“Who we are” has always been defined in part by “who we’re not,” and who we’re not is often symbolized by our borders. America’s edges, its international borders, have become a critical focus of identity politics and border security - keeping out Mexican migrants, Canadian drug smugglers and other fiends - grist for the Sunday morning news show mills. However, today’s Fortress America is hardly new; students who examine America’s mid-nineteenth-century rush to solidify its national borders would find that their ancestors made a similar equation. The ways they defined their borders reflected the ways they defined themselves. In 1840 Congress commissioned a survey of the disputed land and border between Maine and Canada. Under the director of Captain Andrew Talcott, the commission’s maps, diaries, field notes, reports and correspondence reflect the perceptions that borderlands were the places where cultural and physiographic differences between Americans and British North America were visible and palpable enough to sustain an international boundary. Talcott and his fellow expeditionists were cultural explorers who interpreted the northeastern border even as they sought to draw it. Their border, like ours today, was as much an idea as it was a real place and a mirror reflecting what mid-nineteenth-century Americans thought they were, and were not.

Note on the Author

Andrew Holman is Professor in the History Department, and is Associate Editor of Bridgewater Review.