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In the thesis, the American frontier established liberty by releasing Americans from European mindsets and eroding old, dysfunctional customs. The frontier had no need for standing armies, established churches, aristocrats or nobles. There was no landed gentry who controlled most of the land and charged heavy rents and fees. Frontier land was practically free for the taking.

Turner first announced his thesis in a paper entitled " The Significance of the Frontier in American History ", delivered to the American Historical Association in in Chicago. He won wide acclaim among historians and intellectuals. Turner elaborated on the theme in his advanced history lectures and in a series of essays published over the next 25 years, published along with his initial paper as The Frontier in American History. Turner's emphasis on the importance of the frontier in shaping American character influenced the interpretation found in thousands of scholarly histories.

Turner begins the essay by calling to attention the fact that the western frontier line, which had defined the entirety of American history up to the s, had ended. He elaborates by stating,. Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications, lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions. The peculiarity of American institutions is, the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.

According to Turner, American progress has repeatedly undergone a cyclical process on the frontier line as society has needed to redevelop with its movement westward. Everything in American history up to the s somehow relates the western frontier, including slavery.

In spite of this, Turner laments, the frontier has received little serious study from historians and economists. Furthermore, there is a need to escape the confines of the State. The most important aspect of the frontier to Turner is its effect on democracy. The frontier transformed Jeffersonian democracy into Jacksonian democracy.

Turner sets up the East and the West as opposing forces; as the West strives for freedom, the East seeks to control it. He cites British attempts to stifle western emigration during the colonial era and as an example of eastern control. Even after independence, the eastern coast of the United States sought to control the West.

The History of the American West Gets a Much-Needed Rewrite

Religious institutions from the eastern seaboard, in particular, battled for possession of the West. The tensions between small churches as a result of this fight, Turner states, exist today because of the religious attempt to master the West and those effects are worth further study. American intellect owes its form to the frontier as well. Turner concludes the essay by saying that with the end of the frontier, the first period of American history has ended. The Frontier Thesis came about at a time when the Germanic germ theory of history was popular.

Proponents of the germ theory believed that political habits are determined by innate racial attributes. According to the theory, the Germanic race appeared and evolved in the ancient Teutonic forests, endowed with a great capacity for politics and government. Their germs were, directly and by way of England, carried to the New World where they were allowed to germinate in the North American forests.

According to Bancroft, the Germanic germs had spread across of all Western Europe by the Middle Ages and had reached their height. In , medieval historian Carl Stephenson published an extended article refuting the Germanic germ theory. Evidently, the belief that free political institutions of the United States spawned in ancient Germanic forests endured well into the s.

A similarly race-based interpretation of Western history also occupied the intellectual sphere in the United States before Turner. The racial warfare theory was an emerging belief in the late nineteenth century advocated by Theodore Roosevelt in The Winning of the West. Turner and Roosevelt diverged on the exact aspect of frontier life that shaped the contemporary American. Each side, the Westerners and the native savages, struggled for mastery of the land through violence.

Whereas Turner saw the development of American character occur just behind the frontier line, as the colonists tamed and tilled the land, Roosevelt saw it form in battles just beyond the frontier line. Turner set up an evolutionary model he had studied evolution with a leading geologist, Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin , using the time dimension of American history, and the geographical space of the land that became the United States. They adapted to the new physical, economic and political environment in certain ways—the cumulative effect of these adaptations was Americanization.

Successive generations moved further inland, shifting the lines of settlement and wilderness, but preserving the essential tension between the two. European characteristics fell by the wayside and the old country's institutions e. Every generation moved further west and became more American, more democratic, and more intolerant of hierarchy. They also became more violent, more individualistic, more distrustful of authority, less artistic, less scientific, and more dependent on ad-hoc organizations they formed themselves. In broad terms, the further west, the more American the community.

Turner saw the land frontier was ending, since the U. Census of had officially stated that the American frontier had broken up. He sounded an alarming note, speculating as to what this meant for the continued dynamism of American society as the source of U.

Historians, geographers, and social scientists have studied frontier-like conditions in other countries, with an eye on the Turnerian model. South Africa, Canada, Russia, Brazil, Argentina and Australia—and even ancient Rome—had long frontiers that were also settled by pioneers.

The question is whether their frontiers were powerful enough to overcome conservative central forces based in the metropolis. In Australia, "mateship" and working together was valued more than individualism. Turner's thesis quickly became popular among intellectuals. It explained why the American people and American government were so different from their European counterparts.

It was popular among New Dealers—Franklin Roosevelt and his top aides [19] thought in terms of finding new frontiers. This is the great, the nation-wide frontier of insecurity, of human want and fear. This is the frontier—the America—we have set ourselves to reclaim. Chandler, Jr. Many believed that the end of the frontier represented the beginning of a new stage in American life and that the United States must expand overseas. However, others viewed this interpretation as the impetus for a new wave in the history of United States imperialism.

William Appleman Williams led the "Wisconsin School" of diplomatic historians by arguing that the frontier thesis encouraged American overseas expansion, especially in Asia, during the 20th century. Williams viewed the frontier concept as a tool to promote democracy through both world wars, to endorse spending on foreign aid, and motivate action against totalitarianism.

