“The first ideal of the pioneer was that of conquest. It was his task to fight with nature for the chance to exist. Not as in older countries did this contest take place in a mythical past, told in folk lore and epic. It has been continuous to our own day. Facing each generation of pioneers was the unmastered continent. Vast forests blocked the way; mountainous ramparts interposed; desolate, grass-clad prairies, barren oceans of rolling plains, arid deserts, and a fierce race of savages, all had to be met and defeated. The rifle and the ax are the symbols of the backwoods pioneer. They meant a training in aggressive courage, in domination, in directness of action, in destructiveness.”
-Frederick Jackson Turner
The history of America is the story of the pioneer’s westward expansion across the vast wilderness of the continent. For three hundred years (roughly 1600-1900), each successive generation subdued new territories and founded new communities, exponentially expanding the wealth and prosperity of the nation. The influence that this frontier experience had on American society was carefully studied by Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), one of the foremost historians of his time. (All passages quoted from Turner come from The Frontier in American History, a collection of his writings published in 1920, available here). In this essay I examine Turner’s theories about the development of America, the effect that his ideas have had on the wider culture, and his thoughts on the challenges that faced America as the frontier way of life came to an end.
1. THE FRONTIER THESIS
Turner’s ideas came to be known as the Frontier Thesis, which holds that America’s unique characteristics were shaped by the interaction between established settlements and the wild frontier:
The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development. Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications, lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions.
This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.
That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier.
Turner contends that the influence of the frontier on social institutions and organization was the main factor in the development of American democracy. Unlike the democratic ideology of the French Revolution, which was dreamed up by intellectuals in their salons, American democracy was an organic response to the conditions of the frontier. In Europe, men who did not possess liberty or self-sufficiency wished to gain independence; in America, men who already were free and self-sufficient wished to maintain their independence. When liberty is granted to those who are not used to it, one can see the growth of vice as social inhibitions and standards are eroded in the name of freedom; in America, liberty grew out of the virtues that are necessary for survival in the wild:
[T]he frontier is productive of individualism. Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control.
American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier. Not the constitution, but free land and an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people, made the democratic type of society in America for three centuries while it occupied its empire.
Many conservative Americans today argue that the constitution is a perfect document that has made America what it is, but according to Turner, this is somewhat backwards. Americans shaped the constitution, and one does not need to think that the constitution is perfect in order to be a traditional American patriot.
Living before the age of political correctness, Turner frankly spoke of the American natives as an impediment to be overcome. Rather than being a stain on the nation’s conscience, the racial struggle between whites and Indians was key in forging a sense of unity among Americans from the colonial era onwards:
From the close of the seventeenth century various intercolonial congresses have been called to treat with Indians and establish common measures of defense…This frontier stretched along the western border like a cord of union. The Indian was a common danger, demanding united action. Most celebrated of these conferences was the Albany congress of 1754, called to treat with the Six Nations, and to consider plans of union. Even a cursory reading of the plan proposed by the congress reveals the importance of the frontier. The powers of the general council and the officers were, chiefly, the determination of peace and war with the Indians, the regulation of Indian trade, the purchase of Indian lands, and the creation and government of new settlements as a security against the Indians. It is evident that the unifying tendencies of the Revolutionary period were facilitated by the previous cooperation in the regulation of the frontier. In this connection may be mentioned the importance of the frontier, from that day to this, as a military training school, keeping alive the power of resistance to aggression, and developing the stalwart and rugged qualities of the frontiersman.
Our contemporary culture tries to present the racial struggle between civilized whites and savage Indians as somehow inconsistent with the ideals of American democracy, but Turner shows that the two phenomena are closely connected and that the growth of American democracy and liberty, which relied on the hardened character of the pioneer, was actually fostered by the racial conflict. The savage native was a problem presented by the frontier, and in solving this problem the American improved himself.
