Walter Prescott Webb's Boom Hypothesis of Modern History

1888–1963

Back in 1952, the University of Texas historian, Walter Prescott Webb, wrote a book titled The Great Frontier.  I do not think it is a well known book, but I was prompted to read it after it was mentioned in an old Mother Earth News magazine interview with John Shuttleworth, then editor of that publication.

Now that I have read it, I can tell you The Great Frontier is the most incredibly insightful history book I've ever read.  I will give you an overview here because Mr. Webb's understandings of history bear heavily on our current world situation, as well as the future of our nation.

The Great Frontier is, essentially, an explanation of Webb’s Boom Hypothesis of Modern History. This hypothesis is well worth reading about and understanding. It begins with what Webb calls The Metropolis, which is pre-1500 Western Europe. Apart from Asia, Western Europe was all the known world. The Metropolis was unified in culture, densely populated, and static. It was a civilization of well-defined classes and customs. It was a period in time and place that was defined by limitations. As Webb writes:
The population pressed hard on the means of subsistence. There was not much food, and practically no means of escape for the people living in a closed world. the idea of progress had not been born.
As a subsistence civilization, there were no corporations or joint stock companies. There were no banking institutions. Money was scarce. Work was limited to the tasks of subsistence... or war—plundering other nations was the time-honored way for kings to acquire more wealth.
Then came the miracle that was to change everything... Europe, the Metropolis, knocked on the door of the Great Frontier, and when the door was opened it was seen to be golden, for within, there was undreamed of treasure, enough to make the whole Metropolis rich. The long quest of a half-starved people had at last been rewarded with a prospect beyond human comprehension.
This Great Frontier was the newly discovered and almost vacant lands of North America, South America, Australia, and numerous smaller islands. These new lands were rich with natural resources and it was all an incredible boom for the Metropolis.
You can get everything of a material nature you want, more than you ever dreamed of having, from gold and silver to furs and foods, and in any quantity you want, provided only that you are willing to venture and work. And something you never had within your historical memory will come to you as a byproduct, and that is an extraordinary degree of freedom.
Did you catch that? Freedom. Personal freedom and democratic forms of government were one of the many fruits of the Great Frontier. In a static civilization, confronted with limitations, civil liberty and individual freedom for the masses was unheard of. But all that changed with the Great Frontier.

Here, in the following quotes from the book, Webb provides more insights into the Boom Hypothesis. Intimations of what it means to us in our current day begin to emerge:
When this great area was made available to the crowded and impoverished people of the Metropolis, they swarmed out like bees to suck up the nectar of wealth, much of which they brought home to the mother hive. This sudden, continuing, and ever-increasing flood of wealth precipitated on the Metropolis a business boom such as the whole world had never known before and probably can never know again.
This boom began when Columbus returned from his first voyage, rose slowly, and continued at an ever-accelerating pace until the frontier which fed it was no more. Assuming that the frontier closed in 1890 or 1900, it may be said that the boom lasted about four hundred years.
Assuming that there was a boom, and that it lasted four hundred years or more, it follows that a set of institutions, economic, political, and social, would in that time evolve to meet the needs of a world in boom.
Therefore, these boom-born institutions, economic systems, political systems, social systems—in short, the present superstructure of Western civilization—are today founded on boom conditions.
Wow. So the superstructure of Western civilization is founded on boom conditions. But, as is painfully obvious to anyone in Western civilization these days, the boom is over. Fact is, for the most part, it has been over for decades. We’ve been coasting on the momentum of the 400-year-old boom. 


Is the current economic recession/depression we are experiencing an indicator that we as a civilization are dangerously close to running out of momentum? What does the Boom Hypothesis “predict” for the future? In Chapter Thirteen of the book, titled Conclusion, Webb writes the following:
If there is no substitute boom-maker, or one that is much less effective than the Frontier was, then we are faced with radical changes indeed. The society we have would tend to go through a process of devolution and retrogression rather than evolution and progress. It would lose much of its dynamic character, just as a boom town does when fortunes are lost there and not made.... Rural life would tend to become more important, and city life less alluring. Theoretically, society might become somewhat medieval in character, and new ideals would have to be formulated to make that life tolerable.
Though there is much talk of new frontiers, a careful examination of those suggested reveals that most of them are trivial, and none will compare in magnitude or importance with the Great Frontier. The most plausible claims are made in the name of science and technology. There is no doubt that science has made and is making valuable contributions to the luxury and comfort of those who have the price, but the tendency is to overate what science can do.
The last two sentences of the book:
Our challenge consists in finding out what modifications should be made, and our opportunity will come in making them. Our inspiration may come from history, in looking back to the early 16th century when the lamp was lifted beside the golden door of the Great Frontier to change the destiny of mankind.


