communications”) could become “the means of tempting all our Indians on the East side of the Mississippi to remove to the West.” Suddenly, quite unexpectedly, there appeared to be a way out of a vexing national problem.

      Like his predecessors, the third president of the United States had been struggling to formulate an effective Indian policy. On that topic, American leaders were confronted with a deep dilemma: how to have “expansion...

    • 6. Assertion and Division: Oregon and the Northern Boundary
      (pp. 103-128)

      In 1830 an eighty-page booklet entitledA Geographical Sketch of that Part of North America Called Oregonappeared in Boston bookshops. As the title might suggest, it dealt with an area uncertain in name or nature to Americans. The booklet was a propaganda tract by Hall Jackson Kelley, a Massachusetts schoolman who had become obsessed with the topic of Oregon. Its descriptions were crafted for use in fervent discussions and agitations, and it helped confirm that name as well as assert American claims to the Northwest Coast.

      The wordOregonwas of obscure, apparently Indian, origin. Although it had appeared...

    • 7. Annexation and Conquest: Texas and the Hispanic Borderlands
      (pp. 128-158)

      Just five years after the Adams-Onís Treaty had defined a boundary all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, the United States of America found itself facing a new geopolitical entity along the entire length of that line, a state modeled to some degree in name and concept on itself: the United States of Mexico. There ensued a new era in American international relations and in the contact and confrontation of Anglo-Americans and Hispanic-Americans in several regions. When the first phase of that era ended thirty years later, the boundary line and the political relations between...

    • 8. Spanning a Continent—and Ocean
      (pp. 158-170)

      On July 6, 1848, James K. Polk, presenting copies of the ratified Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to Congress and the nation, noted with obvious satisfaction that “New Mexico and Upper California . . . constitute of themselves a country large enough for a great empire, and their acquisition is second only in importance to that of Louisiana in 1803.” Including Texas, the cessions from Mexico were equal in size to Louisiana, and their 918,000 square miles added to the 287,000 of Oregon meant that the United States had been enlarged by more than 1.2 million square miles; the country had...

    • 9. Empire: The Geopolitical Management of Captive Peoples
      (pp. 170-196)

      By the 1850s the evidence of empire was widely apparent in many forms. Although the United States had asserted its sovereignty broadly across the continent, half of its territory was as yet unorganized and most of those lands were as yet unceded by indigenous peoples. Much of that half of the country had been recently acquired, but the imperial character was also still discernible in lands held for half a century, as in French Louisiana and the northern Great Plains. Indeed, much of the plains as well as large areas of the newer territories remained unsecured dangerous country wherein Anglo-Americans...

    • 10. Continentalism: Objectives, Modes, Visions
      (pp. 197-218)

      The expansion of the United States across the North American continent—prodigious in scale though it was—was not really surprising. After all, the nation was an outgrowth of a vigorously expanding Europe, and it had been fitted out at its birth with even more effective tools for rapid advance. By 1800 the spread of the American people westward into their half of the Mississippi Valley was obviously a powerful movement that the Indians could not stem and the central government could not manage. So, too, the extension of the sovereign limits of the United States beyond their original bounds...


    • Prologue
      (pp. 221-222)

      We turn our attention inward: to the formation of a genuinely continental America lodged as firmly and fully in the Mississippi Valley as on the Atlantic Seaboard—and ignore, for the time being, the distant and barely attached Far West beyond the Great Prairies. Our concern is with regional and national formations.

      It is not easy to prepare a coherent picture and general assessment of one of the most rapid, prodigious, and portentous set of geographic developments in modern world history. Given the complexities of the topic, we can offer no more than a relatively simple sketch, but drawing from...

    • 1. Filling in the Framework: Migration Westward
      (pp. 222-236)

      While warriors and statesmen were creating a spacious frame for the American republic and empire the dominant body of the American people was rapidly expanding in numbers and in space to create a broadening, relatively contiguous, continental nation, pressing to and even beyond political borders on the north and south and extending from the Atlantic seaboard onto the margins of the great western prairies. The growth of population through all this period was astonishing: running about 33 percent each decade, the total rising from 5,306,000 in 1800 to 23,192,000 in 1850, a rate far exceeding that of any other large...

    • 2. Occupying New Ground: Colonization, American Style
      (pp. 236-264)

      The transformation of the United States into a truly continental America, with nearly half of its population residing in the new states of the West, was a development of prodigious proportions in time and space. Even though the fecundity (“the American multiplication table”), restlessness (“Though they have generally good houses, they might almost as well, like the Tartars, dwell in tents. Everything shifts under your eye”), and deep-rooted aggressiveness (“from the first discovery of America to the present time, one master passion, common to all mankind—that of acquiring land—has driven, in ceaseless succession, the white man on the...

