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Classics Review: William Gilpin's

By: Patrick J. Garrity
December 14, 2012

William Gilpin, sometime U.S. army officer, Western explorer, Mexican War veteran, friend of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Hart Benton, land speculator, and governor of the Colorado Territory (1861-62), is sometimes accorded the title of America's first geopolitician. In a series of articles and speeches, summarized in his best known publication, The Central Gold Region: The Grain, Pastoral and Gold Regions of North America, with Some New Views of its Physical Geography; and Observations of the Pacific Railroad (1860), Gilpin argued that the development of the interior of the continent, made possible in large part by a properly-sited transcontinental railroad, would create a new and dominant commercial line of communication between Europe and Asia. This would inaugurate a new era in human affairs focused around what would become the greatest civilization in history, the Republican Empire of North America.

Gilpin adopted the familiar theory of a succession of empires arising along a "hereditary line of progress" from east to west, each one superior to its predecessors. From the geographer Alexander von Humboldt Gilpin derived the idea of the "Isothermal Zodiac," approximately thirty degrees in width across the Northern Hemisphere, whose axis "alternates above and below the 40th degree of latitude, as the neighborhood or remoteness of the oceans modifies the climates of the continents." Through it ran the "Axis of Intensity," whose average temperature was 52 degrees Fahrenheit. The Isothermal Zodiac contained the conditions most favorable to civilization. The overwhelming majority of the white population lived within it. The great empires had formed and migrated along this axis, from China and India to Persia, Greece, Rome, Spain, and Britain. Most of North America, the next and final destination of this progression, lay within the Isothermal Zodiac and was bisected by the Axis of Intensity. The American pioneers were now the instrument of progress for the emerging North American Empire, as they were in the process of rapidly populating the trans-Mississippi region.

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The center of the North American continent was uniquely configured to support the world-historic empire of the future. "This mission of civic empire," Gilpin proclaimed, "has for its oracular principle the physical characteristics and configuration of our continent, wherein the Basin of the Mississippi predominates as supremely as the sun among the planets." The Mississippi Valley was bounded on both sides by mountain rims so that the continent had a generally concave structure. The vast interior was connected by a coherent network of rivers, which resulted in a natural system of communication that facilitated trade, transportation, governance, and a common language and culture. By contrast, Asia and Europe were dissected by central mountain chains and plateaus, and unconnected river systems, which resulted in discrete civilizations constantly at war with one another. The topography of North America, however, was such that if the character of society developed properly, there would be a naturally integrated union, with a population and resources equal to that of the rest of the entire world. Gilpin waxed especially eloquently about what he called the Plateau of North America, part of the Great Table-Land, the area between the main Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, whose prime city was Denver. These lands, even more so than the Mississippi Basin proper, had the most favorable climate, soil, and mineral resources to support an almost unlimited population. Gilpin also popularized the notion of a pastoral "Great Plains," replacing the image of a "Great American Desert" that was sterile and uninhabitable.

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Although nature pointed to the creation of the American Empire, human agency had an essential role to play. The material means for bringing about this Empire was a Pacific or transcontinental railway, which would link the agricultural heartland of North America with the huge, untapped markets of Asia. Gilpin was certain that the line must be built along a central route, from Independence, Missouri through the Rocky Mountains by way of South Pass, and terminating at the mouth of the Columbia River. He argued that this port, rather than San Francisco, would be the natural transit point for Pacific oceanic commerce. Once the American transcontinental railway was completed it would unify the global economy in an unprecedented fashion. By developing the interior and connecting it with the coast, the United States would become the center of a new pattern of international commerce. America's "intermediate geographical position between Asia and Europe...invests her with the powers and duties of arbiter between them. Our continent is at once a barrier which separates the other two, yet fuses and harmonizes their intercourse in all the relations from which force is absent." The great cities of the world, aligned roughly along the line of 40 degrees north, would be linked by a Cosmopolitan Railway that would cross the three principle continents, including a line (or car ferry) over the Bering Strait connecting North America and Asia. The value of sea power would decline and land transportation would take on much greater importance. The commercial and transportation revolution, in turn, would diminish the old cycle of wars among disparate peoples.

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Gilpin argued that Russia, although less favorably situated than North America, was nevertheless in the best position of all other powers to take advantage of the railroad/transportation revolution. Unlike Tocqueville, Gilpin saw a commonality of interests between the Bear and the Eagle, who would have a joint interest in constructing the global rail route:

Probably there are fewer opportunities for disagreements and jealousies than may be found among any other of the first class powers.... [B]oth are among the largest and strongest among civilized powers, both in territory and population, and both are growing larger and stronger while the other powers of Christendom are falling into decay. Build this railway between them, and America and Russia may join hands against all the rest of the world on any issue, military, commercial, and industrial. Then indeed this back way to India of which Columbus dreamed...will become the chief highway of the nations, the front and finishing line of progress, circling round the warm and hospitable Pacific, whose shores are pregnant with limitless undeveloped resources, leaving the cold Atlantic to those who choose to navigate it.


By contrast, Gilpin regarded Britain—the naval power that currently dominated the cold Atlantic—to be the great geopolitical and commercial loser when the North American transcontinental railroad (re)unified the Isothermal Zodiac. The British were the natural enemy of American civilization and were then trying, ineffectually Gilpin believed, to keep the United States from developing its Pacific and Asiatic commerce. But the greatest threat to the American Union was internal—not the division over slavery (which Gilpin was convinced would be overcome naturally by the process of continental growth), but rather the purveyors of what he called a "maritime policy," which had held sway since the Monroe administration.

The maritime policy blends the double object of blocking up the interior, and extending the seaboard in a shell around the continent. For this the navy is enormously increased and the army emasculated. Enterprises in the central states are marred, but those of the seaboard sustained directly from the National Treasury.


Under the maritime policy, the heroic and instinctual march of the "pioneer army" had been scoffed at, burdened by government, and distracted by various "scientific men" who put forward obstacles to the development of the one true rail route across the continent. "To bridle PROGRESS has been the policy of thirty years; to keep the people out of the wilderness; to refuse Territorial governments, and prevent Territories from becoming States." Americans should unite in supporting the "central domestic work" instead of "dissipating the national energies upon circuitous routes, running near the equator, through foreign countries beyond our control, and certain to involve us in the competitions, the jealousies, and the hostile interests of foreigners and rivals."

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The historian of the American West, Bernard DeVoto, concluded that Gilpin's claim of objective, scientific analysis "was early nineteenth century, which is to say that much of it was a priori, deduced, generalized, falsely systematized, and therefore wrong. Much of his extrapolation, though based on persuasive data and worked out with rigorous logic, was sheer fantasy." The relationship between sea and land power, for instance, evolved in different ways than anticipated by Gilpin. His assumption that commercial unification and globalization pointed in a pacific and Pacific direction was, at the very least, premature. Nevertheless, DeVoto argued, "his system contains also remarkable intuitions and anticipation.... In it one sees America learning to think continentally." Gilpin's perspective influenced, or reflected in part, the policies of American statesmen as divergent as Young Democrat Stephen Douglas and progressive Whig William Seward (see the essay on Seward in the December 2012 Notes on Strategy and Statesmanship). Gilpin also foreshadowed the argument of Halford J. Mackinder about the end of the Columbian Age.