The Frontier Myth and U.S. Politics since 1900
Published by: University of Oklahoma Press
Imprint: University of Oklahoma Press
Behind the shape-shifting of this myth, historian David A. Smith finds major events in American and world history that have made various aspects of the “Old West” frontier more relevant, and more useful, for promoting radically different political ideologies and agendas. And these divergent adaptations of frontier symbolism have altered the frontier myth. Theodore Roosevelt, with his vigorous pursuit of an activist federal government, helped establish a version of the frontier myth that today would be considered liberal. But then, Smith shows, a series of events from the Lyndon Johnson through Jimmy Carter presidencies—including Vietnam, race riots, and stagflation—seemed to give the lie to the progressive frontier myth.
In the wake of these crises, Smith’s analysis reveals, the entire structure and popular representation of frontier symbols and images in American politics shifted dramatically from left to right, and from liberal to conservative, with profound implications for the history of American thought and presidential politics. The now popular idea that “frontier American” leaders and politicians are naturally Republicans with conservative ideals flows directly from the Reagan era.
Cowboy Presidents gives us a new, clarifying perspective on how Americans shape and understand their national identity and sense of purpose; at the same time, reflecting on the essential mutability of a quintessentially national myth, the book suggests that the next iteration of the frontier myth may well be on the horizon.
“A lively, well researched volume.”— Annals of Wyoming
"Beginning with an explication of myth, Smith adroitly applies the concept to an enduring American belief system—the imagery of westering as a "formalized way of thinking," which "shapes [a] person’s view of the United States and its role in the world." In his comparative analysis, Smith blends rhetoric, presidential policy, and historical context to reveal how well Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush “aligned themselves” with the thesis of optimism. This work carries forth the argument of Hector St. John de Crevecoeur and Herbert Croly regarding what makes the US exceptional (unique rather than superior). Smith’s portrayal of these “cowboy presidents” embodies activism and transformative, forward-thinking classical liberalism but with warnings. Faux-frontiersmen face the danger of succumbing to the politicization of policy making, allowing dynamic events (e.g., Vietnam, party shifts, 9/11) to override the great expectations of what the “frontier” US could accomplish. An insightful read with an intriguing thesis and central theme, this expertly researched volume reveals both the beauty of the myth as well as its misuse by policy makers. The danger of restructuring and redirecting the myth for political gain remains a warning, and the myth itself remains resilient."—CHOICE Connect
“Smith successfully demonstrates the evolution of the frontier myth by providing immense detail on four presidents’ understanding, use, and contribution to society, as well as their additions to the definition of the frontier myth. Cowboy Presidents is a solid book to utilize in college- level history courses, as it introduces new ideas to young scholars as they embark on their studies. The presentation of the frontier myth through this literature proves that myths do, in fact, greatly impact one’s outlook on life.”— The Chronicles of Oklahoma