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.” 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. 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.