    • 3. Planting New Societies: New England Extended
      (pp. 264-273)

      “Amongst all the columns of emigration” within “the great flood of civilization which has poured over the vast regions of the West,” the “two great masses . . . [of] the New England and the Virginia columns” deserve special attention, concluded Michael Chevalier, one of the more reflective and well-informed of the many Frenchmen reporting on the United States in the 1830s. (Sent by the Ministry of the Interior, he spent two years examining American canals, railroads, banks, and other facilities and institutions.) “The Virginian and the Yankee have planted themselves in the wilderness, each in a manner conformable to...

    • 4. Planting New Societies: Virginia Extended
      (pp. 273-279)

      In marked contrast with that of New England, the Virginian column had marched massively forward without such a panoply of propaganda, without special cadres dispatched by seaboard strategists to implant institutions critical to the contest. There was little awareness of any such regional competition because it did not really exist at the time. The Virginians were far in the lead, having reconnoitered and staked out Kentucky before the American Revolution. In the scramble for Ohio Valley lands after the Revolution, the New England-based company that founded Marietta was simply one among many speculations and had no obvious “ethnic” connotation. Any...

    • 5. Planting New Societies: Midlands Extended
      (pp. 279-284)

      One finds no reference to a “Pennsylvania column” advancing in contention for the Great West nor, later, of a “Pennsylvania Extended” in quite the same sense as the term has been applied to New England and Virginia. Yet even though Michael Chevalier dismissed it as only a nameless “auxiliary,” there certainly was a Midland migration stream, and it not only left its mark, but it was to be of decisive importance in the shaping of that broader West.

      The imprint of this migration was as strongly reminiscent of its source region as was any other. Such people could fit their...

    • 6. Planting New Societies: The Cotton Belt and South Carolina Extended
      (pp. 285-296)

      When we turn our attention farther south we do not see a distinct “column” marching parallel to those expanding out of New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, yet by 1850 what may well be called South Carolina Extended was becoming one of the bolder patterns in the fabric of America. It is important to get a proper geographic sense of just what had taken place.

      As we have seen, the basic settlement system and cultural imprint of the Upland South was spread broadly across the nation. The culture hearth of that highly efficient pioneering complex extended into the South Carolina Piedmont,...

    • 7. Color in the Plantings: The Afro-American Presence
      (pp. 296-311)

      Had those commentators who pointed to the Yankee and Virginian columns as the most important to the destiny of the nation been more prescient, they might well have given special attention to the coffles of Black slaves being led along the old tracks into the cotton lands of the Southwest, for it would soon become notorious that the geographical expansion and economic invigoration of the slavery system was the central feature of an ominous federal crisis. This larger geopolitical issue will be examined in due course; it is sufficient here to emphasize that Blacks were participants in all of these...

    • 8. Making New Pathways: Waterways, Roads, and Rails
      (pp. 311-334)

      Only “by opening speedy and easy communication through all its parts” can “the inconveniences, complaints, and perhaps dangers” arising from “a vast extent of territory . . . be radically removed, or prevented,” said Albert Gallatin in his landmark report to Congress in 1808. “Good roads and canals will shorten distances, facilitate commercial and personal intercourse, and unite by a still more intimate community of interests, the most remote quarters of the United States.”

      Whether or not anyone had as yet used the phrase, it must have become more obvious year by year that America was an unprecedented “experiment in...

    • 9. Tying the Parts Together: National Programs
      (pp. 334-352)

      “The people of these United States are spread over an extensive territory, and . . . [because] politically speaking, there is in the United States but one order or grade known—that of the people, . . . [there] arises the imperious necessity in a Government thus constituted of tying together the whole community by the strongest ligatures. This your committee believe can best be effected by the construction of roads and canals.” So stated Senator Abner Lacock of Pennsylvania in 1817 in what had begun, essentially, as a resubmission of the Gallatin plan. His report was in response to...

    • 10. Creating New Centers: Cities and Systems of Cities
      (pp. 352-374)

      One of the most notable features of this great era of expansion, widely remarked by citizens and visitors alike, was how new cities seemed to “spring up amidst the forests with inconceivable rapidity.” Captain Basil Hall from England, passing through Rochester in 1827 shortly after the opening of the Erie Canal, sketched a representative scene: “Everything in this bustling place appeared to be in motion. The very streets seemed to be starting up of their own accord, ready-made, and looking as fresh as new, as if they had been turned out of the workmen’s hands but an hour before—or...

