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Turner, Frederick Jackson

Turner, Frederick Jackson

WORKS BY TURNER

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), American historian and originator of the “frontier” and “sectional” interpretations of United States history, was born in semipioneer conditions at Portage, Wisconsin. At the University of Wisconsin, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1884 and his master’s degree in 1888, he fell under the influence of William Francis Allen, a remarkable teacher who taught his young pupil the critical use of documents, instilled in him a belief in scientific method and multiple causation, and converted him to the view of society as a constantly evolving organism. His one year, 1888-1889, at the Johns Hopkins University, which awarded him a doctorate in 1890, was less fruitful, although his interest in economic history was quickened by Richard T. Ely and in nationalism by Woodrow Wilson. Turner took less kindly to the teachings of his principal instructor, Herbert Baxter Adams, who argued that all American institutions had evolved from “germs” in medieval Germany. Years later he wrote Carl Becker that his historical career “was pretty much a reaction from that due to my indignation” (Turner Papers, Henry E. Huntington Library, Tu Box 34).

The results of Turner’s intellectual rebellion were three remarkable essays prepared during his first years at Wisconsin, where he became a professor after Allen’s premature death in 1889. In “The Significance of History” ([1891b] 1961, pp. 11-27) he set forth his historical credo, pleading for the use of scientific and interdisciplinary techniques, arguing for the production of “usable” studies pertinent to present-day problems, setting forth in classic form the doctrine of relativism, and urging the study of all phases of human behavior rather than politics alone. Within a few pages Turner had anticipated the “New History” and presented sound arguments for most of the philosophical and methodological innovations popularized since that time. His second essay, “Problems in American History” ([1892] 1961, pp. 28-36), demanded a new approach to the study of the American past: historians must look behind institutional and constitutional forms to discover “the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions” they must use the tools of natural scientists to determine the impact of physical conditions on national growth; and they must weigh the relative influence of the environment and the European heritage in shaping the distinctive features of the civilization of the United States.

The third paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” ([1893] 1961, pp. 37-62), read at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago in 1893, isolated the segment of the past that he had himself chosen to investigate and explain. Many of the distinctive features noticeable in American traits and institutions, he believed, stemmed from a unique environment and particularly from the presence of a receding frontier. “The existence of an area of free land,” he wrote, “its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development” (1920, p. 1). The repeated rebirth of civilization among pioneers whose cultural patterns were disrupted by contact with raw nature and by mingling with other settlers from different backgrounds helped endow the American people with characteristics and values different from those of their European ancestors. Among these Turner listed coarseness and strength, an inventive turn of mind, physical and social mobility, a restless energy, a strong spirit of self-reliance, dominant individualism, an emphasis on materialism, and, especially, a quickened faith in democracy and the national destiny. On the frontier, he insisted, an “Americanization” of men and institutions took place.

From the turn of the century to the 1930s the frontier interpretation dominated historical thought. Disciples less cautious than their master explained every phase of the American past, from literature to politics, as a result of the pioneering experience, converting the American Historical Association into one big “Turnerverein.” Turner himself was elevated to the pinnacle of his profession: universities sought his services, and his fellow historians made him president of their national association in 1910. When he finally left Wisconsin for Harvard University that year, he did so only as a protest against the anti-intellectual tendencies of some of the Wisconsin regents who seemed to be threatening scholarship in its pure forms.

In the meantime his own interests had turned to a second explanation of the uniqueness of the American past: the sectional hypothesis. As population moved westward, he reasoned, successive geographic regions were occupied, each differing from the others in climate, soil, topography, and other natural conditions. And as each of these “sections” developed economic enterprises suitable to its environment, it sought to shape national legislation for its own benefit. Turner believed that the political history of the United States could be understood only as a series of adjustments and compromises between sectional interests. This was the view he stressed in the one book he completed during his lifetime, Rise of the New West: 1819-1829 (1906) and in the volume that occupied his remaining years and was published posthumously, The United States, 1830-1850: The Nation and Its Sections (1935).

Turner retired from Harvard University in 1924 to dedicate full time to this study, living first in Madison, then in 1927 moving to a post as senior research associate at the Henry E. Huntington Library. His death in 1932 spared him knowledge of the assault on his theories that gained momentum during the 1930s and continued for two decades. Younger historians, rebelling against concepts that stressed ruralism and nationalism in an age of mechanization and internationalism, charged him with distorting American values by overstressing the distinctive features of the nation’s past and labeled him a monocausationist and geographic determinist. This wave of anti-Turnerism ran its course by the 1950s. It has been followed by a new period in which scholars in several disciplines have begun testing aspects of his frontier hypothesis, a process seemingly destined to continue for many years before the exact effect of the pioneering experience can be appraised.

