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Frederick Jackson Turner Frontier Thesis Essay

This week's reading is Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis" (1893).

Turner delivered his thesis lecture at the Chicago World's Fair Columbian Exposition of 1893, at one of the early meetings of the American Historical Association. Outside the gates of this fair, Buffalo Bill re-enacted his Wild West Show, in a piece of pop-culture entertainment that was also part of the frontier myth. That is not to denigrate Turner: he was a great writer and promoter. But like all historians, he was also drawing from the larger culture, including the Leatherstocking, Boone, and Buffalo Bill myths that preceded him. Turner's frontier thesis helped him become a professor at Harvard, the president of the American Historical Association, and the leading trainer of at least a generation of American historians.

"Turner's essay is the single most influential piece of writing in American history," John Mack Faragher wrote in Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner. "The frontier thesis became the most familiar model of American history, the one learned in school, extolled by politicians, and screened each Saturday afternoon at the Bijou." So what is Turner's frontier thesis?

“The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization," Turner declared. “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character....

“Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file – the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer – and the frontier has passed by....

“And to study this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history."

Before Turner, many history students had memorized European monarchs. Many Americans did not think there was much American history to study. Turner proposed a framework for studying the uniqueness of America through examining the character of America's pioneers.

Here is Turner, photographed next to his books. He had grown up in Wisconsin as it turned from a place for hunting and logging into a place for farming, and that experience affected his views. 

As the quotes above show, Turner believed there was a sort of evolution, visible at Cumberland Gap: from the buffalo to the Indian to the fur-trader, cowboy, and then farmer. He believed that the force of westward expansion forged the American character. He believed there was such a thing as an American character, and that that character was individualistic, practical, militarily-skilled, and formed by economic opportunity and social mobility. He believed that westering American character helped secure our democracy.

“In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics...." By "race," here, Turner means a general white American, instead of a British-American, French-American, or Irish-American. Turner lived at a time when "Irish" and "French" were considered races. Turner doesn't seem to be speaking about Asian-Americans or Mexican-Americans or African-Americans, only about what we would now call Ethnic European Americans.

In 1893, Turner was worried because the 1890 census had declared the frontier closed. What would now provide the character-forming melting-pot of Americans? What would now provide that "opportunity for a competency" that had kept Americans from having many poor people? "So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power," Turner wrote, in another important sentence. 1893 was the beginning of a depression, it was a time of immense immigration, it was a time to worry about the closing of the frontier. Turner hints that we might need to find new frontiers:

“Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.”

In some ways, Turner's theory is an extended prose caption to the painting we saw in post 1b, George Bingham's "Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap" -- except that Bingham included women, and Turner doesn't.

There is much that Turner didn't see:

* He didn't consider the perspective of anyone not crossing Cumberland Gap; anyone for whom the west was actually the east (as it was for Asians) or the north (as it was for Mexicans) or the south (as it was for Canadians and some Russians), or just home (as it was for Native Americans).

* He didn't see that it was groups who settled the west, more than individuals: families, religious sects (especially Mormons, but also various utopians), and especially corporations (especially railroads).

* He didn't see that America's west relied on government subsidies for irrigation, transportation, and other infrastructure.

* He didn't see that cities were such an integral part of western expansion that Chicago and San Francisco came first, before the pioneer cowboy.

* He didn't notice women, children, or racial minorities

* And he didn't know (he couldn't know in 1893) that the government actually gave away more free land after 1890 than before.

Why am I assigning you something that has been subject to almost a century of debunking? Because Turner’s thesis still matters. Even if you had never read Turner’s thesis, you are probably familiar with the general story he tells: the nobility of the cowboy, the adventure of settlement, the importance of open space to the American character. It’s in every Marlboro Man ad, every western movie, every Boy Scouts meeting, every wilderness campground.

The myth is still with us, whether we are fans of John Wayne, fans of the anti-Wayne “Deadwood,” or bored by our culture's continual re-creation of westerns. The myth is with us in our assumptions about who is an average American, what is noble, who is trusted, how much government is good, what is our relationship to the environment. It is one of our founding myths and versions of it can be found everywhere from Disneyland to the daily newspaper.

It is a myth that has had powerful consequences, as we can see by considering Teddy Roosevelt, our 26th president -- the subject of the next blog post.

Frederick Jackson Turner, (born November 14, 1861, Portage, Wisconsin, U.S.—died March 14, 1932, San Marino, California), American historian best known for the “frontier thesis.” The single most influential interpretation of the American past, it proposed that the distinctiveness of the United States was attributable to its long history of “westering.” Despite the fame of this monocausal interpretation, as the teacher and mentor of dozens of young historians, Turner insisted on a multicausal model of history, with a recognition of the interaction of politics, economics, culture, and geography. Turner’s penetrating analyses of American history and culture were powerfully influential and changed the direction of much American historical writing.

