Understanding the American Past: American History and Its Interpretation

By Edward N. Saveth | Go to book overview

Pre-Civil War Sectionalism

by FREDERICK JACKSON TURNER

[ "The Significance of the Section in American History," from The Wisconsin Magazine of History, VIII ( March 1925), 255- 265. Reprinted by permission.]

"The scientific study of American history in terms of the several sections," writes Fulmer Mood, a research scholar of great skill, "was well established at the University of Wisconsin before the year 1900." Here, Turner's undergraduate teacher, the remarkable William Francis Allen, was conscious of the importance of a sectional understanding of American history, even as his seminal mind anticipated Turner's frontier hypothesis.1 But before the historians came to a real appreciation of sectional influences, the geographers were aware of their importance. For instance Jedediah Morse, "father of American geography," in 1793 made the concept of grouping by section explicit, by indicating the "Grand Divisions of the United States."2

During the nineteenth century, census statisticians began to make considerable use of the sectional idea in pointing up statistical differences between various parts of the country. Since 1900, there has been growing recognition of the usefulness of the sectional or regional concept in historiography and the social sciences, in business and government. However, many of those who employ the regional concept have been troubled by an inability to define it, there being no unanimity of lay or scholarly opinion concerning any one precise scheme of regional classification.3 In 1939, when under the auspices of the Social Science Research Council a critical analysis was made of Walter P. Webb's The Great Plains, one of the points of contention was Webb's alleged failure to delimit properly the Great Plains region.4

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