Article abstract: Developing a unique thesis based on the influence of the frontier in American history, Turner became the most dominant figure among professional historians in the United States for the first three decades of the twentieth century.
Frederick Jackson Turner, born in Portage, Wisconsin, on November 14, 1861, was the eldest son of Andrew Jackson and Mary Hanford Turner. His parents were both from New York, with ancestors among the early Puritan settlers of New England. In the same year that his first son was born, Andrew Jackson Turner purchased the small newspaper for which he worked and merged it with a rival to produce the weekly Wisconsin State Register, which he edited and published until 1878. An uncompromising Republican, the elder Turner was active in state politics and served four terms as mayor of Portage.
As son of a local political figure, young Turner grew up with firsthand knowledge of party politics and a healthy respect for the ability to influence men with words and ideas. In addition, an editor’s son was perhaps predisposed to develop a love for the written word. As a boy, Turner read widely and, in 1876, when he was only fifteen, began to contribute to his father’s newspaper through his Pencil and Scissors Department, where he printed quotations that had attracted his attention. His obvious intellectual ability and interest did not mean that the younger Turner became the stereotypical bookworm. On the contrary, when not reading his favorite author, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he could be found hunting and fishing with his father or engaging in the sort of activities that Mark Twain had imagined for Tom Sawyer.
Appropriately for a man who would have so much influence on American education, Turner excelled as a student and was graduated from Portage’s only high school in June, 1878. His senior oration, “The Power of the Press,” won first prize in the annual competition, and his reward was a set of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s History of England (1849-1861). In spite of such foreshadowing, Turner entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison in September, with no idea that his future would be tied to the development of history as a profession. He had inherited a healthy interest in local history from his father, but, in the 1870’s, history was not something that an enterprising young man would choose for a career. Not until 1881 would any American university establish a professorship in American history, and in 1884, the year Turner was graduated from college, there were only fifteen professorships and five assistant professorships in history throughout the nation.
On the surface, Turner appeared the typical undergraduate, except that he was actually enrolled as a subfreshman since his preparation in the classics at Portage High School was considered less than adequate. An enthusiastic fraternity man throughout his college career, extracurricular activities absorbed much of his time. In the summer of 1879, however, he underwent a forceful introduction to the more serious side of life. Contracting a nearly fatal case of spinal meningitis, he was unable to return to Madison until the spring of 1881. Turner used the enforced idleness well, studying Greek and reading widely, and upon reentering college, he found a new love which he would never abandon—history. The matchmaker in this case was Professor William Francis Allen, a remarkable teacher whose ideas about education were extremely progressive for the time in which he lived. Viewing history as understanding the past rather than simply recording past events, Professor Allen was undoubtedly responsible for pushing his gifted student toward a career in history.
While academic life was clearly becoming more and more important to Turner himself, his fellow students knew him primarily as an outstanding orator. Public speaking played an important role in the educational system of the nineteenth century and would turn out to be very important for Turner’s future. Winning the university’s most prestigious oratorical contests in his junior and senior years made Turner something of a campus celebrity and prompted the offer of an assistant instructorship in rhetoric after his graduation. He initially declined and tried his hand at journalism, but newspaper work was simply not satisfying. In the spring of 1885, he seized the opportunity to return to the university as a temporary replacement for his mentor, Professor Allen, who had been given a temporary leave. Turner quickly recognized that he had found his true vocation; yet, unfortunately, there were no openings in history. At the beginning of the next academic year, he accepted an appointment as an assistant in the department of rhetoric and oratory.
Turner was a natural teacher, and his popularity with Wisconsin’s students spread rapidly. At first, he had difficulty overcoming his youthful appearance. Five feet eight inches tall, slightly built with blue eyes and fair hair, the budding professor, according to Madison legend, was often mistaken for a freshman. Perhaps the well-trimmed mustache which he maintained for the remainder of his life was an attempt to add a few years to his appearance. Looks, however, could not hide his magnetic personality or detract from the deep voice and practiced delivery that made his lectures so popular. He soon added American history to his teaching duties and began work on a master’s degree in history.
On July 12, 1893, Professor Frederick Jackson Turner, a thirty-two-year-old teacher from a small, back-country state university, stepped before a group of professional historians meeting in conjunction with the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He was expected to present a paper much like the four other papers which had been given earlier that evening, and, certainly, none in the audience anticipated anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, when Turner had finished, the reaction was polite, and his colleagues returned to their hotels, blithely unaware that a revolution inside their profession had begun. This essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” not only marked the introduction of Turner’s famous “frontier thesis,” which would dominate American historical debate for the next...
(The entire section is 2597 words.)