Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the
Frontier in American History," and the Gilded Age
By Martin Ridge
Volume XII, Number 1,2
Fall, 1992, Winter, 1993
Today, few scholars of the Gilded Age would turn to the works of Frederick Jackson Turner as a source for their research. His books and essays clearly identify him as primarily an historian of the early American republic, the founder of Western history, and the initial theoretician of the frontier.1 Nevertheless, he is an important figure for understanding late nineteenth century America. His remarkable essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which was presented at the American Historical Association meeting during the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, remains not only an historiographical landmark but also perhaps the most influential piece of historical writing of the past century and deserves to be examined in a much broader context.2
Turner wrote at a time when white domination over the non-white world was approaching its zenith. European ideologies established a racial, ethnic, and class hierarchy based on "immutable biological" laws, which mirrored the best science of the period.3 Unlike the immediate post-Soviet era, when national states began disintegrating and cartographers were forced almost daily to redraw national boundaries into smaller ethnic units, the late nineteenth century was a time when larger national political societies were being "invented" out of a mixture of conflict and carefully constructed myths of cultural identity. In all such nations and empires there were groups that benefitted from the new arrangements, such as those that could readily identify with the myths of national culture. There were also those that were forced to take subordinate places in society, defined by the myth-makers as "other," and often left estranged.4
Newer and established nations, based on congeries of older entities, retained power by coercion or by insisting and teaching that historical myth was, indeed, reality. Historians played a critical role in promulgating and reinforcing national myths. Every country had its national historian: England had Thomas Babbington Macaulay; Germany had Leopold von Ranke; Italy had Camillo Cavour; and France had Jules Michelet. Among the historians of the "other" or alienated were Tomas Masaryk, the Czech nationalist, and Hirsch Gratz, author of a History of the Jews, who claimed for them a cultural nationhood if not statehood. In addition, this group included Karl Marx and Elie Halevy who viewed nationhood as an historical stage or a mechanism of social control.
The United States was no exception. It, too, developed national and dissenting schools, almost all of whose members focused on the Civil War and Reconstruction as the key events that forged the modern nation. James Schouler, James Ford Rhodes, and John W. Burgess praised the emergence of the post-Civil War United States. All wrote from a Northern point of view, albeit differing in their political partisanship. In a way, their histories were similar to European studies of the unification of Italy and Germany, where force had forged a nation state and historical myth served to sustain it. The failed "separatist" rival of the American Union found expression in the myths of the Southern historical school.
Led by William A. Dunning, it spoke for the defeated Southern whites, who were alienated but who refused to define themselves as "other." These historical studies, written during the Gilded Age, paved the way for the ambiguous rhetoric describing the Civil War and Reconstruction in the school textbooks of subsequent generations.
Traditional historiographers do not associate Turner with nationalist history, identifying him instead with the frontier school,5 or the progressives,6 or the scientific empiricists.7 In fact, he represented a variety of nationalist thinking that had escaped, at least in part, the burdens of his contemporaries. By utilizing the nation's westward expansion rather than the Civil War and Reconstruction as the key to understanding the American past, he posited a cultural unity that offered Americans - both North and South - a sense of special identity comparable to that of any European.8
Despite his dedication to scientific objective history, Turner readily confessed that his youthful experiences in the rural Middle West and his college and graduate school education influenced his work. Turner was reared in Portage, Wisconsin, and grew to manhood in the late decades of the nineteenth century. His father, a newspaper publisher, was a busy entrepreneur and local politician. In Turner's youth, his family household discussions focused on the politics of the region's economic development.
Although the Civil War cast a deep shadow over his generation, Turner was far more influenced by Portage's frontier past than by the heritage of the "bloody shirt." The town was located on a former, long-established Indian trading route, was still an important logging center, and was during Turner's childhood the scene of two lynchings. Moreover, a stream of recent immigrants, especially Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians, heavily laced post-Civil War Wisconsin. These people took up not only land but also the political practices of the established party system. To Turner the fact that they had access to land and to political representation and power, rather than their inter-ethnic or religious rivalries, determined their assimilation into Wisconsin society. In coming to the United States, settling in the West, and accommodating to the open political and economic environment, they were becoming "Americanized"; they were not "other." This idea became a fundamental element in his pathbreaking essay on the frontier.
