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Turners Thesis Statement

Thomas C. McClintock
The Turner Thesis: After Ninety Years it Still 'Lives On,'
The Journal of the American West 25:75-82 July 1986.

Scanned, copy-edited, spell-checked, and tagged by Brooke Ramsay, 11/13/95.

IN less than ten years, American historians undoubtedly will be observing in an appropriate manner the centennial of the "Turner Thesis." It was on 12 luly 1893, at an annual meeting of the American Historical Association, that Frederick Jackson Turner first presented his frontier thesis in the now-famous paper on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History.'' During the following two decades, in a series of articles, papers, and addresses, he elaborated on and refined the thesis, and in 1920 selected thirteen of these essays for republication in one volume.'1.

During the 90 years since Turner first proposed the thesis, it has generated a variety of responses that have become quite astonishing in number. Not only has criticism of the thesis ''become a minor industry," as British historian Howard Temperley recently pointed out,2 but even more so has its defense, at least if neo-Turnerians (those Richard Hofstadter aptly described as "friendly revisionists") are included with Turner's disciples.3 In 1947, in a Foreword to the second edition of the collection of Turner's frontier essays, Ray Allen Billington, Turner's biographer and, at the time of his death, the most active and influential of the neo-Turnerians,4 summarized the reception and influence of the thesis during the previous half century as follows:

No one volume has done more to reshape the writing of American history or to recast the popularly held image of the American past than this collection of thought-provoking essays. They have, since their initial appearance, stirred usually placid historians into bitter controversy, radically altered the teaching of the nation's history, inspired a tidal wave of publication that still bulges from library shelves. offered a justification to diplomats for such divergent doctrines as imperialism and internationalism. and supplied statesmen with the arguments needed to popularize such irreconcilable objectives as the ''welfare state'' and ''rugged individualism"...6. though at that time even those who were the most friendly rejected at least some part of the thesis and made substantial revisions of others.

Although the purpose of this article is to describe the status of the Turner Thesis among scholars in the 1980s rather than to summarize its changing status over the past 90 years, there are two assessments, one published in the 1960s and the other in the 1970s, that are of such significance as to warrant at least brief mention. The first is a series of essays on Turner by Richard Hofstadler, published in 1968.7 What makes this assessment of the thesis significant, as it is rather favorable, is the fact that Hofstadter had been one of the leaders in the assault on Turner in the 1930s and 1940s. 8 But, as Hofstadter acknowledged, by 1968 he had changed his mind. In contrast to his earlier blanket criticism of the thesis, which he labeled one of his ''parricidal forays'' and admitted had been destructive,9 he now based his assessment of the thesis ''on the assumption that there is indeed something of substantial merit at the core of Turner's views.'' Rather than trying "to have sport with his marginal failings''' Hofstadter suggested that the ''most valid procedure" was "to rescue whatever is viable by cutting out what is proved wrong, tempering what is overstated, tightening what is too loosely put. and setting the whole in its proper place among the usable perspectives on our past.'""10 This was the procedure that he attempted to follow in these essays. However, he still agreed with several of Turner's sharpest critics such as Ceorge W. Pierson, Benjamin F. Wright, Jr., and Mody C. Boatright,"11 and he concluded his assessment in part as follows:

. . . The great merit of Turnerism, for all its elliptical and exasperating vagueness, was to be open-ended. The frontier idea, though dissected at one point and minimized at another, keeps popping up in new forms. posing new questions to its questioners, always prodding investigation into new areas . . . the inquiry propagated among critics and friendly revisionists has now reached a volume that overmatches the work of his disciples. This mountain of Turner criticism is his most certain monument.12

