The Frontier Theses

Turner, Frederick Jackson. 2009. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. New York: Penguin.

Fredrick Jackson Turner writes his famous essay (“The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” 1893) on the frontier just as the census bureau proclaimed its end. What he calls the “closing of a great historic movement” (1). The basic premise of Turner’s frontier thesis revolved around access to free land, which he believed explained U.S. development (broadly conceived). In a later 1910 essay, he writes, “Two ideals were fundamental in traditional American thought, ideals that developed in the pioneer era. One was that of individual freedom to compete unrestrictedly for the resources of a continent – the squatter ideal. To the pioneer government was an evil. The other was the ideal of a democracy” (100). Although Turner seems to come to a realization about contradictions between the two ideals—he attributes the contradiction to the end of the frontier, a.k.a. free land—his frontier thesis tries to show how rugged individualism and democracy were consolidated, entrenched and proliferated from the country’s frontier experience.

“But the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy here and in Europe. As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism. Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, particularly direct control…. The frontier individualism has from the beginning promoted democracy” (30). Foreshadowing some of his later discomforts, he writes: “So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power. But the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits” (32). For Turner, “this forest philosophy” of rugged, self-made democratic-individualism “is the philosophy of American democracy” (41).

A couple things stood out from the reading of these essays: the brief nods towards vigilantism and the way he describes the frontier contributing not only to national identity, wealth, and political philosophy, but also state formation. The West, he writes, “saw in its growth nothing less than a new order of society and state” (45). Repeatedly, Turner tries to explain how the frontier ended up doubling back on the rest (mainly eastern) of the United States. In an essay on the importance of the Mississippi River Basin, Turner writes, “Beyond the thirteen colonies, there had arisen a new and aggressive society which imperiously put the questions of public lands, internal communication, local self-government, defense, and aggressive expansion before the legislators of the old colonial regime. The men [they are always men in Turner] of the Mississippi Valley compelled the men of the East to think in American terms instead of European. They dragged a reluctant nation on in a new course” (68). This same “aggressive expansion,” Turner notes, was driving the U.S. imperialism of his own lifetime—a fact he seemed to celebrate (55, 94). The hyper-masculinity of it all is pretty thick (domination by and then dominance over nature; frontiersman, backwoodsman, etc etc.)

The main points on il/legality and vigilantism are on pages 33, 47, and 65. Along with this theme of illegality and vigilantism, it’s clear to see in Turner’s writings the seeds of the libertarian, nativist, and populist leanings of groups such as the Tea Party and the Minute Men. These groups definitely draw on this frontier, forest philosophy/mythology that Turner was so influential in building. Turner also highlights the contradictions of democracy and capitalism, even in the frontier days of free land, that leads to such political phenomena.

On a footnote on page 33, he explains that he won’t deal with the “lawless characteristics of the frontier” since they are sufficiently known—kind of a cop out if you ask me. It would’ve been really interesting had Turner tried to further incorporate lawlessness into his frontier thesis more explicitly. We get a taste of what it would’ve looked like on page 55: “Western democracy included individual liberty, as well as equality. The frontiersman was impatient of restraints. He knew how to preserve order, even in the absence of legal authority. If there were cattle thieves, lynch law was sudden and effective: the regulators of the Carolinas were the predecessors of the the claims associations of Iowa and the vigilance committees of California.” Turner casts the frontier as a space of crude but pragmatic and swift regulation unencumbered by the complexities of liberal rule. Even equality and liberty are rashly reconciled on the frontier—or so he believed.

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