02 May, 2010

The Terrible Turner Thesis

So, in 1893, at a meeting of the American Historical Exhibition at the World's Columbian Exhibition, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his famous "frontier thesis". Read it and weep at the redefinition of America. Unless you agree with him, in which case read it and rejoice to identify yourself with the progressives who are currently mandating health care. To each his own.

Basically Turner is reinterpreting what Columbus (the theme of the Columbian Exhibition, after all) means to America. In a nutshell, this is what he does in the piece:

He outlines something he calls the "germ theory of politics" (often propounded by the advocates of a Germanic peoples reading of America which is as mistaken as his is, but not associated only with these sorts) according to which American history is defined by its population, which carries "germs" of European tradition to America and allows them to germinate (ha!) here. He fails to consider (except in a slight nod to Mediterranean civilization in the closing paragraph) the possibility that America might be at its core an attempt to preserve the fundamental principles of liberty recognized by Western culture since its inception (cf. the Gelasian principle as stated in 492). Rather, America is about the frontier, about man's "unprecedented" encounter with a pure "state of nature," which conveniently strips all vestiges of tradition from the immigrants.

His declaration that to be American is not to be German--the biggest support he really offers for his interpretation--is right on enough. But he extrapolates this to mean that to be an American is to have left behind all traditions of culture and religion (despite the obvious fact that these are the root of our Constitution, no less) and to adopt instead a purely economically motivated definition of liberty as our national telos. America, he claims, is about the ability, the freedom, to move West, to gain lebensraum, so to speak. It is based upon a freedom of license rather than upon an attempt to discern the God-given natural rights of all men. Thus he objects to the "slavery question" being taken as the crux of American national development. After all, to focus on slavery and on America's response to it is to too strongly highlight the project of preserving our constitutional and natural liberties for Turner's taste. The poor fellow would prefer to see the Civil War utterly one-dimensionally, in terms only of a struggle for economic dominance via the Westward-moving juggernaut of the railroad (cf. the Lincoln-Douglass debates, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, for more on the influence of railroad building on northern political policy--and then note that Lincoln won). In other words, his interpretation of Columbus-as-ultimate-American is a picture of Columbus-as-rejector-of-tradition, concerned only with economic gain rather than with the spreading of a tradition rooted (despite its very human imperfections) in natural law.

Note that that's unfortunately the image of Columbus that somewhat prevails. And it's quite wrong. Columbus, whether you like him for this or not (and I don't agree with him entirely here, by any means), was rather a fanatical proponent of spreading religious tradition throughout the world, and rather too inclined to neglect science altogether in his attempts to do so. So that when the quite sufficiently-educated Spanish monks tried to convince him that his plan wouldn't work because the world was far too large for him to get all the way to China without dying for lack of supplies (of course they didn't believe in the flat earth: as my Am Civ teacher likes to point out, anyone who's even glanced at one of the old Spanish statues of the Christ child holding the orbis terrarum, the sphere of the earth, finds that myth knocked right off its feet, as if there wasn't plenty of other evidence to disprove it). Go ahead and read some of Columbus' letters and diaries, and you'll find a wealth of evidence pointing to a man so religiously dedicated to bringing about a quicker Second Coming of Christ that he wanted to devote his life to evangelizing the entire world as quickly as possibly. You won't find anything of the commonly fictionalized man of science, impatient with the close-mindedness of the greatest scientists of the late Renaissance, and devoted to discovery for the sake of discovery. Obviously, fanaticism of this sort is rather problematic, however sincere the man was, and I don't necessarily agree with his project, though I find it admirable in some respects.

Turner was defining him as the latter sort, merely by presenting this paper at the World's Columbian Exposition. Of course, the real practical question resulting from his paper is whether Americans in general are like this, not so much whether Columbus was. A definitive academic answer would require pages of exposition and proof. If you want an easier to come by response, I suggest talking to one or two of the more recently emigrated families you happen to know. Preferably if one of them happens to be Irish or Italian, in which case, they can probably remember the coming of their great-grandparents to this country with almost as intense emotion as the ancestors themselves must have felt. If you come away with a sense that "yes, I suppose that America is just all about becoming tabula rasa, liberated from any sense of familial or cultural inheritance, side with Turner. If the family retains a tendency to gripe about English wrongs or obsess about Grandma's meatballs, however...take your Turner with a grain of salt.


Anonymous said...

I'm certainly with you in saying that America ought not to be traditionless, and that the American project in many ways is an attempt to preserve the core elements of Western civilization. But I think you might be dismissing too quickly his claim that America (the continent, not the country) was for those Europeans who settled on it a tabula rasa. I don't want to say that moving to America stripped immigrants of all their old traditions, but in America, a conscious effort had to made to preserve those traditions, an effort not necessary for those remaining in the old country. And because those traditions had to be consciously preserved, the question arose of whether they ought to be preserved - a question, again, not really possible in Europe. So in America, tradition was retained, but modified, and in some cases outright rejected.

It's not so much that America is a tabula rasa and that's a good thing, as Turner says, but I think it's a mistake to see America as a mere continuation, rather than modification, of the Western civilization it is based in. Actually, I think we might say that one of the central struggles in America was between those who wanted to take the founding of America as an opportunity to strip away the old traditions and those who attempted to preserve tradition in the face of an absolute, not rootlessness, but uprootedness.

(Note that I'm not sure you actually disagree with what I said above, but your emphasis was certainly different. You want to emphasize that America is in continuity with the Western tradition, while I want to emphasize that any such continuity that there is was the result of conscious effort, not a natural occurrence.)

Therese said...

Well, pretty much what you say in the first part of the comment is all I'm trying to say here, actually. Basically moving to a state of nature doesn't automatically remove people from all sense of tradition. I would strongly agree that it's a struggle to keep those traditions, oftentimes--if it weren't, there wouldn't be such a huge disagreement over whether they can even be considered an acting element in the creation of America at all. I would also say, however, that a large part of the conscious preservation of tradition has included the need to sort through tradition as-it-stood in the Old World in order to identify which elements were actually core to their beliefs (i.e. belief in Natural Law, Christianity [usually] or other religion, etc) and which were simply accidents of particular local circumstances in Europe (or Asia, etc).

I think there's an important distinction to be made here between Tradition and tradition too. I'm more talking about the former, although I certainly use (rather flippantly) some examples of the latter towards the end. What foods people have happened to traditionally eat and how they show respect to their family has always been the sort of tradition that can slip by the wayside without harm coming to American civilization as a result. What would (and sometimes has proved to) be a problem is when the Tradition of feeding your family at all disappears, or when the sense of any need to respect the family evaporates.

Yes, there's absolutely a struggle involved in retaining capital-T Tradition: that's what I'm bringing up by talking about Turner (an American) in the first place. The point of the post, however, is to reject the idea that there's some necessity involved in the disappearance of Tradition. That coming to a new place forces you to become a blank slate so that the American adherence to Western tradition is not even acknowledged as a realistic possibility.

I essentially object to Turner's complete disregard for the possibility that Americans may very often adhere to Tradition quite closely, and am not meaning to suggest that their adherence is a given. That's not something I'm even occupied in examining for the present, although the last few words are something of a joking admonition to "go out and decide for yourself whether you think Turner was right or not".

Therese said...

Not a very satisfactory answer, but pretty much what I have time for, unfortunately...