Rebelling against this view, Turner argued instead that Europeans had been transformed by the process of settling the American continent and that what was unique about the United States was its frontier history.(Ironically, Turner passed up an opportunity to attend Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show so that he could complete “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” on the morning that he presented it.) He traced the social evolution of frontier life as it continually developed across the continent from the primitive conditions experienced by the explorer, trapper, and trader, through maturing agricultural stages, finally reaching the complexity of city and factory.In the words of historian William Appleman Williams, it “rolled through the universities and into popular literature like a tidal wave.” While today’s professional historians tend to reject such sweeping theories, emphasizing instead a variety of factors in their interpretations of the past, Turner’s frontier thesis remains the most popular explanation of American development among the literate public.
“frontier thesis.” The single most influential interpretation of the American past, it proposed that the distinctiveness of the United States was attributable to its long history of “westering.” Despite the fame of this monocausal interpretation, as the teacher and mentor of dozens of young historians, Turner insisted on a multicausal model of history, with a recognition of the interaction of politics, economics, culture, and geography.
Turner’s penetrating analyses of American history and culture were powerfully influential and changed the direction of much American historical writing.
“The test tube and the microscope are needed rather than ax and rifle,” he wrote; “in place of old frontiers of wilderness, there are new frontiers of unwon fields of science.” Pioneer ideals were to be maintained by American universities through the training of new leaders who would strive “to reconcile popular government and culture with the huge industrial society of the modern world.”Whereas in his 1893 essay he celebrated the pioneers for the spirit of individualism that spurred migration westward, 25 years later Turner castigated “these slashers of the forest, these self-sufficing pioneers, raising the corn and live stock for their own need, living scattered and apart.” For Turner the national problem was “no longer how to cut and burn away the vast screen of the dense and daunting forest” but “how to save and wisely use the remaining timber.” At the end of his career, he stressed the vital role that regionalism would play in counteracting the atomization brought about by the frontier experience.
Turner hoped that stability would replace mobility as a defining factor in the development of American society and that communities would become stronger as a result.
What the world needed now, he argued, was “a highly organized provincial life to serve as a check upon mob psychology on a national scale, and to furnish that variety which is essential to vital growth and originality.” Turner never ceased to treat history as contemporary knowledge, seeking to explore the ways that the nation might rechannel its expansionist impulses into the development of community life.
Turner taught at the University of Wisconsin until 1910, when he accepted an appointment to a distinguished chair of history at Harvard University.
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He also commented directly on the connections he saw between the past and the present.
The end of the frontier era of continental expansion, Turner reasoned, had thrown the nation “back upon itself.” Writing that “imperious will and force” had to be replaced by social reorganization, he called for an expanded system of educational opportunity that would supplant the geographic mobility of the frontier.