Chapter 22

The Myth of the Garden and Turner's Frontier Hypothesis

Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," presented in Chicago before the American Historical Association, is one of the most important pieces of nineteenth century writing about the west. Turner's "frontier hypothesis"--that American development could be explained by the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward--had widespread implications for historiography, sociology, literary criticism, and politics. Turner argued that the West--rather than the proslavery South or the antislavery North--was the most influential among American regions and that the frontier--rather than an imported European heritage--was responsible for the novelty of American attitudes and institutions. Significantly, his hypothesis emphasized geographical determinism, agricultural settlement, and the affirmation of democracy, all of which can be traced back to the myth of the garden of the world. Turner shared this myth's erroneous judgements about the economic forces that had come to dominate 19th-century life. His essay expressed the aspirations of a people rather than their actual situation.

Turner defined the frontier as "the meeting point between savagery and civilization." The area of constantly receding free land beyond the frontier increased democracy insofar as it relieved poverty outside the West (as a "safety-valve" for the East), and fostered economic equality on the frontier itself. Democracy was a trait of agricultural communities, Turner maintained, and therefore small landholdings were necessary to establish yeomanry. His economic analysis of the frontier borrows from myth in its claim that American democracy came out of the American forest, a recurring rejuvenation of man and society along the frontier. Turner's metaphors often attempt to stand in for discursive reasoning, as in his account of democracy's Antaean birth and his portrait, in an essay for the Atlantic in 1903, of a beneficent maternal nature creating an agrarian utopia in the West. It might be argued that Turner's frontier democracy is Jefferson's original agrarian ideal dressed up as historical analysis.

Turner's use of civilization, the other idea so important to his analysis of American history, is carried over from Condorcet's contemporary theory of the "stages of society" (as discussed in Chapter 21). This theory relegated the frontiersman to primitive status and directly contradicted the image of the virtuous yeoman laboring in the garden of the world. This contradiction makes itself seen in Turner's efforts to reconcile his belief that the highest social values were to be found in agricultural frontier communities with his equally firm conviction that society improved as it evolved out of pastoral simplicity and toward industrialization. For once free land had disappeared, Turner's concept of civilization was all he had with which to critique American society--his own system implied that postfrontier American society contained no force tending toward democracy. With the frontier gone, where was he to find the basis for democracy in contemporary civilization? Turner had become a prisoner of assumptions borrowed from the myth of the garden.

Later in his life, Turner placed his faith not in nature or civilization but in the common people of the United States. In so doing, however, he admitted that the theoretical apparatus of the agrarian tradition--from Franklin through Jefferson all the way up to his own "Significance of the Frontier in American History" essay--was of no help in understanding an industrial, urban America. Indeed, ignorance toward the industrial revolution and isolationist distrust of foreign influences--from the city or overseas--had impeded cooperation between farmers and factory workers in numerous crises of American history. The frontier hypothesis' interpretation of the West in terms of nature isolated the region from both the urban East and Europe, while the idea of civilization as a reproduction of the cultural accomplishments of Europe imposed on the West a social and cultural inferiority which hindered any acknowledgement of its own novelty in world history.


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