Frederick Turner
Frederick Turner; drawing by David Levine

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 despised, his youthful optimism about democracy and about post-frontier America drained away. He turned to gloomier explanations of the problems of the day; and it remained for the celebrants rather than the opponents of the frontier to elaborate further on its importance. Thus Turner, writing with a deep love of the West and of its people, advanced in 1893 an account of what the frontier did to America that was in some ways very similar to Godkin’s. But Turner described as desirable and lasting the traits the frontier bred. For the young Wisconsin historian the democratic tide in America owed to the frontier not just its force and violence but its very being.

Neither Godkin nor Turner could satisfactorily explain the persistence of supposedly frontier traits in the new America of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, Turner had assigned to an immediate environmental setting so decisive a role as to make the survival of the frontier heritage in another setting logically implausible. His critics have made much of this difficulty, pointing out that the thesis rested on a geographical determinism. To the extent that American democracy sprang from the frontier, it should decline with the passing of the frontier. But Turner, unlike Godkin, never lost faith in democracy or in America. The Turner Thesis was more than a scientific hypothesis. It was also a declaration of faith, a romantic invocation of a great national experience, phrased in allusive terms that have provoked endless exegesis and disagreement. Moreover, it was a challenging invitation to historians to look away from laws and constitutions and find in the actions of ordinary people the meaning of American history.

In popular addresses Turner frequently reiterated his vision of the wilderness transforming the European settler into an American; but his research efforts soon turned toward a more tangible, concrete problem. Striving for greater precision, he shifted from an emphasis on the frontier as such to an analysis of sections, particularly in their interplay with one another. Unfortunately this aspect of Turner’s thought—so promising in its implications for a comparative history of regional and local cultures in the United States—never came to fruition. It remained inconclusive in Turner’s own work, vitiated perhaps by his geophysical presuppositions; and among his successors the sectional approach gradually lost a broadly comparative reference. It became focused on the examination of a few major sectional conflicts; or it narrowed to a specialized scrutiny of the history of a single area, notably of course the West.


Thus Turner left a divided heritage. On the one hand he provided a general theory, of interest to everyone, about the influence of the frontier process on the whole of American life. On the other hand, he raised up a small army of scholars preoccupied with cowboys, Indians, agrarian unrest, and other supposedly distinctive features of the history of the West. It is a pity that these two interests, so insecurely joined in Turner’s own mind, persisted among his successors side by side without a genuinely critical interaction. Instead of inspiring an analysis of different types of communities and their characteristic patterns of growth, the frontier theory simply gave academic respectability to the classic story of exploit and struggle among the men who ventured westward. By the 1930s hardly a university beyond the Appalachians lacked an advanced course on the History of the American West. Such courses depended more or less slavishly on Turner’s original formulation of 1893 for their unifying principles and their claim to historical significance.

ACCORDINGLY, when this interpretation of American history came under sharp attack about a generation ago, the assault did not arise primarily from the study of the West. In general, it took the form of a sweeping impatience with the whole frontier school and a desire to give priority to subjects that could not be justly appreciated from an orthodox western point of view. Intellectual history, international politics, the growth of cities, the challenge of industrialism, the trauma of race, the anguish of disillusion: these were the great themes that now clamored for attention.

The criticism of what historians had neglected under the spell of Turner was incontrovertible; the dissatisfaction was liberating. But the onslaught, for all its vigor and variety, improved very little on Turnerian scholarship in defining relations between East and West or between old and new communities. In fact the attack on Turner really discouraged a systematic reappraisal of his ideas, for it turned scholarly interest away from the sectional conflicts and regional diversities he had posited. In a dreary era of consensus, America was coming to seem a much more homogeneous country, more uniform and more stable, than Turner had imagined, and that was undoubtedly one important reason for the decline of his influence.

Although the rest of the world, as I have said, still cherished the frontier legend, during the 1940s and 1950s the critics forced a general recognition among professional historians in the United States that Turner had vastly overstated his case. In so far as “the existence of an area of free land” did (in Turner’s words) “explain American development,” the land must have become free—or rather widely available—because of policies and values brought to it. A little comparison with frontiers in other countries made clear the importance of the cultural heritage. Moreover, frontier society proved to be much less “free” than Turner had supposed. It was in many ways highly imitative of eastern culture; and everywhere it quickly manifested some of the common social inequalities of American life, including farm tenancy, urban elites, and corporate power.

