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Mobility and the Rise of Progressive Nationalism

One of the landmark studies of America, published 120 years ago, is Fredrick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History [1].” Turner’s essay was inspired by a line that appeared in the Census report of 1890:

Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not therefore any longer have a place in the census reports.

Turner recognized that contained within this small passage of officialese was a momentous turning point in American history. The official announcement of the end of the existence of the American frontier marked “the closing of a great historic moment.” In Turner’s view, the existence of the frontier, and all that it entailed, constituted the deepest source of the American character—more than any other explanation, including even the Constitution.

Turner was a fervent Progressive during the years when Progressivism was gaining steam—indeed, he receives top billing in Richard Hofstadter’s study The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. [2] In Turner’s view, the role played by the frontier—and the type of values and attributes it fostered in Americans—was the root of the progressive thrust in American history, including, importantly in his view, the rise of the sense of American nationalism.

The wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country.

What is striking in these and similar passages is how closely Turner’s analysis echoes the hopes and intentions of the Founders of whom the Progressives were often fervent critics. He particularly echoes the Hamiltonians who envisioned a “national system” that would draw the allegiances of people away from local and parochial identities through the soft but persistent pressure of a nationalizing economic and political order. Turner recognized that this thrust toward an increasing national identity would be achieved through the encouragement of the individualistic spirit of the American frontiersman. The John Wayne, Daniel Boone spirit of the self-standing, self-made, independent, free individual would, ironically, forge the conditions for a national identity and usher in the possibility and even necessity of the Progressive stage.

One sees these arguments presented most succinctly by Turner in his follow-up essay “Later Developments and Explanations,” published in 1920, which appeared in his book The Frontier in American History. Turner speaks of the frontier in Baconian terms, celebrating (as would Dewey) the frontiersman’s conquest of nature and the savages, the subduing of each for “the purposes of civilization, and the task of advancing his economic and social status in the new democracy which he was helping to create.” He recognizes the ideal of “the self-made man” that arose especially from the experience of settling the West, and the frontier’s role in cultivating the central American qualities of “individualism, economic equality, freedom to rise, democracy,” and “free opportunities.” Turner concludes, “American democracy is fundamentally the outcome of the experiences of the American people in dealing with the West.”


Yet it was from these very sources—individualism, restlessness, ambition, opportunity, and conquest—that Turner also believed arose the conditions that made the rise of nationalist Progressivism unavoidable. The deep-seated American impulse of mobility was the first and most secure source of the rise of nationalism, the identification of the population no longer with particular places and histories, but with the “idea” of the nation as the locus of opportunity, ambition, wealth, and independence. Turner saw in the “nationalizing tendency of the West” the transformation of the “democracy of Jefferson” to “national republicanism.” As hoped for by both Founders like Hamilton and Progressives like Croly, mobility hollowed out identification with localities. “Nothing works for nationalism like intercourse within the nation. Mobility of population is death to localism, and the western frontier worked irresistibly in unsettling population.”

Because of the formative role played by the frontier in the formation of the American character and psyche, Turner therefore found the declaration of the “end” of the frontier in 1890 to mark the most important development in American history. What would now be the sources of American character, its characteristic independence, liberty, ambition, mobility? Turner believed that it would fall increasingly to the national government to preserve “the spirit” of democracy once fostered by the presence of the frontier.

One new role for government—here, characteristically Progressive—would be the tempering of the very individualism that had been fostered by the frontier. Now, with the frontier’s “closure,” individualism was an impulse that posed a threat in an age of encroaching and growing population, with all its attendant problems and challenges. Thus, for instance, we see the concern expressed in Turner about the need for conscious efforts at “conservation” and stewardship of resources that can no longer be assumed to be limitless. Further, without the “outlet,” or “safety-valve” of the frontier, the option of simply “lighting out” to seek economic opportunity was no longer readily available, meaning that, increasingly, it would have to be the role of the government to “fill in” for the role that had once been provided by the frontier. Where once one could seek opportunity and economic equality by “lighting out for the territory,” one would instead have to look East—toward Washington.

But, perhaps more striking and ironically still, the experience of independence and individualism would also have to be increasingly afforded, even created, by the government. This would be provided through government support for, and even subsidy of, the creation of opportunity—particularly through transportation and increasing the “intercourse” throughout the nation. Though Turner would not live to see it, the eventual massive government support for the automobile—through the highways, particularly, but even indirect and (as we have seen in recent years) the direct support of automobile manufacturers would be a way that the government could support and foster the sense of “independence.”

