In the modern era two growing and developing countries looked to fill their frontiers: the United States looked to the vast western plains and Russia to its seemingly limitless eastern territory.
In the United States the western frontier became a place of opportunity—the Homestead Act allowed both native-born citizens and immigrants to receive at no cost 160 acres if they would live and work on them for five years. Men and women whose ancestors had been serfs bound to another’s land, forced to live on land not their own for generations, were given the opportunity to not only become landowners in their own right, but to become owners of large tracks of rich soil. This had an equalizing effect: if one was down and out, if one lacked opportunity in the cities or the crowded fields out east, one could go west. But one would have to work and survive on one’s own. This encouraged the development of a specific set of character traits: self-reliance, adventurousness, and grit and the underpopulated plains of the “wild” west encouraged freedom, social mobility, and led to greater equality by allowing the very poorest a place to advance. (I should note that African Americans were largely deprived of these benefits and these benefits often harmed American Indians that were living in these areas.)
The Russian frontier, on the other hand, became a place of oppression. Instead of allowing underfed and oppressed serfs the opportunity to (internally) emigrate and become self-reliant land-owners, the Russian Tsars often used the vast eastern lands as a means of controlling their subjects. Tens of thousands of Russian subjects were sent to prisons and labor camps in the east because of things they said or wrote. While the American west afforded seemingly limitless opportunity and freedom, the Russian east was used to make sure that Russians did not suggest changes to the status quo or attempt to politically organize in order to do things like reform serfdom, ask for freedom of speech or press or religion, work towards voting rights, etc.
The contrast between the way the American and Russian frontiers were utilized shows that the American experience was not a foregone conclusion, it could have been otherwise. In the late 1800s the great UW professor Fredrick Jackson Turner argued that America’s frontier experience was the formative experience of our nation. Many qualities that we associate with America—the idea that America is the land of opportunity, that hard work pays off, that anyone can progress from ‘rags to riches’ is grounded in Americans’ experience on the frontier. And no book (series) better embodies the ethos of the American frontier than Little House in the Prairie.
I assume that many of us read these books as children and nearly all of us have seen episodes of the classic television series. These books and those shows (which seem to be only marginally connected to the books) show the great struggle of man against nature. “Pa” Ingels decides to uproot his family (and uproot them again and again) in search of opportunity, in search of a better life for his children. He and his family must overcome inclement weather, bad harvests, and financial difficulties. They are hard-working, determined, self-reliant, and they ultimately succeed.
Of the virtues that lead to their success the one that stands out to me more than any other is their temperance. In order to survive and thrive the family must live simply and frugally. They are forced to deny themselves many things they want in order to someday, hopefully, attain greater things. As a result they learn contentment in simple things. My Mother used to scold me and my sister by (rightly) pointing out that Laura was more happy and content with her one doll than we were with our piles of toys. In our “throw-away” culture of excess, temperance, the virtue of desiring a reasonable amount and finding contentment in what we have, even when it is less than we desire, is a virtue that is well worth praising and inculcating in our children.