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Frederick Jackson Turner And The Question Of American Exceptionalism

1784 words - 7 pages

During the 1890’s, the quest began for a ‘New History’ in the United States that would challenge the patient application of the “scientific” method. The 1890 census report had officially stated that the complete settlement of America’s western frontier marked the end of Manifest Destiny. Westward expansion had been an integral aspect of the American identity and its citizen were left wondering what would continue to propel the United States into a rapidly modernizing world. Progressive historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote less and influenced his own generation more than any important historian. In his works, Turner spelled out his version of a New History in the modern spirit. Although his writings were few and limited, Turner promoted westward American expansion as unique and the conditions settlers faced in settling the frontier as the exception.
The thing of first significance in Turner’s work was the approach. Until his appearance American historians were, with few exceptions, primarily interested in politics and constitutional problems, and few essayed interpretation. Against such attitudes Turner revolted. Because he had been part of a rapidly changing order, he saw American history as a huge stage on which men, in close contact with raw nature, were ever engaged in the evolution of society from simple beginnings to complex ends. According to Turner, historians had answered “what” long enough; the time had come to inquire as to “how” things came about. America, as it then existed, was the product of the interaction of “economic, political and social forces in contact with peculiar geographic factors.” Such an understanding would be the basis for Turner’s claim of American exceptionalism.
In the years following the Civil War, the United Stated experienced an urban migration unlike anything seen in history up to that point. As factories began to spring up across the northern and Midwestern countryside, cities grew up around them. By 1900, one in every five Americans was a city dweller, and nearly seven million inhabited just three great cities: New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. (Henretta, 523) Former soldiers and immigrants flocked to the cities in search of jobs, wealth, and new opportunities. Fueled by urbanization and immigration, the process of nineteenth century American industrialization relied upon poverty and a declining sense of intrinsic value for its success. Nevertheless, America, while rapidly losing its rural roots during the late nineteenth century, was moving further away from Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a yeoman society.
Prior to industrialization, America relied on an agrarian society and hand-made crafts. Artisans mostly made goods for nearby markets in relatively small quantities. The main unit of production was the family who typically owned all of the tools needed for production. In pre-industrial American society, craftsmen worked the hours they pleased, with everyone working at their own pace....

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