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John Milton Cooper Interview


John Milton Cooper is a Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin. 

He is the author of Pivotal Decades: The United States 1900-1920; and The Vanity of Power. He co-edited The Wilson Era: Essays in Honor of Arthur S. Link. He edited and wrote the introduction to Theodore Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West: From the Alleghenies to the Mississippi 1769-1776.

John Milton Cooper

JOHN MILTON COOPER Professor of History, University of Wisconsin Author, Pivotal Decades November 16, 1998 

QUESTION: In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner went to Chicago to deliver his famous paper, "The Closing of the American Frontier." What was it all about? Who was Frederick Jackson Turner? 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: Frederick Jackson Turner was a young professor at the University of Wisconsin. He is one of the first people to teach American history, in fact, and to claim that American history was worth studying in and of itself. 

When I was chairman at the department at Madison, I once had some visiting historians from Africa, and we had a portrait [of Turner] in the office. And they, of course, asked me who it was, and I identified him to them. And I said to them, "You know, you may find this hard to believe, but we Americans once had a colonial attitude towards our own past." That there was this notion that the real history, what really counted, was European history, and we were some sort of offshoot or pale reflection. And I said. "Turner, that man, did more than anyone else to give Americans a real sense that our past was important, that we counted, that this was something that was intellectually exciting and significant for us to study." 

Turner made his name more than anything else by a single paper that he gave, later published as an essay, called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." And this was delivered at the Great White Columbian Exhibition down in Chicago, that wonderful thing there, which, besides lots of shows and paintings, they also featured scholars and artists and writers giving papers. 

And Turner gave this paper, and he was picking up on something that had been noted by the 1890 census. What the 1890 census had noted was that there was no longer a frontier line. Now, this didn't mean, of course, [that] the country was filled up - heck no. I mean, even today anybody who drives out West sees that very quickly. But what it did mean was that there was no definable area on the map that could be codified and then represented by a line on the map. 

QUESTION: Was Turner the first person to popularize that particular aspect of the census? 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: No. [But] what [he] did was it gave a kind of legitimacy, urgency to a concern that had been around a lot. The country is industrialized. The place of the greatest growth quite obviously is in the cities. We are now becoming a country of cities, and of bigger cities. Immigrants are pouring in from Europe. The highest percentages and highest absolute numbers of immigration to the United States would be from about the mid-1890s, when we begin to recover from that depression, to the outbreak of the First World War. And there is all this concern: What is happening to us? What are we becoming? We are not what we used to be. We are not this nation of independent farmers, artisans, small townspeople. 

QUESTION: We're no longer what America was when Frederick Jackson Turner was born in Portage - in 1861 - a small frontier town. 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: That's correct. Frederick Jackson Turner was born in this town of Portage, Wisconsin in 1861, the same date as the outbreak of the Civil War. Portage was - I forget how large it was in those days - a town of several hundred, maybe a thousand people. His father was the editor of the paper. It is the kind of town where, of course, everybody knows each other, and most of the dealings that you have - as a business person or as a customer or whatever else - [are] very much face to face. 

And this is changing. I mean, obviously with all of these cities, with the growth of big businesses, with the growth of big fortunes, this concern is around as to what does this mean, what are we becoming, what is happening to us? Can we still be who we want to be? Which is the land of opportunity, the land of democracy, the land of the American dream that anybody or any little boy can grow up to be president, rags to riches and all the rest of that. 

Turner takes this notice by the census, and he weaves this into an interpretation, basically, of the American character - of what had made us Americans and the significance of the frontier. Now, of course, again this is a way of de-colonizing our own view of ourselves. Because up to this point the major interpretations of American history had been, well, it's what the Europeans have brought over here and given to us, either English origins, or perhaps now the currently fashionable idea was German. You know, somehow the germ of institutions and of townships and polity and things like that had somehow come out of the Teutonic forest. 

What Turner is doing in the frontier essay is saying that, well, sure, everything we brought over from Europe is important. .But that what really made us Americans was the frontier, was this constant renewing of ourselves. It's not so much land, it's the possibility of land; therefore lots of people can go out and clear forests and acquire land, and therefore become farmers and become economically independent. Turner says, "Yes, that's important," but to him what's more important is the process itself - the process of constantly founding communities, constantly building communities. That you have to grow your own leaders, you have to grow your own cultural spokesperson in these local communities. It's this constant re-founding, renewal, rebirthing process. This is what he is saying. And he's saying he has no prescriptions there. But a great concern of his is, "Well, gee, what's going to happen to us now that we don't have this frontier any more?" 