Turner's academic education also played a vital role in his thinking. He attended the University of Wisconsin where he fell under the influence of the gifted teacher and historian, William Francis Allen. Harvard-trained and a German-educated scholar, Allen was a practitioner of the rigorous scientific empiricism of the von Ranke school. He conveyed to Turner an enviable enthusiasm for scholarship and dedication to professionalism. Allen invited Turner to teach at Wisconsin and encouraged him to seek his doctorate. Throughout his life Turner often felt that Allen was looking over his shoulder and appraising his work.9
Turner's doctoral training at John Hopkins was unique in that it introduced him to the men who were or later became some of the leading historians and social scientists of his generation. Woodrow Wilson, Charles Homer Haskins, and Richard T. Ely remain perhaps the best known, but Turner's dissertation director, Herbert Baxter Adams, was among the more influential graduate instructors in the nation. Scholars from many fields came to his seminars. Turner, for example, heard a paper by the philosopher Josiah Royce, whose later work on California history he was to quote.10
Several aspects of Adam's training program proved critically important for Turner. First, Adams insisted that his students gain a wide knowledge of the work of the great contemporary and past historians, most of whom displayed biases of nation and religion.11 Second, since he was himself German-trained, Adams emphasized scientific methods of research. And third, Adam's view of history was not sterile. He believed that history should be brought to the people and be a part of the making of public policy. He believed that history was more than a factual narration, and he worked from an operating hypothesis about how history should be written and what should be studied. Adams was unique, too, because he could recognize and appreciate the importance of interpretive perspectives.
All of this proved of immeasurable value to Turner when in 1889 he returned to Wisconsin as a replacement for Allen who had suffered an untimely death. As a learned and ambitious younger scholar, Turner in 1891 published an essay in The Aegis, the Wisconsin student newspaper, which through unusual circumstances became a turning point in his career. Never modest about his work, Turner mailed copies of The Aegis broadcast to the profession. Most respondents were less than impressed with his suggestion that the frontier and sectionalism accounted for the distinctiveness of American civilization. But Adams, who had the insight to grasp the significance of interpretive hypotheses, believed Turner should present an equally evocative paper at the forthcoming American Historical Association meeting in Chicago. There is irony here, because Turner used the Chicago meeting to repudiate his mentor's theory about how to study American history. For Turner, this was serendipity; he used the occasion to write, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," something he may not have done without a suitable opportunity and prompting.
The essay achieved importance because of the many levels of discussion that if offered the profession. It was first and foremost a clarion call for a "paradigmatic shift" in the way American historians studied their past. Turner pointed out that they had focused too much attention on the origins of American institutions and too little on the impact of the domestic environment on them.12 The frontier, he also argued, was the major determining factor in American civilization, and he called on scholars to study various aspects of it. He predicted, too, that for those studying the nation's history in the future the problems and resolutions of occupying the continent would loom larger than the Civil War and its aftermath.
Beginning his essay by pointing to the Superintendent of the Census's observation that it was no longer possible to draw a frontier line on census maps, Turner argued that a great era was coming to a close. The availability of free land would soon be at an end. (Turner's language in this essay is often misconstrued. He was referring to arable land, and by the term "free" he meant David Richardo's theory of economic rent, not free as in every day usage.) Moreover, the story of the displacement of the Indians, the taking up of the land, and the expulsion of foreign powers from the heart of the continent was more than a mindless narrative. The people who went west - whether they came from the South, New England, or the tide of immigrants that flowed into this country - all were thrust into a new society and primitive environment. Borrowing an idea from the Italian economist Achille Loria, Turner theorized that people suddenly placed in a wilderness away from organized society would replicate the process through which peoples had passed in stages of civilization. Therefore, on the frontier, where old rules, habits, and hierarchies were inapplicable, the American frontier settlers were compelled to shed their material culture, abandon entrenched ideas about society and government, and recreate and modify their existing institutions to new circumstances. The frontier process of rebuilding a culture placed great stress on individual effort, on survival, and on democratic and egalitarian practices. As Turner saw it, on the frontier people judged a man by what he did, not by who he was.