This final assessment by Hotstadter came close to ''damning" the thesis "with faint praise." If he was somewhat less critical than he had been in the 1940s, he certainly continued to be more critical than the neoTurnerians, those whom he referred to as the ''friendly revisionists." More representative of this group is Jackson Putnam. In an article, "The Turner Thesis and the Westward Movement: A Reappraisal,'' published in 1976,'13 Putnam updated Billington's earlier summary of the reception and status of the thesis. More important, he also included an analysis of the thesis and a response to his critics that were so perceptive and persuasiveas to place Putnam among the leading present-day neo-Turnerians. Typical of these revisionists, he acknowledged that Turner had been guilty of ''gross simplification and audacious overstatement" and that his language had been too ''poetic, ambiguous and lacking in precise definition.'' As a consequence, he reported' the thesis ''eventually came under thoroughgoing assault, the fury of which occasionally came to resemble the no-holds-barred character of the attacks of Turner's frontiersmen upon their wilderness adversaries. "'14 Nevertheless, Putnam maintained that ''much of . . . [Turner's] presentation was still valid. . ., that his earlier essays were almost as suggestive and vital as when he wrote them, and that many of the contentions of his adversaries were more quaint and old-fashioned than those of the master himself." 15

More recently, two books have been published which, in their assessments of the Turner Thesis, confirm that, indeed, it is still very much alive. Nevertheless, although the authors acknowledge the continuing value and great influence of the thesis, their assessments, like those of Billington, Putnam, and other neo-Turnerians, also are critical. Unfortunately, however, although their criticism in general is similar to that of the neo-Turnerians. several of their criticisms at best seem rather misplaced and at worst are characterized by what Wilbur Jacobs has called the "needless bickering'"16 and by misinterpretations or distortions that are reminiscent of the attacks on the thesis in the 1930s and 1940s.

The most recent of the two books is a collection of 17 bibliographical essays on the history of the American West with a Foreword by Rodman W. Paul and an Introduction by its editor, Michael P. Malone.17 According to Malone, the purpose of the essays "is to describe what has been done. how well it has been done. and what needs to be done" in Western history'18 and not only in such traditional fields as exploration, the fur trade, Indians, mining, Mormons, agriculture, transportation, violence, and politics but also in less traditional ones such as urbanization, women. ethnic and racial minorities, and culture. Significantly, as Rodman Paul points out in his Foreword, among the characteristics of this superb collection of essays that ''deserve special comment" is "the continuing towering presence of Frederick Jackson Turner" (as well as Herbert Eugene Bolton and Walter Prescott Webb).'19 What Paul is referring to is the fact that, of the 18 essays, including Malone's Introduction, at least 10 discuss the Turner Thesis, several in considerable detail. Malone, for example, states that `'no interpretation of American history has ever had a more lasting or decisive impact." As had Billington and Putnam, he then goes on briefly to describe the changing assessments of the thesis since its initial appearance. In doing so, he reports that after being rejected by many historians in the 1930s and 1940s, it "enjoyed a resurgence after World War 11, and it lives on, especially among historians of the West who have modified it, refined it, and placed it in a credible context of a multiplicity of historical factors that shaped American civilization." 20 Although Malone mentions only Ray Allen Billington as an example of the historians of the West who have modified and refined the thesis, Putnam and the authors of several of the essays in this volume are also obvious examples.

Another important characteristic of this collection of essays, however, as Paul points out, is the fact that 'criticism of Turner is especially prevalent." Although, as he goes on to report, the authors of these essays do not regard Turner "with the scorn shown by some critics of a generation ago, most find serious lacks now that western history has produced a whole congeries of subfields that seem to demand attention."21 Certainly the major criticism of Turner in these essays is his failure to mention, or at least adequately to discuss important features of or influences on frontier and Western history. Among those specifically mentioned are mining, territorial administration, frontier politics, conflict and violence within the West, urbanization, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and culture. Although this particular criticism of Turner is not a new one. it appears especially convincing in these essays because of their purpose and scope.

