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Frontier Thesis


Frontier Thesis

The Frontier Thesis or Turner Thesis, is the argument advanced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 that American democracy was formed by the American frontier. He stressed the process—the moving frontier line—and the impact it had on pioneers going through the process. He also stressed results, especially that American democracy was the primary result, along with egalitarianism, a lack of interest in high culture, and violence. "American democracy was born of no theorist's dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier," said Turner.[1] In the thesis, the American frontier established liberty by releasing Americans from European mindsets and eroding old, dysfunctional customs. The frontier had no need for standing armies, established churches, aristocrats or nobles, nor for landed gentry who controlled most of the land and charged heavy rents. Frontier land was free for the taking. Turner first announced his thesis in a paper entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", delivered to the American Historical Association in 1893 in Chicago. He won wide acclaim among historians and intellectuals. Turner elaborated on the theme in his advanced history lectures and in a series of essays published over the next 25 years, published along with his initial paper as The Frontier in American History.[2]

Turner's emphasis on the importance of the frontier in shaping American character influenced the interpretation found in thousands of scholarly histories. By the time Turner died in 1932, 60% of the leading history departments in the U.S. were teaching courses in frontier history along Turnerian lines.[3]


  • Evolution 1
  • Closed frontier 2
  • Comparative frontiers 3
  • Impact and influence 4
  • New frontiers 5
    • Fermilab 5.1
    • Electronic frontier 5.2
  • See also 6
  • Further reading: Scholarly studies 7
  • References 8


Turner set up an evolutionary model (he had studied evolution with a leading geologist, Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin), using the time dimension of American history, and the geographical space of the land that became the United States.[4][5] The first settlers who arrived on the east coast in the 17th century acted and thought like Europeans. They adapted to the new physical, economic and political environment in certain ways—the cumulative effect of these adaptations was Americanization.

Successive generations moved further inland, shifting the lines of settlement and wilderness, but preserving the essential tension between the two. European characteristics fell by the wayside and the old country's institutions (e.g., established churches, established aristocracies, standing armies, intrusive government, and highly unequal land distribution) were increasingly out of place. Every generation moved further west and became more American, more democratic, and more intolerant of hierarchy. They also became more violent, more individualistic, more distrustful of authority, less artistic, less scientific, and more dependent on ad-hoc organizations they formed themselves. In broad terms, the further west, the more American the community.[6]

Closed frontier

Turner saw the land frontier was ending, since the U.S. Census of 1890 had officially stated that the American frontier had broken up. He sounded an alarming note, speculating as to what this meant for the continued dynamism of American society as the source of America's innovation and democratic ideals was disappearing.

Comparative frontiers

Historians, geographers, and social scientists have studied frontier-like conditions in other countries, with an eye on the Turnerian model. South Africa, Canada, Russia, Brazil, Argentina and Australia—and even ancient Rome—had long frontiers that were also settled by pioneers.[7] However these other frontier societies operated in a very difficult political and economic environment that made democracy and individualism much less likely to appear and it was much more difficult to throw off a powerful royalty, standing armies, established churches and an aristocracy that owned most of the land. The question is whether their frontiers were powerful enough to overcome conservative central forces based in the metropolis.[8] Each nation had quite different frontier experiences. For example the Dutch Boers in South Africa were defeated in war by Britain. In Australia, "mateship" and working together was valued more than individualism was in the United States[9]).

