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:
“The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development. Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications, lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions. The peculiarity of American institutions is, the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.”
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.
“To-day we are looking with a shock upon a changed world. The national problem is no longer how to cut and burn away the vast screen of the dense and daunting forest; it is how to save and wisely use the remaining timber. It is no longer how to get the great spaces of fertile prairie land in humid zones out of the hands of the government into the hands of the pioneer; these lands have already passed into private possession. No longer is it a question of how to avoid or cross the Great Plains and the arid desert. It is a question of how to conquer those rejected lands by new method of farming and by cultivating new crops from seed collected by the government and by scientists from the cold, dry steppes of Siberia, the burning sands of Egypt, and the remote interior of China. It is a problem of how to bring the precious rills of water on to the alkali and sage brush. Population is increasing faster than the food supply. New farm lands no longer increase decade after decade in areas equal to those of European states. While the ratio of increase of improved land declines, the value of farm lands rise and the price of food leaps upward, reversing the old ratio between the two. The cry of scientific farming and the conservation of natural resources replaces the cry of rapid conquest of the wilderness. We have so far won our national home, wrested from it its first rich treasures, and drawn to it the unfortunate of other lands, that we are already obliged to compare ourselves with settled states of the Old World. In place of our attitude of contemptuous indifference to the legislation of such countries as Germany and England, even Western States like Wisconsin send commissions to study their systems of taxation, workingmen’s insurance, old age pensions and a great variety of other remedies for social ills.”