The Significance of the Frontier in American History

by Frederick Jackson Turner
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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

"The Significance of the Frontier in American History" was written by Frederick Jackson Turner, delivered as a conference paper at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in 1893, and published in that organization's Annual Report. There is much to this essay, which in many ways marks the rise of professional historiography. At its heart is the so-called "frontier thesis," Jackson Turner's explanation for what has made the United States unique, or "exceptional," as most people of his time believed it to be.

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The "frontier thesis" essentially is that the United States is unique because it has always had a frontier with "free land" available. For this reason, people have always been able to move westward. On the frontier, Turner thought, white men brought European ways that they had to adapt to the rugged conditions in these hinterlands. The mix of frontier-ready culture and European "civilization" was, for Turner, uniquely American, forged on the frontier, the "outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization." Turner also thought that American democracy depended on the existence of free land. He thought that without its existence, large working classes would arise and become revolutionaries, creating a toxic environment for democracy as he understood it.

Turner, in short, saw the American frontier as the key to American democracy, and, in a scholarly vein, the key to a valid historical understanding of the nation. In this sense, his essay was a call to other historians to look to the frontier in their work. His essay has been roundly criticized for its reductionism and especially for his treatment of Native Americans, who he essentially characterized as part of the frontier landscape to be swept away. The phrase "free land" is especially arresting to modern readers who reflect that there were Native Americans on this territory that was supposedly there for the taking. Also, written just three years after the "closing" of the American frontier, the essay reads like a call for imperialism—a new frontier that will revitalize American democracy.

On the other hand, Turner's thesis moved away from the essentialist racial theories that dominated thinking about nationalism at the time. He sought to explain American history and culture by looking at a material fact (free land), however ethnocentric that "fact" may have been. Overlooked, too, is the fact that Turner was afraid of the effects of the domination of the west by railroads, mining companies, and other corporate behemoths that kept it from becoming a place ordinary Americans could settle in the late nineteenth century. For these reasons, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," while generally rejected by modern scholars, remains a milestone in American historiography.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1484

On July 12, 1893, an annual meeting of the fledgling American Historical Association (AHA) was held in Chicago to coincide with the Columbia Exposition. The exposition celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus. Frederick Jackson Turner, from Wisconsin, got up to deliver a paper before the AHA. His paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” permanently altered the study of American history in schools, colleges, and universities.

Turner’s famous paper often was reprinted, but it was not until 1920 that he presented the first full statement of his theory of the frontier. Turner republished his original paper, with twelve supporting articles, in the book The Frontier in American History; the second and consequent part of his theory, The Significance of Sections in American History , was published in 1932, the...

(The entire section contains 2103 words.)

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