Frederick Jackson Turner

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

The 14th of November 2021 is the 160th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Jackson Turner (14 November 1861–14 March 1932), who was born on this date in 1861.

Happy Birthday Frederick!

Turner is most famous for formulating what is now called the Frontier Thesis. Turner read his paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” at the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, 12 July 1893, during the World Columbian Exposition, and Turner included this paper as Chapter 1 of his 1921 book The Frontier in American History. Here is an extract from Turner’s 1893 essay that partially encapsulates the Frontier Thesis:

Turner’s Frontier Thesis sent an agenda for research on American history that has been and continues to be influential even when the Frontier Thesis is rejected. There is a collection of essays on the Frontier Thesis edited by George Rogers Taylor, The Turner Thesis: Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History, which looks at the idea from many angles.

Geoffrey Elton made distinction between thesis-free history and thesis-dominated history (this distinction was made in Elton’s Presidential Address, “The Historian’s Social Function,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 27, 1977, pp. 197–211), mostly to criticize the latter in favor of the former. Turner’s work, in so far as it is focused on the Frontier Hypothesis, constitutes an instance of thesis-dominated history, which gives his work a sharp and clear focus, as well as giving other historians a stalking horse.

Thesis-dominated history is to be found in Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, as we have seen above, Herbert Eugene Bolton’s Bolton Thesis, Henri Pirenne’s Pirenne Thesis, and less explicitly in many other historians. One could argue, for example, that there is a Gibbon Thesis that the decline and fall of Rome was due to superstition and barbarism.

Here are two paragraphs from Chapter XI, “The West and American Ideals,” in The Frontier and American History:

“American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Sarah Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier. Not the constitution, but free land and an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people, made the democratic type of society in America for three centuries while it occupied its empire.

One Man Think Tank