The value of the frontier

Nearly a generation after the works of intellectual titans Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner took to the stage to address the gathered crowd at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Turner’s aim in his “The Significance of the American Frontier” was to explain the development of an original American culture and value system. An understanding of the intellectual climate in which Turner spoke gives insights into his thoughts.

German philosopher Johann Fichte first proposed the nature of change in our world in terms of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.” Essentially, thesis is the status quo, while antithesis represents a challenge to the thesis. The battle between thesis and antithesis results in an outcome, represented by synthesis. The synthesis then becomes the new thesis.

For example, in Darwin’s work on natural selection, a famous example explains the emergence of black wings in moth populations during the Industrial Revolution. At first, white moths were prevalent (thesis), with black moths being seen infrequently. After the factories of the Industrial Revolution left many trees covered in black soot (antithesis), white moths were more easily seen by predators and therefore eaten at a higher rate than black moths. Over time, black moths became more populous (synthesis).

Karl Marx focused his attention on economics and social class. In his work, the thesis was referred to as the bourgeoisie, and was the social class which owns the means of production, such as factories. Marx felt that it was inevitable that the bourgeoisie would be challenged by the proletariat (antithesis), the working class. This battle would ultimately result in a classless society, the synthesis.

While I reject Marx’s ideas as an economic path, on the surface, the idea of conflict as the center of Turner’s attempt to explain what it means to be “American” seems to have some value.

For Turner, the frontier is the mark where civilized people meet the wilderness, the unknown. He argues that the push west, the struggle against difficult terrain, such as tall mountains, mighty rivers, and harsh deserts, and the fight against the native peoples fortified pioneers in a way that made America, and Americans, different from their (primarily) European motherland. The thesis in Turner’s case was the European culture many early Americans carried with them, while the frontier was the antithesis. As he said, “The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin.” The new American culture was the synthesis.

He also argues that our intellectual tradition has been in many ways shaped by the frontier. “That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness,” he writes, “that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.”

Turner expresses his belief that the frontier was integral to the development of democracy and this is where he leaves the ideas of Marx. The frontier promoted individualism. The wilderness forced the breakdown of complex society and the result was a primitive, familial society that repelled the notion of control by authorities.

Turner was presenting at a time when much of the continent had been explored, and to varying degrees, settled. Many of the Native Americans had been displaced, and many of the current-day states had been admitted to the union. This lack of frontier, Turner argued, was disconcerting. How will we continue to develop our culture? He felt that with the settlement of the frontier, the first period of American history closed and that would follow might be very different.

Over a hundred years later, it’s still important to consider the value of the frontier to our identity. Established in 1916, the National Park Service protects and enhances the physical frontier for our enjoyment. In terms of challenges that are fortifying our culture, we have traded the physical frontier for metaphorical ones. Kennedy used this terminology in his acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention: “Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”

And in literal terms, Kennedy hoped to send us to the moon.

Henry Ford shortened the distance between two places. The Wright Brothers took us to the air. The latter half of the century saw tinkerers in their garages, building prototypes that led to the personal computing revolution. All of this done as pioneers struggled against the frontier of what was known to be possible.

The Turner piece has been viewed by historians in Marxist and Darwinian terms, as an example of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. But I believe that considering it through this lens clouds the implications of Turner’s thought. If we accept that battling frontiers, both physical and metaphorical, is vital to American culture, it seems to me that this fight is best left to the individual. Marxism carries with it ideas of the state and the group. Pioneers of the 19th century were not acting as a unified group. They were individuals seeking opportunities for freedom, without interference.

Many people lament the erosion of our country and value system. In an attempt to reclaim it, I think it is essential that we all find our own frontiers against which to struggle.


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