The Turner Thesis

An overview of the background and impact of the Turner thesis.

This paper examines how the Turner thesis regarding the frontier was offered originally as an assessment of the spread of the U.S. population and how it came to mean much more as scholars accepted or rejected its underlying themes and then argued over its meaning. It looks at how the thesis offered by Frederick Jackson Turner, which in 1893 said, in effect, that the frontier was dead and that there was proof of this fact in the 1890 census data, became a very important milestone in American development, as well as a touchstone to which other scholars would return in assessing the nature of change and the meaning of American expansion.
“The West attracted Americans who wanted to be part of the taming of the frontier. The frontier developed a mythos of its own and stood in sharp contrast to the civilized East. Turner finds that the frontier served as a force to develop democracy in American life. The development of the nation is related to the existence of the frontier and to the passage of legislation regarding tariff, land, and internal improvements that were themselves related to frontier needs and ideas. Turner says that the purchase of the Louisiana Territory was especially important:[It] was perhaps the constitutional turning point in the history of the Republic, inasmuch as it afforded both a new area for national legislation and the occasion of the downfall of the policy of strict construction.”