Turner's interpretation also relied on Thomas Jefferson's model for a democratic society, which held that land ownership and political independence were inseparable.13 The fact that the frontier created a widespread landed, yeoman population rather than a European-style peasant class assured a continual revitalization of democratic institutions as the frontier expanded into the West. The impact of the moving frontier, with its democratic and egalitarian dimension, was not only immediate but also persisted after settlement. In fact, it also exercised a democratizing influence on the settled East and Europe. In a sense, Turner begged the question of what would nurture democratic institutions when the frontier process was over by emphasizing its residual effects.14
Turner did more than urge American historians to shift their attention to the study of the westward movement. He asserted that the American character was not the product of Puritan New England or of slave-holding South but of the westering experience of a diverse people. In his final paragraph, Turner outlined those attributes that defined the American character. With his unusual sense of literary balance and cadence he wrote:
The American intellect owes its striking characteristics to the frontier. That coarseness and strength, combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil; and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which come with freedom - these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere of the existence of the frontier.15
Turner's national traits applied equally to fur traders and miners as well as pioneer farmers and their well-endowed successors. What Turner described were the attributes of Jefferson's agrarian and Jackson's expectant capitalist of the antebellum era. In Turner's class hierarchy, they came first. To him, the westering experience and the traits it engendered made Americans as different from Europeans as the American landscape was different from that of Europe.
In a sense, Turner's identification of American nationality with unique traits addressed a critical problem at a special time in world history. European ethnic groups argued for nationhood on the basis of such factors as language, religion, political experience, legal traditions, and their deeply rooted presence on the land where they lived.16 In America only the indigenous people could make these claims; all others were voluntary immigrants, luckless exiles, deported felons, or formerly enslaved African-Americans. At the turn of the century, when European nationalism was at its apex, large numbers of immigrants were entering the United States. Foreign critics described America as a mongrel society. Turner, however, asserted that the Americans, by the end of the nineteenth century, were a genuine people with characteristics unique to them because their frontier experiences had compelled them to abandon their former cultures and accept or create a new one. He had in effect turned the liability of ethnic diversity into the asset of distinctiveness.
Ironically, because of the nature of nationality, Turner's theories were as exclusive as they were inclusive. In "inventing" the American national character, Turner segregated out some groups as "others," and his rhetoric reflected it. The Indians became savages, their religion the proper field for missionaries, and the lands they occupied he declared vacant and free. The regulators of North Carolina and the vigilance committees in California were termed "scum." Moreover, by making the American moving frontier an irresistible force, Turner, in effect, provided a secular vision of manifest destiny that labelled all opposing elements as "other." Thus, the Spanish frontier and its heritage was outside of the sphere of his American identity. Also conspicuously absent as beneficiaries of the westering experience, although always present on the frontier, African-Americans play no part in Turner's analysis.17
Much has been written to explain why Turner's frontier hypothesis achieved such remarkable and rapid success both in the academic world as well as the nation's general culture.18 There can be no doubt that during the Gilded Age it appealed to white middle-class Americans taken up with the growth of American economic might and the rise of the United States to the status of a world power. It also appealed to the scholarly academy, where most of the teachers and students were middle-class whites, making the narrative of the conquest of the continent, a story that had taken place in the lifetime of their parents or older contemporaries, one in which they could share. Turner's list of frontier-inspired traits, especially his emphasis on individualism, fit in well with the Darwinian rationale for the modern industrial state and its leaders.
His interpretation made meaningful the studies of local historians throughout the Middle and Far West. The initial exploration of newer states, the analysis of their social and political institutions, the drama of the diplomatic and military histories of their acquisition, and the biographical studies of their founders took on enhanced significance and merit. Frontier history proved to be an attractive field of study with so many dimensions that virtually any scholar could claim a share of it.
Although Turner never stressed the romantic aspects of the frontier experience, they became popular during his and succeeding generations. Frontier regional fiction and folklore, art, and film gained national attention. Popular culture transformed, watered down, and recast Turner's ideas even as they received serious attention in the nation's universities. He provided, in a sense, an intellectual rationale for a spate of scholarly monographs, and the creation of a mythic West, including Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, which was both at home and abroad presented as a vital part of the nation's history. To a generation that was establishing and supporting state and local historical and genealogical societies, Turner's frontier theories of American character and conquest made sense.
Viewed in retrospect, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" was an essay that spoke from deep in the mentality of the Gilded Age. In an era of emerging nationalism closely approximating in enthusiasm the Young America Movement of the antebellum period, Turner captured more than merely the idea that the frontier and the internal history of nationhood were important and required study. He produced in one brief essay - a compelling explanation of national character and narrative - what European historians took volumes to write. Little wonder that within two decades of his address in Chicago Turner was president of the American Historical Association, held a coveted post at Harvard, and was a leading figure in the academic establishment. Many eagerly sought him out for visiting professorships, lectures, and consultations.
