An Earlier Frontier Thesis: Simms as an Intellectual Precursor to Frederick Jackson Turner

Article excerpt

A large number of theories in all scholarly fields never cross into the realm of fact. One of the most important earmarks of the significance of such theories is the degree to which they incorporate themselves into the popular and scholarly imaginations, altering more or less subtly the ways that people consider and interact with the world about them. Still not a fact, the theory of Natural Selection--popularly attributed solely to Charles Darwin but dependent on the work of Alfred Russel Wallace, on the economist Thomas Malthus who inspired them both, and on other nineteenth-century thinkers--has radically altered the practices of not only biology and medicine, but also of economics, of philosophy and theology, and of language, to name but a few. In nearly every scholarly field, there are comparable (if less prominent) theories marked by the same three characteristics: they are indeed mere theories, they have affected the popular and scholarly minds even outside of their fields, and they are the work of a far greater number of scholars than those to whom they are commonly attributed.

In the field of American history, few theories have changed modern thought in as profound or varied ways as the Frontier Thesis. First enunciated in 1893 by Frederick Jackson Turner, the Frontier Thesis argues that the American mind is radically different from the collective minds of other Western nations and that the difference can be accounted for primarily by the unique experience of Americans with their frontier in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Arguing against the then-prevalent "Germ Theory" of cultural history--the idea that new nations are infected by the parent cultures of their founders--the Frontier Thesis claimed that Americans resisted the infections of their European parent cultures because of the demands and opportunities that were always present on the American frontier but that were far less prominent in England, Germany, France, and the other Western European nations whose citizens had been the founders of American culture. (1) Among the inheritances of Americans that distinguish them from other Western peoples are some certainly positive attributes such as adaptability, confidence, and self-reliance as well as the negative trait of being quick--too quick in some circumstances--to resort to violence as a means of solving problems. Related to both the negative and positive traits is perhaps the most notable American attribute discussed in the Frontier Thesis: an intense distrust of the social hierarchies that define much of European culture, a rejection of the ancient notion that there is a class of people who are innately better than others in every way. While this overthrow of inherited class structures contributed to the breakdown of order on the frontier--and in the American society that survived the 1890 closing of the frontier--it is also consistent with a sense of possibility, the "can do" spirit with which Americans are identified not only by themselves but by the world, even by the part of the world that wishes Americans ill.

As with most other significant scholarly theories, including Natural Selection, a great deal of the credit for the effects of the Frontier Thesis belongs to the thinker with whom it is popularly associated, Turner in this case. As with most other significant scholarly theories, though, the Frontier Thesis would not have been possible without the work of others who made important contributions to it. Foremost among these, of course, are the thousands of anonymous people who lived frontier lives and practiced Turner's unique American mindset over three centuries. Also worth noting is French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, who anticipated some of Turner's ideas on American exceptionalism in his popular two-volume work, Democracy in America. Often overlooked, however, is an American thinker who experienced the frontier both as an observer and, at least briefly, as a frontiersman. …