The Frontier Thesis
Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) stood at the podium in front of a crowd at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and reported on an almost unexamined aspect of American culture referred to as Turner’s frontier thesis. “The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society,” he wrote in 1893. “Line by line as we read this continental page from West to East we find the record of social evolution.” Turner went on to explain that the frontier and its concomitant emptiness, wide open to societal expansion, was the formative variable in America’s culture, personality, and vision. Continental expansion, the idea that there was always a frontier to reach and go beyond, helped to create a uniquely American character: people who were perseverant and creative, spontaneous and practical, coarse and yet civilized. He argued that expansion across a frontier gave rise to an American vision of political equality and individuals who looked forward into the future with vigor and optimism, capable of forming an egalitarian society, doing away with racism, poverty, inequality, and extremism while living in peace and prosperity.
Moving West was to find the Promised Land, a utopia where one could imagine oneself free of nature’s limitations, society’s burdens, history, and even death. As the frontier marched across the continent it represented a place of perennial rebirth. It had a regenerative power, based on the idea that moving West would allow one to recreate one’s life and circumstances. This mythology, good folks traveling across the plains to reach the frontier, has been invoked in countless speeches, books, political platforms, and films and remains deeply imbedded in our political culture and society.
Yet there is a price to pay. Presenting itself as a world economy premised on eternal growth and breathing life into a liberal and multilateral country, the truth of its conceptual elegance is an ugly, bloody one: it feeds into multiple reinforcing pathologies, among them racism, exploitation, violence and a twisted version of reality where the rich are lauded and the poor are disdained.
Now that the physical frontier is closed, the same conceptual armature is applied to a regional and finally international expansion in other arenas: covert operations, war, markets, access to foreign resources, and political extremism. American society is built on the back of the genocide and exploitation of Native Americans, upon the destruction of anything and everything that interfered with profit, for example, indigenous societies around the globe. This constant looking outward, in political action and thought, in the endless wars, in the economic oppression of dark-skinned people, has the price of a lack of focus on America’s social problems, mainly violence, racism, and economic inopportunity.
In a time of global enterprise and social upheaval, the frontier suggested as a model for political management a military organization. The “military metaphor” of social structure was linked to the myth of the frontier by writers and politicians who invoked the Indian fighting regiment as an analogue to American society, meaning that to defend itself against savage anarchy, society must organize itself as if it were an embattled army or a regiment of Indian-fighting cavalry. The metaphor presented a militarized form of the frontier hero as the new leader to combat both the labor and social wars at home and the imperialist wars of conquest abroad.
Recognizing internal conflict on both programs, the usual answer of American mythology is to invoke the threat of “savage war.” Painting the unwashed masses as “radical” opponents and authors of “savage,” anarchistic protest, the military model was vindicated as an essential component of Americanism.
The military metaphor requires constant updating if it is to exemplify the mythology of the traditional frontier hero. The “man who knows Indians” is transformed into a military aristocrat representative of managerial values and transferred from the wilderness to an urban or foreign frontier, where immigrants, strikers, and insurrectos are merely allegories of the savage Apache.
“Such foreign savages with their dynamite bombs and anarchic purposes, are as much apart from the rest of the people of this country as the Apaches of the plains are.”
Draw implicit comparisons between the present war and the wars of our heroic past, especially the Indian wars, centering the action is a small, isolated, ethnically diverse band, which often contains natives and which fights in the guerrilla or commando stye; building the story around a “last stand” scenario in which heroic representatives of American civilization sacrifice themselves to delay the advance of a savage enemy and, above all, representing the war scene as one in which American cultural values are tested and systematically perfected through a regression to the primitive.
How many films, how many books, how many stories revolve around this progression? The myth of the frontier is so firmly established in American culture that it has become invisible. It can be characterized as the following three steps: First, there is a separation from civilization, either intentional or accidental. Second, the hero is immersed in a primitive, natural state. Third, the hero or group is regenerated through an act of violence. The frontier carries with it the separation from civilization and an immersive, natural state. The most important, and horrifying, is the third step: regeneration through violence. It deserves a close examination – this lengthy quote from Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America does it nicely.
“The geography of the Frontier represented in Western movies is that of a world divided by significant and signifying borders, usually marked by some strong visual sign: the palisade of the desert fort; a mountain pass or a river, especially one whose name is recognized as a boundary marker, like the Rio Grande; the white empty street of the town. Finally, the hero must leave a good woman and a place of safety, enter that street and confront the enemy who advances from the opposite end. Through persistent association, these border signs have come to symbolize a range of fundamental ideological differences. The most basic of these is that between the natural and the human or social realms, “wilderness vs. civilization.” This opposition is given depth and complexity by metaphors that liken it to social and ideological divisions: between White civilization and Redskin savagery; between a corrupt metropolitan “east” and a rough but virtuous “west”; between tyrannical old proprietors (big ranchers) and new, progressive entrepreneurs (small ranchers and homesteaders); between the engorged wealth of industrial monopolies (railroads) and the hard-earned property of the citizen (farmers); between old technologies (stagecoaches) and the new (railroads); between the undisciplined rapacity of frontier criminals and the lawman’s determination to establish order. The borderline may also be construed as the moral opposition between the violent culture of men and the Christian culture associated with women. It is nearly always understood as a border between an “old world” which is seen as known, oppressive, and limiting, and a “new world” which is rich in potential or mystery, liberating and full of opportunity.
