Turner’s “The significance of the frontier in American history” is known as one of the most influential texts in the American historical tradition, and rightfully so. While it is no doubt controversial in many respects, and many of its assumptions can be corrected or outright denied, the sheer cultural importance of the text is hard to deny. Even though the essay was more of a pamphlet than a strict historical study, its outlook on the history and effects of the westward expansion of the United States proved immensely important in the long run. Turner’s (1893) central arguments – that the frontier reduced Anglo-Saxon settlers to the basic forms of social organizations and cultivated individualism and democracy – have been essential in promoting the American sense of exceptionality.
The text’s main thesis is that the frontier was crucial in forging the American nation as a uniquely democratic society shaped by its particular conditions rather than merely an extension of Germanic historical development. The first premise of this argument is that the conditions of the frontier initially caused the new settlers to abandon the complex social institutions they brought from the Atlantic Coast and, by extension, Europe. As Turner (1893) puts it, “the wilderness masters the colonist” (para. 5). If a settler wants to survive, the frontier requires him to do so in accordance with its rules – to abandon many sophistications of civilization and learn from the Native Americans. From the text’s perspective, this represents a sharp contrast with the experiences that Germanic peoples faced in other regions of the world. According to Turner (1893), when Germanic polities expanded previously, as in Europe, they quickly “met other growing peoples” on similar levels of development, meaning that civilizational continuity was never broken (para. 2). Thus, the author postulates that the American frontier created a distinctly new society different from its European predecessors.
The second main premise of the essay’s argument is that the particular conditions of the frontier made Americans more individualistic and, by extension, more democratic. Turner (1893) attributes it to the low population density and the primitive forms of social organization, largely limited to individual families and households. In his own words, “complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family” (Turner, 1893, para. 46). The result is a highly individualistic society fiercely opposed to any strict control over its members. Thus, the democratic impulse in American society comes from this resistance to control and suspicions of the government that seeks to impose it. According to Turner (1893), the frontier produces a “democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism” – a purely American institution that, at his time, had no analogs in the world (para. 49). Thus, the essay interlinks frontier conditions and democracy by stressing the individualistic element in both.
As mentioned above, “The significance of the frontier in American history” was immensely influential in American historical tradition and culture as a whole, and one manifestation of its influence in the sense of exceptionality. Turner (1893) stressed that the American way of life prompted by the historically unprecedented conditions was not a mere extension of the preceding history of Germanic societies. Instead, he offered a version of history that was uniquely American in its outlook – a vision of a society that did not simply reproduce the social customs of Europe but created something of its own. As noted by Ridge (1991), it effectively amounted to providing “a theory of secular, democratic, American exceptionalism” (p. 10). To put it simply, the essay conferred additional legitimacy to the sense of exceptionality by endowing it with an aura of a respectable historical theory.
At the time of publishing the essay, American audiences met it with approval. Representing Americans as a “unique nationality” clearly resonated well with the public (Ridge, 1991, p. 10). Moreover, Turner’s (1893) idea that the result of the frontier history was “the promotion of democracy here and in Europe” painted this uniqueness in almost messianic terms. The idea that the United States is destined to make the world safe for democracy remains fairly prevalent until this day. In many other respects, the essay has faced increasing criticism in the following decades, mainly for its omission of “the voices of race, class, and gender” (Ridge, 1991, p. 10). Yet the fact of this criticism itself shows that “The significance of the frontier in American history,” whether endorsed or attacked, remains crucial to how Americans interpret their history.
To summarize, “The significance of the frontier in American history” presented an argument on the uniqueness of the American historical experience that remains influential until this day. The author’s main points were that the frontier created an unprecedented cultural and social environment that led to the emergence of a highly individualistic ad democratic society. The notions of American exceptionalism popularized by the essay are still in force, especially in terms of supporting democracy worldwide. Even though today’s general public is more likely to criticize the essay as a chauvinist pamphlet than endorse it as Turner’s contemporaries, it still remains conceptually essential for the discussions of American history.
Ridge, M. (1991). The life of an idea: The significance of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. Montana: The Magazine of Western History, 41(1), 2-13.
Turner, F. J. (1893). The significance of the frontier in American history. American Historical Association. Web.