However, the authors of several of these essays not only criticize Turner for his failure to mention such features or influences but also hold him responsible for their continued neglect during the more than a half century since he published his frontier essays. According to Clark C. Spence, for example. ''In part, the past neglect of the history of mining stems from the impact of the Turnerian emphasis on things political, on individualism, democracy, environmental influence, and on the pre-Appomattox era." 22 Similarly, Sandra L. Myres suggests that, because Turner's frontiers were as devoid of women as the Great Plains were devoid of trees,'' since his ''essay appeared, American high school and college students have read about the 'winning of the West' in a series of well-written and often exciting texts . . . [that] dismissed women as 'invisible, few in number, and not important to the process of taming a wilderness.' "23 And Richard W. Etulain, in his essay, discusses several ways in which ''Turner's attitudes toward frontier societies retarded interest in western cultural history."24 Although this collection of essays certainly reveals the "continuing towering presence'' and ''decisive impact'' of Turner, it is most difficult to believe that his influence has been quite as towering and decisive as suggested by Spence, Myres, and Etulain. To attribute to him such great and continuing influence is, in one sense quite flattering, but it also strikes one as rather exaggerated and even unfair.

Just a few months prior to the publication of Malone's Historians and the American West, two young American historians, James W. Davidson and Mark H. Lytle, published a collection of essays that also includes evidence that the Turner Thesis "lives on."25 However, although both books are collections of essays, they are, in several ways, quite different. For example, whereas each essay in the collection edited by Michael Malone has been written by a different historian, Davidson and Lytle are the authors of all 13 essays (and a Prologue) in their volume. A second difference is that the essays in the Malone volume concentrate exclusively on the American West whereas those of Davidson and Lytle concern American history in general.

A third and particularly significant contrast between the two collections of essays is the purpose or objective for which they have been written. According to Malone, the purpose of the essays in his volume is to provide ''a better understanding of what several generations of western historians have accomplished and failed to accomplish, and of the legacy and tasks they have left to this and to future generations" of historians. Davidson and Lytle have written their essays for a very different purpose-and audience. As they report in the introduction, their essays are based on the assumption that, "if lay readers and students understood better how historians go about their work-how they examine evidence, how they pose questions, and how they reach answers," there would be less ''disinterest in or even animosity toward the study of the past" among such readers.26 In attempting to achieve their objective, Davidson and Lytle manage to include in the 13 essays an impressive number of historical problems or ''mysteries'' in American history and an equally impressive variety of methods of detection used by historians to solve them.

In one of the essays they attempt to illustrate not only the use of a ' grand theory" as a form of historical detection or interpretation but also the fact that historians frequently apply very different general theories or ''propositions'' to an historical topic, and, thus, may present quite different perceptions of that topic. As is revealed by the title of this essay, ''Jackson's Frontier-and Turner's: History and Grand Theory,''

They have selected Turner's frontier thesis to illustrate the application of a ''grand theory" to American history, and the ''topic'' they have selected to illustrate how much disagreement there may be in historians' perceptions is Andrew Jackson. To accomplish the latter, they have selected four historians including Turner and one of his students, Thomas Perkins Abernethy.'27

Davidson's and Lytle's summary of Turner's thesis and perceptions of Jackson is a classic illustration of a major problem that has plagued the thesis since the 1930s-the frequent tendency of scholars, especially critics, to oversimplify or distort it. As Jackson Putnam has pointed out, there has been a ''propensity" by critics ''to misrepresent Turner's complex concepts by simplifying them and then attacking the misrepresentations."28 Although the primary purpose of Davidson and Lytle in this essay is to describe or summarize the thesis, not to criticize it, the degree to which they have oversimplified and, thus. misrepresented it is reminiscent of Turner's critics, par- ticularly those in the 1930s and 1940s. The fact that the thesis continues to be subjected to such misrepresentations 90 years after its birth warrants more than passing notice.

