Frederick Jackson Turner was an historian who revolutionized historical
thinking in the United States by calling attention to the significance
of the frontier in the development of the American character. He
delivered this essay at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
The supplement is difficult you should have the homework questions
in front of you as you read. Pay close attention to how Turner characterizes
the frontier and the Americanizing influence it has on settlers.
Also notice the relationship Turner outlines between the frontier and nationalism,
the frontier and individualism, and the frontier and democracy.
In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of [the frontierís] extent, its westward movement... it can not therefore any longer have a place in the census reports." This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development....
The peculiarity of American institutions is, the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people to the changes involving crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life. Said [John C.] Calhoun in 1817, "We are great, and rapidly I was about to say fearfully growing!" So saying, he touched the distinguishing feature of American life. All peoples show development.... In the case of most nations, however, the development has occurred in a limited area; and if the nation has expanded it has met other growing peoples whom it has conquered. But in the case of the United States we have a different phenomenon.... [In the United States] we have the familiar phenomenon of the evolution of institutions in a limited area... the progress from primitive society... up to manufacturing civilization. But we have in addition to this a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion. Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West. Even the slavery struggle... occupies its important place in American history because of its relationship to westward expansion.
In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave the meeting point between savagery and civilization.
The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier a fortified boundary line running through dense populations. The most significant thing about the American frontier is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land. In the census reports it is treated as the margin of that settlement which has a density of two or more to the square mile. The term is an elastic one, and for our purposes does not need sharp definition. We shall consider the whole frontier belt, including Indian country and the outer margin of the "settled area" of the census reports....
In the settlement of American we have to observe how European life entered the continent, and how American modified and developed that life and reacted on Europe. Our early history is the study of European germs developing in an American environment.... The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him, Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trials. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe.... The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. At first, the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American.... Each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of frontier characteristics. Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines. And to study this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history....
Loria, the Italian economist, has urged the study of colonial life as an aid in understanding the stages of European development.... "America," he says, "has the key to the historical enigma which Europe has sought for centuries in vain, and the land which has no history reveals, luminously the course of universal history." There is much truth in this. The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read this continental page from West to East we find the record of social evolution. It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system.... What is now a manufacturing State was in an earlier decade an area of intensive farming. Earlier yet it had been a wheat area, and still earlier the "range" had attracted the cattle herder. Thus, Wisconsin, now developing manufacture, is a State with varied agricultural interests. But earlier it was given over to almost exclusive grain-raising, like North Dakota at the present time....
The advance of the... steady farmer is easy to understand. Obviously the immigrant was attracted by the cheap lands of the frontier, and even native farmers felt their influence strongly. Year by year the farmers who lived on soil whose returns were diminishing by unrotated crops were offered the virgin soil of the frontier at nominal prices. Their growing families demanded more lands.... The competition of the unexhausted, cheap, and easily tilled prairie land compelled the farmer either to go west... or adopt intensive culture.... Thus the demand for land and the love of wilderness freedom drew the frontier ever onward.
[Having discussed the frontier] we may next inquire what were the influences on the East and on the Old World....
First, we note that the frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people. The coast was preponderantly English, but the later tides of continental immigration flowed across to the free lands. This was the case from the early colonial days. The Scotch-Irish and the Palatine Germans, or "Pennsylvania Dutch" furnished the dominant element in the stock of the colonial frontier. With these people were also the freed indentured servants... who at the expiration of their time of service passed to the frontier.... Very generally these [former indentured servants] were of non-English stock. In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English neither in nationality nor characteristics. The process has gone on from the early days to our own....
In another way the advance of the frontier decreased our dependence on England. [During the colonial period] the coast, particularly of the South, lacked diversified industries, and was dependent on England for the bulk of its supplies.... Before long the frontier created a demand for [America] merchants. As it retreated from the coast it became less and less possible for England to bring her supplies directly to the consumerís wharfs, and carry away staple crops.... The advance of the frontier aroused seaboard cities like Boston, New York, and Baltimore to engage in rivalry for what Washington called the "extensive and valuable trade of a rising empire."
The legislation which most developed the powers of the national government, and played the largest part in its activity, was conditioned on the frontier. Writers have discussed the subject of tariff, land and internal improvement, as subsidiary to the slavery question. But when American history comes to be rightly viewed it will be seen that the slavery question is an incident.... The growth of nationalism and the evolution of American political institutions were dependent on the advance of the frontier....
