De Tocqueville next treats of the geographic form of the continent, the native flora and fauna, and the nature of the indigenous peoples. In this chapter the reader finds a facet of the American experience which greatly impressed both our forefathers and foreign observers: the vastness, stark grandeur, and natural wealth of the country which it was our privilege to inherit. Extensive coasts, verdant forests, great rivers, fertile plains, towering mountains and burning deserts all presented the early Americans with seemingly inexhaustible prospects to grow, to cultivate, to tame a land and build a home.
This experience of seemingly boundless opportunity shaped our national consciousness. The ambition, the independence, the ingenuity, the courage bordering on recklessness that for so long characterized Americans to foreigners, was a natural result of a population of exiles and adventurers encountering an environment that presented such challenges, and such rewards. Impatience with any limitation, and an unquenchable thirst for ever more glorious accomplishment, ensured that the settlers of North America would exploit their land’s resources to the full, and produce the rich and powerful hegemon of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Americans have reached the limits of their geographic boundaries, but our restless need to expand, our attitude toward the world as something to be shaped and subdued, still drives us. Will this frontier psyche find new outlets, elsewhere in the world, in the oceans, in space? Or will the American spirit change with the changing world?