2. TURNER’S EFFECT ON AMERICAN CULTURE
Although Turner is criticized today by Marxist historians who complain that he is insensitive to “race, class and gender”, in his own time the influence of his Frontier Thesis was immense. In addition to widespread acceptance by academics, Turner’s ideas were reflected in the popular understanding of American history, which is clearly seen in the Western genre in film and literature. Westerns not only provided entertainment, but also frequently included strongly pro-white, pro-pioneer messages and statements. The following is a speech given by John Wayne in the 1930 film The Big Trail, addressed to a group of pioneers thinking about turning back because of the hardships of their trek:
We can’t turn back! We’re blazing a trail that started in England. Not even the storms of the sea could turn back the first settlers. And they carried it on further. They blazed it on through the wilderness of Kentucky. Famine, hunger, not even massacres could stop them. And now we picked up the trail again. And nothing can stop us! Not even the snows of winter, nor the peaks of the highest mountain. We’re building a nation and we got to suffer! No great trail was ever built without hardship. And you got to fight! That’s right. And when you stop fighting, that’s death. What are you going to do, lay down and die? Not in a thousand years! You’re going on with me!
Up until the 1960s, the Western was immensely popular and was one of the major film genres in Hollywood along with comedy, drama, horror, etc. Although Western films have still been produced since the 1960s, they appear rarely and are almost always meant to be subversive, “deconstructive” retellings of the traditional Western narrative. The Indians are transformed from dangerous savages to noble victims, and the pioneers have become evil, greedy “racists”. The cultural revolution of the 1960s could not spare a genre whose very essence is the triumph of the American pioneer over both the harsh terrain and savage natives. Some politically correct conservatives object to the more egregious examples of the subversive Western, such as the gay cowboy film Brokeback Mountain, and argue that these modern Westerns undermine traditional American masculinity. What none of these pseudo-conservatives dare to say is that a fundamental aspect of traditional American masculinity is defending white womanhood from the attacks of savage non-whites. The most famous real-life incident of this kind was the capture and rescue of Daniel Boone’s daughter, an episode that became the inspiration for paintings, books, and later films:
The last image is a still from the 1950 Western film Winchester ’73 starring James Stewart and Shelley Winters. This film is notable for a scene in which Stewart hands Winters a gun immediately preceding an Indian attack and makes sure that she knows to save the last round for herself in order to avoid capture, as capture by Indians would certainly mean defilement and a slow, painful death. This was a time when Americans understood that savage races often display savage behavior and that white men must do all in their power to protect their kith and kin from such dangers. As late as 1962, the film How the West Was Won began with the following narration while the camera panned over the American landscape:
This land has a name today, and is marked on maps. But, the names and the marks on the maps all had to be won, won from nature and from primitive man.
When the revolutionaries of the 1960s destroyed the traditional Western, they stole from Americans their national epic. Without a heroic view of one’s ancestors and a deep sense of gratitude for the sacrifices they made, a nation becomes weak and an easy target for subversion.
3. THE END OF THE FRONTIER
By the time Turner was writing, the frontier way of life was already coming to an end. In 1912, Arizona became the last of the lower 48 states to be admitted to the Union—America had been explored, pacified, and parceled out. Although certainly a proponent of Americanism, Turner was also aware that a culture based on interaction with a vast wilderness would require some modification once the wilderness was finally conquered. He admits that frontier liberty does have its drawbacks, in particular, its inability to control the corrosive effects of money and banking:
So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power. But the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits. Individualism in America has allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs which has rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit. In this connection may be noted also the influence of frontier conditions in permitting lax business honor, inflated paper currency and wild-cat banking. The colonial and revolutionary frontier was the region whence emanated many of the worst forms of an evil currency…A primitive society can hardly be expected to show the intelligent appreciation of the complexity of business interests in a developed society.
