The Significance of the Frontier in American History

by Frederick Jackson Turner
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 303

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In this essay, which Frederick Jackson Turner first delivered (in part) to a conference of the American Historical Association in Chicago in 1893 and which he later published in 1920, the author examines the changes that the closing of the American frontier will bring to American society. He begins his essay by noting that in the Census of 1890, the frontier was, for the first time in American history, shown to no longer exist. His essay discusses the results that the closing of the frontier will have on American society and politics.

Turner writes that the frontier and the constant expansion of the country have been essential to its character. He states, "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." He believes that the American West is the true source of American culture, not the settled East Coast, and he believes that American culture relies on constant re-creation. He believes that the frontier is what gives Americans their culture. He says of the frontier, "It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin." In addition to tracing the history of the frontier, Turner emphasizes the role that the frontier has played in fostering democracy and what he refers to as "individualism." He credits the frontier with fostering a sense of practicality.

This essay is notable for expanding beyond the realm of academia to the world of politics. It establishes the ideas of renewal and expansion as critical to the American character. The effect of this essay was that it alarmed Americans, particularly politicians, into thinking that they needed to find new outlets for American expansion. Therefore, Turner's work in part fueled the imperialist urges of Americans.