Before examining how Davidson and Lytle have oversimplified and distorted Turner's views, it first should be acknowledged in their defense that Turner's essays are not easily summarized for, as both his critics and neo-Turnerians have pointed out, they are characterized by considerable imprecision and ambiguity.29 Furthermore, a summary is difficult because Turner wrote these essays over a 20-year period of time and for a variety of audiences. As a result. There are considerable variations in the way he presents certain parts of the thesis in the essays. However, Davidson and Lytle have compounded these difficulties not only because the broad purposes of their essay force them to be so highly selective, particularly in the use of quotations, but also because their summary appears to be based on only one of Turner's frontier essays plus, in describing his perceptions of Jackson, two pages in his hook, Rise of the New West, 1819-1829.

Davidson and Lytle begin the essay with a brief summary of the frontier thesis, relying on the paper Turner read in Chicago in July 1893. Certainly this is an appropriate essay with which to begin such a summary as it was Turner's first and most famous presentation of the thesis as well as the most detailed. However, in presenting the traits that Turner attributed to frontiersmen, which are such a fundamental part of the thesis and, as will become apparent, so crucial to his perception of Jackson, they include only the following brief quotation from this essay:

. . . That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy: that dominant individualism, working for good and evil, and withal the buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom-these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier...."30

The problem with this much-quoted passage is that, except for the reference to ''evil" consequences of individualism, the traits that Turner here attributed to the frontier are those that he regarded as positive. But he also held the frontier responsible for a number of negative traits and, thus, in failing to include these in their summary of the thesis, Davidson and Lytle distort it-and create problems for themselves later in their discussion of Turner's perceptions of Jackson. For example, earlier in this same 1893 essay, Turner had described the "evil'' he had in mind in the passage quoted by Davidson and Lytle:

. . . But the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits. individualism in America has allowed a laxity in regard to government affairs which has rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit. In this connection may be noted also the influence of frontier conditions in permitting lax business honor, inflated paper currency and wild-cat banking..."31

At the end of this rather long discussion of the lax governmental and financial integrity on the frontier, of which, incidentally, he suggested the "recent PopuIist agitation is a case in point," he reported in a footnote that he had refrained from dwelling on the lawless characteristics of the frontier, because they are sufficiently well known. The gambler and desperado, the regulators of the Carolinas and the vigilantes of California, are types of that line of scum that the waves of advancing civilization bore before them....32

Furthermore, in later essays Turner not only mentioned many of these same negative frontier traits but also added new ones to the list. For example, in an essay written in 1896, he suggested that

. . . The frontiersman was impatient of restraints.... Society became atomic.... He had little patience with finely drawn distinctions or scruples of method. If the thing was one proper to be done, then the most immediate, rough and ready, effective way was the best way.

It followed from the lack of organized political life . . . that the individual was exalted and given free play. The West was another name for opportunity. Here were mines to be seized, fertile valleys to be preempted, all the natural resources open to the shrewdest and the boldest....33

Again, in 191O, he wrote,

The squatter enforced his claim to lands even against the government's title by the use of extralegal combinations and force. He appealed to Iynch law with little hesitation. He was impatient of any governmental restrictions upon his individual right to deal with the wilderness.

Thus many of the pioneers, following the ideal of the right of the individual to rise, subordinated the rights of the nation and posterity to the desire that the country should be "developed" and that the individual should advance with as little interference as possible. Squatter doctrines and individualism have left deep traces upon American conceptions.34

Obviously, then, the failure of Davidson and Lytle to include the dangers that Turner attributed to frontier democracy and individualism in their summary of his thesis is a very serious omission.35

As has been mentioned, Davidson and Lytle, in the second part of this essay, describe Turner's perceptions of Andrew Jackson as contrasted to those of Thomas Abernethy and two other historians.36 Unfortunately, once again one of the weaknesses of their description is the fact that it is so brief as to be an oversimplification and, thus, a distortion. A more serious weakness is the fact that it is based on two paragraphs in his Rise of the West rather than on a number of longer and more detailed paragraphs on Jackson in his frontier essays.

