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How The Frontier Shaped The American Character
A distinguished historian finds that after 65 years Frederick Jackson Turner’s disputed “frontier theory” is still a valid key to understanding modern America
April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
Gradually, however, newcomers drifted in, and as the man-land ratio increased, the community began a slow climb back toward civiliz.ation. Governmental controls were tightened and extended, economic specialization began, social stratification set in, and cultural activities quickened. But the new society that eventually emerged differed from the old from which it had sprung. The abandonment of cultural baggage during the migrations, the borrowings from the many cultures represented in each pioneer settlement, the deviations natural in separate evolutions, and the impact of the environment all played their parts in creating a unique social organism similar to but differing from those in the East. An “Americanization” of men and their institutions had taken place.
Turner believed that many of the characteristics associated with the American people were traceable to their experience, during the three centuries required to settle the continent, of constantly “beginning over again.” Their mobility, their optimism, their inventiveness and willingness to accept innovation, their materialism, their exploitive wastefulness—these were frontier traits; for the pioneer, accustomed to repeated moves as he drifted westward, viewed the world through rose-colored glasses as he dreamed of a better future, experimented constantly as he adapted artifacts and customs to his peculiar environment, scorned culture as a deterrent to the practical tasks that bulked so large in his life, and squandered seemingly inexhaustible natural resources with abandon. Turner also ascribed America’s distinctive brand of individualism, with its dislike of governmental interference in economic !unctions, to the experience of pioneers who wanted no hindrance from society as they exploited nature’s riches. Similarly, he traced the exaggerated nationalism of the United States to its roots among frontiersmen who looked to the national government for land, transportation outlets, and protection against the Indians. And he believed that America’s faith in democracy had stemmed from a pioneering experience in which the leveling influence of poverty and the uniqueness of local problems encouraged majority self-rule. He pointed out that these characteristics, prominent among frontiersmen, had persisted long after the frontier itself was no more.
This was Turner’s famous “frontier hypothesis.” For a generation after its enunciation its persuasive logic won uncritical acceptance amone historians, but beginning in the late igao’s, and increasingly alter Turner’s death in 1932, an avalanche of criticism steadily mounted. His theories, critics said, were contradictory, his generalizations unsupported, his assumptions inadequately based; what empirical proof could he advance, they asked, to prove that the Irontier experience was responsible for American individualism, mobility, or wastefulness? He was damned as a romanticist lor his claim that democracy sprang from the forest environment of the United States and as an isolationist for tailing to recognize the continuing impact of Europe on America. As the “bait-Turner” vogue gained popularity among younger scholars of the logo’s with their international, semi-Marxian views of history, the criticisms of the frontier theory became as irrational as the earlier support rendered it by overenthusiastk advocates.
During the past decade, however, a healthy reaction has slowly and unspectacularly gained momentum. Today’s scholars, gradually realiing that Turner was advancing a hypothesis rather than proving a theory, have shown a healthy tendency to abandon fruitless haggling over the meaning of his phrases and to concentrate instead on testing his assumptions. They have directed their efforts primarily toward re-examining his hypothesis in the light of criticisms directed against it and applying it to frontier areas beyond the borders of the United States. Their findings have modified many of the views expressed by Turner but have gone far toward proving that the frontier hypothesis remains one essential tool—albeit not the only one—for interpreting American history.
That Turner was guilty of oversimplifying both the nature and the causes of the migration process was certainly true. He pictured settlers as moving westward in an orderly procession—fur trappers, cattlemen, miners, pioneer farmers, and equipped fanners—with each group playing its part in the transmutation of a wilderness into a civilization. Free land was the magnet that lured them onward, he believed, and this operated most effectively in periods of depression, when the displaced workers of the East sought a refuge from economic storms amidst nature’s abundance in the West, “The wilderness ever opened the gate of escape to the poor, the discontented and oppressed,” Turner wrote at one time. “If social conditions tended to crystallize in the east, beyond the Alleghenies there was freedom.”