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American Progress: Some Thoughts on Frederick Jackson Turner and the Study of the American Frontier

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For those who don’t know his name, Frederick Jackson Turner is one of the most important and debated figures in the field of American history, particularly frontier studies.  Born in 1861, Turner published his most important and enduring work in 1893 – the ‘Frontier Thesis’ contained in ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History.’  According to Jackson, it was the frontier experience which gave America its distinct character, from popular democracy to the jettisoning of spent European ideas, the frontier was the location in which modern America came to be.  Jackson’s ideas thus went to the heart of American history, describing modern characteristics as being fundamentally connected to one specific social experience; historians have been debating Turner ever since.

 

As you might expect, few of Jackson’s ideas have survived one hundred and twenty years of scrutiny, particularly as new perspectives (not the least of which is a Native American one) have come to describe a far more nuanced and subtle model for how we understand the frontier.  In many ways, then, Turner is little more than a relic from the subject’s past but unlike most early pioneers in the topic (pun unintended) his work continues to fire discussions in academic circles, at conferences, and in private emails between colleagues and friends.  Indeed, if I were to be asked which historian I would most like to emulate it would have to be Turner – that has nothing to do with any desire to have my ideas discredited overtime.  Rather, I respect and admire Turner’s ability to craft one of the most important questions ever to have been asked in the field of American history: what was the significance of the frontier in American history? This question is so complete, it cuts so utterly to the core of frontier studies that it has yet to be answered in a way that has put Turner’s original thesis to bed.  To compound matters, Turner possessed a skill which is sometimes lacking in some academic writing.  Turner described a complex set of ideas – ones which aspire to explain the character of the United States – in a manner which was not only easily understood by those in the field, but easily understood by those outside of it.  Consider the role played by western film during the Cold War.

 

So pervasive are Turner’s ideas that I recently received an email from a colleague of mine which asked this: “My question is really whether or not you, as a frontier historian, still regard Turner as an important touchstone for frontier historiography. Or is he too old hat? Are the questions he raises still ones that concern you and your colleagues?” Here is my reply…

 

“Frederick Jackson Turner’s ideas are a bit like reality TV programs: no matter how much you might want them to go away, they never really do.  By that I mean that FJT and his ideas are, for the most part, deemed to be old hat but he reappears in various guises.  Even when works go out of their way to present a different interpretation of the frontier he is often mentioned.  In Contact Points, a book edited by Andrew R.L. Cayton and Fredricka Teute, they talk about FJT in order to make the point that his ideas are not relevant to that volume.

On the other side of the coin, his ideas still spring up in modified form, Patrick Griffin’s American Leviathan being a case in point.  To be sure, Griffin doesn’t rehash Turner’s ideas but he does essentially argue that, in the broadest sense, they remain valid because the frontier experience in the Ohio Valley had a formative impact on how the US would develop in the 19th century.  The frontier may not have been the cornerstone of mass democracy that Turner described but, according to Griffin, it was the cornerstone of many later developments, particularly with regards to the development of anti-Indian racism and the Trail of Tears, etc… For the most part, FJT is considered to be wrong in his interpretation of the frontier.  However, his ideas were so big that that parts of them have been reintegrated into the modern historiography even as others use him as the straw man against which their own ideas are to be measured.”

 

To have one’s ideas discussed over a century after airing them is no small feat, particularly when the last three decades have seen our understanding of the frontier (in academic circles, at least) augmented considerably.  Outdated though most of his ideas and arguments now are, Turner presented the academy with an important question which it has yet to adequately answer and that, I believe, is his true significance: what was the true significance of the frontier in American history? I offer no answers here, just his question.



One response to “American Progress: Some Thoughts on Frederick Jackson Turner and the Study of the American Frontier”

  1. I agree with all the above points, especially the significance that we must give FJT for his argument’s longevity. One of his ideas in particular has been vexing my New Western History logic. That is, that the American frontier gave birth to modern American democracy. While the debate can certainly be waged against FJT’s definition (and American’s definition today) of ‘democracy,’ The democratic aspects of a growing federal republic had dramatic consequences for the American political system. With the general removal of property requirements for voting, and the dramatic addition of new western states into the republic, changed the way all politics were run in the United States. The Civil War, the battle between capital and unions, as well as the Progressive Era were not just influenced by western politics, but were energized by them. The idea of the United States as a working man’s republic is a middle-class and western idea, despite its tap-root in classical republicanism and the American Revolution. In sum, it seems FJT was more right, than he was wrong. The power of the American frontier, as Patricia Nelson Limerick has suggested, is its legacy in the American psyche. Whether you lived on the frontier or just read about it; whether you were rich, poor, immigrant, or previously enslaved, the frontier as a place, and process, acted on all.

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