One can turn to other historians for further exploration of the “frontier” thesis in the automobile era and for further discussion of this paradoxical and parasitic relationship between individualism and Statism. One good source is Frederick Lewis Allen, who devotes a chapter to “The Automobile Revolution” in his book The Big Change: America Transforms Itself 1900-1950. Suddenly, with the automobile, the frontier seemed again to open, so soon after it had been declared closed. In tones reminiscent of Turner, Allen wrote that “the automobile weakened the roots that held a family to one spot. Always a mobile people in comparison with the peoples of Europe, now Americans followed the economic tides more readily than ever before…” However, as James Flink notes in his book The Automobile Age, this experience of liberty now rested on massive government support—just as Turner suggested would need to happen. In particular, this massive outlay of support for the automobile culture came at the exclusion of public support for mass transportation, based on the American desire to experience independence and individual mobility—even if massively subsidized by the government that they otherwise so often deplored for undermining their independence.

We see the strange irony of American politics in these studies. According to Turner, it was characteristic American individualism that gave rise to nationalism and eventually the growing need and demands for national solutions to most political and economic issues. In turn, it was from national sources that would issue growing support for our demands for independence and the experience of individualism. First, individualism would foster nationalism; then, nationalism would subsidize individualism. So they are found together, purported enemies but so often dancing cheek-to-cheek.

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#1 Comment By Reinhold On November 7, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

Thank you Deneen! I read your articles with great interest because you are still the only conservative who I’ve read––and it’s not like I don’t look for intelligent conservatives (non-reactionaries)––who is able to see that conservatives today who are trying to preserve liberal democracy in the face of its statist dissolution are missing the point: classic American liberal democracy GAVE RISE to federal progressivism (though, again, the idea that federal progressivism is as healthy and dominant today as it was, say, half a century ago, is just ignorant––evidence: the old Democrats would never have passed Obamacare, it’s way too market-reformist––perfect for the New Democrats).

#2 Comment By Viking On November 8, 2013 @ 12:56 am

Very interesting article, Patrick. But the notion that individualism gave rise to centralism isn’t as self-contradictory as it may seem. Conservatives of the last few centuries have said that modern conditions place the individual with nothing between her or him and the mighty centralized state. That is, the contemporary developed world lacks any significant intermediary institutions. If conservatism is to have any genuine future (that is, something other than dilatory tactics to prevent Leviathan from going quite as fast as it otherwise would), new ones must be invented. I admit the prospects don’t seem all that promising.

Reinhold, you use a term in a way that’s something of a pet peeve of mine. The Federalist party, in the early years of the American republic, found that their nationalist, centralist, or unitary program wasn’t particularly popular with voters. They therefore decided to take the name of their opposition for their own uses. (Reminiscent of the later purloining of the word “liberal” for quasi-socialist policies.) Properly used, a federal state is one in which the national government shares power with the various states or provinces, and they with more local governments. The “federal progressivism” to which you allude was therefore nothing of the sort. You’re probably right about Obamacare, btw.


#3 Comment By David Naas On November 8, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

The growth of Leviathan is the death of all competing centres of power of affection. Hence, the image of the individual standing naked and alone before God/the State/the Corporation. When all of these are fused into one Entity, the individual is powerless, indeed. especially when there is nowhere left to run (to).
This is why I find tragically amusing the assertions of autarkic Individualism — ala the Randite cultists and other “libertarians”. When the individual is divorced from family, church, community, all the little platoons of Burkean fame, naught is left but the State. The shiny, steel, atomic-powered State.

#4 Comment By Reinhold On November 8, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

Recommended as a companion-piece to Deneen’s articles: [4]

#5 Comment By Farmer John On November 10, 2013 @ 11:20 am

I am no historian but the idea that individuals subdued the frontier is laughable. They no more subdued the frontier than I subdue time by taking the interstate highway system. The Feds paved the way for both. The US Army was always a subduing force of frontier conflicts. We may have pushed West as loners, but it was just this condition that made the defense of settlements along the frontier by the Army so necessary. Industrialism (rather than nationalism) was as alive in the frontier push as the car culture, as in the global internet age. Any diverse power in our way will be subdued.

