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Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis


Frederick Jackson Turner s Frontier Thesis The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1883) Historical Context Historical Society lecture presented ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis

Frederick Jackson Turners Frontier Thesis
  • The Significance of the Frontier in American
    History (1883)

Historical Context
  • Historical Society lecture presented in Chicago,
    Illinois (major urban area of the midwest)
  • Concurrent with the Columbia Exposition
  • Buffalo Bill Codys Travelling Wild West Show
    Performing at the same time
  • Response to Census of 1880 which noted that the
    American Frontier has ceased to exist.

Historical Context
  • Turner is writing at a moment in time when the
    frontier has been "officially closed as reported
    in the 1880 Census (18).
  • His argument is profoundly influenced by earlier
    writers, such as de Crevecoeur.
  • His argument is that the influence of the
    frontier on the national character transcends its
    historical or geographical specificity.

Historical Context
  • Turners essay establishes the direction of
    interpreting American history and culture
    throughout much of the 20th century.
  • While many of his premises have been challenged
    or discredited, his essay still influences our
    understanding of the development of American
    civilization and national identity.

Questions to Consider
  • How does Turner define American history? Where
    does he focus his attention? What metaphors or
    phrases does he use to describe history? How
    does he conceive of history?
  • How does Turner define the American frontier (in
    contrast to the European frontier? (19-20)
  • What is the relationship between the American
    frontier and American society? Does Turner see
    these as opposites or as interrelated? If they
    are related, what is the relationship? How does
    one influence the other?

Turners Thesis
  • The history of America is essentially a history
    of westward movement and expansion.
  • Turner describes 6 major stages of development
    along the American frontier from the colonial era
    through 1890 (20-22). The American West, as a
    self-conscious region, begins to emerge during
    the third stage of development.

The Frontier Defined
  • Turner's definition of the American frontier (in
    contrast to the European frontier)
  • Lets look at some passages on pages 19-20.

Frontier and Society
  • Turner believes in a vital link between the
    American frontier and American civilization
    (society). The frontier exists to serve society,
    as a source of renewal and regeneration of the
  • The frontier transforms Europeans (and European
    society) into Americans (23ff). It is not just a
    natural space but a vital social space that
    assists in building a nation (3035).

Frontier and Society
  • However, this is not simply an advancement of
    civilization (progress) but a RETURN to an
    original (more natural) condition, 19ff.
  • Therefore, the frontier is a space where
    individuals and society can be renewed, begin
    again, and seek out new opportunities.

Frontier and Society
  • Like de Crevecoeur, Turner emphasizes that the
    farmer AND and his family are essential to the
    westward expansion across the continent.
  • While other professions exist on the frontier
    (the hunter, the tradesman, the cowboy, etc.),
    the farmer is the ideal American. Daniel Boone is
    the ideal model for the frontiersman / farmer /
    family man (28).
  • For Turner, the frontier is fundamentally a
    social and domestic space. While others (hunters
    and traders) may lead the way, the social
    organization of the farmer / pioneer is

The Relationship of the Frontier to American
History and Culture
  • Composite Nationality
  • Industrial Independence
  • American Political Affairs and Legislation
  • Growth of Democracy
  • Religion and Education
  • Intellectual Characteristics (The American Mind)

Composite Nationality
  • The "crucible" of the frontier removes people
    from their original cultures and creates a
    melting pot where "immigrants were Americanized,
    liberated, and fused into a mixed race" (30-31).
  • How does this compare with de Crevecoeurs idea
    of the melting pot?
  • The frontier breaks down regional, ethnic and
    cultural divisions and creates a new national
    culture (35).

Industrial Independence
  • Ironically, technology and industry are not in
    opposition to the frontier.
  • Technology and industry emerge on the frontier
    and in response to its conditions.
  • The railroad, canal systems, forms of
    communication, and new developments in industry
    and agriculture are all products of the frontier
    (21 31).
  • These technologies are closely associated with
    the ideology of freedom. They create the
    conditions of freedom in America.

Political Affairs and Legislation
  • American politics and its major legislation are
    influenced by the frontier.
  • Ownership of the land federal, states,
  • Indian Question
  • The creation of States
  • Legislation over land Louisiana Purchase Monroe
    Doctrine, etc.
  • Slavery / Compromise of 1850

  • The most important influence of the frontier has
    been in the promotion and development of
    democracy (a kind of ideal social / political
    organization) (35ff).
  • The frontier provides the conditions and
    environment that allow the American Revolution to
  • It produces a kind of individualism that can
    become the basis for social organization.

  • However, Turner also recognizes that there is a
    danger to the kind of democracy that emerges on
    the frontier (see 36), if it threatens to destroy
    the social framework, a destructive form of
  • Therefore, Turner introduces religion and
    education (37ff) as social institutions that can
    regulate and control the negative forces on the

Religion and Education
  • Society both desires the frontier as the site of
    social expansion and renewal, but it also fears
    the frontier as the site of lawless, destructive,
    anti-social behavior.
  • Turner views religion and education not as
    inherently valuable (as spiritual or
    intellectual) but as institutions of social
    control that produce certain kinds of social and
    individual codes of moral and ethical behavior.
  • Religion and Education are thus essentially

Intellectual Traits (American Mind)
  • These forces are what shape the American
  • The unique experience of moving into / settling
    the frontier creates a spirit of independence,
    democratic institutions, sense of patriotism, and
  • The frontier naturalizes these qualities, and
    give rise to what Turner and others will call the
    intellectual traits of America that are created
    by the frontier (39-40). These traits are
    consistent with what later consensus scholars
    will call the American Mind.