Primary Analysis of Turner’s Essay

You will analyze a section of Frederick Jackson Turner’s speech, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” sometimes shorthanded as “the frontier thesis.” This is a document from 1893, delivered as an address to the American Historical Association (AHA) Meeting at the Chicago World’s Fair that year. Turner was the president at the time of the largest group of U.S. historians, and he sought to make an argument about the changing forms of American character, as he termed it.

For this assignment, please focus your attention to the following sections of Turner’s essay: the introduction, “Land,” and “Composite Nationality.” His concluding section, “Intellectual Traits,” may also be of some use. Skim or skip the remainder of the essay. This is a link to the text, as preserved by the AHA: https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/historical-archives/the-significance-of-the-frontier-in-american-history.

A PDF has also been uploaded under Files>Primary Sources for PSAs. Turner was interested in presenting a very narrow and specific kind of American identity. Remember to be skeptical as you read.

Analyze Turner’s essay for its representation of American national identity. What are the characteristics of American national identity for Turner? Who is Turner’s idealized American? Under what conditions does the ideal American come into existence or self-actualization? Of course, from the vantage point of today, we can easily see that there is not one way to be an American. Why would Turner be invested in a singular American identity? What does that assumption mean for his conception of and argument for American national identity?

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