    • 11. Harnessing New Forces: Industries and Industrial Regions
      (pp. 374-399)

      Almost any route of travel in the early years of the Republic would confirm that Americans were an industrious people. Gristmills and sawmills, forges and smithies were part of the common scene; tanneries, distilleries, and paper mills, carriage works and furniture factories were to be found in most of the older districts; shipyards, ropewalks, and chandleries in many a seaport; in the larger coastal cities there were clusters of workshops, with artisans busy at dozens of special trades; and in town and countryside alike important volumes of foodstuffs, cloth, boots and shoes, and Other items were being manufactured in ordinary...

    • 12. Cementing the Parts Together: An American Nation
      (pp. 399-417)

      “The United States form, for many, and for most important purposes, a single nation. . . . In war, we are one people. In making peace, we are one people. In all commercial regulations we are one and the same people . . . America has chosen to be, in many respects, and to many purposes, a nation.” So declared Chief Justice John Marshall in 1821. That forty-five years after the Declaration of Independence he felt the need so to declare and to spell it out was a reflection not only of a common mode of judicial pronouncement but of...

    • 13. Morphology: The Shape of the United States, 1850s
      (pp. 418-428)

      In spite of enormous expansions in territory, population, and geographic development, the United States remained firmly anchored on the same nuclear area. Nothing had effectively loosened it from the basic New York City-Philadelphia axis, with its extensions to Boston and to Baltimore on either side, a pattern that had been clearly evident by 1800.

      These great Atlantic ports, together with their immediate hinterlands, still constituted the main part of thecoreof the nation but were now augmented by two long salients of diversified development: the Hudson-Erie Canal belt across Upstate New York, and the more tenuous extension across central...


    • Prologue
      (pp. 431-432)

      When we shift our focus to the internal geopolitical structure of the United States we are again confronted with a remarkable case. No federation before or since has enlarged itself by the almost routine sequential addition of so many new territorial units. We shall be concerned with the design of these parts and with how they were fitted to and altered the overall structure.

      Because federations, by their very reason for being, must cope with important regional differences, it is not surprising that the addition of so many new units might generate serious stresses within the enlarging structure. Such strain...

    • 1. The Shaping of New States
      (pp. 432-447)

      The expansion of the United States across the continent in less than half a century posed unprecedented geographical problems and opportunities. Among the most important, fundamental to the ensuing character and operation of the federation, was the recurrent need to subdivide huge areas of land into new constituent geopolitical units. As Congressman Samuel Vinton of Ohio, in one of the many debates over the topic, put it: “The question of the formation of new States and their admission into the Union, has always been regarded, and ever must be, as often as it arises, one of grave importance. Few questions...

    • 2. Expanding the Federation
      (pp. 447-461)

      The United States of America was a precarious structure from its beginning. The initial confederation was a makeshift alliance uncertain in number and extent; the Articles of Confederation had specifically reserved a place for Canada and the rebels had hoped to include Nova Scotia, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Floridas as well. When the bounds of the new republic were established by treaty in 1783, half of its territory was politically unorganized. Because such country was regarded as a vast area to be colonized and added to the union of states, a recurrent extension and reshaping was programmed into the...

    • 3. The Idea of Separation
      (pp. 461-475)

      The United States of America was a geopolitical experiment. That it might not succeed, that such a conglomerate might not hold as a constitutional federation, was acknowledged by various leaders and commentators from the beginning. In his first term as president, George Washington “expressed his fear that there would be ere long, a separation of the union,” and that possibility—fearsome or not, depending upon one’s stance and interests—kept reappearing as a topic of active discussion.

      In the early years of the Republic such talk was not necessarily considered to be alarming or unpatriotic. It might seem logical that...

    • 4. Disintegration
      (pp. 475-489)

      The historian Don E. Fehrenbacher emphasized the need to be precise about “southern” secession: “The South, of course, did not secede. It was South Carolina that did so—South Carolina alone, followed in order by Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama; then Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.” It took forty-two days to complete that phase of secession. Eight days later, on February 8, 1861, representatives convened in Montgomery to form the Confederate States of America, and two days after that they elected Jefferson Davis as president. The formation of this new “South” was therefore the result of a sequence of formal processes undertaken...

    • 5. Geopolitical Alternatives
      (pp. 489-502)

      Federalism is a geopolitical device for dealing with basic differences among a set of states associated under a common government. Voluntary federal structures necessarily involve negotiating an acceptable balance of power among the member states. Subsequent alteration of the actual or perceived patterns of such power will likely put the structure under some strain. Should such changes become viewed as major and threatening to some state or group of states the stress may become severe and the pressure for restructuring very great.

