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Turner's Frontier Essay

1893 - The Chicago World's Fair hosted some serious academic meetings. The American Historical Association held meetings at the Fair. At one of the meetings, a young professor named Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper that he titled, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner tried to explain why the United States had developed differently from European societies. He was particularly interested in explaining why America was so much more egalitarian that Europe. His explanation was that the frontier had acted as a safety valve to prevent trouble. He also thought that the frontier was an environment that rewarded a particular set of character traits, such as coarseness, strength, inquisitiveness, and self-reliance. 

Turner was making two somewhat tangential points as well. The Census Bureau has recently mentioned in a report about the 1890 census that it was no longer possible to draw a “frontier line” on the Census Bureau map of the United States. Settlements, both large and small, so thoroughly dotted the map that the “frontier line” was no longer a meaningful idea. Turner claimed in his paper that the frontier had been so important in shaping the American character and directing the course of American history that the frontier’s absence could not help but change America dramatically. 

Second, and easiest for modern viewers to miss, is that Turner was actually staking out territory on the “academic frontier” and claiming it for his own. The words “American History” attract no notice today because practically everyone in America takes courses in high school and college with exactly that title. But in 1893 that was not the case. History did not yet include “American History” – the United States was just too young and unimportant. “History,” as Turner himself had learned it at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere, was about ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, feudal Europe, and the rise of republics and monarchies in Europe. Proper historians had little interest in thirteen small rebellious colonies that had broken loose from the British Empire less than a century before Turner was born. Turner was part of a new group of young historians who “de-colonize” history in America by turning the focus of the discipline on America itself: “American History.”

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