NEVERTHELESS, the frontier hypothesis would not die, for what was there to replace it? The critics, though effective in negative ways and in stimulating other lines of inquiry, had less success in giving an alternative explanation of what was unique about American history and the American character. Increasingly, a fascination with the distinctive role of the United States in the modern world drove scholars back to Turner’s implicit concern with national differences. Or, more precisely, one might say that it was now Godkin’s question that was posed anew: what accounts for the special features of American democracy—its peculiar blend of individualism and conformity, its taste for violence, its propensity for informal cooperation, its distrust of theory? This question in turn has led to international comparisons of an increasingly sophisticated kind. As a consequence one of the remarkable trends in American historiography during the last decade has been the emergence of some elegant, highly modernized reformulations of the frontier hypothesis. The results to date may be studied in part in Ray Billington’s America’s Frontier Heritage and in an anthology of scholarly essays edited by Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Lipset.


Billington is perhaps the most widely respected of our frontier historians; for he writes vigorously upon large themes while maintaining a scrupulous fidelity to detail. Located at the Huntington Library, he occupies the post that Turner held after retiring from Harvard. His latest book, based on recent scholarship and on his own very extensive research, makes a full-dress reappraisal of Turner’s claims for the influence of the frontier. Always temperate and judicious, Billington’s fundamental strategy concedes the partial truth of all the criticisms but contends that they leave undamaged a vital margin of validity at almost every point in Turner’s argument. Thus Billington recognizes that Turner saw the frontier in too rosy a light; so he gives more attention (though not enough in my opinion) to such unattractive “frontier” traits as lawlessness, wastefulness, and anti-intellectualism. Billington admits that Turner employed a vague, metaphorical terminology, but indicates how his propositions can be recast in language more acceptable to contemporary social scientists. For example, Turner sometimes seemed to assign a magical potency to nature—to the physical environment—but the frontier can be rightly understood as a social environment offering a maximum opportunity for initiative and self-advancement. Billington appreciates, moreover, that many ingredients other than the frontier have entered into the making of American civilization; so he eschews any exclusive claims. He acknowledges that the new tendencies fostered by the westward movement were often subtle matters of degree rather than kind, and so insists only that “there is a slight distinction between” American and European democracy.

It is hard to quarrel with such a cautious and well informed book—hard indeed to feel excited at all. America’s Frontier Heritage brings the case for the frontier up to date; yet it remains essentially a defense of an established position. By undertaking a running commentary on a complex debate over a congeries of loosely connected propositions, Billington has not allowed himself to explore any single point in depth. We encounter the intellectual energy and excitement of the controversy more directly in the Hofstadter and Lipset reader, Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier.

Unfortunately, this is not a careful production. The historiographical introduction by Hofstadter provides only a casual summary. The brief sociological appraisal by Lipset simply repeats some material just published in a longer article under another title in a different book. There is no bibliography, nor do the editors venture any estimate of the present state of the question. Indeed, the true role of the frontier, its real importance in American experience, is not what primarily interests them. They have brought together some recent interpretations of the frontier to illustrate a fruitful convergence between history and sociology. (The book under review comprises the second half of a two-volume set, The Sociology of American History, of which the first volume is more broadly concerned with methodology.) The editors have simply collected an array of stimulating articles, first published in scholarly journals between 1941 and 1961, which illuminate the decline and revival of the frontier idea. We are left to draw our own conclusions.

On one point no doubt is permitted: the revival owes much to the contributions of social scientists. The conceptual resources of economists and sociologists have helped us to see the frontier as the expanding perimeter of a growth process affecting the whole society. Thus, for instance, two economists, George G. S. Murphy and Arnold Zellner, apply modern growth theory to Turner’s supposedly discredited idea of the frontier as a safety-valve for industrial discontent. Their essay brilliantly demonstrates how nineteenth-century America attained an exceptionally high rate of investment and per capita income through repeated additions of geographical areas capable of supporting industrialization.