My translation (and I’ve said this before): The modern industrial age is drawing to a close. We are not necessarily heading back to the “dark ages.” But history is moving ahead to something very different. It will be a civilization without excess and ease and relative opulence, which modern man has grown accustomed to. In other words, the future will, of necessity, be far more agrarian-centered than it is now. And I don’t see that as a bad thing. But making the transition could be particularly difficult for many Moderns.


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Additional Information


Since writing the above I've found that Professor Webb was president of the American Historical Association in 1957. In that capacity, he delivered a speech to the Association's annual dinner in Washington , D.C. He spoke about his life and the four books he had written, the last of which was The Great Frontier. You can read the entire speech at this link, but I have posted his comments about The Great Frontier below.
The story of my fourth adventure in history is told in The Great Frontier, published in 1952. It, like The Great Plains, is based on a single idea, best expressed in the question: What effect did all the new lands discovered by Columbus and his associates around 1500 have on Western civilization during the following 450 years? What happened to 100,000,000 people shut up in the wedge of western Eurasia when they suddenly acquired title to six times the amount of land they had before, fresh land, thinly tenanted, loaded with resources too great to be comprehended? What did all this wealth and the act of appropriating it do to and for the 100,000,000 poverty-stricken people of Western Europe and their descendants?


Slowly the thesis emerged, the boom hypothesis, around which the story was to be told. The Great Frontier precipitated a boom on the Metropolis, a boom of gigantic proportions which began when Columbus returned from his first voyage and accelerated until all the new lands had been appropriated. This boom accompanied the rise of modern civilization and attended the birth of a set of new institutions and ideas designed to service a booming society, chief among them modern democracy and capitalism and the idea of progress. The small booms we know, based on oil or gold or soil, burst when that on which they are based is depleted. They have all been temporary, and the period in which they existed has been considered abnormal. But this big boom, based on all the resources of the Great Frontier, lasted so long that it was considered normal and its institutions permanent. By about 1900 the Great Frontier, of which the American frontier was a fragment, began to close, and as it closed the idea of progress and the efficacy of democracy and capitalism were questioned, put in strain, and since 1914 these boom-born ideas and institutions have been fighting a defensive action. Unless we find some means to restore the boom, future historians may look back on the period from 1500 to 1950 as the Age of the Great Frontier, the most abnormal period in the history of mankind. So ran the argument.


By the discoveries the sovereigns of Europe acquired title to all the lands of the Great Frontier. Unable to use so much land, these sovereigns began dispersing it to the people, letting it sift down in townships, leagues, and quarter sections, eventually to small people. This gigantic land dispersal went on constantly from 1600 to 1900, three booming centuries when wealth was moving vertically, from the sovereign downward to the people, making them economically independent and politically free. When the frontier closed, the sovereign had nothing more to give, and then he began the reverse process of taking, not from the frontier, but from some of the people in order to have something to give to others. In short, wealth began making a complete vertical circuit instead of flowing in one direction. This vertical circulation today supplements the horizontal circulation so precious to free enterprisers and keeps it going. If this idea of the dual movement of wealth is true--and it seems obvious once it is pointed out--it should, I thought, have far-reaching implications for the study of modern economics.


The journey through the Great Frontier was a mental adventure of the first magnitude. Many splendid vistas opened, and many things that were familiar took on new meaning. It was lonely there; many times I did not know which way to go, and I, like the boy driving the goats, would have been glad to go home.


As I look back on this program of work, I see in the four books a record of a mental adventure into an expanding world. The Texas Rangers was local, simple in structure, and involved little thought. The Great Plains was regional, based on a single idea. Divided We Stand was national. The Great Frontier was international, and, like The Great Plains, was the expansion of an idea. The common element in them all is the frontier, dominant in three and present in the fourth. Taken together they tell the story of the expansion of the mind from a hard-packed West Texas dooryard to the outer limits of the Western world.
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I invite you to read the following two essays which were inspired by the writings of Walter Prescott Webb:

The Dirty Little Secret of How Corporations became "Persons"

How Farmers Became Slaves To The Corporate Masters

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

WOW! Good stuff!

Anonymous said...

