There Is No True History of the Westward Expansion

Learn how the history of the westward expansion will never be accurate due to the differing accounts of historical giants, literary figures and the common people.


| March 2013



Lions of the West by Robert Morgan, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

“Lions of the West” tells the extraordinary chapter of westward expansion in American history through the eyes of Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston and other historical giants. It is a richly authoritative biography of America — its ideals, its promise, its romance and its destiny.

Cover Courtesy Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Lions of the West (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011) unfolds the stories of Thomas Jefferson and nine other Americans whose adventurous spirits and lust for land culminated in the Westward Expansion. Read the stories of David Crockett and Kit Carson as well as the nameless thousands who risked their lives to settle on the wild frontier, displacing thousands of Native Americans. History is an ever-changing beast because of accounts told by different people, ranging from eminent historians to the common folk who experienced the event. Learn how the story of the westward expansion is no exception in this excerpt taken from the prologue, “The Empire for Liberty.” 

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In 1831 the actor-producer James H. Hackett presented in New York a play by James Kirke Paulding called Lion of the West, based loosely on the legends of David Crockett and other frontier figures. The play was an instant and runaway success and was later presented to acclaim in other American cities and in Britain. In Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, Paulding created the type of the backwoods humorist and teller of tall tales. Claiming to be half alligator and half horse, the colonel bragged, “I can jump higher — squat lower — dive deeper — stay longer under and come out drier!” than anyone foolish enough to challenge him. The play thrilled city audiences who felt superior to the frontiersman but also dreamed of aggressively expanding the United States into the promised land of the West. The president at that time, who personified the passion for westward expansion, was Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. Congressman David Crockett, in the audience for the play in Washington, D.C., was called out and saluted by Hackett, and rather than being offended, he seemed to enjoy the burlesque of his public image.

It could be argued that the caricature of Lion of the West allowed audiences to laugh at traits and attitudes in themselves they might otherwise have been ashamed of: the overweening arrogance, the claims of being chosen, the brash air of destiny. In the hyperbolic braggadocio of the backwoodsman such attitudes were good for laughter, and the viewers could indulge themselves in the satire while remaining a safe distance from attitudes and actions in which they were all complicit, such as the belief they were justified in killing Indians and taking their land.

Thomas Jefferson, the quintessential American dreamer, whose vision of the future republic had from the beginning stretched over the mountains to the Mississippi Valley, perhaps over the farther mountains to the great harbors on the Pacific, had called his envisioned nation “the Empire for Liberty.” In retrospect we can see the contradiction that Jefferson and most of his contemporaries could not: the oxymoron of imperial power promoting the spread of “liberty.” It is a contradiction Jefferson passed on to the new nation that has come down to us in the present day, the fixed idea that imperial might can be exercised in fostering democracy on foreign soil.

“There is properly no history,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “only biography.” It is natural and perhaps necessary for historians and story-tellers to view the dramatic shifts of history through the actions of a few famous figures, whether heroes or villains. Certainly the story of the westward expansion of the United States has many examples of each, and sometimes it seems the villains outnumber the heroes. But often the same figure can be seen as both. Andrew Jackson probably did more to extend democratic power to a greater number of citizens of the nation in that era than anyone except Jefferson. Yet he is blamed for displacing and destroying much of the native population in the Southeast. Jackson’s protégé, James K. Polk, often called Young Hickory, is one of the least attractive men to ever serve as president of the United States, yet even his severest critics concede that Polk accomplished, uniquely, almost miraculously, all he had promised when elected.