New Frontier Thesis

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” at a meeting of the American Historical Association coinciding with the World’s Fair in Chicago.

The fair was commemorating the Columbian spirit of exploration. (It was 1893, and no one was really into commemorating the spirit of conquest and destruction of indigeneous cultures just yet. Forgive them.)

Turner’s speech and consequent book broke new ground, presenting his thesis that American values of egalitarianism and democratic thinking were a product of life on the frontier. As Americans had moved westward across each mountain range and river, the frontier had been reestablished. Independent settlers had a DIY spirit, but recreated the rule of law everywhere they went.

The settlers of the frontier, in a sense, were renewing their covenant with government with each new town they built. In a strictly Lockian way, the frontier was the State of Nature, and Americans were constantly rewriting their “contract” and agreeing to govern themselves.

Turner argues this constant renewal is essential to the democratic spirit. When he gave his presentation in 1893, imagine the Powerpoint: a red line marking the frontier moves closer and closer to the Pacific as he advances through a timeline of slides – it’s a map of the United States, and suddenly, in 1893, the red line is gone. There is no Western frontier anymore.

(This is a good moment to mention that I’m borrowing liberally from yesterday’s History 189B lecture – Thanks Prof. Underdal!)

There’s plenty of theory out there that goes against the Turner thesis – the key point against him seems to be the idea of urbanization as being the real engine of the frontier, and not independence. This side says railroad towns and telegraph lines created the veins and arteries of America, determining where the settlers would end up. Of course, Turner also leaves out quite a bit of Native American and Mexican blood in his theory.

But what’s fun is to play the game of asking: Where’s the Frontier now?

From where do Americans derive their independent spirit and DIY attitude? Why do we still believe in democracy? Do we? Where are the New Frontiers, the challenges to society that force us to re-examine our core values at every new stop along the way?

It’s easy to apply this to mass communications: With every new medium of communication, a society runs down an invisible checklist, deciding whether or not elements of the medium fit into the values system which shapes it as a whole. These values are different in each society, and so different cultures will react differently to new media technology.

How does the New Frontier of the Internet reshape our core democratic principles?

[tags]Turner Thesis, Frontier[/tags]