Frederick Turner Jackson, born in 1861, in Portage, Wisconsin, grew up in a time of severe social change, in a nation plagued with an identity crisis. Fascinated by the world around him, Turner chose to become a history professor, devoting his entire life to studying American culture/society while teaching at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard. Constantly having the opportunity to study and observe the development of the “American”, Turner wrote extensively, about which attributes composed and influenced American democracy, societal values, and image.
He published an essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” about these topics in 1893, and presented it at the Chicago World’s Fair. In his essay, Turner’s thesis referred to as the “Frontier Thesis” explained his take on why American’s possessed such unique values compared to their European ancestors and counterparts. The America, Turner lived in was one that was beginning to resemble a united state, fueled by: the South’s gradual recovery from Civil War/Reconstruction era policies, the North’s economic prosperity and social tolerance, and the West’s settlement and more active participation in setting a domestic agenda.
Although, the country no longer warred with itself, a social unrest remained. The influx of immigrant migration, domination of unregulated capitalistic virtues, and suppressed laborers left the average American uncomfortable and confused with where they stood in economic, social and political classes. Nevertheless, Turner sought clarity and a better understanding of why and how we made the choices that we did. While studying at Johns Hopkins for his PhD, Turner was taught by Professor Herbert Adams who firmly believed that American institutions could best be understood in terms of their European origins.
Although, like many of his contemporaries, Professor Adams did not take into account American political, economic, or geographic influences as reasoning. Turner was dissatisfied with that answer and returned home to Wisconsin searching for an alternative reason. Turner’s curiosity of figuring out what a present-time American meant intertwined with his disappointment from his studies at Johns Hopkins were two of the driving forces behind the formation of his thesis. Also inspiring his thesis was the large masses of his mid-western neighbors, migrating out West in search of a new, wealthy rebirth.
The autonomy and creativity each individual or family sought and achieved in the, Turner deemed as a guiding reason as to how American’s separated from European ideology. “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American Development. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West. ” Frederick Turner Jackson’s explanation of the Great West and its influence on American culture explains in far more depth, why America is distinctively America than other academics previously had.
For Turner, America’s expansion West forged new, exclusively American qualities such as, economic mobility, individual freedom, and political democracy . In 1890, the Census Bureau ruled that a Frontier no longer officially existed in the United States. Their study was supported by the West Coast’s transformation from a collection of sparsely inhabited, extreme terrain states, to a series of thriving metropolises. However, Turner denied that this would all of a sudden disqualify the Country from possessing a Frontier.
To Turner, a Frontier did not have a literal meaning rather, the Frontier represented a territory where peopled moved to with the aspiration of starting a new life. The chance at recreating your identity in the pursuit of longevity and financial security for the present and generations to come is what a Frontier consisted of in Turnerian terms. Correlated with Westward Expansion followed the advancement of democracy. The increase of West Coasters although on opposite sides of the Country led to a rise of patriotic sentiments according to Turner.
As he says in, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, “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. ” Turner felt that the each newly empowered settler who discovered success on the West Coast was fulfilling the American Dream. And by doing so, each one of these citizens was helping progress American democracy, as a system that aided the people in creating a more perfect union, even in the shadow of significant social challenges.
Turner’s emphasis on the Frontier shaping American character through adaptation had strong undercurrents of sectionalism. He wrote, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in opposition to the Census Bureau’s report of 1890 and did not believe the federal government should dictate what was and was not a frontier. In the essay he says, “The frontier had no need for standing armies, established churches, aristocrats or nobles, nor for landed gentry who controlled most of the land and charged heavy rents. He believes that the land of the Frontier was for taking and no sort of established institution or persons should weigh authority over what was or was not a citizen’s. The spirit and success of the United States was directly tied to the country’s discovery through Westward Expansion Frederick Turner provoked many responses, both negative and positive, but he initially won praise from many professors all across universities in the United States. As circulation of his essay and lectures rose, as did his celebrity, which he used to spread his theory from east to west, north to south.
The legacy of Frederick Turner’s thesis remains undecided. Former Yale University Professor George Pierson said, “In what it proposes, the frontier hypothesis needs painstaking revision. By what it fails to mention, the theory today disqualifies itself. ” Many agree with Professor Pierson that Turner’s vision was near sighted and not supported with enough legitimate evidenced to accurately state that the advancement of American development hinges on just a frontier.
As more frontiers are discovered and established, Turner’s thesis and teaching remains ever present. For example, both Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy used frontiers as a means of motivation during their presidencies. For Roosevelt, he mentioned the nation-wide frontier of want and fear to inspire patriotism during World War II . While President Kennedy labeled space as the new frontier and called upon the country to invest mass amounts of resources towards scientific innovation.
Both Presidents and Frederick Turner utilized the frontier to call upon their fellow Americans to thrive as a country. As Frederick Tuner suggests, the preservation and discovery of new frontiers is necessary in order to satisfy the adapting human race. “Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs. The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. ”