And what you get frankly in the 1890s is a lot of intellectuals and some politicians - such as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge - are taking the search for new frontiers quite literally. This is one of the things about our outward thrust then to become a world power, to acquire colonies, to get into the imperial game. Suddenly what they see is that this will be a very healthy substitute for what we used to have at home, which was the process of settlement. 

QUESTION: What does Turner think about the vast immigration that you talked about, particularly from southern and eastern Europe? 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: Turner himself, as I recall, is not terribly upset about immigration from non-northern parts of Europe. He seems to be relatively relaxed about it. Interestingly enough, Theodore Roosevelt is rather relaxed about it too. Roosevelt has this optimism about the ability of the American culture, the American economy, the American polity to remake these folks or to assimilate them. There are plenty of other people, though, who are very worried about this, who see this as somehow changing us. It has certainly a religious dimension to it, because the notion again there are lots of people who thought that it really takes a Protestant to be a true, small "d" democrat. That somehow that kind of religious affiliation is the kind of schooling and conditioning that you have to have in order to be a truly democratic person. 

QUESTION: You mentioned that Turner went to Johns Hopkins, where there is a placard which says, "History is past politics; politics is present history." Turner did not believe that, did he? 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: Turner, in his own work, broke a bit with the Johns Hopkins "past politics present history" mode, because he liked to study other things. He liked to study demography, he liked to study social groups, he liked to study agriculture, economics. He has a broader view, although he preached this better than he practiced it. 

QUESTION: It's been said that the advent and rise of social science was sort of the trigger to the progressive movement in America. 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: What social science did was to give - or at least appear to give - the tools for controlling society and the economy, to give a basis for doing this, and - at least people thought - a disinterested basis for doing it. . . . I think what social science did was give the means for reform - the reform ideas are around already. 

QUESTION: Is there a tension between social science and history - as to whether you tell history through the data or through the parliaments and princes and presidents? 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: History has always been the schizophrenic Janus-faced discipline. Is it a branch of literature? Is it a science? Which way do you go? 

At this point, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, scientific aspirations - or I'd say quite frankly, scientific pretensions - are riding pretty high. But there are a number of people who don't buy into this at all, particularly the gifted amateurs. Theodore Roosevelt gave a presidential address to the American Historical Associated called, "History as Literature." His great rival and professional academic, Woodrow Wilson, felt exactly the same way. He was very much for history as a branch of literature. In fact, Wilson, although he was a political scientist himself, actually resisted and disliked these scientific pretensions. 

QUESTION: How could you tell the history of that time, without getting into, for example, data about immigration? Could you tell that story without data? 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: Nobody can write the history of this period without using numbers. But the task is to bring them alive. There were only 8,000 automobiles in the United States in 1900. Now, there's something that shows how far we've come or how things have changed. There wasn't even a single mile of smooth, paved road in the United States in 1900. It's all cobblestones, macadam, gravel, this kind of thing. 

[And] I think in some ways one significance of 1900 has been understated. The first census to record an urban majority in the United States is 1920. All of us historians talk about that; others do, too. That's important. But what that 1920 census was doing was recording something after the fact. I think [around 1900 is] the point at which, except in the South, the majority of Americans have come to live in towns and cities. 

QUESTION: Can you describe the changes America was going through in the early part of this century? 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: I don't think it's possible to overestimate the change in consciousness that people went through I'd say in the course of maybe 40 years, say between 1875 and 1915. What happening to people in the United States, and in the more advanced industrialized parts of the world, is that the changes are coming home to them. 

The railroad made land transportation swift and easy for the first time in human history. I mean, this is the first time that [people were] able to get easily from one [place] to another over land. [This task will soon] be taken by the automobile, although that's a more gradual change in the 20th century. But the real revolution is to be able to travel fast over land. And in turn that's also local transportation. 

Earlier, what you are getting also is the streetcars [which] helped create suburbs. We tend to blame [the automobile] too much [for] urban sprawl. [But in fact,] the spread-out non-centered city of Los Angeles is not a creation of the automobile; it's the creation of a streetcar. So this in a sense the phenomenon is there even before necessarily the best technological means - the telegraph, the telephone. 

And in many ways, I think, it's the creation of a national economy and it's the knitting together [of] a society. These are the people who, I think, [have lived] through perhaps the greatest intellectual revolution of the last half millennium at least - much more so than I think in anything as we have seen since then. 

