Henry George, Frederick Jackson Turner, and the "Closing" of the American Frontier

Article excerpt

Henry George and Frederick Jackson Turner launched their public careers amid economic panic and widespread fear about America's future. The world had barely emerged from the Long Depression of the 1870s when, in 1879, George declared that private property in land lay at the core of the nation's social and economic problems. "Everywhere that you find distress and destitution in the midst of wealth," the California journalist wrote, "you will find that the land is monopolized." (1) Industrial panic, unemployment, and unprecedented wealth inequality, George believed, resulted from the ability of landowners--a class that appeared to shrink with each passing generation--to exact huge sums from the wages of labor in the form of rent. "The ownership of land," according to George, represented "the great fundamental fact which ultimately determines the social, the political, and consequently the intellectual and moral condition of a people." (2) Turner, and much of the world, agreed.

When Turner first introduced his famous frontier thesis at a meeting of the American Historical Association at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, the nation faced widespread economic instability and uncertainty. The stock market had just collapsed, saddling America with bankruptcies, layoffs, and a pervasive sense of doom among its citizens. Similar to George, Turner turned his focus to land--the nation's relation ship with and dependence upon it--to explain the current economic meltdown. "The frontier has gone," the young Wisconsin-bred historian declared, "and with its going has closed the first period of American history." (3) The existence of the frontier, Turner believed--that line "at the hither edge of free land"--not only defined the nation's historical development, but also safeguarded American democracy by compelling its "institutions [to] adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people." (4) For Turner, the disappearance of the frontier signaled the end of the era of American exceptionalism, largely defined by its independence from the class-based agitations facing Europe.

Although different in their intellectual orientation as well as their fundamental view about the importance of land to the future of America and its bounty, both George and Turner drew from the work of the same historians, economists, and philosophers to tackle the issues before them. Like his mentor Herbert Baxter Adams and "most post-Darwinian thinkers of the nineteenth century," as Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, "Turner was fascinated by the idea of laying out the development of civilization in a series of distinct evolutionary stages." (5) But unlike Adams and other historians, Turner viewed that evolution of American development from West to East.

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"The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read this continental page from West to East, we find the record of social evolution," he claimed. "It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and when in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system." (6)

These stages repeated themselves on the western frontier where nature blessed America with a seemingly inexhaustible source of land. On Turner's frontier, American society was reborn; "[t]his perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society," Turner wrote, "furnish the forces dominating American character." (7) American social evolution depended on the advance of the frontier and, more importantly, the existence of free land on which to advance. …