They begin their summary by reporting that ''For Frederick Turner, Andrew Jackson was not merely 'one of the favorites of the west,' he was 'the west itself.' "37 They then briefly describe Jackson's pioneer origins, mentioning that, as a teenage orphan, he journeyed West, eventually becoming the public prosecutor "in the frontier lands that now comprise Tennessee," in which capacity he "dispersed justice with the kind of 'coarseness and strength' Turner associated with the frontier personality."38 Next they quote the descriptions by Gallatin and Jefferson of Jackson as a member of the House of Representatives and later the Senate that Turner had included, and conclude this brief summary with Turner's observation that

. . . At length the frontier, in the person of its leader, had found a place in the government. This six-foot backwoodsman, angular, lanternjawed, and thin, with blue eyes that blazed on occasion this choleric, impetuous, Scotch-Irish leader of men; this expert duelist and ready fighter; this embodiment of the contentious, vehement, personal west, was in politics to stay.39

Again Davidson's and Lytle's use of quotations is unsatisfactory. This relatively brief passage on Jackson not only is the only one they quote but also is seriously deficient as a summary of Turner's perceptions. If they had consulted his frontier essays as well as Rise of the West, they would have discovered, n an essay published in 1903, a discussion of Jackson hat began with wording that was virtually identical to he two paragraphs they had relied on from the book. however, in the essay this is only the first part of a long discussion of Jackson by Turner, the subsequent parts of which are even more essential in a summary of his perceptions if they are not to be incomplete or distorted. Turner, in the essay, continued in part as follows:

. . . The frontier democracy of that time had the instincts of the clansmen in the days of Scotch border warfare. Vehement and tenacious as the democracy was, strenuously as each man contended with his neighbor for the spoils of the new country that opened before them' they all had respect for the man who best expressed their aspirations and their ideas.... He [Jackson] had the essential traits of the Kentucky and Tennessee frontier....

The Westerner defended himself and resented governmental restrictions. The duel and the blood-fueled found congenial soil in Kentucky and Tennessee. The idea of the personality of law was often dominant over the organized machinery of justice.... The backwoodsman was intolerant of men who split hairs, or scrupled over the method reaching the right. In a word, the unchecked development of the individual was the significant product of this frontier democracy.

It was because Andrew Jackson personified these essential Western traits that in his presidency he became the idol and the mouthpiece of the popular will. In his assault upon the Bank as an engine of aristocracy. and in his denunciation of nullification' he went directly to his object with the ruthless energy of a frontiersman. For formal law and subtleties of State sovereignty he had the contempt of a backwoodsman. Nor is it without significance that this typical man of the new democracy will always be associated with the triumph of the spoils system in national politics....

The triumph of Andrew Jackson marked the end of the old era of trained statesmen for the Presidency. With him began the era of the popular hero.... During the period that followed Jackson, power passed from the region of Kentucky and Tennessee to the border of the Mississippi.... As Andrew Jackson is the typical democrat of the former region, so Abraham Lincoln is the very embodiment of the pioneer period of the Old Northwest. Indeed, he is the embodiment of the democracy of the West....

The pioneer life from which Lincoln came differed in important respects from the frontier democracy typified by Andrew Jackson. Jackson's democracy was contentious. individualistic. . . ."40

Certainly Turner's perceptions of Jackson presented in this long passage are quite different than those described by Davidson and Lytle in their very brief summary. Probably the most obvious difference is that to Turner, Jackson was not really ''the west itself' but rather was 'the typical democrat ' and ''had the essential traits" of one frontier only, the Kentucky Tennessee frontier. If any frontiersman was the embodiment of the West in general, according to Turner. it was Lincoln, not Jackson. That this was an important distinction to Turner is evident by the number of times he made it elsewhere in his frontier essays.40

This contrast in Turner's perceptions of Jackson and Lincoln underlines another crucial fact about the place of Jackson in his thesis that Davidson and Lytle also apparently have failed to recognize and that is that the frontier traits he attributed to Jackson were almost exclusively negative ones. Note, for example. the adjectives he uses in describing Jackson and the Kentucky-Tennessee frontier-e.g., ''choleric.''impetuous,'' ''intolerant,' ''contentious.' vehement. ' ' tenacious." and ''ruthless.''