      In the United States the Constitution had resolved the problem of how large and small states could live...

    • 6. Conquest and Emancipation
      (pp. 502-516)

      In one of his large and rich studies of America’s great convulsion, Allan Nevins stated forthrightly: “It was a war over slaveryandthe future position of the Negro race in North America.” Even as we acknowledge another historian’s observation that “the academic controversy over the causes and character of the American Civil War seems as irreconcilable as the divergent viewpoints in the sectional controversy of the 1850s,” it is impossible to avoid the basic truth—even if it is not of course the whole truth—of Nevins’s assertion. The simplest test of the proposition is to try to imagine...

    • 7. Empire, Nation, Federation: Geopolitical Contentions
      (pp. 516-528)

      In the spring of 1865 the war was over—and suddenly there was a new American empire. Secession had been subdued, but the Union was not thereby restored. The states that had been officially declared to be in rebellion remained on the map as before (with one important exception), but they were not once again equal members of the federation. Quite the contrary—they were under military occupation and governance.

      This captive area was divided into four military “divisions” (Atlantic, Gulf, Mississippi, Tennessee), each of which was composed of one or more departments coextensive with individual states. There was no...


    • Prologue
      (pp. 531-532)

      The year 1867 has little visibility in the usual panoramas of American history. It features no memorable event, it marks no important beginning or ending. The purchase of Alaska was a surprise rather than the fruition of some protracted national effort, and it was considered so marginal in value as to be the subject more of derision than satisfaction. Our featured year falls two years after the victory of those forces that fought to put North and South back together; it comes two years before the conclusion of the herculean effort to bind East and West with iron bands. At...

    • 1. Continental America
      (pp. 532-533)

      Near the end of the war, in his annual message to Congress and the nation, Abraham Lincoln pointed to the larger context of American development: “It is of noteworthy interest that the steady expansion of population, improvement and governmental institutions over the new and unoccupied portions of our country have scarcely been checked, much less impeded or destroyed, by our great civil war, which at first glance would seem to have absorbed almost the entire energies of the nation.” But of course presidents tend to paint a bright picture on such occasions, and many persons more closely involved in “new...

    • 2. The Northern Borderlands
      (pp. 533-546)

      There were, as always, other peoples as well who had good reason to care about just what the nature and extent of that American power would be. British North Americans could take satisfaction that their aggressive neighbor gave them little polemical notice following the various fixations of a transcontinental boundary in the 1840s, and in the 1850s the Canadas, especially, grew concomitantly and in many ways integrally with the larger systems to the south. As in the United States, there was a surge in immigration from famine-ravaged Ireland, but unlike the United States, other British, and especially Scots were also...

    • 3. Hispanic Borderlands
      (pp. 546-550)

      In early 1861, the liberal regime in Mexico, triumphant but bankrupt after three years of civil war, turned to the United States for help and example. The reform-minded President Benito Juárez sent an emissary to President-elect Abraham Lincoln in Springfield to affirm amicable relations, invite American investment, and seek loans to fend off European powers clamoring for the repayment of debts. American expansionist appetites were not forgotten, but liberal leaders tended to blame the cessions of 1848 and 1853 on corrupt and archaic Mexican institutions and officials, and they were ready to try another tactic. “The best means of impeding...

    • 4. The Afro-American Archipelago
      (pp. 550-555)

      Seward was certainly interested in the possibility of obtaining Samaná Bay, but his stop was very brief because he was en route to inspect a better prospect he was already quietly negotiating for: the Danish West Indies. This remnant of seventeenth-century sugar and slave trade days consisted of three main islands and many small ones within the larger Virgin Islands group. Lying fifty miles east of Puerto Rico they were pivotal between the Greater and Lesser Antilles and strategic to several main passageways through this insular screen. They commanded not only “the best position,” according to a Navy Department report,...

    • 5. A Wider Presence
      (pp. 555-558)

      “The display of the flag of the Union in foreign parts and in distant seas” serves as “an admonition of the naval power of the Republic,” stated Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in December 1866, and he was pleased to report that in the aftermath of wartime reductions American foreign squadrons had all been reestablished. He detailed the distribution of sixty-eight armed vessels among seven squadrons assigned to cruise particular portions of the Global Sea, covering together all but the Indian Ocean. During the course of the year these vessels had “visited nearly every principal port of the world”—...

  10. Sources of Quotations
    (pp. 559-578)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 579-606)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 607-636)