Impact and influence

Other historians in the 1890s had begun to explore the meaning of the frontier, such as

  1. ^
  2. ^ Turner, The Frontier in American History (1920) chapter 1
  3. ^ Allan G. Bogue, "Frederick Jackson Turner Reconsidered," The History Teacher, (1994) 27#2 pp. 195-221 at p 195 in JSTOR
  4. ^ Sharon E. Kingsland, The Evolution of American Ecology, 1890–2000 (2005) p. 133
  5. ^ William Coleman, "Science and Symbol in the Turner Frontier Hypothesis," American Historical Review (1966) 72#1 pp 22–49 in JSTOR
  6. ^ Ray Allen Billington, America's frontier heritage (1974)
  7. ^ Walker D. Wyman and Clifton B. Kroeber, eds. Frontier in Perspective (1957)
  8. ^ Marvin K. Mikesell, "Comparative Studies in Frontier History," in Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier (1968) pp 152-72
  9. ^
  10. ^ Richard Slotkin, "Nostalgia and Progress: Theodore Roosevelt's Myth of the Frontier," American Quarterly (1981) 33#5 pp. 608–637 in JSTOR
  11. ^ Henry A. Wallace, New Frontiers (1934)
  12. ^ Gerald D. Nash, "The frontier thesis: A historical perspective," Journal of the West (Oct 1995) 34#4 pp 7–15
  13. ^ Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rendezvous with Destiny: Addresses and Opinions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2005) p. 130
  14. ^ Ann Fabian, "The ragged edge of history: Intellectuals and the American West," Reviews in American History (Sept 1998), 26#3 pp 575–80
  15. ^ Richard R. John, " Turner, Beard, Chandler: Progressive Historians," Business History Review (Summer 2008) 82#2 pp 227–240
  16. ^ William Appleman Williams, "The Frontier Thesis and American Foreign Policy," Pacific Historical Review (1955) 24#4 pp 379–395. in JSTOR
  17. ^ Nichols (1986)
  18. ^ Milner (1991)
  19. ^ Ray Allen Billington, "Why Some Historians Rarely Write History: A Case Study of Frederick Jackson Turner," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 50, No. 1. (Jun., 1963), pp. 3–27. in JSTOR
  20. ^ John B. Boles, "Turner, the frontier, and the study of religion in America," Journal of the Early Republic (1993) 13#2 pp 205–16
  21. ^ Dan Moosd, "Reclaiming the Frontier: Oscar Micheaux as Black Turnerian," African American Review (2002) 36#3 pp 357–381
  22. ^ Richard W. Slatta, "Taking Our Myths Seriously." Journal of the West 2001 40(3): 3–5.
  23. ^ Max J. Skidmore, Presidential Performance: A Comprehensive Review (2004) p 270
  24. ^ John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Theodore Sorensen, Let the Word Go Forth: The Speeches, Statements, and Writings of John F. Kennedy 1947 to 1963 (1991) p. 101
  25. ^ Margarita Mathiopoulos, History and Progress: In Search of the European and American mind (1989) pp. 311–12
  26. ^ Richard White, Patricia Nelson Limerick, and James R. Grossman, The Frontier in American Culture (1994) p. 81
  27. ^
  28. ^ Adrienne Kolb and Lillian Hoddeson, "A New Frontier in the Chicago Suburbs: Settling Fermilab, 1963–1972," Illinois Historical Journal (1995) 88#1 pp 2–18, quotes on p. 5 and 2
  29. ^ Rod Carveth, and J. Metz, "Frederick Jackson Turner and the democratization of the electronic frontier.," American Sociologist (1996) 27#1 pp 72–100. online
  30. ^ A.C. Yen, "Western Frontier or Feudal Society: Metaphors and Perceptions of Cyberspace," Berkeley Technology Law Journal (2002) 17#4 pp 1207-1264
  31. ^ E. Brent, "Electronic communication and sociology: Looking backward, thinking ahead, careening toward the next millennium," American Sociologist 1996, 27#1 pp 4-10
  32. ^ Richard Jensen, (2012) 76#4 pp 1165–82 onlineJournal of Military History"Military History on the Electronic Frontier: WorldHeritage Fights the War of 1812,"