The pioneer needed the goods of the coast, and so the grand series of internal improvements and railroad legislation began, with potent nationalizing effects. Over internal improvements occurred great debates, in which grave constitutional questions were discussed.... Loose construction increased as the nation marched westward. But the West was not content with bringing the farm to the factory. Under the lead of [Henry] Clay "Harry of the West" protective tariffs were passed, with the cry of bringing the factory to the farm. The disposition of the public lands was a third important subject of national legislation influenced by the frontier....
Administratively the frontier called out some of the highest and most vitalizing activities of the general government. The purchase of Louisiana was perhaps the constitutional turning point in the history of the Republic, in as much as it afforded both a new area for national legislation and the occasion of the downfall of the policy of strict construction... The purchase of Louisiana was called out by frontier needs and demands. As frontier States accrued to the Union the national power grew.
It is safe to say that the legislation with regard to land, tariff and internal improvement... was conditioned on frontier ideas and needs. But it was not merely in legislative action that the frontier worked against the sectionalism of the coast. The economic and social characteristics of the frontier worked against sectionalism.
It was this nationalizing tendency of the West that transformed the democracy of Jefferson into the national republicanism of Monroe and the democracy of Andrew Jackson. The West... had a solidarity of its own with national tendencies.... North and South met and mingled into a nation. Interstate migration went steadily on a process of cross-fertilization of ideas and institutions.... Nothing works for nationalism like intercourse within the nation. Mobility of population is death to localism, and the western frontier worked irresistibly in unsettling population....
But the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy.... 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. [The frontier] produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression. Professor Osgood, in an able article, has pointed out that the frontier conditions prevalent in the colonies are important factors in the explanation of the American Revolution, where individual liberty was sometimes confused with absence of all effective government. The same conditions aid in explaining the difficulty of instituting a strong government in the period of the [Articles of] confederacy. The frontier individualism has from the beginning promoted democracy.
The frontier States that came into the Union in the first quarter of a century of its existence came in with democratic suffrage provisions, and had reactive effects... upon the older States.... An extension of the franchise became essential. It was western New York that forced an extension of suffrage [to all white men in 1821]... and it was western Virginia that compelled the [eastern] tide-water region to put a more liberal suffrage provision [into effect in 1830].... The rise of democracy as an effective force in the nation came in with western preponderance under Jackson.... An interesting illustration of the tone of frontier democracy in 1830 comes from the same debates [on extending the vote in Virginia].... A representative from [the] Western [frontier region of] Virginia declared, "A Western Virginia [frontier] statesman, though far inferior in logic, metaphysics, and rhetoric to a old Virginia statesman, has this advantage, that when he returns home he takes off his coat and takes hold of the plow. This gives him bone and muscle, sir, and preserves his republican principles pure and uncontaminated."
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....
The East has always feared the result of an unregulated advance of the frontier, and has tried to check and guide it.... But the attempts to limit the boundaries, to restrict land sales and settlement, and to deprive the West of its share of political power were all in vain. Steadily the frontier of settlement advanced and carried with it individualism, democracy, and nationalism....
The most effective efforts of the East to regulate the frontier came through its educational and religious activity, exerted by interstate migration and by organized societies. Speaking in 1835, Dr. Lyman Beecher declared, "[The population of the West] is assembled from all the States of the Union and from all the nations of Europe, and is rushing in like the waters of the flood, demanding for its moral preservation the immediate and universal action of those institutions which discipline the mind and arm the conscience and the heart.... What will become of the West if her prosperity rushes up to such a majesty of power, while those great institutions linger which are necessary to form the mind and conscience an d the heart of that vast world. It must not be permitted...."
.... From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of
profound importance.... The result is that to the frontier the American
intellect owe its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength
combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; 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 comes with
freedom these are traits of the frontier. Since the days when
the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America
has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United State
have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been
open but has even been forced upon them.... Movement has been its dominant
fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American
energy will continually demand a wider field for its existence. But
never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves. For a
moment, [with the closing of the frontier]... the bonds of custom are broken....
[And yet,] the stubborn American environment is there with its imperious
summons to accept its conditions; the inherited ways of doing things are
also there.... [Throughout American history] in spite of environment, and
in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity,
a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence,
and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas,
and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier. What
the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bonds of custom,
offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities,
that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States....
And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a
hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and
with its going has closed the first period of American history.
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