Wall at Mount Vernon, home of George Washington
History

Border walls have a long history in America

Border walls are rooted in a colonial way of thinking about territory that has been fundamental to American claims to land. The earliest English colonists in North America used the metaphor of “planting” to justify their claims of lands through “improving” what they regarded as a barren wilderness. This distinction between lands that were thought of as “wild” and those that were “cultivated” were more than just territorial claims—it also marked a boundary between the savage and the civilized, which in turn justified taking the homelands of indigenous people.

Colonial enclosures

The colonists claimed land by “improvement,” which usually meant fixing a boundary by enclosing it, often with nothing more than a hedge. In many cases building a wall or fence, or merely planting a hedge, was impractical for large land claims, so a symbolic enclosure sufficed with the gestural act of planting a garden and enclosing it with a wall to demonstrate their intentions to improve the entirety of their claimed acreage. [I discuss this in the section “Improvements upon the Land” in Chapter 3,”Conflicts and Persecutions” of Formed from this Soil: An Introduction to the Diverse History of Religion in America .]

The metaphor of a cultivated enclosure eventually extended to the national level. Consequently, the idea of building a wall along the national border has been part of American civic culture at least since George Washington. But the idea of a border wall solved a different problem for Washington than what contemporary proponents find troubling today. For our first president, the nation’s integrity was at stake. For the current president, who appears to have little interest in integrity, the wall serves a cynical purpose of political gain.

George Washington’s proposal

Wall at Mount Vernon, home of George Washington
Wall at Mount Vernon, home of George Washington (Photo by Tim Evanson, 2014: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/16829085875/)

George Washington’s problem had to do with US citizens violating the border. Western settlers’ disregard for treaty agreements with the indigenous nations undermined the trustworthiness of the new American nation. Washington recognized the need to keep his people in their own territory, to “restrain the turbulence and disorderly conduct of our own borders,” he wrote. The first president was incensed that, as he put it, “a lawless set of unprincipled wretches . . . can infringe the most solemn treaties, without receiving the punishment they so richly deserve.” He concluded, “Scarcely anything short of a Chinese wall or a line of troops will restrain land jobbers and the incroachment [sic] of settlers upon the Indian Territory.” For Washington, a wall could keep Americans on this side of the border. [I came across these quotations of Washington in George Black’s book Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone (note 7 on page 446). He cites American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis (page 159).]

The sad cynicism of building the wall

Today’s proponents of building a border wall have a different purpose in mind. Their ancestors who illegally crossed borders to take other peoples’ lands eventually extended the nation’s boundary across the continent, usually by treachery backed with militarized violence. Now they seek to preserve those border-violating gains through enforcement of laws that exclude others seeking a better life across the border. It seems a sad and cynical commentary on American greatness to keep others out of territories gained by unsavory means. America seems intent on living up to its dark past.

[Daily post 026 of 260 in my year-long challenge.] ♨

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