Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? / Edition 1

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Does the frontier experience make America exceptional? When Frederick Jackson Turner presented this idea in 1893 as the core of his now-famous thesis, he set in motion a debate that historians of the American West have contended with ever since. The concept of a frontier, a moving boundary that defined civilization and circumscribed the Wild West, was not new — though the idea that it made Americans unique was. Turner's paper is reprinted in its entirety, followed by articles by three "New Western" historians who bring the dialogue up to the present day by applying modern concerns to this long-standing issue. The last selection looks forward, asking what Turner's ideas mean for America as we head into the twenty-first century.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312183097
  • Publisher: Bedford/St. Martin's
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Series: Historians at Work Series
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 132
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.31 (d)

Meet the Author

RICHARD W. ETULAIN is professor of history and director of the Center for the American West at the Univesity of New Mexico. In 1999, he will serve as president of the Western History Association. Etulain is the author or editor of more than 30 books, including The American West: A Twentieth-Century History with Michael P. Malone (1989) and Reimaginging the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art (1996), which won the Western Heritage and John Caughey Awards.

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Read an Excerpt

(Excerpts from the Introduction)
On the question of American exceptionalism
On Frederick Jackson Turner
On Turner's 1893 frontier essay
On the legacy of the Turner thesis
On modern criticisms of the Turner thesisOn the question of American exceptionalism . . .

As early as the American Revolution, questions about American exceptionalism surfaced. Had a New World society and culture emerged different from those in Western Europe? If so, what was unique about this new America, and how had this new society gradually evolved?

[T]he most widely circulated statement of American exceptionalism was pronounced in July 1893 in Chicago. Frederick Jackson Turner, a thirty-one-year-old history professor at the University of Wisconsin, appeared before the annual meeting of the American Historical Association to deliver a paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." On that hot and humid July eveningÖthe young historian presented what became the most significant essay about American history. It was a provocative call to understand American identity as primarily the result of the shifting national frontiers, advancing from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast.

On Frederick Jackson Turner . . .

In his [1893] essay as in other writings of the 1890s, Turner revealed a great deal about his own background and intellectual maturation. His profound interest in the frontier arose naturally. Born on November 14, 1861, in Portage, Wisconsin, a frontier town of nearly four thousand, Turner grew up in a community awash in the fresh memories of exploration and settlementÖ.For him, the frontier experience meant the physical movement of European settlers across the American continent. Because of his own background and his attachment to agricultural communities, farmers were the central figures of his frontier story.

On Turner's 1893 frontier essay . . .

Turner told his fellow historians, first of all, that they had to shift their focusÖ.Like a good drill sergeant, Turner told his troops to do an about-face: They should turn away from Europe toward a westward-moving frontier. There lay the meaning of the country's unique experience. In one terse sentence early in his essay, Turner encapsulated his major themes: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development. (199)" If Americans wanted to understand the significance of their past, Turner, like many of his contemporaries, offered a patriotic explanation: the settling of the New World, especially the American frontier, was the most powerful force in shaping exceptional Americans...

As a committed social and cultural evolutionist, the Wisconsin historian studied the accretions of western experiences that had, over time, been laminated into a composite American character. Turner pointed to several important factors that he saw arising from unique frontier experience: a "composite nationality," which others would later call a melting pot; the "growth of democracy"; an independent individualism; and economic and physical mobility. "The result," Turner concluded, was "that to the frontier the American intellect [owed] its striking characteristics (226-27)."

On the legacy of the Turner thesis. . .

Frederick Jackson Turner occupies a unique position in American historical writing. Beginning his professional career in about 1890, Turner undertook a revision of existing interpretations of the American past, did so successfully, and lived to see his own alternative interpretation of the frontier because the accepted view. No other American historian achieved as much. One hundred years later, near the beginning of another new century, although few historians would call themselves Turnerians, his thesis remains the most widely discussed interpretation of the American past. In the century since Turner presented his thesis in Chicago, however, it has traversed a series of interpretive peaks and valleys.

On modern criticisms of the Turner thesis . . .

Revisionists (those who contradict or revise previous views) of all stripes pointed to many inadequacies in previous writings about the frontier and the American West. So numerous were these attacks that by the 1990s some observers mistakenly declared the frontier thesis essentially deadÖhowever more than a few historians still found much that was acceptable in Turner's ideas.

The criticism was of several kinds. Some historians emphasized what they considered the weaknesses of the frontier school in acknowledging the large contributions of racial and ethnic minorities to the history of the frontier and the West. No less pointed were the attacks launched against frontier historians for failing to deal with the important questions of gender and class. Some critics also harpooned western specialists for ignoring the post-1900 West and significant urban and environmental subjects. Although most did not explicitly address the subject of exceptionalism, they implied that a perspective as shaky as they now considered the frontier thesis could not be the basis for a tenable interpretation of American culture.

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Table of Contents

A Note for Students


The Frontier and American Exceptionalism
Frederick Jackson Turner and the Frontier
Historians and the Turner Thesis


1. How was the idea of the "frontier" born?
Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History

2. How has the idea of the frontier shaped our imagination?
Richard White, When Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill Cody Both Played Chicago in 1893

3. Whose frontier is it?
Glenda Riley, Frederick Jackson Turner Overlooked the Ladies

4. Is the frontier idea still valid for the twenty-first century?
Martin Ridge, The Life of an Idea: The Significance of Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis

5. Will region replace frontier?
Donald Worster, New West, True West: Interpreting the Region's History

6. How should we interpret the frontier/West?
Patricia Nelson Limerick, Michael P. Malone, Gerald Thompson, and Elliott West, Western History: Why the Past May Be Changing

Making Connections
Suggestions for Further Reading

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