Reviewing the Construct of American Exceptionalism: Turner’s Frontier & the Naturalization of Power
Lindsay King – 0549018
HIST 4120 Topics in Global History
“[…] and as we lay and smoked the pipe of peace and compared all this luxury to the years of tiresome city life that had gone before it, we felt that there was only one complete and satisfying happiness in the world, and we had found it.”
-Mark Twain, Roughing It
During his Presidential campaign in 2009, Barack Obama was quoted saying he believed in American Exceptionalism.12 Andrew Sullivan later wrote an editorial for The Atlantic in which he argued that the Presidential candidate had been misunderstood. Sullivan believed Obama thought America exceptional, but not superior. The need for this clarification, the printed conversation that ensued between Sullivan and the readers of The Atlantic is significant. I believe there exists a inner-national struggle over the realization that the privileged American role in contemporary international arena is unjustified.3 As the United States slowly resigns its position as a global hegemonic superpower the construction of American Exceptionalism becomes increasingly transparent. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Significance of the Frontier in American History was published. In it, Turner argued that American Exceptionalism developed through the process of colonization and settlement along the Western frontier. The frontier (Turner argued) distinguishes America from the rest of the world, and most importantly, from Europe. Eurocentrism and American Exceptionalism are both rooted in a linear view of history in which both Europe and America (respectively) are the ideal civilization. American Exceptionalism is distinct from Eurocentrism in that it assumes the final rather than merely top run of the civilization hierarchy. In light of this development, it is understandable that American viewers may feel uncomfortable accepting Obama’s notion of American Exceptionalism since it does not claim supremacy.
The Significance of the Frontier in American History:
Frederick Jackson Turner was born in 1861 into a middle-class family who had recently settled to the Midwestern state of Wisconsin. In short, the Turner family embodied the spirit of the American frontier. Turner became a prominent American historian and is now predominantly associated with the ‘Frontier Thesis’, originally articulated in his work The Significance of the Frontier in American History. This essay was written for and presented at the World’s Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago, Illinois in 1893. The purpose of this fair was to commemorate Columbus’ 400th year anniversary of discovering the New World, and also to present the young country favourably to a global audience. Turner’s work intended to distinguish America from its European predecessors by glorifying the process of exploration and settlement along the shifting frontier. Through this process, and by adapting to the environment, the American identity presented itself naturally (so Turner’s argument goes) and supposedly embodied freedom, democracy, and liberty. The Frontier Theory has since been inculcated into modern social sciences and, beyond the academic realm, has strongly influenced popular notions of the American identity.4 Furthermore, it is important to appreciate the impact of Turner’s work on the wider notions of American Exceptionalism and national identity. This paper will review Turner’s work, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893) by contextualizing his work within global societal, political, economic, and cultural processes. Although Turner’s work focuses predominantly on the America, various passages reference international relations that deserve much more attention than Turner gave. Intentionally downplaying international forces created the...
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