It was on 12 July 1893 during the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in Chicago that coincided with the Columbia Exposition that Fredrick Jackson Turner delivered his paper – The Significance of the Frontier in American History. This paper will enumerate the main thesis of Turner, compare his views to those of New Western historians, and evaluate reasons why the New Western historian interpretation of the West was different from Turner’s. At the end of the paper, the frontier will be evaluated to determine whether it was a place or a process.
Turner’s Main Thesis
Turner was of the argument that the democracy in America resulted from the American frontier. In this sense, the American frontier, though the concept of the frontier will be critically assessed in another part of this paper, was a combination of the geography, history, and an expression of a culture dominated by life. Turner in his submission stressed on the process of the moving frontier line and the impact it unfolded to the pioneers. In his paper, he further stressed the results, more so the American democracy, which was the primary result of the frontier process. Other results according to Turner were the lack of interests in culture and the emergence of violence. On this Turner said that “American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; … It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.”
In the thesis, Turner observed that the American frontier delivered liberty by freeing Americans from the otherwise established mindsets of Europeans, which were archaic and dotted with dysfunctional customs. On this, the new dispensation had no space for standing armies, churches, aristocrats, or gentries with an interest in the control of land using high rents. The frontier land was essentially free for anyone’s taking hence the aspect for land control was not functional, something that scattered European creations.
In the entire paper, one important theme that is candidly explained is that of social evolution. Turner was of the belief that civilization occurs in a rather orderly evolutionary cycle. The cycle moves in stages namely; savage state, pastoralism, and lastly, cities and industries. The Europeans, as seen from Turner, were trapped in the precincts of the final stages, which had resulted in dire consequences such as corruption and staleness that was evident in Europe and the eastern U.S., where European cultures were dominant. In the West, where there was an abundance of free and undeveloped land, it gave Americans the opportunity to go through a process of rebirthing. In the frontier, individualism and capitalism were at the helm. Those who went further took what was best from Europe and practiced it to push the frontier further. As such, whatever European characteristics and institutions did not conform to the new dispensation were quickly effected out since they had no place in the West, and in their place, a new and pure democracy blossomed.
To Turner, the American wilderness seemed like an entity that furthered the American development. It is the wilderness that allowed America to shed the European skin and as such make a step forward towards a new self-reliant and improved democracy. It was man’s duty to overcome and improve the wilderness using culture and organized society. Europe did not have the space for the new frontier. The wilderness was ill-adapted to the European and easterner’s habits, culture, and institutional baggage that they had left behind. The complexity of their otherwise complex political institutions and traditional economic setup were not designed to cater to the needs of an isolated community that was seriously in need of economic self-sufficiency. As such, new systems were necessary.
Comparison of Turner’s Views to those of the New Western Historians
Turner’s assertions and theories did not go without criticism and counter-arguments. The New Western History was the steadiest critic advanced by Patricia Nelson Limerick who in 1987 published a book, Legacy of Conquest. In the book, Patricia attempted to reverse Turner’s line of thought and in so doing, dealt especially with concepts of banishment and conquest and not hope and triumph. The New Western History advocate for the examination of the West in the perspective of a process rather than a region and hence reject the term ‘frontier’. This class of historians considers whites as invaders, sympathize with the white’s subjects, and explore the continuity that existed between the nineteenth and twentieth-century Wests.
New Western Historians exhibit diversity in their thinking but share similarities in their views and objectives. These historians often consider American culture, which is dominated by capitalism as exploitative and wasteful. New Western Historians will tie together environmental views and those concerning the economy. For instance, White in his submission, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change, found out that humans will exploit the environment for their own betterment. Native Americans viewed land as sacred and alive and as such, preserved it. The arrival of the whites marked the reproachment of those beliefs. Whites felt nothing for the land since they viewed it as an economic resource that should produce profit as it was not in their culture to preserve the land. They, therefore, altered the land, and in return, the land altered them. This game or reversal brought unintended consequences.
Worster, another New Western Historian, in his writing, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, was of the view that nature reattributes to the human imposition of modern capitalism when imposed on it. Worster asserted that nature has the characteristics of human nature. For instance, that water is the blood of the West, and those in control of water, more so governments and big businesses, will control the West. His view was that the West was dominated by exploitation and imperial power over the Natives and the environment. This view is also shared by Patricia Limerick.
All the New Western Historians do not appreciate the concept of a free market or any economic development explanation of the West. They consider the concept of a free market as exploitative, assert that capitalism led to more failures than successes in the West, and that the free market was the root cause of many problems in the West, a viewpoint that was supported by the federal government. It was the federal government that aided in the development of the West, through defining land, building of physical infrastructure, and kicking out Native Americans through brute force.
Why is the New Western historian interpretation of the West different than Turner’s?
The New Western Historian interpretation of the West is principally different than Turner’s. The New Western Historians view the process of developing the west on the prism of capitalism and greed. These historians water down the efforts applied by those who developed the West, as a means to achieve individualistic ends. The New Western historians view the lack of environmental protection by the business people and those who were pushing for democracy and formation of institutions based on American democracy, as well as, the federal government as people who were there to support and expedite the destruction of the environment, and the marginalization of Native Americans who were of a different opinion and culture.
On the other hand, Turner’s views are dotted with optimism and perception of hope and people full of grit. Turner views the people who developed the West as people who were driven with passion and a sense of responsibility for their future. Turner, though implicitly, depicts the degradation of the environment as the side effect of what development brings. There is absolutely no need to live in a backward society with little or no opportunities for the sons and daughters of such a society over a few hectares of trees. Turner has explained that no society develops out of nowhere, there must be concerted efforts from each member of the society. Though Turner does not dwell on the fate of the Native Americans, he does not deny that things could have been done differently to better the fate of the Native Americans.
Is the frontier a place or a process?
The frontier, as expressed by Turner, was a process. It is the process that began by the change of mindsets of the people. Those who were pushing the frontier began by rejecting the European doctrines that did not conform with the new dawn. They selectively took ideologies and cultures from Europe that were consistent with the changes and the new societies that they were creating out of the wilderness. After having a change of mindset, the people were then able to establish new institutions and cultures that supported the expansion of the frontiers. With established capitalism and a sense of individualism, the people were able to cultivate a culture of ‘do it myself’. This attitude helped the people get the guts and grit of pushing the geographic boundaries much further due to the rewards that came from such events. With a new mindset, capitalism, and individualism, it was possible to push the geographic boundaries further into the wilderness to develop the west.
This paper has evaluated the works of Turner by looking at the main thesis of his paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History “. The New Western Historian interpretation of the West has been evaluated and it has been determined that this breed of historians was more concerned with the environment and social wellbeing of Native Americans. The New Western Historians do not appreciate the processes and changes that were necessary for the development of the West. They are critical of the government’s efforts and other individual efforts and interpret them as merely meant to degrade the Natives, as well as, the environment to achieve selfish individual needs. These different viewpoints explain the differences between Turner and New Western Historians. In the end, it has been discussed that the frontier was actually a process and not a place. Without the ideologies and a change of mindset, there would have no geographic place. As such, it is an entire process.
Carpenter, Ronald H. “Frederick Jackson Turner and the rhetorical impact of the frontier thesis.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 63, no. 2 (1977): 117-129.
Putnam, Jackson K. “The Turner thesis and the westward movement: a reappraisal.” The Western Historical Quarterly (1976): 377-404.
Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” A Nineteenth—Century American Reader (1989).
White, Richard. Land use, environment, and social change: the shaping of Island County, Washington. University of Washington Press, 2000.
Worster, Donald. Dustbowl: the southern plains in the 1930s. Oxford University Press, 2004.
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