In what ways did the West provide a "safety valve" for the problems in the industrial East?

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Turner argued that the frontier was a "safety valve" insofar as it allowed people to move from the east in pursuit of economic opportunity. Rather than staying in eastern cities as a permanent working class, people could leave to start a new life in the West, which had, as Turner characterized it, "free land." Turner wrote that "So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists," with "competency" meaning economic self-sufficiency and independence. The West, in Turner's telling, had always represented the promise of a better economic life to Americans. In Turner's day, many were fearful of the rise of a militant working class, which they thought would embrace radical politics, including socialism, anarchism, and communism. This prospect was especially urgent to Americans in 1894, the year Turner presented his essay to the American Historical Association. Just one year earlier, the Panic of 1893 had put hundreds of thousands of industrial workers out of work, and angry workers went on strike in many different industries. Turner thought that the availability of "free land" had allowed many of these people to move in search of better prospects in the past. However, in 1890, the Census Bureau had declared the frontier closed. Turner worried that the loss of "free land" undercut the very basis of American democracy.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

According to Turner, the West presented an opportunity for the people to pursue their prosperity because of the available land. The West provided a vent for the social, economic, cultural and political pressures that characterized the rapidly growing East. History had shown that such pressures had the resultant effect of causing conflicts and reversing the progress that may have been achieved. Thus, the thought and idea that alternatives existed helped in ensuring those willing to replicate the success in the East were accorded that chance.

Turner suggested that Westward Expansion played an important role in shaping American culture. He goes further to state that the event might as well be the single most important event that shaped American history. In shaping American culture, Turner suggests that the will to survive and thrive on foreign land entrenched the concept of self-sufficiency in the American people. Belief in the concept saw most of the people move to the West, moving the boundary further and creating opportunities along the way.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Significance of the Frontier in American History" and subsequent essays and books by Frederick Jackson Turner changed the way historians thought about the United States by arguing that it was the frontier that shaped American history. 

First, the frontier made land available to people living in the increasingly expensive and crowded industrial east, defusing the sort of tensions about land ownership the caused civil unrest in other nations; those who were without land but wanted it could acquire land by homesteading in the west.

Next, rather than immigration causing overcrowding, immigrants could move west; many western settlements were created by immigrant families. This reduced potential conflicts between immigrants and residents over property.

Finally, as the federal government controlled and distributed the new lands of the west, western frontier lands provided a way for the government to give economic benefits without raising taxes.

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