QUESTION: The last half millennium meaning in the last five hundred years? 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: [Yes.] Of the half millennium, since the invention of printing, since the expansion of Europe, I think the twenty years or maybe the forty years - 1875 to 1915, let's say - this is the time when the great changes come home to people more I think than at any other time. I mean, to some extent, Americans [around 1875] are still medieval types. We still live in small villages, we still do an awful lot of things by hand before the railroad, before mass-produced shoes, before mass-produced clothing, before telegraphs bring news from New York or from London to you tomorrow. 

QUESTION: What machines - other than the automobile - helped to revolutionize people's lives? 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: The great changes to come in people's lives and in the way people go about their ordinary lives, [actually] involve gas. Natural gas and bottled gas [become] terribly important, because this is home heating, this is lighting. We forget that gas lighting was the major home and municipal lighting form in most American cities down until the time of the First World War. 

You know, one of the great accomplishments of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal - some would say the greatest single physical accomplishment - was the extension of electricity to rural families. It was estimated I believe that about 80 percent of farm families did not have electricity at the beginning of the 1930s. And somewhere close to 90 percent of farm families did have electricity at the end of the 1930s. One thing that meant, of course, was not only that you could have lighting, but you could [also] have various home appliances. It also means that you don't have to draw water. It means that you can have a pump in order to draw water. Probably the greatest single liberation to the farm life - for example, to the mother in the rural area - is electricity. 

QUESTION: Is it accurate to say, in terms of the science of this period, that the theory came in the nineteenth century and the application came in the early twentieth century? 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: I think so. But I still look back to the end of the nineteenth century, beginning of the twentieth century because, in some ways, before you can have the application, you've got to have the change in minds. People see the world differently, at least an awful lot of them did. And an awful lot of them are not happy about it, either. 

That's why, I think, one of the greatest conflicts between science and religion has happened in the twentieth century, repeatedly. Obviously the great crusade against teaching evolution in the schools - which culminates in the mid-1920's with the Scopes trial down in Tennessee - is part of that. But [I think] that's clearly a measure of how much people's thinking has changed. You know, the term "fundamentalism" isn't even coined until 1909. And the reason it isn't is that you didn't even need it before then, because the kind of evangelical, more or less literal reading of the Bible could be assumed. It's not until it's under attack that people then have to construct these deliberate defenses for it, to coin a term. 

QUESTION: The old frontier was closing, but the cities were being flooded by immigrants and by people from rural areas. Was this something of a new frontier for them? 

JOHN MILTON COOPER: Yes. The question of the city as a new frontier is a fascinating one, and of course [the city is a new frontier] in many ways. For so many of these immigrants from Europe, they are coming from small cities or small towns, peasant villages, the shtetls. They're hop-scotching two or three centuries of history. They are coming immediately into a strange new world, and in some ways language is the least of their problems. These are pretty adaptable people, especially the younger ones - they learn the language fast. 

It's a much more different environment, a different way of looking at the world. But it's an exciting place in many ways. I think we have often dwelt too much on the squalor and the misery. There's plenty of it there - there's no question about it. But on the other hand, there is also an awful lot of opportunity and difference. 

There's also another frontier there which I think actually appeals to Frederick Jackson Turner himself in certain ways. One of the great frontiers for middle-class Americans - for young educated Americans - was either to go from the country to the city or to go from the provinces to the metropolis. The city is a place of lights and glamour and opportunity and fun and all of these things, and I think there is a real middle-class migration. 

The mass internal migration of Americans from the country to the city, internal migration, I think comes a bit later. Part of [the reason for this] is the shut-off of immigration. The thing that really shut off European immigration was World War I. That meant that [demand for work,] particularly [the] demand for factory work, [rose dramatically]. [And] an awful lot of this is filled by African-Americans who have already [began] migrating north. The migration of African-Americans out of the South really gets started around 1900. It's fairly gradual. But then during World War I, part of it is a chain reaction. A lot of northern labor agents and factory owners go down and actively recruit African-Americans. They are looking for cheap labor, they are looking for non-unionized labor that they want to have down there. 

In turn, then, the migration of rural whites more to the cities is more a phenomenon of the 1920's. Most of the white migration, an awful lot of it had gone out of the South but usually was going West - going West or Southwest or West from one rural area to another. In other words, it's still a farming frontier. In that sense the frontier really didn't close in 1890.


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