The frontier is today accepted by historians as one—but only one—of the many forces responsible for America’s civilization, a judgment with which Turner would have thoroughly agreed.

Ray A. Billington

[For the historical context of Turner’s work, see the biographies of Loriaand Robinson.]

WORKS BY TURNER

1891a The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin: A Study of the Trading Post as an Institution. Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, 9th ser., Nos. 11-12. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

(1891b) 1961 The Significance of History. Pages 11-27 in Frederick Jackson Turner, Frontier and Section: Selected Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

(1892) 1961 Problems in American History. Pages 28-36 in Frederick Jackson Turner, Frontier and Section: Selected Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

(1893) 1961 The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Pages 37-62 in Frederick Jackson Turner, Frontier and Section: Selected Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

(1906) 1961 Rise of the New West: 1819-1829. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → A paperback edition, which has a new foreword and a bibliography by Ray Allen Billington, was published in 1962 by Collier.

1912 Turner, Frederick Jackson; Channing, Edward; and Hart, Albert B. Guide to the Study and Reading of American History. Boston: Ginn.

(1920) 1963 The Frontier in American History. New York: Holt.

(1932) 1950 The Significance of Sections in American History. Gloucester, Mass: Smith. → Essays edited by Max Farrand and Avery Craven.

(1935) 1950 The United States, 1830-1850. With an introduction by Avery Craven. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → Published posthumously.

The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1938.

Frederick Jackson Turner’s Legacy: Unpublished Writings in American History. Edited by Wilbur R. Jacobs. San Marino (Calif.): Huntington Library, 1965.

Frontier and Section: Selected Essays. With an introduction by Ray Allen Billington. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1961.

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Becker, Carl 1927 Frederick Jackson Turner. Pages 273-318 in Howard W. Odum (editor), American Masters of Social Science: An Approach to the Study of the Social Sciences Through a Neglected Field of Biography. New York: Holt.

Benson, Lee 1960 Turner and Beard: American Historical Writing Reconsidered. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Billington, Ray A. 1962a Young Fred Turner. Wisconsin Magazine of History 46:38-48.

Billington, Ray A. 1962b Frederick Jackson Turner Comes to Harvard. Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings 74:51-83.

Billington, Ray A. 1966 America’s Frontier Heritage. New York: Holt.

Craven, Avery 1937 Frederick Jackson Turner. Pages 252-270 in The Marcus W. Jernegan Essays in American Historiography. Edited by William T. Hutchinson. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Curti, Merle 1931 The Section and the Frontier in American History: The Methodological Concepts of Frederick Jackson Turner. Pages 353-367 in Social Science Research Council, Committee on Scientific Method in the Social Sciences, Methods in Social Science: A Case Book. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Curti, Merle (1949) 1961 Frederick Jackson Turner. Pages 175-204 in Wisconsin State Historical Society, Wisconsin Witness to Frederick Jackson Turner: A Collection of Essays on the Historian and the Thesis. Madison: The Society.

Harper, N. D. 1951 Turner the Historian: “Hypothesis” or “Process”? With Special Reference to Frontier Society in Australia. University of Kansas City Review 18:76-86.

Jacobs, Wilbur R. 1954 Frederick Jackson Turner: Master Teacher. Pacific Historical Review 23:49-58.

Mood, Fulmer 1939 The Development of Frederick Jackson Turner as a Historical Thinker. Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Transactions 34:283-352.

Mood, Fulmer 1951 The Origin, Evolution, and Application of the Sectional Concept: 1750-1900. Pages 5-98 in Merrill Jensen (editor), Regionalism in America. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

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"Turner, Frederick Jackson." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Frederick Jackson Turner

Frederick Jackson Turner

American historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) is regarded as one of the greatest writers of United States history. Several of his concepts caused a virtual rewriting of American history in the early 20th century.

Frederick Jackson Turner was born on Nov. 14, 1861, in Portage, Wis., a rural town populated by a variety of European immigrants. In Turner's youth Portage was still visited by Indians living in the nearby wilderness. Turner's autobiographical notes, preserved among his papers at the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., relate that he attended Portage High School and won a prize for a graduation address that was printed in his father's newspaper. He worked in his father's office as a typesetter.

In 1880, Turner entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he fell under the influence of Professor William F. Allen, who taught him how to understand historical institutions such as the medieval church and the feudal monarchy. Turner later claimed that Allen showed him the importance of institutional history, a theme that appeared in Turner's writings on the origins of American democracy. Following his graduation in 1884 and the later completion of his master's degree at Wisconsin, Turner went to Johns Hopkins University to study for his doctorate in 1888. He married Caroline Mae Sherwood of Chicago in 1889.

