Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1883)
Historical Context Historical Society lecture presented in Chicago, Illinois (major urban area of the midwest); Concurrent with the Columbia Exposition; Buffalo Bill Cody’s Travelling Wild West Show Performing at the same time; Response to Census of 1880 which noted that the American Frontier has ceased to exist.
Historical Context Turner is writing at a moment in time when the frontier has been "officially closed“ as reported in the 1880 Census (18). His argument is profoundly influenced by earlier writers, such as de Crevecoeur. His argument is that the influence of the frontier on the national character transcends its historical or geographical specificity.
Historical Context Turner’s essay establishes the direction of interpreting American history and culture throughout much of the 20 th century. While many of his premises have been challenged or discredited, his essay still influences our understanding of the development of American civilization and national identity.
Questions to Consider How does Turner define American history? Where does he focus his attention? What metaphors or phrases does he use to describe “history”? How does he conceive of history? How does Turner define the American frontier (in contrast to the European “frontier”? (19-20) What is the relationship between the American frontier and American society? Does Turner see these as opposites or as interrelated? If they are related, what is the relationship? How does one influence the other?
Turner’s Thesis The history of America is essentially a history of westward movement and expansion. Turner describes 6 major stages of development along the American frontier from the colonial era through 1890 (20-22). The American West, as a self-conscious region, begins to emerge during the third stage of development.
The Frontier Defined Turner's definition of the American frontier (in contrast to the European frontier) Let’s look at some passages on pages 19-20.
Frontier and Society Turner believes in a vital link between the American frontier and American civilization (society). The frontier exists to serve society, as a source of renewal and regeneration of the social. The frontier transforms Europeans (and European society) into Americans (23ff). It is not just a natural space but a vital social space that assists in building a nation (30;35).
Frontier and Society However, this is not simply an advancement of civilization (progress) but a RETURN to an original (more natural) condition, 19ff. Therefore, the frontier is a space where individuals and society can be renewed, begin again, and seek out new opportunities.
Frontier and Society Like de Crevecoeur, Turner emphasizes that the farmer AND and his family are essential to the westward expansion across the continent. While other professions exist on the frontier (the hunter, the tradesman, the cowboy, etc.), the farmer is the ideal American. Daniel Boone is the ideal model for the frontiersman / farmer / family man (28). For Turner, the frontier is fundamentally a social and domestic space. While others (hunters and traders) may lead the way, the social organization of the farmer / pioneer is essential.
The Relationship of the Frontier to American History and Culture: Composite Nationality Industrial Independence American Political Affairs and Legislation Growth of Democracy Religion and Education Intellectual Characteristics (The American Mind)
Composite Nationality The "crucible" of the frontier removes people from their original cultures and creates a melting pot where "immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race" (30-31). How does this compare with de Crevecoeur’s idea of the “melting pot”? The frontier breaks down regional, ethnic and cultural divisions and creates a new national culture (35).
Industrial Independence Ironically, technology and industry are not in opposition to the frontier. Technology and industry emerge on the frontier and in response to its conditions. The railroad, canal systems, forms of communication, and new developments in industry and agriculture are all products of the frontier (21; 31). These technologies are closely associated with the ideology of freedom. They create the conditions of freedom in America.
Political Affairs and Legislation American politics and its major legislation are influenced by the frontier. Ownership of the land: federal, states, individual? Indian Question The creation of “States” Legislation over land: Louisiana Purchase; Monroe Doctrine, etc. Slavery / Compromise of 1850
Democracy The most important influence of the frontier has been in the promotion and development of democracy (a kind of ideal social / political organization) (35ff). The frontier provides the conditions and environment that allow the American Revolution to occur. It produces a kind of individualism that can become the basis for social organization.
Democracy However, Turner also recognizes that there is a danger to the kind of democracy that emerges on the frontier (see 36), if it threatens to destroy the social framework, a destructive form of individualism. Therefore, Turner introduces religion and education (37ff) as social institutions that can regulate and control the negative forces on the frontier.
Religion and Education Society both desires the frontier as the site of social expansion and renewal, but it also fears the frontier as the site of lawless, destructive, anti- social behavior. Turner views religion and education not as inherently valuable (as spiritual or intellectual) but as institutions of social control that produce certain kinds of social and individual codes of moral and ethical behavior. Religion and Education are thus essentially pragmatic.
Intellectual Traits (American Mind) These forces are what shape the American character; The unique experience of moving into / settling the frontier creates a spirit of independence, democratic institutions, sense of patriotism, and individualism. The frontier naturalizes these qualities, and give rise to what Turner and others will call the intellectual traits of America that are created by the frontier (39-40). These traits are consistent with what later consensus scholars will call the American Mind.