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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
Diplomats have also found in the frontier hypothesis justification for many of their moves, from imperialist expansion to the restriction of immigration. Harking back to Turner’s statement that the perennial rebirth of society was necessary to keep alive the democratic spirit, expansionists have argued through the twentieth century for an extension of American power and territories. During the Spanish-American War imperialists preached such a doctrine, adding the argument that Spain’s lands were needed to provide a population outlet for a people who could no longer escape to their own frontier. Idealists such as Woodrow Wilson could agree with materialists like J. P. Morgan that the extension of American authority abroad, either through territorial acquisitions or economic penetration, would be good for both business and democracy. In a later generation Franklin D. Roosevelt favored a similar expansion of the American democratic ideal as a necessary prelude to the better world that he hoped would emerge from World War II. His successor, Harry Truman, envisaged his “Truman Doctrine” as a device to extend and defend the frontiers of democracy throughout the globe. While popular belief in the superiority of America’s political institutions was far older than Turner, that belief rested partly on the frontier experience of the United States.
These practical applications of the frontier hypothesis, as well as its demonstrated influence on the nation’s development, suggest that its critics have been unable to destroy the theory’s effectiveness as a key to understanding American history. The recurring rebirth of society in the United States over a period of three hundred years did endow the people with characteristics and institutions that distinguish them from the inhabitants of other nations. It is obviously untrue that the frontier experience alone accounts for the unique features of American civilization; that civilization can be understood only as the product of the interplay of the Old World heritage and New World conditions. But among those conditions none has bulked larger than the operation of the frontier process.