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Turner's Frontier Thesis

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Turner's Frontier Thesis

Americans have long mythologized the frontier. It isn't just about stories of past deeds but how Americans connect their history to today. From technology to social ideas, the leading edge of any field is typically referred to as a "frontier," a symbol of settlers creating something entirely new. Frederick Turner Jackson was a historian who looked not just at what had happened in the past but what it meant for people in his time and how it had shaped his present society. How did Frederick Jackson Turner interpret the Frontier in a way that resonated so strongly with other Americans of the late nineteenth century and beyond?

Turner's Frontier Thesis line drawing illustration from The Life and Adventures of Daniel Boone StudySmarter

Illustration of Frontier Settler, Daniel Boone. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis 1893

From the 1851 exhibition in London through 1938, the World's Fair was an installation where advances in science and technology from around the world were shown to the public, while later fairs focused more on cultural issues. The fairs were highly influential, giving the public glimpses of new technologies such as the telephone. It was among one of these expositions, the World's Columbian Exposition, marking the 400th anniversary of Christoper Columbus's arrival, that Jackson delivered his thesis.

Turner's Frontier Thesis A black and white photograph of the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago Illinois  StudySmarter

1893 World's Columbia Expedition. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

1893 World's Columbia Exposition

From the middle of the country, the city of Chicago, Jackson described what he felt the frontier meant to America. Twenty-seven million people attended the fair to see innovations such as the Ferris Wheel before the fair closed two days ahead of its planned six-month run due to the mayor of Chicago's assassination. Turner delivered his speech on the frontier to the American Historical Society gathering. Although his speech had a minor impact at the time, the society reprinted it where it lived on to gain its later stature.

Did you know?

While Turner was delivering his speech, another creator of the mythic western frontier, Buffalo Bill Cody, performed his famous Wild West Show outside the fair.

Turner's Frontier Thesis Summary

Turner viewed the frontier as the essential element in defining the American character. His work began by noting that the bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 had recently stated that there was no longer a frontier line and closed by saying that after 400 years of frontier activity, the first period of American history had ended. With the frontier intertwined with the American past, Turner interpreted it as having shaped America.

The central idea of Frederick Turner Jackson's Frontier Thesis is that as families went west into undeveloped lands, liberty, equality, and democracy arose from a condition where the highly developed society to the East was left behind and with it the old culture. At first, this East was Europe and later the East coast of the United States. As urbanization took hold and further moved west with successive waves,

Waves of the Frontier

He viewed the movement into the frontier as occurring in waves, and each waving furthering democracy and equality. As Europeans moved to the East coast of the United States, their struggles for survival and reliance on individual ability gave rise to a spirit of democracy that resulted in the American Revolution. When Americans continued west with the Louisiana Purchase in the early nineteenth century, democracy increased from the Jeffersonian to the Jacksonian periods. The new American culture came not from the high civilizations of Europe, the mixing of various peoples, and the uncivilized influence of the frontier.

Individuality

Individualism has been viewed as the most central piece of American identity. Turner connected that individualism with the necessary development of self-reliance among settlers in the sparsely populated frontier. He believed that the frontier conditions were anti-social, and the representatives of foreign governments coming to assert authority were largely viewed as oppressors by the frontier settlers.

Did you know?

Turner picked out the tax collector in particular as a symbol of oppression to the frontier settlers.

Previous Theories

Turner broke with previous theories about the frontier and American culture by placing the emphasis, not on race but on land. Many American academics at the time believed that as Germanic people conquered the forests of Europe, they were uniquely capable of developing the most excellent forms of society and political thought. Once the Germanic peoples ran out of land, they stagnated until they reached the forests of the Americas, which reawakened German and Anglo-Saxon ingenuity. Others, such as Theodore Roosevelt, held to racial theories based upon the unifying and innovative pressures of racial warfare, as White colonizers battled back Indigenous peoples to take the western land.

