The Turner Theses

The Turner Theses

The central thesis about the frontier coined by Frederick Jackson Turner, commonly called the frontier thesis, has to do with the origins of the American national character. Related concepts are the safety valve and successive frontiers. All these ideas were contained in the essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which Turner presented as a lecture at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Turner's point of departure for the essay was that in the published report of the 1890 federal census, it was reported that the United States no longer had a discernible frontier--a line of demarcation dividing, as they said then, "civilization" from "savagery." This led the historian to muse upon the importance of the frontier in American history.

There are two good reasons for us to give serious attention to Turner's ideas. The first has to do with national history. If Turner was right, then the American national character is a product of the frontier; we talk and behave the way we do because of the frontier experience. The second reason has to do with regional history. In Turner's conception, our region, the Great Plains, is important because it was the last frontier.

If you want to get Turner's ideas in his own words, he's available on-line from University of Virginia Hypertexts.

The Turner Theses
ThesisSynopsisTurner Quote
The FrontierThe frontier thesis is the assertion that the American character, including such traits as democracy and materialism, derived from the frontier experience."The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement, explain American development."
The Safety ValveThe safety valve thesis is the assertion that the frontier, as a place of opportunity and escape, defused social discontent in America."So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power."
Successive FrontiersTurner said that in the development of any frontier area, one phase of economic and social development followed another in distinct stages. This is the concept of successive frontiers."Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file--the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer--and the frontier has passed by. Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between."