The History Channel and the Myth of American Exceptionalism

The Pioneer’s Home on the Western FrontierThe Pioneer’s Home on the Western Frontier, 1867. (Photo: Yale University Art Gallery)

In recent years, the “History” Channel has followed MTV in turning its name into an oxymoron. The channel’s lack of substantive history has pushed away serious scholars and history buffs alike. Its programming ranges from the almost-passable to absurd shows like Ancient Aliens. Yet none of the History Channel’s shows come close to the popularity of its blue-collar programming. The channel’s flagship programs include Ice Road Truckers, Mountain Men, Power and Ice, The Woodsmen, Ax Men, Appalachian Outlaws, Swamp People, and Big Rig Bounty Hunters. While deploying a flexible use of the term “history,” these shows share common themes. They highlight men working on the fringes of society, far away from the luxuries of modern life. Almost all involve some kind of physical labor, a harsh natural environment, and the constant threat of injury or death. A sense of daring and bravado accompanies each episode. Why have these programs become so popular? Because they tap into a national identity based on fear, masculinity, and American exceptionalism.

The fear of a rapidly changing world dates back to the early Republic, when Thomas Jefferson expressed concerns that Americans might follow in Europe’s footsteps and abandon agriculture for industry. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson argued that industrialization would strip Americans of their independence and thrift. He also worried that cities produced dangerous mobs that could overthrow the government. The republic would fail, he thought, unless its men continued to work on the land. Despite Jefferson’s vision and the “opening” of western land with the Louisiana Purchase during his administration, the American economy continued to modernize. Cut off from imported goods during the War of 1812, Americans developed new industries. Internal improvements like canals, railroads, and steamboats enabled American factories and cities to expand, cementing America’s place in the world as a serious industrial power.

Just as Jefferson’s dream seemed to be dying, a new form of American literature emerged to resurrect it. Explorers, trappers, and mountain men told and published their stories of the “untouched” West. In 1849, historian Francis Parkman published The Oregon Trail, an account of his two-month long summer trek from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains. Parkman extolled the West as a place of pristine wilderness and masculine adventure, though that required hyperbole. On the subject of the native Lakota, for example, Parkman wrote that, “The Ogallalla [Oglala], the Brules, and other western bands…are thorough savages, unchanged by any contact with civilization. Not one of them can speak a European tongue, or has ever visited an American settlement.” Such rhetoric made for good reading back east, but just two paragraphs before this declaration, Parkman recounted that a group of Native Americans had entered his camp and asked for coffee.

The “frontier,” as Parkman knew it, eventually came to a close. Hunters slaughtered bison by the hundreds of thousands for their hides, while the United States military forced resistant native peoples onto smaller and smaller reservations. Throughout the nation, factories expanded in cities and bonanza farms dominated the rural landscape. But at the very moment of Americans’ triumph over the West, many Americans mourned the loss of the frontier. Easterners became fixated on adventure-seeking masculinity. The idea that the nation depended on young men going west to learn self-reliance reached its crescendo in 1893, when Frederick Jackson Turner introduced his Frontier Thesis at Chicago’s famous Columbia Exposition. In his paper, Turner argued that America’s exceptionalism depended on the nation’s frontier. Only by expanding to new lands had Americans invented their own peculiar democracy and individualism. According to Turner, access to a frontier distinguished American development from that of Europe’s: “That coarseness and strength…that masterful grasp of material things…that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism…these are the traits of the frontier.” The frontier, said Turner, made Americans unique.

Few people latched onto Turner’s idea more firmly than Theodore Roosevelt. In his sweeping account of early-American history, The Winning of the West, which he updated and republished in 1900, Roosevelt emphatically supported the notion that American greatness lay in its ability to expand and dominate new lands: “The whole western movement of our people was simply the most…important feature of our history.” Roosevelt lauded the backwoodsmen of the eighteenth century for their “self-help,” “bodily strength,” and “manly” brawls. Rather than lamenting the closing of the frontier, Roosevelt presented a simple solution: Americans would have to continue to expand, taking the fertile islands of the Pacific. According to Roosevelt, the nation needed new lands to settle and new people to acculturate in order to remain the most powerful and masculine nation on earth.

Roosevelt dedicated his book to Francis Parkman.

While this theme fell into disrepute among scholars in the twentieth century, the programs of the History Channel show how the idea lives on in popular culture. Surely, the shows suggest, America continues to have a frontier, and the nation must therefore still have a unique national character. Modern life, in which more than 80% of Americans live in urban areas, cannot have emasculated America if we still have brave, hardworking men. This is a powerful idea in part because it is true. People living outside modern comforts display a different kind of grit than most Americans today. But their strength represents only one perspective about American life, just as the narratives of Parkman, Turner, and Roosevelt represented just one perspective on American history. That perspective does not account for the wild variety of other stories that created the great American narrative. It overwrites the voices and struggles of African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, and labor organizers, among many others. It ignores the profound importance of science, transportation, medicine, and education to American progress.

If there is anything truly exceptional about America, it is that we have one of the world’s most fascinating, contentious histories. Surely there is heroism in resistance to slavery, in the labor movement, or in the creation of a polio vaccine to rival the heroism of individual men in their fight against nature.

About the Author

Michael McLean

Michael McLean is a Ph.D. student at Boston College. He grapples with the violence in American history through the lens of Native American and enslaved communities. In his free time, he studies the Lakota language and leads outdoor backpacking and rock climbing trips.

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  1. I thought Penicillin was discovered in Britain. If you take Roosevelt’s idea to its logical conclusion, America would have to conquered the whole world in its quest to have a frontier. Is this why Star Trek started with ‘Space the final frontier’.

    1. You’re absolutely right, great catch. I meant to write the polio vaccine (now updated). And that’s a good point. There’s an inherent instability to frontier ideology. What happens when you run out of places to tame? This was a major crisis for these men. Hence my point: the values upon which these men fixate (courage, inventiveness, fortitude, community) can be found in many contexts, not just harsh natural environments.

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