Other historians, who wanted to focus scholarship on minorities, especially Native Americans and Hispanics, started in the s to criticize the frontier thesis because it did not attempt to explain the evolution of those groups. Turner never published a major book on the frontier for which he did 40 years of research.

For liberals, a wide range of social policies--housing subsidies, highway building, environmental regulations, civil rights and affirmative action, public support for the arts, and others--do, in fact, express a vision of a "good life," even if it is one that critics of liberalism may find insufficiently ennobling.


Many liberals have gone further and endorsed ideas of national service, cooperative workplace structures, and other explicitly communitarian goals. Conservatives, too, have proposed visions of community based on a prescriptive moral agenda that proposes a wide range of behavioral norms rooted in a normative and often religious concept of how individuals and families should live and behave. But the largest shortcoming of the communitarian argument is the way some of its advocates define community itself. Many although certainly not all contemporary communitarians consider community inseparable from localism.

It is the local voluntary association--the sort of organization that Tocqueville argued was so characteristic of early nineteenth-century America--that makes it possible for individuals to embed themselves in a community. Some communitarians, to be sure, see a link between the local community and the nation. They see in local civic life a vehicle for creating habits of community interaction and social trust, out of which a larger political community can eventually emerge.

But other communitarians--those on the right in particular--envision no such links. The threat to community, they claim, is not just excessive individualism; it is also excessive centralization. The "community" stands in opposition to the "nation" or the "government. And as such, they claim, it is part of a tradition deeply embedded in American history. It is true, needless to say, that this localistic vision of community has deep roots in the American past--as the frequent evocations of Tocqueville by today's communitarians make clear. Historians, and others, have spent several decades now exploring the tradition of what they call republicanism, a vision of society that emerged in the eighteenth century and survived according to some, although not all, of its chroniclers through the nineteenth and into the twentieth in the form of various populist movements, in some areas of the labor movement, in some parts of the left, and even in parts of the communitarian right.

The republican tradition closely associated with, among others, Thomas Jefferson places a high value on personal liberty, to be sure, but it situates liberty within the fabric of a relatively small and homogeneous community whose citizens operate according to a shared moral code and a respect for social norms. W hat gives rights and freedoms meaning? Many liberals and libertarians would argue that their meaning is inherent, that they are themselves the foundation of our public world. But republicans would argue differently.

Liberty has no meaning except in a social context; rights cannot be sustained unless there is a civic life healthy enough to create a shared commitment to them. Communities create freedom; freedom does not create itself. But in order to create freedom, communities also create obligations--obligations to honor certain common values, to respect certain institutions, to accept some common definition of what is good.

We cannot hope to be truly free, according to the tradition of republicanism, unless we identify with and share in the governance of the political community upon which our freedom depends. And we can only do so, many republicans have argued throughout American history, if the community remains small enough that individuals can realistically expect to exercise some power within it.

The historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, in one of his last books, The True and Only Heaven , drew particular attention to today's close-knit, ethnically homogeneous, working-class communities as examples of healthy, vibrant societies. Lasch was deeply disheartened by the condition of modern middle-class life--by what he considered its heedless materialism, its resistance to social bonds, its rejection of obligation to family and neighborhood, its isolation of individuals into self-regarding, narcissistic beings.

The strong Italian or Irish or Jewish or other ethnic neighborhoods of many American cities, with their strong family and community bonds, seemed to him a model for what the rest of society might become. And it is true that there is much to admire in the close and enduring ties of family and church and neighborhood, in the sense of mutual obligation, that characterize many such communities.

A healthy society depends on strong families, vibrant neighborhoods, healthy schools, churches, and fraternal societies--thriving patterns of local, personal association. Those things are the foundations of community. Without them, the forces in modern society that isolate individuals would be impossible to withstand. But Lasch's example, although he never said so, also reveals the problem of basing our hopes for community entirely on local, family-centered, and neighborhood-centered structures.

The United States is a vast nation of remarkable diversity, and its most difficult dilemma throughout its history has been finding a way for so many different kinds of people, and so many different kinds of communities, to live together peacefully and productively. That dilemma has become even more perplexing in the twentieth century, as a modern industrial economy and a pervasive mass culture have made it virtually impossible for any group to live in complete isolation.

A purely local vision of community is, today at least, a prescription not for harmony, but for balkanization and conflict. The tight-knit ethnic communities Christopher Lasch celebrates may have many virtues, but they can also be, and have often been, places where bigotry flourishes and inter-racial violence often erupts. Other kinds of insular communities seem even more hostile to any notion of a stable, tolerant society: the gated, affluent communities that are now spreading across our landscape, based on an understandable fear of crime, to be sure, but an ominous sign of the fragmentation of our nation; the armed cults and militias, which have become visible to us only relatively recently, which set themselves up in opposition at times violent opposition to government and mainstream society; some, although by no means all, of the militant Christian communities, which attempt to impose a rigid religious orthodoxy on unwilling neighbors; and many others.

