Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Turner's Thesis and Degler's Interpretation

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Turners Thesis and Deglers Interpretation


In 18, Frederick Jackson Turner presented a thesis that would challenge the widespread accepted view that the east, particularly New England was the true bearer of American culture. He attempted to explain this by theorizing that American advances on the westward frontier can be viewed as a major factor in explaining American development throughout the nineteenth century. He believed that historians who examined the importance of these urban centers as cultural beacons would discover that it was indeed the populace on the American frontier that had the largest effect on American society. This, he said, was due to the fact that while living on the frontier, one is returned to a primitive state of nature, one in which they are free to evolve socially and thus create a certain American Identity. Each time Americans expanded westward, they continued to shed more and more aspects of European society. The expansion also produced feelings of nationalism, independence and democracy. This was mainly due to the fact that in these isolated communities, Americans were more inclined to make use of American land, and American products, than to make use of European goods. This European Isolation also brought an end to the traditional hereditary privileges that were still common in new England and Europe at the time. It was also stated that the vast amount of free land in the west contributed to an increasingly democratic spirit within the region. While this thesis has proven to be a rather viable explanation for the evolution of American ideals, many argue that its vague nature includes little research and much imprecision.


While Turner may have presented this argument that attributed the positive and unifying development of American identity to westward expansion, Degler does not agree that American migration in the nineteenth century had such constructive effects on the American psyche. He asserts that it was indeed this very westward expansion due to a belief in Manifest Destiny that sharpened the rift between northern and southern interests and increased the conflict between the two regions in which the debate over slavery would ultimately lead to secession and civil war. There were many other problems with this expansion that were not solely political. For instance, the fact that the United States amassed an area greater than that of most European countries led to many communication problems throughout the country, and much of Europe speculated that no country so large could possibly remain united. Economic difficulties arose, as surplus goods would only have local, limited markets. This hindered industrial growth within the region. It was not until numerous canals were constructed and alternate forms of transportation and communicator were invented that the wests full potential was reached. These inventions included the railroad and steamboat. Degler criticizes Turner for not including numerous specific observations that may have allowed for a more accurate interpretation of the theory. He refuted Turners argument that the isolation of the frontier provides for a social rebirth by stating that Turner underestimated the conservative nature of cultural patterns. He also refutes this theory by providing physical evidence that the men of the frontier wore the same clothes, and had the same attitude, objects, pleasures and language of their New England and European counterparts. On the subject of democratic influence within the frontier, Degler states that the influence of the frontier lay in providing opportunity for democratic ideals to be put into practice regardless of their origin. The abundance of land in the region led many land- owners to participate in government, a practice which merely brought about self-confidence and self-reliance. Thus the many criticisms of Turners thesis are based on the presupposition that the frontier influence is passive rather than active. Based on these arguments, Degler disagrees with Turners explanation of the evolution of American identity.





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