America’s Frontier Heritage
Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier
America’s Western Frontiers: The Exploration and Settlement of the Trans-Mississippi West
How important was the westward movement in shaping American history and forming a distinctive national character? For three decades, from the 1930s through the 1950s, specialists in American history argued the issue fiercely. On the whole, southern and western scholars held faithfully to the teachings of the master, Frederick Jackson Turner. In opposition to this “Turnerverein,” to recall some of the epithets of the day, arose the “asphalt flowers,” men who identified with a cosmopolitan, urban culture, and who regarded Turner’s view of American history as a kind of rural provincialism writ large. Surely American democracy had not come “stark and strong and full of life out of the American forest,” as Turner declared in one of his more enthusiastic moments. It was the creation of prophets far more than pioneers, of statesmen rather than backwoodsmen. It was above all the unfolding of an inheritance rather than the flowering of an environment. It came not from nature but from civilization.
This was a ranging, searching debate. The Turner Thesis concerning the influence of the frontier offered the only comprehensive, distinctive interpretation of the whole of American history, so the controversy about it touched every scholar and reacted upon every view of the historical process. Yet the argument never spread beyond the confines of American universities. In the popular mind the vision of the pioneer as the quintessential American remained firmly entrenched. Moreover, the world outside the United States kept much the same image. American scholars might attack the frontier theory as parochial, even isolationist; they might insist that it perpetuated an indigenous, primitive Americanism and thus neglected the interconnections between the United States and Europe; but transAtlantic students of American institutions paid little heed. They continued—those who were not Marxists—serenely to follow Frederick Jackson Turner. If the Europe-centered critics had really won the argument at home, they would then have had the task of converting the Europeans as well.
ACTUALLY, we owe to a European-born and educated journalist an impressive anticipation of Turner’s theory. In an essay published in 1865, E.L. Godkin, the brilliant founding editor of the Nation, set forth the first systematic appraisal of the impact of the frontier on American habits of thought. Godkin’s sympathies, to be sure, were decidedly different from Turner’s. A patrician liberal of the school of John Stuart Mill, Godkin associated himself with every effort to civilize the rough and turbulent America of his day—to curb its anarchic individualism, its allabsorbing passion for material gain, its often crude anti-intellectualism—and thus to reconstitute the authority of a cultivated elite in a democratic society. By blaming the frontier for all the unattractive features of American democracy, Godkin persuaded himself that those features were transitory. America could be redeemed, since its vices were not rooted in the essential principles of democracy. They belonged instead to an early and passing phase of social evolution.
During the ensuing years, when industrialization seemed to intensify all the qualities that Godkin …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.