F.J. Turner's Frontier Theory 'Characteristics'
FAST-US-2 American Institutions Survey (Hopkins)
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere
* While Williams first outlined these
core values in 1965 (see Schissler
[PDF], among others) they were continuously updated, with the result that
Macionis, for example) may give different years/numbers for the
Between 1840-1921 there was a massive influx of immigrants, primarily
from Europe, to the rapidly-expanding United States. Key to the expansion
of the western 'frontier' following the U.S. Civil War (1861-65)
was the passage by the U.S. Congress of the Homestead Act of 1862, which
enabled pioneers to get free land of up to 160 acres (a 'homestead') if they marked it off, settled on
it and occupied it for five years.
What factors helped this wave of immigrants create a new national
identity? How were former Finns, Germans, Irishmen, Poles, etc.,
eventually 'transformed' from Finnish-Americans, German-Americans, etc.,
into 'Americans'? What might be thought of as identifying characteristics
of an American?
One hypothesis is in the "Frontier Theory" of the historian Frederick
Jackson Turner. In an 1893 address to the American
Historical Association, Turner outlined what he termed the "frontier
theory" of American history. Turner said that the traditional "frontier"
of westward expansion across the American continent, 'and with it the
first period of American history', had ended. Turner felt that the
'frontier' had helped define the following "characteristics" of the
American people. He did not claim these as 'unique' to Americans, but
rather as identifying characteristics which resulted from the influence of
the frontier experience.
[It was] ... to the frontier that the American intellect owes
its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with
acuteness and acquisitiveness; 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, or traits called out elsewhere because of the
existence of the frontier.
Among the 'characteristics' cited by Turner are the following:
- Self-reliance, persistance and a strong sense of initiative
- Openness to new experience
- Innovativeness, a constant 'inquisitiveness' and search for original
- Mobility, both physical and social
- Reflexive voluntarism and the joining of voluntary organizations
- Religiosity (personal & cultural), and the influence of multiple
'rival' religious sects
- Localization and 'portability' of civic & governmental institutions
- Suspicion/distrust of 'authority'
- Faith in 'technology'; new machines and devices often seen as
- Belief in the purity and values of rural areas (cf. urban areas)
- Trust in quick-working relationships, personal openness, sincerity
- Creation of a composite nationality rooted in material prosperity
- Sense of effectiveness, a 'can do' mentality, an optimistic outlook
- National pride in accomplishment, 'city on the hill' legacy
(cf. Alexis de Tocqueville's "American exceptionalism," that the
United States is a nation unlike any other with a special mission to build
a 'city upon a hill' that will serve mankind as liberty's beacon)
The 'Core American Values' of Sociologists Robin Williams and James
Nearly 70 years after Frederick Jackson Turner, the sociologist Robin M.
Williams, Jr. (1914-2006) posed in 1965* twelve 'core values' held by
Americans, to which the sociologist James M. Henslin added three more in
1975. These 'core values' may in part be seen as direct results of Turner's
'characteristics,' and are a useful insight into American instincts.
As posed by Williams and Henslin, and elaborated by sociologist Henry
Schissler, these 'core values' are:
- Individualism: Americans have traditionally prized success
that comes from individual effort and initiative. They cherish the ideal
that an individual can rise from the bottom of society to its very top. If
someone fails to "get ahead," Americans generally find fault with that
individual, rather than with the social system for placing roadblocks in
his or her path. Americans should persistently strive for success.
- Achievement and Success: Americans place a high value on
personal achievement, especially on outdoing others with whom they may be
'competing'. This value includes getting ahead at work and school, and
attaining wealth, power, and prestige.
- Activity and Work: Americans expect people to work hard and to
be busily engaged in some activity even when not at work. There is a
tendency to work even 'for the sake of working.'
- Efficiency and Practicality Americans award high marks for
getting things done efficiently. Even in everyday life, Americans consider
it important to do things quickly, and they constantly seek ways to
- Science and Technology: Americans have a passion for applied
science, for using science to control nature taming rivers,
harnessing the wind and the oceans, or building domed athletic stadiums to
neutralize the limitations of bad weather, for example and to
develop new technologies.
- Progress: Americans expect rapid technological change. They
believe that they should constantly build "more and better" gadgets that
will help them move toward that vague goal called "progress."
- Material Comfort: Americans expect a high level of material
comfort. This comfort includes not only good nutrition, medical care, and
housing, but also newer-model cars, technological devices and recreational
- Humanitarianism: Americans emphasize helpfulness, personal
kindness, aid in mass disasters, and organized philanthropy.
- Personal Freedom: This core value pervades U.S. life. It
underscored the American Revolution, and Americans continue to pride
themselves on their personal freedom.
- Democracy: By 'democracy' Americans refer to majority rule, to
the right of everyone to express an opinion, and to the American form of
- Equality: It is impossible to understand Americans without
being aware of the central role that the value of equality plays in their
lives. Equality of opportunity has significantly influenced U.S. history
and continues to mark relations between groups that make up U.S. society.
- Racism and Group Superiority: Although may seem to contradict
the notions of freedom, democracy, and equality, at any given point in
their history Americans have always valued some groups more than others.
The 18th and 19th-century treatment of Native Americans and
African-Americans are the most notorious examples, but the changing status
of different immigration groups throughout American history provides
numerous other examples, as do gender, sexual-preference, linguistic and
other 'identities' nowadays (see Dialect and Identity in American
English [US-1] for the relationship of social status distinctions with
how a group's way of speaking is 'valued' by others).
Early on, 'WASP' descendents were valued more highly than Roman
Catholic Irish immigrants; German-Americans were valued more highly than
Italian-Americans (although the Germans were often looked upon
disfavorably by their English predecessors); more recently it has been the
turn of the 'newest' immigrants, including Hispanics, to often be
disparaged. In time all groups assimilate into the mainstream, although
certain groups may still be thought of as having greater or lesser social
standing or cultural value (Boston 'Brahmins' vs Applachian 'hillbillies'
being extreme examples of this).
- Education: Americans are expected to go as far in school as
their abilities and finances allow. Over the years, the definition of an
"adequate" education has changed, and today a college education is
considered an appropriate goal for most Americans. Those who have an
opportunity for higher education and do not take it are sometimes viewed
as doing something "wrong" not merely as making a bad choice, but
as somehow being involved in an immoral act.
- Religiosity: There is a feeling that "every true American
ought to be religious." This does not mean that everyone is expected to
join a church, synagogue, or mosque, but that everyone ought to
acknowledge a belief in a Supreme Being and follow some set of matching
precepts. This value is so pervasive that Americans stamp "In God We
Trust" on their money and declare in their national pledge of allegiance
that they are "one nation under God" (while at the same time proclaiming a
separation of church and state).
- Romantic Love: Americans feel that the only proper basis for
marriage is romantic love. Songs, literature, mass media, and "folk
beliefs" all stress this value. They especially love the theme that "love
Map of the 1835-1855 period, showing 'frontier' territories in need of
The peak European-American immigration period effectively ended with
the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, which restricted new arrivals each
year to 3% of the foreign-born of any nationality shown in the 1910
US-2 Reference Index
Last Updated 28 September 2011