Freedom and the frontier
When this article goes live, it will be July 4th in most of the United States of America, a.k.a. Independence Day. It is the freedomest of freedom times, though mostly we just end up celebrating the anniversary of our declared separation from the governance of the British Empire with beer, barbecues, and lots of bright lights and loud noises. Even then, the freedom to blow your own fingers off with an M-80 firecracker has been curtailed by the U.S. government since the 1970s.
Your mileage may vary on whether that’s a good or bad thing, but there’s no question that Americans (and apologies to my international readers who get their feathers ruffled that the U.S. of A. has co-opted the term despite their being quite a few nations in the Americas… I’m guessing mostly because “Statesians” just sounds weird…) do love the notion of being able to choose whether or not to blow our own fingers off. In theory, I mean. Once it happens, then we wonder why the hell there wasn’t a law preventing that poor kid from blowing his fingers off, and then a law gets drafted, and then everyone still in the theory stage gets disgruntled that the days of easy and convenient finger endangerment have passed them by.
This tug of war between individual freedom and government regulation has been going on pretty much since the country started, but in my opinion nowhere did it come into as stark a contrast as in the frontiers of the Old West. It’s what makes that particular historical time and place fascinating to me beyond just the usual trappings of cowboys and indians, gunslingers and bandits; here was a setting where laws and civilization still held sway enough that people had contracts and filed legal actions, but also knew that their best defense for their land claim might end up being a loaded shotgun. The movers and shakers of distant big cities exerted a subtle but long reach. More local powers in certain areas could exert an immense influence that became almost a law unto themselves, at least until a “bigger fish” decided to take an interest.
A telling crossroads of savagery and civilization is in that old chestnut of the bandit gang “robbing the mail”, which didn’t mean they were after your letter to Aunt Ethel back in New York, but the cash payrolls that were being transported along with it. Outside of civilization, cash, letters of credit, etc. have no value beyond the paper and ink they’re printed with. If the Old West were a truly lawless and savage place, then you’d reckon the bandits would be after something they could actually eat, wear, or use, and cut out civilization as a middleman.
Now, I’ll admit this is not a wholly unique circumstance, as any highwayman of 18th Century England would happily explain as he took your jewelry. But there is also a certain inherent “bigness” to the Western United States that added to that sense of freedom, for those who preferred answering to no one but themselves. It didn’t mean you were an outlaw, because you really could ride off somewhere that no one had laid claim to. Even today, there’s that whole wistful ideal of “no fences”.
But then again, what happened once someone had found a place with no claims? Well, they tended to lay claim to it, and they tended to want a way to formalize and represent that claim, especially once other people got wind that there was a nice spot of potential out beyond where they were. And if you’re any student of human nature, you know that when two people can’t agree on something, there’s generally three options: they come to blows, or one party gives in, or they take their case to a third party whose authority they’re willing to accept.
That third party is exactly where government starts. And recording the decision is where paperwork starts. But the settlers of the Old West didn’t have to figure all that out from scratch, they’d already grown up with it, and to a certain extent also had the ability to govern themselves. Townspeople couldn’t agree? Let’s take a vote! The setup of the American government tended to repeat itself even on the fringes. A town might elect a mayor or alderman, but his word wasn’t law without the support of the people. People who tended to be independent-minded, resourceful, and always looking to better their lot… otherwise, they’d have stayed where they were.
The Western frontier was a place packed full of folks seeking Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, often at the risk of Life; and the echoes still resonate to this day, if nothing else in the international stereotype of seeing Americans as reckless, whooping cowboys. The reality was far more complicated than just that, but no less fascinating.