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The Frontier Thesis is the argument advanced by Frederick Jackson Turner that the origin of American exceptionalism has been the American frontier, the region between urbanized, civilized society and the untamed wilderness. In the thesis, the frontier created freedom, by "breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, [and] calling out new institutions and activities." Turner first announced his thesis in a paper entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", delivered to the American Historical Association in 1893 at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Turner set up an evolutionary model (he had studied evolution with a leading geologist), using the time dimension of American history, and the geographical space of the land that became the United States. The first settlers who arrived on the east coast in the 17th century acted and thought like Europeans. They encountered environmental challenges that were different from those they had known in Europe. Most important was the presence of uncultivated arable land. They adapted to the new environment in certain ways — the cumulative effect of these adaptations was Americanization. According to Turner, the forging of the unique and rugged American identity had to occur precisely at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness. The dynamic of these oppositional conditions engendered a process by which citizens were made, citizens with the power to tame the wild and upon whom the wild had conferred strength and individuality.

Successive generations moved further inland, shifting the lines of settlement and wilderness, but preserving the essential tension between the two. European characteristics fell by the wayside and the old country's institutions (e.g. established churches, established aristocracies, intrusive government, and class-based land distribution) were increasingly out of place. Every generation moved further west and became more American, more democratic, and as intolerant of hierarchy as they were removed from it. They became more violent, more individualistic, more distrustful of authority, less artistic, less scientific, and more dependent on ad-hoc organizations they formed themselves. In broad terms, the further west, the more American the community.

Turner's thesis quickly became popular among intellectuals. It explained why the American people and American government were so different from Europeans. It sounded an alarming note about the future, since the U.S. Census of 1890 had officially stated that the American frontier had broken up. The idea that the source of America's power and uniqueness was gone was a distressing concept. Many, including historian Theodore Roosevelt, who later became president, believed that the end of the frontier represented the beginning of a new stage in American life and that the United States must expand overseas. For this reason, some see the Turner thesis as the impetus for a new wave in the history of United States imperialism. However, Turner's work, in contrast to Roosevelt's work The Winning of the West, places greater emphasis on the development of American republicanism than on territorial conquest and the subjugation of the Native Americans.

Ironically, the Great Plains began losing population during Turner's lifetime, and have continued to do so for the last 80 years. Several hundred thousand square miles now have fewer than 6 persons per square mile — the density standard Turner used to declare the frontier "closed". According to 2008 US Census estimates, about 385 counties in the continental United States have fewer than 6 persons per square mile, and about 140 counties have fewer than 2 persons per square mile. The number of counties below this "frontier density" increased by 14 between 1980 and 2000. In fact, today Kansas has more "frontier" counties (using Turner's definition) than it did in 1900, and 35 of the 53 counties in North Dakota qualify as "frontier". [1]

See also

Further reading: Scholarly studies

  • The Frontier In American History by Frederick Jackson Turner
  • Ray Allen Billington. The American Frontier (1958) 35 page essay on the historiography
  • Billington, Ray Allen. Frederick Jackson Turner: historian, scholar, teacher. (1973), highly detailed scholarly biography.
  • Billington, Ray Allen, ed,. The Frontier Thesis: Valid Interpretation of American History? (1966); the major attacks and defenses of Turner.
  • Billington, Ray Allen. America's Frontier Heritage (1984), an analysis of Turner's theories in relation to social sciences and historiography
  • Billington, Ray Allen. Land of Savagery / Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth Century (1981)
  • Bogue, Allan G. . Frederick Jackson Turner: Strange Roads Going Down. (1988), highly detailed scholarly biography.
  • Brown, David S. Beyond the Frontier: Midwestern Historians in the American Century. (2009).
  • Etulain, Richard W. Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? (1999)
  • Etulain, Richard W. Writing Western History: Essays on Major Western Historians (2002)
  • Etulain, Richard W. and Gerald D. Nash, eds. Researching Western History: Topics in the Twentieth Century (1997)
  • Faragher, John Mack ed. Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History". (1999)
  • Hine, Robert V. and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History (2000), deals with events, not historiography
  • Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians--Turner, Beard, Parrington. (1979). interpretation of the historiography
  • Jensen, Richard. "On Modernizing Frederick Jackson Turner," Western Historical Quarterly 11 (1980), 307-20. in JSTOR
  • Lamar, Howard R. ed. The New Encyclopedia of the American West (1998), 1000+ pages of articles by scholars
  • Milner, Clyde A., II ed. Major Problems in the History of the American West 2nd ed (1997), primary sources and essays by scholars
  • Nichols, Roger L. ed. American Frontier and Western Issues: An Historiographical Review (1986) essays by 14 scholars
  • Paxson, Frederic, History of the American Frontier, 1763-1893 (1924)
  • Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1800 (1973), complex literary reinterpretation of the frontier myth from its origins in Europe to Daniel Boone


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