The Frontier Thesis

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The Frontier Thesis

Introduction

The emergence of western history as an important field of scholarship started with Frederick Jackson Turner’s (1861-1932) famous essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American history.”[1] This thesis shaped both popular and scholarly views of the West for the next two generations. In his thesis, Turner argued that the West had to be taken seriously. He felt that up to his time there had not been enough research of what he in his essay call “the fundamental, dominating fact in the U.S. history”: the territorial expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. The frontier past was, according to Turner, the best way to describe the distinctive American history and character. To this day, Turner’s thesis remains one of the most widely discussed interpretations of the American past and it still continues to influence historians. Even though many scholars have questioned the thesis as an acceptable theory of explaining American history and culture, the thesis has its strengths. Turner explained what made America unique. America as a unique nation was already a belief when the first colonies were established on the East coast. And the notion that America was exceptional would continue to be re-created again and again on the frontier. The frontier was closely related to the myth that sustained the American faith, the ideals and images that represent the American Dream as well as America as an exceptional nation. The purpose of this paper is to look at the essence of Turner’s argument in his essay, as well as discuss his strongest and weakest arguments. The paper will end with a look at the West as a myth.

The essence of Turner’s thesis

In Turner’s mind, the settlement of the West by white people –“the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward” was the most important part of American history.[2] This is the major theme in Turner’s essay and the heart of the frontier thesis. Turner did not define the West as a geographical place or region but as a process, which defined what he looked upon as uniquely American. According to Turner, the westward expansion had transformed the savage and wild land into a modern civilization. This westward expansion could explain the American development, the national character as well as its democracy. Turner believed that this settling of a wild area of “free land” was an important factor in shaping the American character. American characteristics like individualism, democracy and a strong work ethnic, which Turner looked upon as typical American qualities had all been developed when newcomers settled the wilderness. These special qualities would later influence the whole nation. Other historians and philosophers such as Tocqueville and Hegel have also talked about the impact of the frontier on the American experience, but the Turner thesis was the first to be accepted by other historians. Turner insisted upon the frontier as the number one “explanation” of American history. But it is difficult to understand what he really meant by “explanation”. As argued by Joshua Derman, it is almost impossible for the reader of Turner’s work to deduce whether he intended the “frontier to be the ‘prime mover’ in American political history, the single best explanation for why American cultural and political institutions developed the way they did, or a dogmatic rule for interpreting all events in American history.”[3] The notion that democracy arose because of the frontier is also weak. For example, both Russia and China have vaster frontiers than America, but they lack democracy. And in his essay, Turner has not showed what made the American frontier experience different from other countries with considerable frontiers. To say that the frontier shaped American democratic institutions is vague and hard to prove. It is clear that the new land and communities in the wilderness...
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