On the Frontier, “The Lesson is, Never Try.”

UnknownIn 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner changed our study of American history with a speech to the American Historical Association entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”  His talk helped propel him to national prominence.  But naturally all that attention also made him a target for criticism.  In his speech Jackson proposed that the concept and reality of the frontier had done more than anything else to shape American history and American consciousness.  As the frontier disappeared in the late 19th century, he argued we might expect to see a new phase in our national development.

Jackson begins his speech by defining the frontier as the boundary between “savagery and civilization,” and states that the American frontier differentiates itself from other places by lying at “the hither edge of free land.”  In the days of earliest settlement in the 17th century, the east coast formed the frontier of Europe.  Then, as our national identity took shape, areas in the west became our own frontier.

While initially the French rather than the English engaged in the most direct trading with Indians, Turner argues that the trading trails themselves inevitably drew English colonial civilization westward.  Trails to sources of salt (used as a preservative) then assumed vital importance, leading to a still more inexorable march of civilization.

But the frontier did more than this, serving as the first real “melting pot” in American history, long before the wave of 19th century immigration.  In short, frontier expansion created the first sense of “composite nationality,” the first sense of what it meant to be American as opposed to European.  One could have the north and the south at odds, but “the west could not remain sectional.”  Of course this new sense of national identity led to a new political identity.  Turner claimed that, “this nationalizing tendency of the West that transformed the democracy of Jefferson into the national republicanism of Monroe and the democracy of Andrew Jackson.”

Perhaps most crucially, the frontier had a decisive impact on the growth of democracy.  Turner cites several examples of how frontier/western sections of colonies and states continually pushed a progressive agenda, especially in terms of expanding the right to vote.  Turner quotes from one early 19th century representative from western Virginia who spoke in Congress,

The Old Dominion has long been celebrated for producing great orators; the ablest metaphysicians in policy; men that can split hairs in all abstruse questions of political economy.  But at home, when they return from Congress, they have negroes to fan them to sleep.  But . . . a western Virginia statesman, though far inferior in logic and metaphysics and rhetoric to the old Virginia statesmen, has this advantage, that when he returns home he takes off his coat and takes hold of the plow.  This gives him bone and muscle, sir, and preserves his republican principles uncontaminated.

This may give us a clue as to why we never had any success regulating frontier expansion.  We attached the frontier so strongly to our national identity that to go without a frontier meant repudiating ourselves.  Or perhaps, as Turner suggests, the frontier functioned as a “safety valve” for the landless, the immigrant, the economically distressed.  Without this, democracy might tend towards eating itself from within.  In the absence of an external threat or safety valve, Turner surmised that democracy might turn into a mere vehicle for discontent.  The self-reliant virtues that made us great would weaken us when we turned inward.

Turner’s essay raises this crucial question without answering it — can democracy survive without a frontier?  Rome’s history suggests it, as do the words of Alcibiades when he urged Athens to attack Syracuse:

Nicias must not divert you from your purpose by preaching indolence, and by trying to set the young against the old; . . . The state, if at rest, like everything else will wear herself out by internal friction. Every pursuit which requires skill will tend to decay, whereas by conflict the city will always be gaining fresh experience and learning to defend herself, not in theory, but in practice. My opinion in short is, that a state used to activity will quickly be ruined by the change to inaction; and that they of all men enjoy the greatest security who are truest to themselves and their institutions even when they are not the best.

There exists however, the opposite theory.  Some argue that the rapid expansion of republics, and not their “rest,” that leads to a “time of troubles.”  In the example above, for example, the Athenians did not rest, did attack Sicily, and this led to catastrophic disaster.  Or we might bypass the question somewhat and declare that the problems experienced by Rome and Athens are human problems and not particular to democracies.

In any case, this question needs further thought.

The introduction to the essay explained Turner’s influence, and also his critics.  I have no problem with such a bold idea as Turner’s drawing criticism.  This is the purpose of bold ideas — to inspire conversation.  What I have a problem with is the nature of some of the apparent objections.  Some complain that Turner should have devoted more study to the period after the closing of the frontier.  But this seems silly.  He studied one particular period, and not another.  Not studying the time after the closing of the frontier doesn’t mean his ideas are false.

Some complain that Turner overlooked other factors in America’s growth.  “You never mention southern agrarians or eastern capitalists!  For shame, Turner, for shame!”

I can’t stand these kinds of objections.

Turner only claimed that the frontier explained the heart, not the whole body.  To say, “You never mentioned southern agrarians” is entirely without meaning, unless one means to say that Southern agrarians form the key to understanding America.  Otherwise all you’re doing is whining that someone didn’t say something about your own pet field of study.  It’s not an argument.

We should do better than this.

I also mistrust the argument that no “heart” of American history can be found at all.  In this vein, Turner’s thesis is false by definition, and again, not proved wrong via an argument.  This declaration sounds like a rejection of History itself.  Such people may be old and grumpy long before their time, or perhaps they resent the mere effort of trying in the first place. For if those that try to find meaning happen to do so, others who reject it might feel threatened.  Such people would appreciate Homer Simpson’s advice . . .

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