#6 Comment By Bedarz Iliaci On November 11, 2013 @ 5:19 am

Farmer John is correct. The colonization is a collective, national enterprise. Otherwise, why would the Spanish immigrants settle Spanish America, the English settle English colonies, the Portuguese settle Brazil or the French Quebec?
If settling really an individual enterprise, one would not expect to see a national pattern.

#7 Comment By Reinhold On November 11, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

The comments about the frontier being seized by gov’t militias and big industry are correct, but they dismiss the idea that this might be intimately connected to individual enterprise; this fails to account for the fact that, e.g., the American invasion of Vietnam was a state act, nothing individual about it, but its purpose was to seize that country from a collective ideology, and to open it up for individualist capitalism; and the conquest of the frontier, while performed by a collective government, was nonetheless in the service of individualistic ideals and business values.

#8 Pingback By The Post Office Returns to Sundays, a Century Later | The American Conservative On November 13, 2013 @ 6:37 am

[…] the afternoon.” The source of connection to the greater nation, in perhaps some contrast to Patrick Deneen’s theme last week, was the hub of locality and […]

#9 Comment By Kyle On November 13, 2013 @ 9:22 am

Any discussion of the “settlement” of the frontier is incomplete without reference to Richard White’s new book, Railroaded. The push westward was empowered by the railroads, the proto-corporations modeled on military organization, that created markets for land and commodities before their time. All of this was the product of crony capitalism as a network of “friends” in the federal government, the banks, and the railroad startups worked together for a westward expansion that was largely unneeded at the time and produced some of the more significant financial collapses of the late 1800s.

I think Deneen’s dialectic of nationalism and individualism could work. But nationalism, I think, produced the individualism of the frontier, not vice versa.

#10 Comment By Ed On November 14, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

But are small, tightly-knit, homogenous, rural societies actually more resistant to the welfare state? The evidence of Northern Europe is that they aren’t. Maybe that’s true of all Europe — and Oceania besides.

Once countries reach a certain level of affluence, the attraction of social programs and redistribution becomes strong, and it’s hard to resist in countries where everyone is more or less related to everyone else, especially if everyone is more or less on the same economic level to begin with.

I had more to say about Turner and the Progressives, but a malfunction ate up my intended post. Briefly, my understanding is that Turner liked the frontier because it broke down older hierarchies and restrictions and opened the way for greater democracy. Nationalism, social equality, individualism were outgrowths of what Turner understood by “democracy.”

Was there some greater progressive goal of a powerful state behind this — in Turner’s mind or in the historical process itself? Was the “Wisconsin Idea” of progressive social legislation closely and necessarily connected to the frontier or Turner’s frontier thesis? I’m not entirely sure.

“Democracy” may have been the goal itself. Enough conservatives have pronounced themselves followers of Jefferson that one doesn’t automatically have to assume that the popular Democracy of the frontier is inseparable from progressive social legislation or the welfare state or socialism. In other words, I don’t know how much of a Progressive or what kind of a Progressive Turner was or how closely his thesis relates to what you object to in the America of a century ago or of today.

FWIW If states like Wisconsin and Minnesota were favorable to social legislation the reason may not have been the individualism and rootlessness of the extended republic, but precisely the persistence of German or Scandinavian ideas of a rooted, close-knit community providing for its own. The East Coast states were more resistant to political experiment because they were socially less egalitarian and less homogeneous at the time.

So I would say the ball is in your court. Given present-day American levels of affluence and the predominant ideas of our day, can you maintain that small, homogenous, traditionally-minded communities are more likely to oppose social programs and bureaucracies?

Maybe once they attain some control over their own affairs close-knit societies are likely to see government as an extension of the community, rather than an enemy or adversary. That is certainly the case in some parts of the world. Perhaps the two models you see as opposites are also “dancing cheek-to-cheek.”

#11 Comment By Hans On November 15, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

The automobile indeed liberated people from their stuffy neighborhoods or boring villages and fostered a sense of independence and freedom, though it never would have happened unless central government was present to finance the nationwide highway system. Any way you cut it, the “individualism” so often praised by conservatives was for all intents and purposes bankrolled by the centralized Washington bureaucracy, the latter a by-product of the Progressive philosophy.