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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner

Four Classic Essays By a Noted Historian

Collection published by Penguin Classics in 2008.

The Significance of the Frontier in American History is a collection of four essays written by noted historian Frederick Jackson Turner from 1893 to 1910. Penguin Classics has re-issued these essays as part of its Great Ideas series.

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932)
Frederick Jackson Turner is featured in just about every U.S. History textbook for his essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History, written in 1893. I am embarrassed note that I had never read this classic essay until I read this collection, although I was familiar with its basic thesis. In this essay Turner notes that the 1890 census determined that as of 1890 there was no longer a definable "frontier." He asserts that this is the beginning of something new for the United States as it has always been defined by its (usually) westward boundary.

Turner notes that the Western settlers came from all parts of the eastern seaboard but created a new culture, and in some ways the definitive American culture, when these diverse groups of settlers brought their old ways of doing and thinking and mingled them with one another to make something new. These settlers are known for their rugged individualism, a more egalitarian mindset (the frontier states were the first ones to lift property requirements to vote and, later, to let women vote) and a demand for government intervention in curtailing the power of corporations (at the time of the essay the Granger movement was quite active). Turner is quite clear that the presence of "free" land waiting for settlement was a major reason for the "self-made" man of the frontier and openly wondered about opportunities for economic advancement in a future with no frontier.

The second essay is The Problem of the West, written in 1896. It describes the dissonance between the original states on the east coast and the states that came were settled later. In many ways, this continues on to this day - just take a look at one of the political red state/blue state maps. He points to the Old Northwest territory states as being the linchpin that tie the Union together. States like Illinois, Michigan and Indiana are a little bit Western and also have strong ties to the east coast.

The Significance of the Mississippi Valley in American History, written in 1909 and 1910, discusses how the Mississippi River system, including the Ohio and Missouri Rivers, were the key to the exploration and settlement of a great chunk of the country. Not only did the settlers follow the rivers, but those rivers were their lifeline to the larger world of trade.

The last essay is the weakest, in my opinion. It was written in 1910 and is entitled Social Forces in American History. In many ways, it is the bookend for the title essay. Turner describes changes that he has seen in American society since the closing of the frontier, including the growth of corporations and those that get fabulously wealthy from industry and the beginnings of activist government.

I rate this collection of essays 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner.

Reviewed on July 24, 2012.

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