American War for Independence

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Perhaps the most famous of all progressive historians is Frederick Jackson Turner. His most famous argument is not devoted strictly to the American Revolution, but instead to the effects of the American frontier. In a sentence, his argument is that the frontier was the chief determinant in American history.

This is not to say that Turner did not write about the war; he did. Even in his seminal work, The Frontier in American History, there are discussions of the frontier''s effect on the coming of the revolution. It is worth noting, before exploring Turner's arguments, that the frontier in this period was only about one hundred miles from the Atlantic coast. Of course, as the period under scrutiny approaches the war chronologically, the frontier moves away from the ocean. But it is important to remember that Turner defines the Jamestown of Captain John Smith in 1607 as the frontier in its initial stage. So, in this context, it makes sense to the almost-twenty-first-century reader when Turner refers to the frontier as defined by the Proclamation of 1763 as the "Old West."

Turner gives an idea of his world-view near the end of the book:

The transformations through which the United States is passing in our own day are so profound, so far-reaching, that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that we are witnessing the birth of a new nation in America. The revolution in social and economic structure of this country during the past two decades is comparable to what occurred when independence was declared and the constitution was formed, or to the changes wrought by the era which began half a century ago, the era of Civil War and Reconstruction (Turner1920, 311). This point bears further examination in the context of all the historians being compared in this paper, but in a later section. It is more important at this point to continue with the discussion of Turner's examination of the war as it relates to his frontier thesis. Briefly, Turner argues five points specific to the war in his overall treatment of the frontier. First, a fighting frontier had been established from Georgia to New England as a result of the colonial wars with the French. Second, a primitively agricultural and democratically self-sufficient society had been established on the frontier that was profoundly and fundamentally different from the society from which the frontiersmen''s progenitors had sprung; it is of course because those progenitors were different from their fellows that they came across the ocean in the first place. Third, the frontier developed home markets for the growing—--though still small—--colonial industrial base, lessening the importance of the triangular trade. Fourth, non-English settlers had caused an unintended and at first informal breach with the mother country that later fueled separatist sentiment; it is no great thing in the thick of rebellion to forget that the war was at first a war for the rights of Englishmen when one is not an Englishman in the first place. Fifth, the frontier by its very nature reflected a contest between the privileged and the non-privileged; Turner maintains that this dichotomy was more in evidence outside New England and was more of a democratic revolution outside that region than inside (Turner 1920, 106-111).

Of course, one is tempted to minimize, or even belittle this last observation by pointing out that the New Englanders provided the bulk of the troops for the rebel army

In any case, Turner's arguments foreshadow those of another historian, J. Franklin Jameson. Both argue a geographical or quasi-geographical determinism. Both argue that the war was a revolution that resulted in greater democracy, though their definitions of democracy are rather broad, to include—--especially—--economic considerations. Before turning to Jameson, however, I would like to mention another work by Turner, entitled The Significance of Sections in American History, which was published in 1932, at the...
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