Monday, April 5, 2010

Still Living on the Frontier

The Mind of the South, published in 1941, is a fascinating book written by a North Carolina journalist named W. J. Cash. The book was the product of more than a decade of research, observation, thought and writing. Its significance can be found in the fact that, after almost sixty years, the book remains in print.

One of the more interesting observations Cash made about the South was that many in the region continue to retain attitudes and characteristic common to the frontier. Looking around today, one might make the same comment about the nation as a whole.

Historically, American’s frontier was the area just west of civilization, over the next hill or down the river, as the nation expanded from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was a land with few rules, where survival depended upon an assortment of attributes. For most frontier folk these qualities included honesty, strength, hard work and cooperation with one’s neighbors. Less positive qualities included thievery, mayhem and general skullduggery. As a result, honest folks tended to distrust strangers.

Frontier life was a lonely, isolated existence. Except for occasional trips to the general store for a few basic supplies, or church when the circuit riding preacher came to town, people lived pretty much to themselves. They survived on the fruits of their own labor, enjoyed the good times and did not always make it during the bad times. It was a hard life, filled with uncertainties. It hardened people to the outside world, and against forces they did not understand or could not control.

As civilization followed the frontier, it brought with it greater security, great dependence on others, and a far more comfortable life for most Americans. It also brought rules and regulations, as well as more government.

Government helps to make our lives more comfortable and secure. It also provides opportunities, through education, improved transportation and enhanced communication. Unfortunately, a great many folks still distrust their own government.

As Cash noted, the frontier mentality lingers, and if one reflects upon the characteristics needed for survival during those earlier times, it helps explain the attitude of many modern Americans – libertarians, teabaggers, fundamentalist Christians and others who distrust the outside world, the government and all those people with a different point-of-view.

Abraham Lincoln noted long ago that ours is “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” but if we don’t start trusting our own government a little more, we may very well “perish from the earth.”


  1. To me the key to the south is how proudly they still fly the confederate flag. It is a symbol of racism and hatred to most of the world. More Americans died fighting against that flag than in any other war. It was flown to protect slavery. It was flown to keep the honest African-American segregated away from white people. It represents nothing but evil and yet southerners proudly display it. You and I are both old enough to remember how brutally those who tried to end segregation were treated. I remember Martin Luther King, Jr. being murdered because he wanted honest, hard-working African Americans to have the right to send their children to decent schools. It was the confederate flag that was waved in the face of those who protested. How anyone who claims to be a proud American could fly a flag that represents nothing but anti-Americanism is beyond me.

  2. As you noted earlier, the confederate flag has been adopted by racists across America, not just in the south. Growing up in the south, I was caught up in the myths of the war, but once I went to college I began to get a clearer understanding of what really happened. My writing instructor, Mike Shaara, wrote Killer Angels, and by the time I finished the novel I had converted to the union cause. The confederacy was a dumb idea, promoted by the rich plantation owners to protect their way of life. Yet it was the working-class southerner, the ones who did not own slaves, who fought and died in the war. Sadly, a great many southerners have yet to figure that out.