Born in frontier Wisconsin and educated at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Turner did graduate work at Johns Hopkins University under Herbert Baxter Adams. Awarded his doctorate in 1891, he was one of the first historians professionally trained in the United States rather than Europe. Turner began his teaching career at the University of Wisconsin in 1889. He began to make his mark with his first professional paper, “The Significance of History” (1891), which contains the famous line “each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time.” The controversial notion that there was no fixed historical truth, and that all historical interpretation should be shaped by present concerns, would become the hallmark of the so-called “New History,” a movement that called for studies illuminating the historical development of the political and cultural controversies of the day. Turner should be counted among the “progressive historians,” though, with the political temperament of a small-town Midwesterner, his progressivism was rather timid. Nevertheless, he made it clear that his historical writing was shaped by a contemporary agenda.

Turner first detailed his own interpretation of American history in his justly famous paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” delivered at a meeting of historians in Chicago in 1893 and published many times thereafter. Adams, his mentor at Johns Hopkins, had argued that all significant American institutions derived from German and English antecedents. Rebelling against this view, Turner argued instead that Europeans had been transformed by the process of settling the American continent and that what was unique about the United States was its frontier history. (Ironically, Turner passed up an opportunity to attend Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show so that he could complete “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” on the morning that he presented it.) He traced the social evolution of frontier life as it continually developed across the continent from the primitive conditions experienced by the explorer, trapper, and trader, through maturing agricultural stages, finally reaching the complexity of city and factory. Turner held that the American character was decisively shaped by conditions on the frontier, in particular the abundance of free land, the settling of which engendered such traits as self-reliance, individualism, inventiveness, restless energy, mobility, materialism, and optimism. Turner’s “frontier thesis” rose to become the dominant interpretation of American history for the next half-century and longer. In the words of historian William Appleman Williams, it “rolled through the universities and into popular literature like a tidal wave.” While today’s professional historians tend to reject such sweeping theories, emphasizing instead a variety of factors in their interpretations of the past, Turner’s frontier thesis remains the most popular explanation of American development among the literate public.

For a scholar of such wide influence, Turner wrote relatively few books. His Rise of the New West, 1819–1829 (1906) was published as a volume in The American Nation series, which included contributions from the nation’s leading historians. The follow-up to that study, The United States, 1830–1850: The Nation and Its Sections (1935), would not be published until after his death. Turner may have had difficulty writing books, but he was a brilliant master of the historical essay. The winner of an oratorical medal as an undergraduate, he also was a gifted and active public speaker. His deep, melodious voice commanded attention whether he was addressing a teachers group, an audience of alumni, or a branch of the Chautauqua movement. His writing, too, bore the stamp of oratory; indeed, he reworked his lectures into articles that appeared in the nation’s most influential popular and scholarly journals.

Many of Turner’s best essays were collected in The Frontier in American History (1920) and The Significance of Sections in American History (1932), for which he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1933. In these writings Turner promoted new methods in historical research, including the techniques of the newly founded social sciences, and urged his colleagues to study new topics such as immigration, urbanization, economic development, and social and cultural history. He also commented directly on the connections he saw between the past and the present.

The end of the frontier era of continental expansion, Turner reasoned, had thrown the nation “back upon itself.” Writing that “imperious will and force” had to be replaced by social reorganization, he called for an expanded system of educational opportunity that would supplant the geographic mobility of the frontier. “The test tube and the microscope are needed rather than ax and rifle,” he wrote; “in place of old frontiers of wilderness, there are new frontiers of unwon fields of science.” Pioneer ideals were to be maintained by American universities through the training of new leaders who would strive “to reconcile popular government and culture with the huge industrial society of the modern world.”

Whereas in his 1893 essay he celebrated the pioneers for the spirit of individualism that spurred migration westward, 25 years later Turner castigated “these slashers of the forest, these self-sufficing pioneers, raising the corn and live stock for their own need, living scattered and apart.” For Turner the national problem was “no longer how to cut and burn away the vast screen of the dense and daunting forest” but “how to save and wisely use the remaining timber.” At the end of his career, he stressed the vital role that regionalism would play in counteracting the atomization brought about by the frontier experience. Turner hoped that stability would replace mobility as a defining factor in the development of American society and that communities would become stronger as a result. What the world needed now, he argued, was “a highly organized provincial life to serve as a check upon mob psychology on a national scale, and to furnish that variety which is essential to vital growth and originality.” Turner never ceased to treat history as contemporary knowledge, seeking to explore the ways that the nation might rechannel its expansionist impulses into the development of community life.

Turner taught at the University of Wisconsin until 1910, when he accepted an appointment to a distinguished chair of history at Harvard University. At these two institutions he helped build two of the great university history departments of the 20th century and trained many distinguished historians, including Carl Becker, Merle Curti, Herbert Bolton, and Frederick Merk, who became Turner’s successor at Harvard. He was an early leader of the American Historical Association, serving as its president in 1910 and on the editorial board of the association’s American Historical Review from 1910 to 1915. Poor health forced his early retirement from Harvard in 1924. Turner moved to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where he remained as senior research associate until his death.

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