It also should be noted that the traits of Jackson that Turner emphasized were mainly those associated with his presidency and Jacksonian Democracy rather than with his rise to wealth and political influence in Tennessee. This fact is particularly important because Davidson and Lytle, after their brief summary of Turner's views of the frontier and Jackson, compare them with those of Thomas Abernethy, who had been one of Turner's graduate students. According to Davidson and Lytle, Abernethy, in his From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee.42 which, ironically, was dedicated to Turner, ''directly refutes Turner's optimistic version of western history" and, thus, is ''a devastating attack on the frontier thesis."43 Abernethy, they report in his study of the early settlement of Tennessee, discovered that, in the scramble for land, the squatter and yeoman farmer were squeezed out by Eastern land speculators, using such questionable tactics as the issuance of large quantities of paper money. As a result, ''Instead of confirming Turner's version of a hardy democracy . . . Abernethy painted a picture of 'free' Tennessee lands providing fortunes for already powerful men." 44

According to Davidson and Lytle, Abernethy also presented a very different perception of Jackson. Concentrating exclusively on his early career in Tennessee, Abernethy described his involvement in land speculation and close alliance with Blount and other men of power and wealth. He was, according to Abernethy, ''ever an aristocrat at heart." Consequently, Davidson and Lytle conclude, ''Abernathy believed that Jackson's horseback rides on behalf of real estate deserved more emphasis than any romantic notions of a galloping democrat."45

Unfortunately, here again Davidson and Lytle tend to misrepresent or distort Turner's thesis and perceptions of Jackson. However, in this instance Abernethy is partly responsible. In the Author's Preface to the 1967 Edition of From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee. he wrote in part as follows:

. . . [This book] is a minority report, so to speak, against the "frontier hypothesis" of my preceptor and friend . . . Professor Frederick Turner, to whom I dedicated the book.

Professor Turner believed that American "democracy" originated on the western frontier and that this environmental influence was entirely beneficial to the nation.... <./p>

It is certainly true that living conditions on the frontier were primitive and that one could not carry his pedigree into the wilderness. Consequently, social life was much more informal than in the older, more settled communities. However, the rampant land speculation that prevailed on the frontier constitutes highly persuasive evidence that there were serpents in Professor Turner's egalitarian Eden-evidence that economic and political "privilege" was not wholly absent from the Sylvan scene....46

These statements by Abernethy, as well as those of Davidson and Lytle, as to the implications of his study of the Tennessee frontier for the Turner thesis are, to say the least, most puzzling. Certainly Turner's description of frontier society and its impact on American institutions and character was much less romantic and idealistic than they suggest. As we have seen, time and again in his frontier essays he acknowledged that there were, indeed, "serpents" (and "scum") in his frontier society, that "economic and political 'privilege'" was very much in evidence in his "Sylvan scene." Although it is true, as the British historian H. C. Allen, for example, has pointed out, that the role of land speculators on the frontier received too little attention in Turner's frontier essays,47 surely they were among the evils of frontier individualism that he had in mind in his references to the "strenuous competition for the spoils of the new country," the "laxity in government affairs" and in "financial integrity," and "the natural resources open to the shrewdest and the boldest," and in his observation that

