Frontier Thesis


The Frontier Thesis is an argument by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 that the origin of the distinctive egalitarian, democratic, aggressive, and innovative features of the American character has been the American frontier experience. He stressed the process—the moving frontier line—and the impact it had on pioneers going through the process.

In the thesis, the frontier established liberty by releasing Americans from European mind-sets and ending prior customs of the 19th century. Turner first announced his thesis in a paper entitled ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History,’ delivered to the American Historical Association in 1893 in Chicago. Turner elaborated on many points in a series of essays published over the next 25 years, but never a wrote a book on the frontier.

Other historians had begun to explore the meaning of the frontier, such as Theodore Roosevelt, who had a different theory. Roosevelt argued that the battles between the trans-Appalachian pioneers and the Indians in the ‘Winning of the West’ had forged a new people, the American race. His emphasis on the importance of the frontier in shaping American character influenced the interpretation found in thousands of scholarly histories. His model of sectionalism as a composite of social forces, such as ethnicity and land ownership, gave historians the tools to use social history as the foundation for all social, economic, and political developments in American history. By the time Turner died in 1932, 60% of the leading history departments in the U.S. were teaching courses in frontier history along Turnerian lines.

Turner set up an evolutionary model (he had studied evolution with a leading geologist, Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin), using the time dimension of American history, and the geographical space of the land that became the United States. The first settlers who arrived on the east coast in the 17th century acted and thought like Europeans. They encountered environmental challenges that were different from those they had known in Europe. Most important was the presence of uncultivated arable land. They adapted to the new environment in certain ways — the cumulative effect of these adaptations was Americanization. According to Turner, the forging of the unique and rugged American identity had to occur precisely at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness. The dynamic of these oppositional conditions engendered a process by which citizens were made, citizens with the power to tame the wild and upon whom the wild had conferred strength and individuality.

Successive generations moved further inland, shifting the lines of settlement and wilderness, but preserving the essential tension between the two. European characteristics fell by the wayside and the old country’s institutions (e.g. established churches, established aristocracies, intrusive government, and class-based land distribution) were increasingly out of place. Every generation moved further west and became more American, more democratic, and as intolerant of hierarchy as they were removed from it. They became more violent, more individualistic, more distrustful of authority, less artistic, less scientific, and more dependent on ad-hoc organizations they formed themselves. In broad terms, the further west, the more American the community.

Turner saw the land frontier was ending, since the U.S. Census of 1890 had officially stated that the American frontier had broken up. He sounded an alarming note, speculating as to what this meant for the continued dynamism of American society as the source of America’s innovation and democratic ideals was disappearing.

Turner’s thesis quickly became popular among intellectuals. It explained why the American people and American government were so different from their European counterparts. It was popular among New Dealers–Franklin Roosevelt and his top aides thought in terms of finding new frontiers. FDR, in celebrating the third anniversary of Social Security in 1938, advised, ‘There is still today a frontier that remains unconquered — an America unreclaimed. This is the great, the nation-wide frontier of insecurity, of human want and fear. This is the frontier — the America — we have set ourselves to reclaim.’ Historians adopted it, especially in studies of the west, but also in other areas, such as the influential work of Alfred D. Chandler, Jr.  in business history.

Many believed that the end of the frontier represented the beginning of a new stage in American life and that the United States must expand overseas. For this reason, some critics on the left saw the Frontier Thesis as the impetus for a new wave in the history of US imperialism. However, Turner’s work, in contrast to Roosevelt’s ‘The Winning of the West,’ places greater emphasis on the development of American republicanism than on territorial conquest or the subjugation of the Native Americans. Radical historians of the 1970s who wanted to focus scholarship on minorities, especially Native Americans and Hispanics, disparaged the frontier thesis because it did not attempt to explain the evolution of those groups. Indeed their approach was to reject the frontier as an important process and limit the story to what happened inside the western areas of the US.

Turner’s ideas influenced many areas of historiography. In the history of religion, churches adapted to the characteristics of the frontier, creating new denominations such as the Mormons, the Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the Cumberland Presbyterians. The frontier shaped uniquely American institutions such as revivals, camp meetings, and itinerant preaching. This view dominated religious historiography for decades. Moos (2002) shows that the 1910s to 1940s black filmmaker and novelist Oscar Micheaux incorporated Turner’s frontier thesis into his work. Micheaux promoted the West as a place where blacks could transcend race and earn economic success through hard work and perseverance.

Slatta (2001) argues that the widespread popularization of Turner’s frontier thesis influenced popular histories, motion pictures, and novels, which characterize the West in terms of individualism, frontier violence, and rough justice. Disneyland’s ‘Frontierland’ of the late 20th century reflected the myth of rugged individualism that celebrated what was perceived to be the American heritage. The public has ignored academic historians’ anti-Turnerian models, largely because they conflict with and often destroy the icons of Western heritage. However, the work of historians during the 1980s-1990s, some of whom sought to bury Turner’s conception of the frontier and others who have sought to spare the concept while presenting a more balanced and nuanced view, have done much to place Western myths in context and rescue Western history from them.

Subsequent critics, historians, and politicians have suggested that other ‘frontiers,’ such as scientific innovation, could serve similar functions in American development. Historians have noted that John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s explicitly called upon the ideas of the frontier. At his acceptance speech, Kennedy called out to the American people, ‘I am asking each of you to be new pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age — to the stout in spirit, regardless of party.’ Mathiopoulos notes that he ‘cultivated this resurrection of frontier ideology as a motto of progress (‘getting America moving’) throughout his term of office.’ He promoted his political platform as the ‘New Frontier,’ with a particular emphasis on space exploration and technology. Limerick points out that Kennedy assumed that ‘the campaigns of the Old Frontier had been successful, and morally justified.’ The ‘frontier’ metaphor thus maintained its rhetorical ties to American social progress. The frontier thesis is one of the most influential documents on the American west today.

Kolb and Hoddeson argues that during the heyday of Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier,’ the physicists who built the Fermi Labs explicitly sought to recapture the excitement of the old frontier. They argue that, ‘Frontier imagery motivates Fermilab physicists, and a rhetoric remarkably similar to that of Turner helped them secure support for their research.’ Rejecting the East and West coast life styles that most scientists preferred, they selected a Chicago suburb. They rejected the militaristic design of Los Alamos and Brookhaven as well as the academic architecture of the Lawrence-Berkeley Laboratory and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Instead Fermilab’s planners sought to return to Turnerian themes. They emphasized the values of individualism, empiricism, simplicity, equality, courage, discovery, independence, and naturalism in the service of democratic access, human rights, ecological balance, and the resolution of social, economic, and political issues. Milton Stanley Livingston, the lab’s associate director, said in 1968, ‘The frontier of high energy and the infinitesimally small is a challenge to the mind of man. If we can reach and cross this frontier, our generations will have furnished a significant milestone in human history.’

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