Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2597
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 thirty years, but also signaled the emergence of the modern, academically trained, professional historian as the chief steward of the nation’s past. For the remainder of his life, Turner’s name would be associated with his particular interpretation of his country’s history.
The frontier thesis grew in Turner’s mind as a reflection of his background, his academic training, and his role as a college teacher. Already influenced by Allen as an undergraduate, Turner worked toward his master’s degree under Allen’s guidance. Though a classicist by training, Allen was sympathetic to Turner’s interest in regional history and accepted “The Character and Influence of the Fur Trade in Wisconsin” as the subject of his master’s thesis. Such research naturally drew Turner’s attention to the development of the West, but his ideas were also influenced by his experience as a teacher. Modeling himself after Allen, Turner encouraged his students to seek to understand the past as well as ascertain the supposed “facts.” In attempting to explain the “why” behind historical events to his students, Turner made his classes into a laboratory within which he could test new ideas.
There was also a very practical element in Turner’s development: He wanted to make a career for himself. This element became much more important after he met Caroline Mae Sherwood of Chicago in 1887. His desire to marry the young woman, a feat which he accomplished in late 1889, motivated him to establish himself more firmly in the academic community. In the rapidly developing American system of higher education, this meant that he needed to acquire the coveted Ph.D. degree. In September, 1888, after receiving his master’s degree in June, the loyal Midwesterner found himself in the exotic atmosphere of Baltimore as a graduate student at The Johns Hopkins University.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Johns Hopkins was the center from which a group of truly professional historians was beginning to emerge. The real point of origin was the famed historical seminar of Herbert Baxter Adams. Turner’s experience at Johns Hopkins would be instrumental in completing his growth as a trained scholar, but ironically his own ideas ran counter to the Teutonic or “germ” school of history stressed by Adams himself. This school concentrated on the European origins of American institutions and could hardly be expected to appeal to a man whose heart never left the forests of Wisconsin. Adams, however, was tolerant enough to accept a revised version of Turner’s master’s thesis as a dissertation and wise enough to recognize his student’s basic ability.
When Turner returned to Madison in 1889, he was awarded an assistant professorship in history and prepared to play the role of a junior faculty member. In December of that year, however, his career received a boost from an unwelcome event, the sudden death of Allen. Turner was soon made a full professor of history and chairman of the history department. For the next twenty years, he would dedicate himself to building Wisconsin’s history department into one of the finest in the nation. His seminars in history soon eclipsed those of Adams and became the spawning ground for dozens of the young doctors of philosophy demanded by the expanding American university system.
The frontier thesis, which had caused so little immediate notice in Chicago, became the most important and controversial interpretation in American history during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Explaining the exact nature of Turner’s analysis, however, is surprisingly difficult. His colorful rhetoric, which always reflected his background as an accomplished orator, led to vague generalizations rather than specific arguments. Moreover, Turner’s many disciples often exaggerated their master’s positions, converting what he intended as only a useful hypothesis into dogma. Basically, Turner believed that the existence of a continual frontier, especially cheap or free land, was the most significant element in American history and was largely responsible for the unique development of American institutions and the American character. The frontier, for example, supposedly created conditions which fostered the establishment of democracy and provided a “safety valve” which prevented labor unrest in the East.
The generally enthusiastic reception of Turner’s ideas by professional scholars and their dominance of American history until the 1930’s is in part a reflection of Turner’s personal success as a colleague and teacher, but it also indicates the harmony between Turner’s approach and the intellectual currents of his day. Turner’s argument was rooted in Darwinian thought and was unabashedly environmentalist. Human society evolved from the physical conditions to which its members were forced to adapt. Such ideas also fit well with the philosophy of pragmatism being developed by William James and John Dewey and anticipated the relativist position in historical philosophy that would later emerge in the work of Charles A. Beard and Carl Becker. In fact, Carl Becker was one of Turner’s many students.
Fortunately, the influence of Turner’s thesis and the spread of his reputation did not depend on his production as a scholar. While he was a tireless researcher, he found writing a chore, and his most significant work is found in numerous short, provocative essays. He produced only one monograph during his lifetime, The Rise of the New West, 1819-1829 (1906), as part of the American Nation Series. He also published two collections of essays, The Frontier in American History (1920) and Significance of Sections in American History (1932), the latter of which received the Pulitzer Prize. Another monograph which also received the Pulitzer Prize, The United States, 1830-1850: The Nation and Its Sections (1935), was published posthumously.
Part of Turner’s difficulty with publishing stemmed from his dedication to his role as a college professor. In addition to spending an inordinate amount of his time and energy with his students, Turner always seemed to be involved in administrative tasks, particularly while at the University of Wisconsin. These duties were not only time consuming but also frustrating. For example, Turner, along with other faculty members, waged an unsuccessful struggle against the growing influence of big-time college football. Such activities, coupled with his commitment to academic excellence whatever the cost, produced friction between the university’s board of regents and Wisconsin’s most famous professor. In 1910, the same year he was elected president of the American Historical Association, Turner left his alma mater for the more rarefied atmosphere of Harvard, where he served as professor of history until his retirement in 1924. From 1927 until his death on March 14, 1932, Turner kept active as a research associate at Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
In the years after his death, Turner’s famous frontier thesis suffered a barrage of criticism, much of it justified. By the 1950’s, Turner’s followers were fighting a rearguard action against the developing complexity of interpretation that his style of history had helped to create. Turner himself would not have been surprised; in fact, he would probably have applauded the new developments. He had always stressed the complexity of historical analysis and argued many times that each age must reinterpret the past in the light of present knowledge. Moreover, his frontier thesis had been put forward as a hypothesis rather than a final explanation. In Turner’s view, qualification and even rejection of his arguments were part of the process by which human beings understood their past and, thereby, themselves.
Although there are few pure Turnerians left among professional historians in the United States, his legacy remains influential. While the frontier thesis can no longer be accepted as the primary explanation of America’s past, there is little doubt that the frontier experience did play a crucial role in making the country unique. Perhaps most important, Turner himself stands as an example of what a professional scholar should be to those who would follow in his footsteps.
Bennett, James D. Frederick Jackson Turner. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975. A short biography with an annotated bibliography. In addition to the usual biographical information, the author deals with the various criticisms of Turner’s thesis and tries to place Turner within the context of American historiography.
Benson, Lee. Turner and Beard: American Historical Writing Reconsidered. New York: Free Press, 1960. A historiographical analysis of Turner and Beard and their economic interpretation of history. Provides an excellent examination of the origin of Turner’s ideas and the influence of economic theory on his thesis.
Billington, Ray A. Frederick Jackson Turner: Historian, Scholar, Teacher. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. The fullest biography of Turner, by one of his students. While the author is clearly an admirer of Turner, his careful scholarship provides a reasonably well-rounded picture.
Carpenter, Ronald H. The Eloquence of Frederick Jackson Turner. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1983. An important study of Turner’s rhetorical style. The author pays particular attention to the relationship of Turner’s background as an orator to his historical analysis.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. A brilliant historiographical study of the Progressive Era. The author subjects the three most important historians of the period to careful critical analysis.
Jacobs, Wilbur R. The Historical World of Frederick Jackson Turner, with Selections from His Correspondence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968. A selection of Turner’s correspondence connected by biographical information. The author’s comments are particularly helpful in placing Turner’s voluminous correspondence in context.
Taylor, George Rogers, ed. The Turner Thesis: Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History. Boston: D. C. Heath and Co., 1949. A selection of articles attacking and defending Turner’s thesis.
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