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THE FRONTIER HYPOTHESIS IN RECENT HISTORIOGRAPHY HISTORICAL works aregreatly influenced bythespirit of the times in which their authors live, and having left their mark on subsequentwriting, are modified or supersededin the light of viewpoints characteristic of changing conditions. The frontier hypothesis is a striking example of the way in which a view of historicaldevelopment,itself a product of a given environment , has left an important mark upon the historiography of more than onecountry and hasbeen qualified and modifiedin the light of changing circumstancesof time and place. This hypothesis did not ,emerge in the United States unaided and unheralded -it had forerunners in the growing interest in the American West and in the socialside of pioneer life. Nor was it an anomaly in the general pattern of American thought in the eighteen-nineties. It typified the local patriotism and interest of a native mid-westerner consciousof his region's influence on the history of the nation. It exemplifiednational patriotism in its insistenceupon the uniquenessof American development, and reflectedisolationismin the claim that American democracywas an indigenousgrowth. It followed prevailing American political philosophyin its assumptionthat political democracymust result from a socially democratic environment. Lastly, it echoed the general scientificand mechanisticbent of the latter part of the nineteenth century with its assumption that the character of individuals and societiesmay be modified by the environment, and the evolutionary interest of the period in the attention which it paid to processes of the growth and development of societies and institutions. Nineteenth-century historians had treated the broad subject of the impact of European civilization upon the aboriginesof the New World, but their interesthad beenchieflyin producingvivid, exciting narratives of conflicts, wars, and adventures. Of this romantic history Prescott's Conquest of Mexico and Conquest of Peru, Parkman's great series,The Frenchand English in America (written between 18Zll and 1802), and Theodore Roosevelt's The Winning of the West (written between 1888 and 18013)are outstanding examples. The last work, indeed, shows a wider interest than its predecessors in the socialside of westernlife and contains many pen-portraits of frontier travel, religion, medicine, and education,as well as whole chapterson everyday life in the Indian villagesand the farm settlements. But eventhesepictures 158 154 THE CANADIAN HISTORICAL REVIEW are supplementary to a dramatic narration of events in which the connecting thread is the author's hero worship, his Great Man theory of history. In the secondvolume of The Winning of the West a footnote makes reference to "a suggestive pamphlet" by a "Professor FrederickA. Turner of the University of Michigan." The author actually was Professor Frederick Jackson Turner of the University of Wisconsin,and the pamphletentitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" had been read as a paper before the American Historical Association in 1893 and was to overthrow the romantic view of the west, to usher in a new era of historical writing and research,and altogether to prove a landmark in American historiography. In his essayProfessorTurner soughtto assess the importance of the westward movementof American settlement upon the west and upon the nation. He regardedAmerican history to 1890 as very largely the result of the socialand political repercussions of the movement of people across the continent. The westward advance was really a seriesof advances,each following the other and forming a "frontier"--the explorer, trader, and missionary; the rancher; the self-sufficient pioneer farmer who formed the most important frontier; the intensive cultivator with his cash crop; and finally, industrial and urban society. The impelling motives behind the advance of the agrarian frontier were the desireto avoid conventionalsociety, to obtain fresh, fertile land, and to profit from a risein value of landsacquiredwith a minimum of expense. Each newly-settled district began with a fluid society,and in due coursebecamemore fully settled and evolved its own political institutions. Becauseof this transitional period of improvisation, the frontier was the region of most rapid and complete modification of social and political institutions, and as these changeswere taken up elsewhereAmerican society grew more distinctive. The frontier had a great influenceon the political evolutionof the United States and on the character of its people. On the political side,it promotedthe formation of a compositenationality, freedAmerica from dependenceon European trade...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-1093
Print ISSN
0008-3755
Pages
pp. 153-167
Launched on MUSE
2017-04-05
Open Access
No
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