BUT IN ESTIMATING the significance of the frontier, this kind of analysis involves us in a puzzling ambiguity. On the one hand, the westward movement seems to be restored to central importance in American history. This is because the advance of settlement into the empty West stands out as the cardinal dimension of a pervasive mobility—a venturesome, risk-taking, migratory style of life—which had become by the nineteenth century the dominant feature of American society. Everything that we regard for better or worse as uniquely American has been shaped by our characteristic mobility and so appears in boldest relief in the frontier process.

On the other hand, such an approach deprives the westward movement of the autonomous role Turner assigned to it. Absorbed into a larger theory of “mobility,” it is reduced to a special case of a more general phenomenon; and the search for explanation turns in directions that may lead far from the frontier. Controversy subsides, for all the distinctions—between inheritance and environment, between East and West, between rural and urban migration, between Turnerians and anti-Turnerians—tend to dissolve as we stand transfixed before the enveloping spectacle of American mobility. That, at least, is the current state of the matter. And there it is likely to remain so long as a preoccupation with the uniformities of American character and experience obscures the other half of Turner’s heritage, his interest in group contrasts and regional diversities. Until historians attend more closely to such differences we shall not distinguish satisfactorily between the westward movement and the other energies of a dynamic society.

Meanwhile, the writing of western history of a more traditional kind goes on, an industry stimulated in many colleges and universities, from the Appalachians to the Sierras, by local pride and the availability of source material. Styles of scholarship in this genre change slowly. But here too historians in recent years have shown increasing interest in those aspects of western history that are national—not uniquely western—in scope. While generalists were redefining the frontier as a special instance of American mobility, western specialists have focused on topics like the rise of cities and the penetration of outside culture and capital into the western scene. The most impressive new book of that sort is William H. Goetzmann’s Exploration and Empire, an imposing narrative of the expeditions and travels during the nineteenth century that opened up the land beyond the great bend of the Missouri River.

The literature already available on this subject is enormous. Scholars as well as antiquarians have patiently tracked the footsteps of hundreds of explorers. Goetzmann supplies, however, the first account that is both panoramic and detailed. His book with its abundant pictures and maps (the latter so reduced as to be frequently illegible) will stand for a long time as a valuable work of reference. What makes it also a fresh approach to the subject is the author’s attempt to understand exploration against the background of the unfolding objectives and capacities of the national culture. Here the explorer is not an independent adventurer, enclosed in his western habitat. He is the agent of a pre-existing civilization, guided by its knowledge and curiosity and backed by its organizational strength. Through these pages pass a succession of army officers serving the purposes of American imperialism, furtrappers who carry with them a range of entrepreneurial ambitions, soldier-engineers trained at West Point, artists inspired by romantic exoticism, and scientists probing for geological and ethnological discoveries. The story begins with the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804; it ends with the retirement in 1894 of John Wesley Powell as Director of the US Geological Survey. Throughout the importance of governmental sponsorship is emphasized.

Few will want so much detail. For less industrious readers the same enthusiastic publisher of frontier Americana, Alfred A. Knopf, has obligingly brought out another volume, equally lavish but not so demanding. America’s Western Frontiers by John A. Hawgood deals with the settlement as well as the exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West. We meet, along with some of the better known explorers and trappers, the whole cast of characters who populate the standard, well-loved story of the West: the wagoneers thronging the emigrant trails, the rousting argonauts of the Gold Rush, the great railroad builders, the valiant Indian chiefs of the Plains, the doughty Mormons, the cattlemen, and finally (a slight let-down) the plain American homesteaders.

Hawgood has no lust for new interpretations; he writes entirely from a conventional point of view. Yet his scholarship is sound and his narrative studded with diverting anecdotes. The book may be read for information and pleasure. It may also be contemplated as new evidence that the epic of the American frontier, in spite of all conceptual difficulties, remains one of the more exportable of our cultural resources. After roaming for many years across the land he describes so affectionately, Professor Hawgood proudly inscribed his preface at the Placer Hotel, Last Chance Gulch, Helena, Montana; but he is in fact an English historian, educated at London and Heidelberg, who teaches at the University of Birmingham in the heart of industrial Britain.

This Issue

April 25, 1968