This will sound a bit political, but this quote struck me:
"As it closed, the idea of progress and the efficacy of democracy and capitalism were questioned, put in strain, and since 1914, these boom-born ideas and institutions have been fighting a defense action."
I think one point overlooked in this book is the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve came into existence in 1913. Since this, this nation has declined and our freedoms have gradually disappeared. The same year the Federal Reserve came into existence, the Income Tax came into existence, to ensure payment on the new debt-based currency, whereas before we had a debt-free currency. The Fed allows the printing of money that supports the welfare state and the warfare state. And war is what allows govnerments to take rights without much objection from the general public (After all, we're at war!). With the loss of our freedoms, with the added federal income taxes, and with the loss of purchasing power of our dollars, caused by the Federal Reserve, Americas progress and efficacy have suffered. Capitalism is undermined by a centrally-planed govnerment economy, currenty bordering on Fascism. When look at in that light, it's easy to see why the great expansion has ended.

Joe said...

Very interesting. A few years ago I came to the conclusion that without a frontier to escape tyranny, there can't be freedom.

Anonymous said...

Interesting ideas, but he totally leaves untold the story of slavery. It was the unrewarded labor of millions of Africans (and native Americans) that built the wealth of the New World. Not just in North American cotton. That was minor compared to the sugar plantations in the West Indies and Brazil, and the silver mines of Potosi. It badly needs a hard look at what really built wealth on that scale here. Be sure it was not hard work and diligence. It never has been! -- Jack the historian

MikeyMcD said...

Consumer debt and fiat currency is the dangerous means by which this 'boom' cycle appears to continue.

For how long? I, too, agree that a move back towards faith and agrarianism might be painful for some, but not bad in the end.

Tucker said...

"In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
In 1493 Columbus stole all he could see."

Ol' Prescott seems to have left out the genocide these poor victims of tyranny visited on the existing 12 million people (by the MOST conservative of estimates), using the children as sex rewards for ship captains, bringing along slavery but also for the first time in the world, racism. Distributing blankets of smallpox victims to wipe out whole villages, destroying lives and culture, stealing farms, even cannibalism of the native peoples's and other settlers in the early years in Virginia.

Just make sure people really READ the original documents of our history in libraries, don't just rely on myopic author's to paint a rosy picture that distorts the hard and painful reality. And know that comfort and prosperity are often obtained at the expense of others.

Anonymous said...

Ok. Halfway through your article I ordered the book online, but I'm not panicking.

Herrick Kimball said...

Anonymous,

I'm glad that this essay has prompted you to read Professor Webb's book. I think you will appreciate his perspective.

And the nice thing about having a big-picture perspective of the boom cycle of modern history is that, being well informed, you won't be surprised and need to panic as civilization makes the transition to less prosperity. You can learn to be more self reliant and, thus, be better prepared for the future.

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As for the comments above about genocide and slavery in the past, those things are not especially pertinent to the point of professor Webb's book.

If you get hung up on the atrocities of history, you will miss the point of the boom hypothesis. My point in relating it here is to encourage people to make prudent lifestyle and attitude changes so they won't be victims of what lies ahead.

Sadly, what most modern people do not seem to comprehend is that THEY are slaves to the industrial masters and may well be destined for a type of societal genocide that will be inflicted on them by the downfall of the industrial system.

CorkyAgain said...

The slavery and genocide were means to exploit the vast frontier. They're lamentable, of course, just like the strip mining and other environmental atrocities that also occurred during the boom years.

Prof. Webb's thesis doesn't require to believe that the boom years were the moral high point in human history. There were good things and bad things. Some of them very good and some of them very bad. The point, however, is to see the context in which all of them occurred.

And, yes, to see that today the context has changed, and therefore that we're faced with very different challenges. We can't assume that boom-related ways and institutions will last forever in the absence of the conditions which made them possible.

Herrick Kimball said...

CorkyAgain,

That's well said. Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

I think the methods by which we as a boom society must be looked at. When you are ever growing/expanding/moving you need annual vegetables that come from new ground to table in one season. However, perennials and trees would be the agriculture of a stable more permanent society. However, we still farm in a temporary way using yearly planting that break down the land.

Anonymous said...

Then, is not environmentalism a by-product of this boom? One of the final by-products? Perhaps the very last one?

Everett said...

Hi Herrick, read this post yesterday and went right to Amazon and ordered a copy of the He Great Frontier. I sat talking to my youngest son about what I had read here and in the essay about the Boom Hypothesis of Modern History, and he seemed to grasp it immediately. Especially the part that there are NO MORE Great Frontiers here on earth left for us to exploit! And I could really see the unease in his eyes and his voice as he began to realize just what might be in store for he and his kids and grandchildren. He now understands why I seem to buy and store some of the most unlikely items and stores! Just try to impart to a lot of the younger people, the 30 somethings, that very real likelihood that everyday items, and mundane things like toilet paper may be something you will not see for quite a while when the SHTF. So he cannot wait for the book to arrive to delve into it. Thanks once again for your steering me to a book I never knew existed, but should be required reading in every school hose in the country.
Best to you, Everett