When discussing American history, few names carry as much weight as Frederick Jackson Turner. His essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” is considered a seminal piece of scholarship and has influenced generations of historians.
But why did Turner write this essay, and what was he trying to accomplish with it? In this article, we’ll explore the context surrounding Turner’s essay and the impact it had on American historiography.
In 1890, the United States Census Bureau declared that the country no longer had a discernible frontier line. For many Americans, this was a momentous occasion – the frontier had been an integral part of their national identity for generations.
But for Turner, this announcement signaled something deeper. He saw the closing of the frontier as a turning point in American history – a moment when the country would have to confront its own limitations and reckon with its past.
Turner’s thesis is deceptively simple: he argues that the existence of a frontier line has been central to shaping American democracy and culture. He contends that the process of settling new lands pushed Americans to be self-reliant, independent, and democratic. The frontier created a unique environment where people could reinvent themselves and forge new identities.
But Turner’s thesis is more than just an observation about American culture. He also argues that as long as there was a frontier line to be crossed, America would continue to grow and prosper. Without new lands to conquer, however, he believed that America would stagnate both culturally and economically.
Turner’s essay was not immediately embraced by his fellow historians. Many criticized his focus on westward expansion at the expense of other important aspects of American history. Others questioned his interpretation of events or felt that he was overly optimistic about America’s future.
Despite these criticisms, however, Turner’s essay had a profound impact on American historiography. His focus on the frontier as a defining aspect of American culture helped shift the emphasis in historical scholarship away from political and economic elites and towards ordinary people and their experiences. It also inspired a new generation of historians to explore topics related to westward expansion, such as Native American history and the impact of westward migration on women and minorities.
In writing “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner sought to capture the essence of what made America unique. He saw the frontier as a crucible that shaped American democracy, culture, and identity.
His thesis may have been controversial at the time, but it has since become an important part of American historiography. Today, we continue to explore the legacy of westward expansion and its impact on our national identity.