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THE U.S.A. SECTION: THE FRONTIER THESIS (Turner)

No interpretation of American history attracted such loyal support or inspired such bitter criticism as the frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner. Almost from the summer day in 1893, when Turner read his paper on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", historians have defended or attacked his views with a vehemence usually associated with less tranquil professions. Even today the controversy continues and it will probably rage as long as the American people are interested in their past.

The hypothesis advanced by Turner in his 1893 paper and subsequent writings may be summarized briefly. The differences that distinguish the American people from Europeans, he argued, are due in part to the three-century-long period of expansion required to settle the continent. During this entire time men left their homes to begin life anew on successive frontiers, shedding some of their cultural baggage as they advanced. In their new homes more of the habits of civilization were discarded because many of the customs and institutions necessary in the thickly populated communities of the East were inappropriate in the thinly peopled hamlets or farm areas of the West. As fewer controls were needed governmental functions were simplified, economic activity reverted to self-sufficiency, social organization eroded1 away, and cultural activities slowed. On the successive frontiers, Turner believed, an atomization of society occurred, and with it a reversion toward primitivism.

Gradually, however, latecomers swelled2 the population of each pioneer settlement, and as their numbers increased so did the level of civilization. Governmental controls tightened, economic specialization began, the social organization grew more complex, and cultural activities multiplied. The mature social order that eventually evolved from each pioneer community differed noticeably from those of the eastern regions, from which its settlers came. These alterations, Turner believed, resulted from a variety of forces peculiar to the frontier environment. There men were few and land plentiful; this ratio provided a relatively greater opportunity for individual self-betterment than existed in long-settled areas. On the frontiers, men from different backgrounds met and mingled, each contributing traits and habits, which slightly altered the emerging civilization. There, too, social units were so divided that each followed a separate evolutionary course, with the deviations3 inevitable in such a situation. More simply, Turner believed that an "Americanization" of men and institutions took place.

The result was, in Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's4 phrase, a "new man," who differed in discernible ways from his European cousins. His faith in democracy had been deepened by life in a land where equality of opportunity and absence of hereditary5 distinctions blurred6 traditional class lines. His nationalistic sentiments had been quickened by reliance on a central government, which alone could provide defense, roads, land sales, and other necessities. His sense of individual self-sufficiency had been intensified by an abundance of natural resources that freed men from dependence on social controls. These changes in basic attitudes, Turner felt, provided Americans with value systems that could have come only from the frontiering experience. He also believed that pioneering altered some behavioral patterns. The plentiful resources amid which men lived made them wasteful and scornful7 of conservation. Their isolated lives forced them to develop inventive skills and made them receptive to innovation. Their tendency to move readily in search of fresh opportunity lessened their attachment to place and converted the Americans into a nation of wanderers. The hard work essential in pioneering quickened their materialistic impulses and lessened their respect for abstract thinkers and for creativity in the arts. Turner recognized that these traits were not uniquely American, but he believed that they existed in exaggerated form among Americans because of the frontiering experience.
604 words
Source: The Frontier Thesis - Valid Interpretation of American History? by Ray Allen Billington, Malabar, Florida, 1977, pp. 1-2

Annotations:
1. to erode - erodieren, aushöhlen
2. to swell - anschwellen, vergrößern
3. deviation - Abweichung
4. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur - French-American writer ( 1735-1813), published e.g. 'Letters from an American Farmer'
5. hereditary - erblich, ererbt
6. to blur - verwischen
7. scornful - verächtlich, verachtend


Assignments:
1. According to Turner, how and why did American frontiersmen change their way of life when they moved westward?
2. What did the "new man" distinguish from his "European cousins" and how was this distinction brought about?
3. How did the pioneering experience change the Americans' behavior?
4. From what you know about today's Americans' behavior and way of life, do you think that there lies some truth in Turner's thesis?





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