When a later generation expressed shock and horror in detecting the absence of the "other" in Turner and found implicit in his essay the sins of a culture of unrestrained economic development and resource exploitation, they had somehow approached his famous work from the time warp of the twentieth century.19 Turner's youth, education, and triumph belong to an era a century past. We should view his paradigm for studying American history in different ways. The westering experience of the American people is worthy of attention, especially if Turner's "others" are included, as serious historians have noted for forty years. The study of the West as a region, like Southern history, also has merit. But for historians of the Gilded Age, those who do not focus their attention of the development of the western states, the significance of the "Significance" essay is its place in the cultural history of its time - an era characterized by world-wide white hegemony and intense nationalism. Thus, for its many facets, Turner's essay remains a valuable source for understanding the nineteenth century. Few other single pieces of historical writing from that era can stake such a claim.
1Vernon E. Mattson and William E. Marion, Frederick Jackson Turner: A Reference Guide (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1985).
2For an excellent review of Turner's frontier work, see Gerald D. Nash, Creating the West: Historical interpretations: 1890-1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991). For a different, but more appreciative interpretation, see Martin Ridge, "The Life of an Idea: the Significance of Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis," Montana: The Magazine of Western History, 40 (Winter, 1991), 3-13.
3See Elazar Barkan, "Rethinking Orientalism: Representations of 'Primitives' in Western Culture at the turn of the Century," History of European Ideas, 15 (1992), 760.
4See Keith Thomas, "How Britain Made It," New York Review of Books, 39 (November 19, 1992), 35.
5Michael Kraus, The History of American History (New York: Farrar & Rhinehart, 1937), 336-380.
6See Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968).
7Ian Tyrell, The Absent Marx: Class Analysis and Liberal History in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 16.
8Turner was well aware of the problems of nationalist history. Even before publishing his frontier essay, he warned of the dangers of teaching national history without a broader context: "When a society is isolated it looks with contempt upon the history and institutions of the rest of the world. We shall not be altogether wrong if we say that such tribal ideas concerning our institutions and society have prevailed for many years in this country." See Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of History," in Martin Ridge, ed., History, Frontier, and Section: Three Essays by Frederick Jackson Turner (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993), 39-58.
9Turner also studied and taught rhetoric at Wisconsin. For Turner's use of rhetoric in the development of his ideas, especially "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," see Ronald H. Carpenter, The Eloquence of Frederick Jackson Turner (San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1983), 193-218.
10Josiah Royce's foray into history, California, was a unique work for its time because it was in a sense both a memoir and a piece of critical research. See Robert Hine, Josiah Royce: From Grass Valley to Harvard (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 158-165.
11For Turner's erudition and his recognition of the power of religious and national biases to inspire tribalism, see Turner, "The Significance of History."
12Here he parted company with Herbert Baxter Adams who advocated the so-called "germ theory," which postulated that all American institutions were derived from Europe and should be traced to their origins.
13See David Potter, "The Quest for National Character," in John Higham, ed., The Reconstruction of American History (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1962), 200.
14Some scholars have insisted that Turner left a legacy of pessimism not only because in this essay he offered no viable solution to the revitalization of democratic institutions but also because of the Malthusian dimension of the frontier essay. The emphasis on Malthusian thinking was far from unusual among Gilded Age intellectuals. Turner's place and contribution to the subject require further study and a book-length analysis. Years later Turner concluded that democracy would be sustained by public education, especially the state university system. See his essay, "Pioneer Ideals and the State University," in Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920).
15Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," in Ridge, ed., History, Frontier, and Section. Virtually every discussion of the American character deals with Turner. For example, Thomas L. Hartshorne observed: "Because of its simplicity, clarity, and cogency, Turner's essay has become the prototype of the national-character study." Thomas L. Hartshorne, The Distorted Image: Changing Conceptions of the American Character Since Turner (Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1968), x-xi.
16See Potter, "The Quest for National Character," 197.
17Turner's political liberalism was tempered by many pf the ethnic and racial prejudices of his day. He did not believe that the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote, he expressed anti-semitic sentiments, and he was equally suspicious of turn-of-the century immigrants from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe. As Turner grew older many of his views moderated, and he became more tolerant; but even his laudatory biographer concludes that he was consistently a man of his times. See Ray Allen Billington, Frederick Jackson Turner: Historian, Scholar, Teacher (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 436-437.
18See Martin Ridge, "The Life of an Idea: The Significance of Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis."
19Although national identity and character remain a matter of profound concern to foreign scholars, Americans have paid less attention to them in recent years; and with the rise in importance of pluralism in American society, there has been both a denial of the existence of an American society, there has been both a denial of the existence of an American national character or a narrowing of the concept to make it apply primarily to the dominant white middle-class culture.