Besides the ideals of conquest and of discovery, the pioneer had the ideal of personal development, free from social and governmental constraint. He came from a civilization based on individual competition, and he brought the conception with him to the wilderness where a wealth of resources, and innumerable opportunities gave it a new scope. The prizes were for the keenest and the strongest, for them were the best bottom lands, the finest timber tracts, the best salt-springs, the richest ore beds; and not only these natural gifts, but also the opportunities afforded in the midst of a farming society. Here were mill sites, town sites, transportation lines, banking centers, openings in the law, in politics all the varied chances for advancement afforded in a rapidly developing society where everything was open to him who knew how to seize the opportunity.48

As to comparisons between Turner's and Abernethy's perceptions of Jackson, they are difficult to make for, as has been noted, it is Jackson's conduct as a national leader with which Turner was primarily interested, whereas Abernethy's focus was exclusively on his early career in Tennessee. However, in those brief passages in which Turner did discuss Jackson, the frontiersman, he is in much less disagreement with Abernethy than Davidson and Lytle suggest. Certainly it is obvious that Jackson was no frontier hero to Turner. Rather, he was a product of and spokesman for the extreme individualism that Turner considered one of the most negative products of frontier democracy' especially in Kentucky and Tennessee. Thus, Davidson's and Lytle's suggestion that Turner and Abernethy "reached diametrically opposed conclusions about Andrew Jackson" is, if not simply erroneous' very much an overstatement.49

This essay by Davidson and Lytle, and two or three in Historians and the American West, are evidence that Turner's frontier thesis continues to be subjected to misrepresentations and rather unfair, or at least misplaced, criticisms that have been features of responses to it during much of the 90-plus years since Turner first proposed it in Chicago in 1893. As the assessments by neo-Turnerians such as Putnam and most of the authors of essays in Historians and the American West reveal, the thesis also continues to be subjected to more justified criticism because of its vagueness, imprecision, and failure to mention a number of important features of frontier history and influences on the evolution of American institutions and character. However. what is most striking about recent assessments is how much of the Turner Thesis is still regarded as ''suggestive and vital.'' In 1984, for example, Martin Ridge. in his introduction to a republication of Turner's 1893 essay. concluded as follows:

He still has ideas worth considering because they offer Americans a usable past and a basis from which to look into the future. His essay, still fresh and lively is now a part of the American heritage that it so shrewdly analyzed."50

Back in 1968, in the introduction to a collection of essays on Turner of which he was co-editor. Richard Hofstadter observed that ''Today it is easy to believe that historians will still be arguing over and pursuing the implications of his [Turner's] ideas at their hundredth anniversary in 1993."51 Today it is even easier to believe. The Turner Thesis. as Michael Malone reports, most definitely "lives on."

The Turner Theses

The central thesis about the frontier coined by Frederick Jackson Turner, commonly called the frontier thesis, has to do with the origins of the American national character. Related concepts are the safety valve and successive frontiers. All these ideas were contained in the essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which Turner presented as a lecture at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Turner's point of departure for the essay was that in the published report of the 1890 federal census, it was reported that the United States no longer had a discernible frontier--a line of demarcation dividing, as they said then, "civilization" from "savagery." This led the historian to muse upon the importance of the frontier in American history.

There are two good reasons for us to give serious attention to Turner's ideas. The first has to do with national history. If Turner was right, then the American national character is a product of the frontier; we talk and behave the way we do because of the frontier experience. The second reason has to do with regional history. In Turner's conception, our region, the Great Plains, is important because it was the last frontier.

If you want to get Turner's ideas in his own words, he's available on-line from University of Virginia Hypertexts.

The Turner Theses
ThesisSynopsisTurner Quote
The FrontierThe frontier thesis is the assertion that the American character, including such traits as democracy and materialism, derived from the frontier experience."The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement, explain American development."
The Safety ValveThe safety valve thesis is the assertion that the frontier, as a place of opportunity and escape, defused social discontent in America."So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power."
Successive FrontiersTurner said that in the development of any frontier area, one phase of economic and social development followed another in distinct stages. This is the concept of successive frontiers."Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file--the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer--and the frontier has passed by. Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between."