Breaking the Sphere

Distribution of Population in 1890, US Census

Population density of the United States according to the 1890 census (xciv).

“Nearer the soil, Western life told quite a different story. There was more homesteading after 1890 than before. A number of extractive industries–timber, oil, coal, and uranium–went through their principal booms and busts after 1890. If one went solely by the numbers, the nineteenth-century westward movement was the tiny, quiet prelude to the much more sizable movement of people into the West in the twentieth century.” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 2000

“Whereas the traditional notion poses the common as a natural world outside of society, the biopolitical conception of the common permeates equally all spheres of life, referring not only to to the earth, the air, the elements, or even plant and animal life but also to the constitutive elements of human society, such as common languages, habits, gestures, affects, codes, and so forth.” -Hardt & Negri, 2009.


American historians at the turn of the century rushed to interpret the 1890 census as one of the most important moments in US history. Frederick Jackson Turner argued in 1893 that the census marked the “closing” of the frontier, and Charles Beard would later write in 1933 that this “closing” was one third of a “triple revolution in agriculture” between first the abolition of slavery and third the “subjection of farmers to the process of capitalist economy” (Beard II 271).

But closure is only an interpretation of the census report’s findings. Comprised of twenty-five volumes, the introductory preface to the first volume, called “Progress of the Nation,” instead declares the following: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent and its westward movement it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in census reports” (xxxiv). The 1890 census declared simply that it would no longer record a frontier line.

Previous reports had actually measured frontier lines. According to the 1890 census, “the length of the frontier line in 1880 [was] 3,337 miles” (xxxvii), was 1,178,068 miles in 1870 (xxvi), and so on. The wording in the proclamation about 1890 is telling. The frontier line had been “broken into by isolated bodies of settlement,” a phrasing that hides those who actually went into the frontier while framing it as a fragile object that has been broken. The writing goes out of its way not to implicate settlers in the population increase, instead referring to “isolated bodies of settlement” to suggest groups of people who then share responsibility for settlement.

The frontier line was a literal demarcation between “settled” and “unsettled” land, which the census defined simply by population density. One table (xxxiii) lists the population density of each state and territory. In Utah, for example, the “Total area of settlement [of] 2 or more [people] to the square mile” was 27,580 square miles; the total area containing 6 to 18 people per square mile was 1,208, and the area consisting of 18 to 45 people per square mile totaled 718. There is nothing listed for a population density of more than 45 people in Utah, as opposed to Pennsylvania, which totaled 35,152 square miles inhabited by 45 to 90 people.

Equating settlement with population density meant that 718 single square miles of Utah inhabited by at most 45 people each was enough to make the territory “settled.” According to the census, every state or territory in the west had enough population density to qualify as such. If 27,580 people could survive in Utah, it was no longer legally recognized as wilderness. This implicitly established an evaluative scale for the economic potential of land. While it mattered to the federal government who was on what land (women, Native Americans, and other groups were recorded, though they could not legally vote in 1890), what was just as important was how many people were on the land, which became the primary distinction between wilderness and settled society.

By highlighting the experiences of people considered between the boundaries of wilderness and settlement, Beard and Turner both pioneered an early vision of social history that emphasized the experiences of workers and farmers. But they also left much to be desired. Another American historian a generation later, Staughton Lynd, writes that Beard and Turner, “the twin giants of modern American historiography. . . systematically minimized [slavery’s] importance” in their analyses (Lynd 135-136), and Patricia Nelson Limerick critiques Turner’s limited vision of the frontier.

For Turner, the frontier was the state of nature, which reinforced a Eurocentric understanding of the west’s indigenous communities, but for Beard, the frontier was essentially the commons. He writes of the 1890 census that “the disappearance of cheap or free land” was a tragedy because “by one legal phrase or another and by administrative procedure, the federal government prepared the way for the rapid seizure and exploitation of all the remaining lands on the western frontier” (II 269-270). In this sense, the closing of the frontier meant the privatization of the commons just before the Gilded Age. For Beard, this closure was a penultimate phase, rather than a finalizing one.

But Beard still treats the land the way Turner does, as free to white settler colonization. Both historians are in agreement with the census report’s declaration that the frontier was broken because of population growth, and all three tend to treat this breaking as a step in progress. Once this frontier was broken, they reasoned, it could be used. In this sense, “settlement” was about the deployment of a workforce, the presence of a monitored population subject to US law.

Though it is limiting to conflate the frontier with the commons, its perception as such explains why many progressive historians responded to its perceived closure as a significant turning point. If the frontier was acted upon as a kind of commons, then its closing would have spelled good news for those in power in the United States, because it finally meant access to the entirety of its previously obscure resources. By measuring the frontier by population density, this good news for those in power meant comparatively bad news for most settlers and signified apocalypse for Native Americans. The closing of the frontier was a process of opening the west to the full violence of what Wallace Stegner labeled “the path of empire.”

Yet another American historian, William Appleman Williams, calls this process of expansionism the defining feature of American history, declaring that the “culture has been unable, after almost 300 years, to develop any conception of success—or fulfillment—except the idiom of the endless chase itself. It was all a footnote to Madison: ‘extend the sphere’” (Williams 124). America, including any articulation of the frontier, is about growth for its own sake, and transforming the meaning of growth into the converse meaninglessness of satisfaction or stasis.

The frontier at the turn of the century, then, was considered the absence of influence, extended and measured through the strategic quantification of mouths to feed per square mile. This created an official policy in the US government of no longer marking the existence of a frontier in its regularized measurement of the country. The absence of the frontier meant the dissolution of both land and people (as Beard and Turner failed to recognize) not subject to American expansion, beyond the scope of the sphere. When the century ended, many historians seemed to wonder how much more of the continent the US could break.


Beard, Charles. The Rise of American Civilization. MacMillan Company, 1933.

Hardt, Michael, Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Harvard University Press, 2011

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Something in the Soil. W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Lynd, Staughton. Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution. Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

United States. Census Bureau. “Population Part I.” 1895.

Williams, William Appleman. Empire as a Way of Life. Oxford University Press, 1980.

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