The action of the narrative requires that these borders be crossed by a hero (or group) whose character is so mixed that he (or they) can operate effectively on both sides of the line. Through this transgression of the borders, through combat with the dark elements on the other side, the heroes reveal the meaning of the frontier line (that is, the distinctions of value it symbolizes) even as they break it down. In the process they evoke the elements in themselves (or in their society) that correspond to the “dark”; and by destroying the dark elements and colonizing the border, they purge darkness from themselves and from the world. Thus the core of the mythic narrative that traverses the mythic landscape is a tale of personal and social “regeneration through violence” … The organizing principle at the heart of the myth is regeneration through violence; the cavalry Western has its Indian massacre or charge into battle, the gunfighter or town-tamer movie its climactic shoot-out in the street, the outlaw movie its disastrous last robbery or assassination, the romantic Western its bullet-riddled rescue scene. Each has its own special ways of explaining or rationalizing the culminating shoot-out. But in general, when we are told that a certain film is a Western, we confidently expect that it will find its moral and emotional resolution in a singular act of violence. Moreover, since the Western offers itself as a myth of American origins, it implies that its violence is an essential and necessary part of the process through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are defended and enforced.
The Western’s handling of violence represents the culmination of the mythic ideological project begun by turn-of-the-century progressives like Roosevelt and Wister - the development of a revised version of the Frontier Myth as a way of justifying a “modern” distribution of social power between the managerial and laboring classes and a new balance between force and consent in the ideology and structure of republican government. More Westerns adapted the traditional mythology of “savage war” to interpret modern forms of industrial and ethnic strife and to rationalize the development of the republican nation-state into an imperial Great Power. In both the domestic and the imperial spheres, Westerns asserted the entitlement of representatives of the “better” or “decent” classes to a privileged form of violence. The perceived imperatives of the Cold War would lead a series of American governments to assert a similar privilege for the use of armed force and to justify, in the name of national security, the evasion, abuse, or overriding of the official procedures and social institutions through which the American public registers its consent.
Finally, the mythic landscapes of war and the west became metaphorical twins in the language of American mythology, and the cowboy/gunfighter became the alter ego of the top-sergeant/Green Beret/detective/outlaw.”
Greg Grandin, in his book The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, goes on to explain that “Martin Luther King Jr. criticized the frontier ideal as reinforcing deep-seated pathologies, providing mythic justification for militarism, masculine violence, and economic inequality. The United States was trapped in its own myth: America is a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation; retribution was held up as the highest measure of American manhood. King warned that rugged individualism was a faulty foundation for national identity, since over the years it had distracted from the fact that government does in fact redistribute wealth – upward.
“This country has socialism for the rich and individualism for the poor.” What was dispensed lavishly as “subsidies” to one kind of people was begrudged to another as “welfare.” Such individualism was volatile, easily triggered. It led to fantasies that life was an endless game of cowboys and Indians, to alienation, social isolation, and free-floating aggression.
For King, then, nonviolent resistance was more than a tactic. The ability to fight on the “social frontier,” to forge a path through the wilderness of segregation without losing oneself to justifiable anger, without giving in to rage contained the embryo of an alternative society, a way to free the nation from its past, to overcome its cultish adherence to frontier violence and create a beloved, social community. King condemned the country’s long history of expansion, its “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” and a political culture where “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people.”
King’s dissent entailed the refutation of an older, more primal premise. The nation was founded on the idea that expansion was necessary to achieve and protect social progress. Over the centuries, that idea was realized, again and again, through war. Extending the vote to the white working class went in hand with Indian removal; the military defeat of the Confederacy by the Union army didn’t just end slavery but marked the beginning of the final pacification of the West, with the conquered frontier continuing as an important basis of Caucasian democracy.
Martin Luther King Jr. described Vietnam as “some demonic, destructive suction tube,” drawing resources, commitment, and attention outward even as it worsened domestic polarization. Racists killing brown people abroad became more racist; opponents of racism, reacting to the killing, became more militant. Money spent on war could have been used to alleviate poverty at home, that political energy that could have been put to building a more just nation was squandered in yet another “divine, messianic crusade.”
For over a century, the frontier served as a powerful symbol of American universalism. It not only conveyed the idea that the country was moving forward but promised that the brutality involved in moving forward would be transferred into something noble.
But today the frontier is closed, the safety valve shut. The country has lived past the end of its myth. All the things that expansion was supposed to preserve have been destroyed, and all the things it was meant to destroy have been preserved. Instead of peace, there’s endless war. Instead of a critical, resilient, and progressive citizenry, a conspiratorial nihilism, rejecting reason and dreading change, has taken hold.
The frontier was, ultimately, a mirage, an ideological relic of a now exhausted universalism that promised, either naively or dishonestly, that a limitless world meant that nations didn’t have to be organized around lines of domination.
But in a nation like the United States, founded on a mythical belief in a kind of species immunity, an insistence that the nation was exempt from nature, society, history, even death - the realization that it can’t go on forever is bound to be traumatic. This ideal of freedom as infinity was only made possible through the domination of African Americans, Mexican Americans, Mexicans, and Native Americans, as slave and cheap labor transformed stolen land into capital.
Why does a nation that has long believed itself to be unburdened by the past keep reenacting the past, especially the trauma of frontier violence? Why is Cowboys and Indians the only game this country knows how to play?”
I am indebted to two books that I have freely plagiarized and from which I have derived my understanding of the frontier as presented here and I wish to give them all the credit.
Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America.
Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.