Immersed in times characterized by rapid and concentrated change, it is natural that one finds himself in search of a solid strong foothold to resist the tide. Every river, no matter how swift its flow and chaotic its rapids, has a source, a point from which to understand its course and substance. If found, at least in part, this source promises the discoverer, along with his disciples, a powerful sense of identity that can influence a generation. This is the case of Frederick Jackson Turner.
Since he was young, Turner began cultivating under the influence and example of his father a passionate interest in history. In 1890, he received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in and then worked as a teacher and scholar at the University of Wisconsin from 1889 to 1910. He later joined Harvard’s faculty until retiring in 1924.
Within his lifetime, Turner witnessed a drastic exodus out of the agrarian republic of the nineteenth century, which found a new home in the urban jungles. Lacy Ford comments: “As small-farm America disappeared, Turner, an affectionate son of the middle border, saw his worst nightmare realized: a cramped, crowded, “Europeanized” America that was losing its distinctiveness. ((Lacy Ford, Frontier Democracy- The Turner Thesis Revisited, in Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 13, Issue 2, Summer 1993, p. 144.))” He additionally draws an analogy between the cultural changes witnessed by Turner and the modern anxiety being felt by the United States as it is being tried by the “enervating competition of a new global economy, the apparent decline of heavy industry, the flow of jobs overseas, and a per capita income that has fallen out of the world’s top dozen have sparked fears about the coming post-industrial order that closely parallel the fears Americans of the 1890’s felt about the emerging industrial order” ((Ibid., p. 146-147.)).
Longing for that source of distinctiveness, Turner came upon the frontier. Much more than a mere geographical category, the frontier, for Turner, was the outer edge of a wave of progressive advancement moving from east to west that gave birth to the American spirit. The “circumstances peculiar to the American frontier, such as free land, opportunity, and common danger from Indians, shaped American character and institutions in specific ways: the frontier quickened assimilation of immigrants, had a ‘consolidating’ and ‘nationalizing’ effect on young America. ((Thomas C. McClinktock, The Turner Thesis: After Ninety Years it Still ‘Lives On,’ The Journal of the American West 25:75-82 July 1986, p. 66.))”
The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of ravel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him[…] In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish […] The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. At first, the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. As successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics. Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines. ((Turner, Frederick Jackson (2011-03-17). The Frontier in American History (pp. 2-3). Kindle Edition.))
Engaging the full force of his notably powerful rhetoric, Turner presented these ideas in a discourse titled The Significance of the Frontier in American History to the American Historical Association in Chicago, 12 July 1893. It has been recognized as one of “the single most influential piece of writing in the history of American history. ((From http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/turner.htm))” Thomas McClintok comments: “No one volume has done more to reshape the writing of American history or to recast the popularly held image of the American past than this collection of thought-provoking essays. ((Thomas C. McClinktock, The Turner Thesis: After Ninety Years it Still ‘Lives On,’ The Journal of the American West 25:75-82 July 1986, from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~DRBR/mclintok.html ))”
The thesis represented a new approach to explaining social, institutional, and cultural development. He was the first to portray the West and it’s frontier as something more than a simple geographical region. To him, it was “a process and a cultural symbol that carried a higher significance” for America’s identity ((Mike Swinford, “Turner is Still on the Burner” An Analysis of Frontier and Western Historiography, 2006, p. 269.)). His all-embracing explanation of American history sought to uproot the ideas that conventional wisdom had proposed: “mainly, that American institutions and character had been transplanted unchanged from Europe. ((David J. Weber, Turner, the Boltonians, and the Borderlands, p. 66, in The American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 1, Supplement to Volume 91 (Feb., 1986), 61-81.))” Ray Allen Billington, quoted as being the foremost explicator of Turner’s ideas, wrote that Turner “shook the academic world to its foundations. ((Billington, The Genesis of the Frontier Thesis: A study in Historical Creativity (San Marino, Calif., 1971) quoted from Weber, Turner, the Boltonians… 66.))”
In the following years, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, the thesis underwent fierce attacks. It was considered exceedingly simplistic in its approach and ambiguous in its terms. It minimized the importance of events such as the Civil War and, in general, the role of the East in the formation of American ideas and democracy. It ignored significant portions of the population and others who were residents of the western lands–women, children, Native Americans, African Americans, the Spanish, the French, etc. Nevertheless, “the frontier idea, though dissected at point and minimized at another, keeps popping up in new forms […] the inquiry propagated among critics and friendly revisionists has now reached a volume that overmatches the work of his disciples. This mountain of Turner criticism is his most certain monument. ((Hofstadter cited in McClintock, p. 1.))”
At the same time, we must recognized that Turner, a son of his times, and his ideas were not immune from the “racism, elitism and imperialism of turn-of-the-century America.” For Turner, the American history, and thus identity, arises from the western conquest. “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development. ((Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Report of the American Historical Association (1893): 199-227 from http://www.honorshumanities.umd.edu/205%20Readings.pdf))” One must ask, though, how, when the supposedly free land disappears, will that identity persevere without a new frontier to conquer and consume? It is no surprise that “through Turner’s ideas, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were able to justify American expansion into the Philippines and the Hawaiian Islands; Turner saw American ventures in the Pacific as a natural outgrowth of westward movement.” For whatever truth it holds, Turner’s analysis “forces us to confront what another historian has called “empire as a way of life”. ((Bettina Drew, January 08, 1995, Once More into the Frontier with Frederick Jackson Turner, in Chicago Tribune. Retreived April 10, 2013, from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1995-01-08/entertainment/9501080075_1_frontier-in-american-history-native-american-john-mack-faragher))
Turner’s case is one of many of those who have adventured upstream, hoping to find some light, some clue to understand a bit more the history of his country and his people. His ideas were by far perfect; yet they certainly captured something essential in the American spirit and, with it, influenced a generation of historians, teachers, and all those whose history textbooks bore the imprints of his thought. How we understand the past orients how we understand ourselves both in the present and the future. We must be critical of those identity clues that we have received an attentive those that we discover.© 2014 – Garrett Johnson para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC