Redefining the American Frontier

15597Today, we have an exciting blog post from Patrick Spero, Librarian and Director of the American Philosophical Society Library and author of Frontier Country (and coeditor of The American Revolution Reborn, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press). In Frontier Country, he addresses one of the most important and controversial subjects in American history: the frontier. Synthesizing the tensions between high and low politics and eastern and western regions in Pennsylvania before the Revolution, Frontier Country recasts the importance of frontiers, as eighteenth-century Pennsylvanians would have understood them, to the development of colonial America and the origins of American Independence. Here, Spero offers a thorough look at the ways that the "frontier"  has been understood by the discipline of history over time and identifies where his own research fits in.

I will never forget the first time I taught a seminar on the early American frontier. The class moved both geographically and chronologically, beginning in seventeenth-century Virginia and ending with the Mexican-American War in the 1830s. Along the way, we made pit stops at different places and points in time to explore what the lived experience on the early American frontier was like. We also did a digital humanities project that data-mined a newspaper database in order to map the changing location of the American frontier, available here.

There was just one problem. A small cadre of students ended up feeling somewhat hoodwinked by the course. In the first meeting, I asked students to say something about themselves and their interest in the class as an icebreaker. As the introductions worked their way around the room, I noticed that I had an unusually large number of students from the West Coast. Over the course of the semester, I came to realize that many of them felt duped by the class’s title “The Early American Frontier.” They had expected the syllabus to cover the history of their homes in California and Colorado, but we barely made it past the Mississippi. The history of frontiers in the east seemed so irrelevant and distant from the frontier they knew.

Of course, in hindsight, what surprised me should have been obvious. When Americans think of the frontier, they often imagine the westerners they have seen in the movies and picture the prairies of the Midwest, the deserts of the southwest, the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies, and the boomtowns that followed the gold rush. But these depictions have largely reinforced the idea that the American frontier always lay beyond the Mississippi River. So it makes sense that when the students saw the course title, they assumed it had to be about them. We rarely think of Pittsburgh or Albany or Georgia as a frontier, yet, as the digital mapping project showed, many in the eighteenth century considered these areas such.

My book, like the course I taught, aims to change the way people think about frontiers in America. The premise of my book begins with a fairly simple observation. Colonists throughout the eighteenth century called themselves “frontier people” and “frontier inhabitants” who lived on “the frontiers” or in “frontier counties.” What did they mean when they used such words and how did they envision such spaces, I wondered? And how could their conceptions help us better understand the lived experience of colonists and the course of history their actions influenced?

Though my book begins with a rather common-sense approach to the past, it is nonetheless wading into a contentious debate. Historians have argued over the meaning of the American frontier for more than a century now. The origins of this dispute probably date to 1893, when a young historian named Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a speech at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting that shook the foundations of the historical profession and reshaped the way Americans imagined their country by placing the American frontier at the center of the American experience.

Turner’s speech, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” came at a moment when most historians studied the rise and development of eastern cities in order to understand the nature of America’s past, and through it, America’s national character. Turner argued that they had it all wrong, that instead historians needed to understand America’s frontiers. He insisted that the experience of settling the frontier gave rise to the rugged individualism that he associated with America’s national character and its democratic practices. A frontier region, he also posited, served as a safety valve for urban economic and social discontent by providing arable land for the masses who would otherwise wallow in blighted cities, leading to the kind of discord that had defined industrialized Europe in the nineteenth century.

Turner’s address spawned a whole new field of study, often called “Frontier Studies” or “Western Studies,” as historians began to explore his argument. In fact, Turner’s thesis became so pervasive and popular that it influenced public policy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt even cited Turner as justification for the New Deal. In a famous campaign speech to the Commonwealth Club in 1932, he argued for the need for a new safety net because “our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land.” Without such an area, “there is no safety valve in the form of a Western prairie to which those thrown out of work by the Eastern economic machines can go for a new start.” For Roosevelt, the federal government, through more collective action, needed to provide for the prosperity and stability that the frontier once provided.

But a funny thing happened as Turner’s thesis gained greater traction among the public in the early twentieth century. Historians began to question Turner’s argument, leading to what one scholar called an “avalanche” of criticism.

Historians chided him for ignoring the unsavory side of imperial expansion—namely the expropriation of land from Native American groups and the violence that often preceded such grabs. The idea of the frontier became so controversial in the literature that by the 1990s, historians called it “the f-word” and many refused to use the term in their scholarship because of the celebration of the American empire it implied.

But there is a problem with this approach, just as there are flaws in Turner’s own thesis, which I discuss in a Coda in my book. Frontiers were real places for many historical actors in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, and debate and discussion about frontiers fill reams of historical sources that predate Turner and his successor’s study of them. Historians had, by their own admission, trouble erasing the word from their studies because it was just too prevalent an idea.

My book tries to solve this quandary by offering a new way to study the American frontier by viewing a frontier from the perspective of someone who self-identified as living upon a frontier at a specific moment in time. What I discovered surprised me. My findings, I hope, will force readers to rethink many of their assumptions about the nature of the American frontier. Historians, too, may have a new appreciation for the significance of the American frontier for the political development of North America.

To begin, the definition of a frontier in the eighteenth century was very different from the way Turner envisioned it. Indeed, its attributes were virtually the exact opposite of how he imagined them. A frontier was, as I show in my book, understood to be an area of potential invasion, not expansion as Turner described. It was an area that needed massive government support in order to protect against the feared assault, not an area of rugged individualism. Frontiers were also areas that people fled from out of desperation rather than a zone that people flocked to because of opportunity.

This widely-held understanding, which I trace out in dictionaries, political treatises, and ordinary correspondence, redefines the role and importance of frontiers to the colonies and emerging United States. Colonists and government officials agreed that frontiers were militarized, defensive zones in need of constant support from the government and vigilance on the part of their inhabitants. To the eighteenth-century mind, defense was a government’s fundamental duty to those it governed, making the frontiers a primary site where the contract between the governed (colonists) and government was enacted in early America. If a government failed to respond to the needs of self-described “frontier inhabitants,” then the government would abrogate its responsibility and break its governing contract.

This definition not only helps us better understand how people in the eighteenth century understood their world, but it also helps us better understand some of the underlying causes of events like the American Revolution. As I argue, in Pennsylvania in the 1760s and 1770s, there was a major disagreement between colonists who believed they were “frontier inhabitants” and their governments, who did not see frontiers existing on Pennsylvania’s geopolitical landscape. The refusal of the British Empire and the colonial government of Pennsylvania to treat certain areas of the colony as an invasion zone led western settlers to feel disenfranchised and ignored by an eastern elite that seemed more focused on their own well-being than that of their western brethren. This divergence created a crisis in governing that led to a series of colonial rebellions, many of which targeted Native American communities with unrequited violence, and influenced the coming and course of the American Revolution. Ultimately, the disillusionment of these “frontier inhabitants” with their imperial and colonial rulers led them to declare their independence from these governments and use the Revolution to remake governments suited to their desires.

This approach to understanding the eighteenth century world on its own terms, I hope, offers a way for historians to once again embrace the frontier as a place and understand its role in history. Frontiers were indeed significant to America’s political development, but not in the way Turner imagined. Concerns about frontiers influenced the coming of the American Revolution and animated politics in the early republic. In fact, students taking my course today may find that studying the early Pennsylvanian frontier—specifically how disagreements over government policies toward frontiers compelled a large group of rural Americans who felt disconnected from their government to take radical action—more relevant than ever before.

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