  • The Frontier In American History the original 1893 essay by Turner
  • (1958)The American FrontierRay Allen Billington. 35 page essay on the historiography
  • Billington, Ray Allen. Frederick Jackson Turner: historian, scholar, teacher. (1973), highly detailed scholarly biography.
  • Billington, Ray Allen, ed,. The Frontier Thesis: Valid Interpretation of American History? (1966); the major attacks and defenses of Turner.
  • Billington, Ray Allen. America's Frontier Heritage (1984), an analysis of Turner's theories in relation to social sciences and historiography
  • (1981)Land of Savagery / Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth CenturyBillington, Ray Allen.
  • Bogue, Allan G. . Frederick Jackson Turner: Strange Roads Going Down. (1988), highly detailed scholarly biography.
  • Brown, David S. Beyond the Frontier: Midwestern Historians in the American Century. (2009).
  • Coleman, William, "Science and Symbol in the Turner Frontier Hypothesis," American Historical Review (1966) 72#1 pp. 22–49 in JSTOR
  • Etulain, Richard W. Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? (1999)
  • Etulain, Richard W. Writing Western History: Essays on Major Western Historians (2002)
  • Etulain, Richard W. and Gerald D. Nash, eds. Researching Western History: Topics in the Twentieth Century (1997)] online
  • Faragher, John Mack ed. Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History". (1999)
  • Hine, Robert V. and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History (2000), deals with events, not historiography; concise edition is Frontiers: A Short History of the American West (2008)
  • Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians—Turner, Beard, Parrington. (1979). interpretation of the historiography
  • Hofstadter, Richard, and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds. Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier (1968) 12 essays by scholars in different fields
  • Jensen, Richard. "On Modernizing Frederick Jackson Turner," Western Historical Quarterly 11 (1980), 307-20. in JSTOR
  • Lamar, Howard R. ed. The New Encyclopedia of the American West (1998), 1000+ pages of articles by scholars
  • Milner, Clyde A., ed. Major Problems in the History of the American West 2nd ed (1997), primary sources and essays by scholars
  • Milner, Clyde A. et al. Trails: Toward a New Western History (1991)
  • Nichols, Roger L. ed. American Frontier and Western Issues: An Historiographical Review (1986) essays by 14 scholars
  • Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973), complex literary reinterpretation of the frontier myth from its origins in Europe to Daniel Boone
  • Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950)

Further reading: Scholarly studies

See also

The Internet and the World Wide Web are often seen as part of a new "electronic frontier," with profound implications for the future of communications, the society and the economy. The slogan "the Internet is free" echoes the "free land" mantra of the Turner thesis. Indeed, opposition to pay walls and subscription services resembles the pioneer quest for free land unencumbered by ownership claims. Scholars analyzing the Internet have often cited Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier model.[29][30][31] Of special concern is the question whether the electronic frontier will replicate the stages of development of the American land frontier. WorldHeritage is a major presence on the electronic frontier, and the WorldHeritage editors have been explicitly compared to the pioneers of Turner's American frontier in terms of their youth, aggressiveness, boldness, equalitarianism and rejection of limitations.[32]

Electronic frontier

Kolb and Hoddeson argue that during the heyday of Kennedy's "New Frontier," the physicists who built the Fermi Labs explicitly sought to recapture the excitement of the old frontier. They argue that, "Frontier imagery motivates Fermilab physicists, and a rhetoric remarkably similar to that of Turner helped them secure support for their research." Rejecting the East and West coast life styles that most scientists preferred, they selected a Chicago suburb on the prairie as the location of the lab. A small herd of American bison was started at the lab's founding to symbolize Fermilab's presence on the frontier of physics and its connection to the American prairie. The bison herd still lives on the grounds of Fermilab.[27] Architecturally, The lab's designers rejected the militaristic design of Los Alamos and Brookhaven as well as the academic architecture of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Instead Fermilab's planners sought to return to Turnerian themes. They emphasized the values of individualism, empiricism, simplicity, equality, courage, discovery, independence, and naturalism in the service of democratic access, human rights, ecological balance, and the resolution of social, economic, and political issues. Milton Stanley Livingston, the lab's associate director, said in 1968, "The frontier of high energy and the infinitesimally small is a challenge to the mind of man. If we can reach and cross this frontier, our generations will have furnished a significant milestone in human history."[28]


