The American historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, formulated the Frontier Thesis in 1893. The key idea of this thesis is that the unsettled land played a critical role in the development of the American nation and democracy.
In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, Turner presented his interpretation of the American state formation. Compared to the traditional view that English and German antecedents impacted the US, he argued that it was the frontier and the process of settling that led to a unique experience. The historian traced the development of the country from the primitive trappers and traders to the period when cities and factories appeared. The availability of free land was considered by Turner as the main condition that shaped the American society. As a result of settling this land, such features as individualism, materialism, self-reliance, and optimism were established.
The very process of the American frontier formation was emphasized by Turner, who stated that the land impacted the pioneers of American democracy. According to the Frontier Thesis summary, Susan Constant and Mayflower were not the ships that carried out democracy from England to Virginia and Plymouth. Instead, the frontier established liberty in the US, releasing it from the impact of Europe and old traditions. For example, the land was not controlled by aristocrats, churches, or armies, which allowed for taking it almost for free. At the same time, the author states that the American expansion to the west was stimulated by some expansive power instead of government incentives; likewise it was done in European countries.
The most significant impact the Turner Thesis made on democracy that was transformed into Jacksonian after being Jeffersonian. The wilderness of the frontier promoted individualism, which, in turn, created a national spirit. The difference between two opposing forces, the West and the East, was also noted by Turner. While the West strived for freedom, the East attempted to take control, which the author observed even after independence. For example, the East tries to control the West by means of religious institutions. Turner concludes that the first stage of the American development was completed with the end of the frontier. The United States Census of 1890 officially declared that the American frontier was destroyed.
The impact of the Frontier Thesis on society was remarkable since it explained the difference between America and its people from Europe. The Wisconsin School led by William Appleman Williams considered that the frontier encourages the US to expand overseas, mainly in Asia. This assumption was supported by the ideas of promoting American democracy and foreign aid. However, the limitation of the identified thesis refers to a lack of attention to minority groups’ evolution, including Hispanics and Native Americans. In general, the Frontier Thesis affected many historians and scholars in the related subjects, as well as novels and movies that characterize the West as the place with rough justice, violence, and individualism.
Turner’s Frontier Thesis remained popular until the second half of the 20th century, being the most commonly used interpretation of American development. It analyzed the past of the country and provided some considerations about its future. The focus on one reason as the fundamental factor of development was rejected sooner by other scholars, who declared the importance of a range of issues. For example, scientific innovation was identified as the factor that could serve similar functions, as the frontier line did.