But there is also a larger vision of community, with equally strong roots in American history. The kind of community that forms the basis of a stable, healthy society--particularly a society as vast and diverse as ours--transcends parochialism. It rests at least as much on a concept of the nation as it does on the concept of the neighborhood, or the town, or the region. This idea of a national community is, in fact, among the oldest and most powerful in our history--at least as old and as powerful as the republican ideal with which it sometimes seems, at least, to compete. It is the source of our Constitution and the basis of the most powerful political traditions of the first century of our nation's existence.

U.S. Senate: The Idea of the Senate

The framers of the Constitution wanted, of course, to protect liberty. They wanted to create a form of government that would ensure the rights of the individual. But they understood, too, that liberty could only be secure in a large political community, a genuine nation. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia according to James Madison's diaries , Alexander Hamilton "confessed that he was much discouraged by the amazing extent of the Country in expecting the desired blessings from any general sovereignty that could be substituted.

Hamilton was expressing a widely shared fear, expressed most prominently by the French political theorist Montesquieu and widely understood throughout the English-speaking world. Popular government, Montesquieu warned, could not function within a large country; such a government would be torn apart by "a thousand private views" and would lead to efforts by ambitious leaders to produce despotism. But James Madison offered an answer to Hamilton and Montesquieu--an answer that Hamilton ultimately embraced and that became the heart of the American national idea.

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The size and diversity of the nation, Madison wrote in The Federalist No. The greatest danger to a healthy society, Madison argued, was "faction": "a number of citizens. There were two ways, Madison argued. One was "removing the causes of faction," a dangerous course because it would involve either destroying liberty or creating an enforced uniformity of views--both of which would be remedies "worse than the disease.

And to do that, he claimed, required a large political community in which every faction, no matter how large, would have to deal with, and accommodate, others. George Washington, in his Farewell Address largely written by Hamilton , stressed the importance of a strong national union as the framework for a workable national community.

The union was not simply a structure within which factions could do battle; nor was it simply a strong central government capable of tempering local passions; it was a state of mind--a commitment of citizens to each other and to a common sense of purpose and obligation, "an indissoluble community of interest as one nation. But they understood, too, that for America to survive and flourish, there had to be a larger idea of community as well, one that embraced the nation.

Their idea was not uncontested. Jefferson for a time offered a partial dissent, in his vision of a small agrarian republic united by the commonality of interest and sentiment of its citizens rather than by the power of a strong national political community; but Jefferson, as president, gradually moved away from his agrarian vision and presided over a significant increase in both the extent and the unity of the nation.

A more serious challenge came in the mid-nineteenth century from the American South. Calhoun once said. Daniel Webster based his famous defense of the Union on the idea that the survival of liberty depended on the survival of a national community--"Liberty and Union, one and inseparable, now and forever. One of the great admirers of Webster's words was Abraham Lincoln. The concept of a national community met a challenge again in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the rise of large-scale industrial capitalism and the enormous social and economic dislocations that accompanied it.

Laissez-faire capitalism--and such intellectual rationales for it as social Darwinism--celebrated individual initiative, the "survival of the fittest," and the value of acquisitive individualism as the basis of society. Everyone ultimately benefited from the achievements of talented, successful people, the social Darwinists claimed. Constraining their activities in the interests of the "community" would be to retard the healthy progress of society.

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The populists offered one answer to laissez-faire. Economic growth that disempowered individuals and eroded communities was, they insisted, both unfair and unnecessary. The economy could grow and prosper in a more humane way, through a network of smaller-scale institutions rooted in communities; but it could also grow and prosper through the intervention of a powerful national government holding industrialists, financiers, and in the end everyone to a higher standard than maximizing profit.

Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt's Great Great Grandson: TR's Vision and How It Shaped America

The local communities they were fighting to preserve could not survive, the populists believed, without a national community capable of restraining private power and protecting the interests of ordinary people. The "populism" of our own time, which sees the only danger in society in a powerful national government, is a radical perversion of the original populist idea, which rested in part on the older republican notion of a "moral community" but that also embraced the more modern notion of a strong national government that defended individuals and communities from the great predatory organizations that had grown up to threaten them.

A nother response to laissez-faire came from progressive reformers, among them Theodore Roosevelt, a great champion of industrial growth and economic progress, but also a staunch defender of the idea of "the solidarity, the essential unity of our [national community]. But that progress would be for naught if it came at the cost of the dignity of individuals and the vitality of communities. Individuals and localistic communities were powerless by themselves to withstand the assaults of modern, large-scale organizations.

Only a national community--embodied, Roosevelt believed, in a vigorous democratic state--would make it possible for local communities, and the individual liberty dependent on them, to survive. The New Deal is remembered, and often excoriated, today as the source of contemporary liberalism, and its supposed preoccupation with rights and entitlements.

And the New Deal did, of course, contribute in critical ways to the creation of the rights-based liberalism that has been so much in evidence in the last half century. But the New Deal was also deeply committed to the concept of community--both to the restoration of local communities and to the strengthening of the national community in which those smaller units are embedded.