Subsequent critics, historians, and politicians have suggested that other 'frontiers,' such as scientific innovation, could serve similar functions in American development. Historians have noted that John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s explicitly called upon the ideas of the frontier.[23] At his acceptance speech on July 15, 1960, Kennedy called out to the American people, "I am asking each of you to be new pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age—to the stout in spirit, regardless of party."[24] Mathiopoulos notes that he "cultivated this resurrection of frontier ideology as a motto of progress ('getting America moving') throughout his term of office."[25] He promoted his political platform as the "New Frontier," with a particular emphasis on space exploration and technology. Limerick points out that Kennedy assumed that "the campaigns of the Old Frontier had been successful, and morally justified."[26] The "frontier" metaphor thus maintained its rhetorical ties to American social progress. The frontier thesis is one of the most influential documents on the American west today.

New frontiers

Slatta (2001) argues that the widespread popularization of Turner's frontier thesis influenced popular histories, motion pictures, and novels, which characterize the West in terms of individualism, frontier violence, and rough justice. Disneyland's Frontierland of the late 20th century reflected the myth of rugged individualism that celebrated what was perceived to be the American heritage. The public has ignored academic historians' anti-Turnerian models, largely because they conflict with and often destroy the icons of Western heritage. However, the work of historians during the 1980s–1990s, some of whom sought to bury Turner's conception of the frontier and others who have sought to spare the concept while presenting a more balanced and nuanced view, have done much to place Western myths in context and rescue Western history from them.[22]

Turner never published a major book on the frontier for which he did 40 years of research.[19] However his ideas presented in his graduate seminars at Wisconsin and Harvard influenced many areas of historiography. In the history of religion, for example, Boles (1993) notes that William Warren Sweet at the University of Chicago Divinity School as well as Peter G. Mode (in 1930), argued that churches adapted to the characteristics of the frontier, creating new denominations such as the Mormons, the Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the Cumberland Presbyterians. The frontier, they argued, shaped uniquely American institutions such as revivals, camp meetings, and itinerant preaching. This view dominated religious historiography for decades.[20] Moos (2002) shows that the 1910s to 1940s black filmmaker and novelist Oscar Micheaux incorporated Turner's frontier thesis into his work. Micheaux promoted the West as a place where blacks could transcend race and earn economic success through hard work and perseverance.[21]

Many believed that the end of the frontier represented the beginning of a new stage in American life and that the United States must expand overseas. However, others viewed this interpretation as the impetus for a new wave in the history of United States imperialism. William Appleman Williams led the "Wisconsin School" of diplomatic historians by arguing that the frontier thesis encouraged American overseas expansion, especially in Asia, during the 20th century. Williams viewed the frontier concept as a tool to promote democracy through both world wars, to endorse spending on foreign aid, and motivate action against totalitarianism.[16] However, Turner's work, in contrast to Roosevelt's work The Winning of the West, places greater emphasis on the development of American republicanism than on territorial conquest. Other historians, who wanted to focus scholarship on minorities, especially Native Americans and Hispanics, started in the 1970s to criticize the frontier thesis because it did not attempt to explain the evolution of those groups.[17] Indeed their approach was to reject the frontier as an important process and to study the West as a region, ignoring the frontier experience east of the Mississippi River.[18]

Turners' thesis quickly became popular among intellectuals. It explained why the American people and American government were so different from their European counterparts. It was popular among New Dealers—Franklin Roosevelt and his top aides[11] thought in terms of finding new frontiers.[12] FDR, in celebrating the third anniversary of Social Security in 1938, advised, "There is still today a frontier that remains unconquered—an America unreclaimed. This is the great, the nation-wide frontier of insecurity, of human want and fear. This is the frontier—the America—we have set ourselves to reclaim."[13] Historians adopted it, especially in studies of the west,[14] but also in other areas, such as the influential work of Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. (1918–2007) in business history.[15]

It was the Turner version that became standard. [10]

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