For pioneers, unfettered business and trade is a blessing, but as industrial and mercantile society advances, it is necessary for the state to regulate the unscrupulous practices of usurers. (Misunderstanding on this point has unfortunately resulted in many patriotic Americans thinking that the “free” markets of today’s globalists have something to do with traditional American freedom). As the power of the financial class began to be felt by pioneers living in the western states in the early 1800s, the political movement behind Andrew Jackson took shape:
Jacksonian democracy was essentially rural. It was based on the good fellowship and genuine social feeling of the frontier, in which classes and inequalities of fortune played little part. But it did not demand equality of condition, for there was abundance of natural resources and the belief that the self-made man had a right to his success in the free competition which western life afforded, was as prominent in their thought as was the love of democracy. On the other hand, they viewed governmental restraints with suspicion as a limitation on their right to work out their own individuality. For the banking institutions and capitalists of the East they had an instinctive antipathy. Already they feared that the “money power” as Jackson called it, was planning to make hewers of wood and drawers of water of the common people. In this view they found allies among the labor leaders of the East, who in the same period began their fight for better conditions of the wage earner. These Locofocos were the first Americans to demand fundamental social changes for the benefit of the workers in the cities. Like the Western pioneers, they protested against monopolies and special privilege.
At this point in American history, the rural farmers and ranchers of the West allied with the white workers of Eastern industrial cities, and together they opposed the financial elite. If only we could duplicate such a movement today! (It should be noted, however, that although Jackson and his supporters did deliver a terrific blow against the financiers by destroying the National Bank, the money power was able to recover, and in 1913 a new central bank, the Federal Reserve, was created. Evidently an even stronger policy against the power of usury was necessary to preserve frontier liberty).
Turner also contemplated the wider problem of how to direct the pioneer spirit towards constructive ends after the frontier had been settled. While new laws might help combat some of the issues caused by the disappearance of the wilderness, a more comprehensive solution is needed to ensure that Americans flourish in a way that is true to their history:
Legislation is taking the place of the free lands as the means of preserving the ideal of democracy. But at the same time it is endangering the other pioneer ideal of creative and competitive individualism. Both were essential and constituted what was best in America’s contribution to history and to progress. Both must be preserved if the nation would be true to its past, and would fulfil its highest destiny.
All that was buoyant and creative in American life would be lost if we gave up the respect for distinct personality, and variety in genius, and came to the dead level of common standards. To be “socialized into an average” and placed “under the tutelage of the mass of us,” as a recent writer has put it, would be an irreparable loss…What is needed is the multiplication of motives for ambition and the opening of new lines of achievement for the strongest. As we turn from the task of the first rough conquest of the continent there lies before us a whole wealth of unexploited resources in the realm of the spirit. Arts and letters, science and better social creation, loyalty and political service to the commonweal,—these and a thousand other directions of activity are open to the men, who formerly under the incentive of attaining distinction by amassing extraordinary wealth, saw success only in material display. Newer and finer careers will open to the ambitious when once public opinion shall award the laurels to those who rise above their fellows in these new fields of labor.
Turner wrote these optimistic words in the early 20th century, when the future of America still appeared bright. Although we did see a glimpse of what this redirected pioneer spirit is capable of in the great triumph of the NASA program in the 1960s, in the areas of economic and moral development, the 20th century was a period of great degeneracy for the United States. Free trade and outsourcing destroyed American productivity, and multiculturalism and feminism neutered white American men. The frontier virtues of hard work, ingenuity, self-defense, and self-reliance have been made to languish. The system of the the New World Order has starved the souls of Americans by not allowing them to live and work in the way their ancestors did. But despite all this, the pioneer spirit still lives. We see it in the uniquely American prepper movement and the thriving gun culture. The old saying “a man’s home is his castle” originated in England; for the American, even to this day, perhaps it is more accurate to say that “a man’s home is his homestead”. The independent homestead is still the ideal for many Americans. As long as the current system prevents his pioneer virtues from being directed towards wider political or cultural aims, the American is only allowed to direct his energy towards his hobbies. That energy, however, is present, waiting to be put to good use. Millions of Americans are waiting, consciously or unconsciously, for the formation of a patriotic people’s state, a state that, having crushed the globalist money power, can return them to the trail blazed by their forebears.