Despite being published in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner’s paper The Significance of the Frontier in the American History remains topical in academic conversations about the historical role of the West. Furthermore, the Frontier Thesis can be seen as a starting point for various discussions about the spirit and the overall values of the American people. It touches on such multi-layered subjects as the influences on national character and the role of the frontier in American history and culture. This paper aims to examine the thesis statements of this work and analyze them in detail. The final section of this paper centers on the exploration of the historical context at the time and the ways in which the Frontier Theory has influenced the writers in the following years.
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The Thesis statements of “The Significance of the Frontier in the American History”
Turner begins his essay by assigning the American frontier the role of the national guiding star. According to his viewpoint, it simultaneously represents and fuels the country’s hunger for development and progress. Turner refers to the frontier as “the outer wage of the wave, the meeting point between savagery and civilization” (2). In this, the American frontier is argued to be very different from the European, which serves as a hard dividing line between separate and well-established populations. The paper states the importance of the ever-expanding frontier that lies at the very edge of the free land for the formation of the American national character. Symbolically speaking, in Turner’s eyes, this frontier represents the triumph of democracy and humanity’s yearning for freedom, and those who oppose the expansion consecutively oppose freedom.
Another important thesis outlined in the paper can be thematically related to the first and is tied to Turner’s ideas on the roles and societies of the West and the East. One is associated with exploration, independence, and a democratic ideal, whereas the other is guided by jealousy, fear, and outdated perception of the world. It is necessary to specify here that these concepts are analyzed within the context of American geography, sociology, and history and do not comment on the absolute West and East worldwide. Turner reflects on the history of the American exploration and the expansion of the border further West, which the East attempted to limit and hedge (18). Within the paper’s framework and, by extension, the particular perspective on American history, the West and the East represent opposing ideas and values. West stands for exploration, independence, and freedom, seeking contact with the wilderness and continuously expanding the frontier further into the unknown. East, on the contrary, represents conformity, caution, and the expiring systems of the Old World, that attempt to limit the freedom of the West out of jealousy but ultimately fail.
Historically, a conflict of values and attitudes between geographically opposed parts of the United States is nothing unheard of. Yet most well-known studies expectedly prioritize the emblematic divide between the North and the South. The opposition between the West and the East in America is less heard of yet can be easily observed in average behaviors of the relevant demographics even today. Namely, the frontier region of the United States has significantly higher numbers of unusual names for its newborn children (Bazzi et al., 2339). This is a small-scale example, yet an entertaining and accessible illustration of a general trend nonetheless.
The “Wild West” is a recognizable historical and cultural image for the American people and is generally associated with the strength and independence of character. As the frontier kept expanding, the people living closer to it had to deal with difficult terrain and viewed themselves as conquerors of the wilderness. Consecutively, they perceived those settled in more comfortable areas as non-deserving of authority over their affairs. Bazzi, Fiszbein, and Gebresilasse point out in their research how frontier regions exhibited more significant levels of individualism and opposition to redistribution and government intervention in general (2329). Living on the edge of the known Western world, they cultivated an increased sense of personal uniqueness and a level of contempt towards the authorities located relatively closer to the East. Whether objectively correct or not, Turner’s observations on the American West and East reflect the common perceptions within the country, at least to a certain degree.
The association between the American national character and the frontier line is, perhaps, even easier to establish. It has been observed by researchers of different fields that American people as a demographic pride on their distinct and unifying character traits. Modern historians frequently call into question the existence of national character in the ethnically diverse and racially conflicted contemporary America (Allen and McGuire, 230). Yet, there exists a general semblance of agreement on the existence of perceived natural character in the America of the past. At the end of the 19th century America in the eyes of its scholars, has been a white, ethnically consistent nation of explorers, defined by their daring and independence. There is also evidence to suggest that an opposition spirit towards the existing regime is a cultural trait of the American people (Allen and McGuire, 230), strengthening Turner’s theory. If the national character has been shaped by the ever-evolving line between civilization and the wilderness, rebellious tendencies are only natural.
Historical Context and Influence
When analyzing the social and intellectual environment that has influenced Turner’s frontier thesis, the initial writing date is crucial to keep in mind. Initially, The Significance of the Frontier in American History was written and presented in 1893 at the meeting of the American Historical Association at the World’s Columbian Expedition. At the end of the 19th century, Americanization and the expansion of the West has begun to slow down, making it appropriate to comment on the historical impact of the era. The laws, ideas, and needs, that dominated the narrative at the time of the paper’s publication have been primarily dictated by the needs of the frontier (Bazzi et al., 2335). As a pioneer of American social development, the frontier region became the most recognizable one outside of the U.S. Historically speaking, it was responsible for the promotion of American democracy and way of life overseas. Turner references the cyclical social ecosystem that has formed around the frontier every time between its expansions further to the West (238). It is no coincidence that the far Western way of life became frequently represented in cinema and literature.
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Every time the frontier demographic had to settle down anew and adjust to living in yet another unfamiliar, geographically challenging region, accompanied by nearly all the dangers of the wilderness. This dynamic environment fueled not only the sense of independence and self-sufficiently of the West but its loyalty and protectiveness towards the ideas of the American democracy. In the years following the presentation of the thesis and the publication of Turner’s book in 1921, the views on the American national character have evolved. During the 20th century, the United States went through a series of radical social and cultural transformations. The existence of the national character has been called into question, as both the colonial heritage of the U.S. and its multi-layered immigrational politics became recognized in academic circles. However, it is also evident that Turner’s Frontier Thesis has made a significant impact on American national psychology and the researchers who have written about it. It fueled the process of ideological separation of the American political and cultural institutions from those of Great Britain and contributed significantly to the formation of the national image.
Turner’s Frontier Thesis is an emblematic work of historical and cultural thought that reflects the values and national spirit of the United States. Undoubtedly, its most significant philosophical and academic value can only be achieved when accounted for the circumstances and time period of its publication. The political landscape of the modern-day is, of course, drastically different from the one relevant in the late 19th century. Yet American people remain culturally known for their stubborn independence, individualism, and romanticization of the wilderness and freedom-guided lifestyle; the values heavily influenced by the Western frontier (Knudsen, 5). It is interesting how one can trace the generally recognized traits of a national spirit back to significant historical events and structures. One can argue that the Frontier Thesis simultaneously reflects the national self-perception of the days gone by and explains certain aspects of the modern American mentality.
Allen, W. B., and McGuire S. “Liberty And American National Character: A Symposium”. Perspectives On Political Science, vol 49, no. 4, 2020, pp. 230-232. Informa UK Limited. Web.
Bazzi, Samuel et al. “Frontier Culture: The Roots And Persistence Of “Rugged Individualism” In The United States”. Econometrica, vol 88, no. 6, 2020, pp. 2329-2368. The Econometric Society. Web.
Knudsen, Anne Sophie Beck. “Those Who Stayed: Individualism, Self-Selection and Cultural Change During the Age of Mass Migration”. SSRN Electronic Journal, 2019, pp. 1-71, Elsevier BV. Web.
Turner, Frederick. The Frontier in American History. Henry Holt, 1921, pp. 1-375. Web.