Teaching Career

Turner's doctoral dissertation, The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin (1891), portrayed the trading post as an institution of the early American frontier. At the University of Wisconsin, where Turner taught from 1889 to 1910, he emphasized frontier history in his lectures and in his writings. His most important publication, a paper entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History, " which he read in 1893, set forth his frontier hypothesis. His first major book, Rise of the New West, 1819-1829 (1906), was followed by a volume of essays, The Frontier in American History (1920). These volumes provided a wide audience for his ideas.

Turner moved to Harvard University in 1910 and retired in 1924 to southern California, where he continued his investigations as research associate at the Huntington Library. After his death on March 4, 1932, his last two books were published: The Significance of Sections in American History (1932) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize; The United States 1830-1850: The Nation and Its Sections (1935) was partly dictated and lacks the literary finesse of his other writings.

Frontier Theory

Turner's frontier theory (often called his frontier hypothesis) has been applied to Latin American nations, to Australia, and to Russia to explain the origin of national characteristics. Turner believed that the particular tone of American democracy, the nature of American institutions of government, and the uniqueness of the American character could be traced to America's frontier experience. In his writings Turner stressed the changes that took place in colonial American society when a European civilization was transplanted to a wilderness environment. Frontier individualism, stimulated by the presence of free (or virtually free) land in the West, left its imprint upon Americans of modern times.

In Turner's view a restless energy, a self-reliance, and a love of freedom are part of the American heritage, which is also symbolized by great leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. Turner wrote that the lives of these presidents illustrate the influence of western democracy in American life. The original raw frontier areas of America were eventually transformed by generations of a new society. Social change caused by the modifying influence of geographical, economic, social, and political forces created a new nationality in America. American society developed with sectional or regional variations, the largest and most powerful sections being the North and the South.

Turner's most significant contribution to historical thinking has been to encourage a better understanding of the origins of American democracy. His theories have been thoroughly debated and criticized, yet he remains one of the most original and provocative historians that America has produced. Even though Turner admitted that he perhaps exaggerated when he "hammered hard" on the subject of the frontier in promoting democracy, his thesis that the westward movement greatly influenced American history and the growth of the American traits of character is generally accepted as valid.

Further Reading

Wilbur R. Jacobs, The Historical World of Frederick Jackson Turner (1968), traces Turner's professional career and includes excerpts from his correspondence. Jacobs edited America's Great Frontiers and Sections (1969), which includes Turner's unpublished essays and contains the best short biography of him. Critical essays on Turner's frontier theory are in George Rogers Taylor, ed., The Role of the Frontier in American History (1949; rev. ed. 1956), and R. A. Billington, ed., The Frontier Thesis: Valid Interpretation of American History? (1966). Billington's America's Frontier Heritage (1966) has an excellent evaluation of the frontier theory. Wilbur R. Jacobs and others, Turner, Bolton and Webb (1965), shows Turner's influence on two other leading American writers, and Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians (1968), discusses the affinities among Turner, Beard, and Vernon Parrington. Turner figures prominently in John Higham's work on historiography, Writing American History: Essays on Modern Scholarship (1970). For a superb history of the United States that emphasizes Turnerean themes of interpretation see R. A. Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (1967).

Additional Sources

Bennett, James D., Frederick Jackson Turner, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975.

Carpenter, Ronald H., The eloquence of Frederick Jackson Turner, San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1983.

Frederick Jackson Turner: Wisconsin's historian of the frontier, Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986. □

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Turner, Frederick Jackson

Frederick Jackson Turner, 1861–1932, American historian, b. Portage, Wis. He taught at the Univ. of Wisconsin from 1885 to 1910 except for a year spent in graduate study at Johns Hopkins. From 1910 to 1924 he taught at Harvard, and later he was research associate at the Henry E. Huntington Library. At first he taught rhetoric and oratory but turned to U.S. history, soon focusing on Western history. His doctoral dissertation, The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin (1891; an enlargement of his master's essay), showed the trend of his interest. In 1893, at the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, he delivered an address, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which outlined brilliantly the history of the receding frontier and its effect in creating American democracy. Little noticed at the time, it was to prove epoch-making in American history writing. It supplied a large part of a generation of historians with a theme to investigate. Turner's ideas are now generally incorporated in some form in most American history texts; although a historical controversy has raged for decades over the validity of his frontier thesis, few critics reject it entirely. The address and various short papers were reprinted in The Frontier in American History (1920). He collaborated with Edward Channing and Albert Bushnell Hart in the revision of Guide to the Study and Reading of American History (1912). Though he produced few books—The Rise of the New West ( "American Nation" series, 1906) and two studies in sectionalism, The Significance of Sections in American History (1932) and the posthumously published The United States, 1830–1850 (1935)—his influence as a teacher and proponent of a new and important theory made him one of the most renowned of all American historians.

See The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner (1938, repr. 1969); R. Hofstadter, Progressive Historians (1968); R. A. Billington, Frederick Jackson Turner (1973).

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