Turner's Frontier Thesis A black and white photograph of Frederick Jackson Turner StudySmarter

Frederick Jackson Turner. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Impact of Turner's Frontier Thesis Main Points

The impact of Turner's Frontier Thesis was consequential. Not just academics and historians latched on to the ideas, but politicians and many other American thinkers used Turner's interpretations. The core idea that the American character had been built around the frontier, which was now closed, left the question of how America would continue to grow and evolve in the future without new western land open. Those searching for a new frontier to conquer used Turner's Frontier Thesis to claim their goals as a recent sort of frontier.

Imperialism

With settlers having reached the end of the North American landmass, some wished to continue moving westward across the Pacific Ocean. Asia was a potential location for U.S. territorial expansion in the twentieth century. Scholars of the Wisconsin school studied American diplomacy during the early Cold War. They were influenced by Turner when they saw American diplomacy as primarily being motivated by economic expansion through the frontier and beyond into economic imperialism of the late nineteenth through twentieth centuries.

Historians' theories don't develop in isolation. Thinkers influence and criticize each other. Even more importantly, they build and expand on their colleagues' ideas. One such case is Turner and William Appleman Williams.

Although separated by decades, Turner taught at the University of Wisconsin, where the history faculty later came together around Williams' diplomacy and foreign policy theory. Turner's Frontier Thesis heavily influenced Wiliams's approaches.

The New Deal

With the New Deal, FDR expanded the role of government in Americans' lives. The frontier became an essential metaphor for these changes in the Roosevelt administration, and they often appealed the Turner's Frontier Thesis. FDR described the want and economic insecurity of the Great Depression as a frontier to be conquered.

Criticism of Turner's Frontier Thesis

Although some earlier historians appealed directly to the myth of Germanic peoples, during WWII, Turner's theory was criticized as being too similar to the "Blood and Soil" ideas of Adolf Hitler. Others asked why former Spanish colonies and indigenous populations did not go through the same transformations of thought. Turner's original speech made mention of indigenous people only as symbols representing the brutality of untamed nature and a sort of uncivilized degeneration. He believed the white settlers reverted before developing their democratic and individualist ideas.

Turner's Frontier Thesis - Key takeaways

  • It was first delivered in a speech to the American Historical Society at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.
  • Claimed that the sparse population and harsh conditions of the frontier developed the American focus on the individual.
  • Viewed westward expansion and the frontier as occurring in waves.
  • He believed that each wave further developed democracy in the United States.
  • Influential on not just academics but the larger American society.
  • Left Americans to search for new frontiers, ranging from imperialism to social and technological developments.

Frequently Asked Questions about Turner's Frontier Thesis

Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis was that settlers moved west across the frontier in waves, each with increasing individualism and democracy. 

Advocates for expansion viewed Turner's Frontier Thesis as reinforcing their idea that America must keep expanding. 

Fredrick Jackson Turner delivered the Frontier Thesis in an 1893 speech in Chicago, Illinois. 

The Safety-Valve Theory is that the frontier acted as a "safety valve" to relieve social pressure by giving the unemplyed in the East somewhere to go and pursue their economic well being.  The idea does not necessarily contradict the Frontier Thesis but addresses a more specific issue about urban social tensions. It was later adopted by Turner himself into his Frontier Thesis.

Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis exposed that American had been defined by the frontier, which was now closed. 

Final Turner's Frontier Thesis Quiz

Question

Who was Frederick Jackson Turner?

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Answer

A historian

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What did Frederick Jackson Turner say was the status of the frontier?

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Answer

It was closed 

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Where did Frederick Jackson Turner first present his Frontier Thesis?

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Chicago 

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What frontier did Franklin Delano Roosevelt say that the New Deal was trying to conquer?

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Answer

Economic insecurity 

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What audience did Frederick Jackson Turner deliver his frontier thesis to?

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Answer

The American Historical Society 

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What central part of the American character did Frederick Jackson Turner tie to the frontier?


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Individualism

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How did Frederick Jackson Turner say that the frontier developed?

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In waves 

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How did theorists before Frederick Jackson Turner use the frontier to explain the development of American society?


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They believed that when Germanic people encountered the forests, their ingenuity returned. 

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What did Frederick Turner Jackson believed increased with each wave of the frontier?

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Democracy 

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What did Frederick Jackson Turner had to be lost in the frontier to develop something new?

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Answer

Civilization 

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