By Stephen Smoot
In 1890, the US Census Bureau unilaterally announced that the frontier period of American history had concluded. Settlers and the government had imposed law onto the territories. American Indians no longer ranged free under gallant commanders, pitting their mettle against the tide of history. Lines dominated the landscape, tangible ones marked on the edges of fields with barbed wire, intangible taking the form of property, county, and state boundaries.
In the face of this declaration came a succinct, approximately 30 page study, from a Progressive historian who preferred teaching to writing. Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” said more about America in a handful of pages than most academics can say in thousands.
The Frontier Thesis articulates a simple point. America’s experience on the frontier, from the very beginning of settlement, created a unique culture that shaped national development. Frontier life had one powerful underlying theme. One must work against nature and also fight against those who came to steal or kill. Success meant surviving, sometimes even thriving. Failure meant death or, for some even worse, dishonor.
In such an environment, those who could best apply the skills learned, who were luckiest, or usually a judicious combination of both, rose to the top of the social ladder. Abrasive personalities could be tolerated if they had sufficient character. This ethos shaped the American environment and its faded image remains the center of the rural value system in America today.
One hundred and thirty years later American, and Western Civilization itself, must contend with the consequences of the loss of the frontier and what it means for individuals and society.
For over 500 years, half a millennia, the West has had a frontier that attracted those unable or unwilling to live in the societies established by various European nations, later on including the American East. These peoples drawn to the frontier included visionaries and criminals, warriors and weirdos, and those much more comfortable surrounded by the howling wilderness than an urban, or even civilized, life they found more harrowing.
It also created a sense of mission and purpose in the home societies left behind. Regardless of how some judge them today, the explorers and those who followed saw themselves as builders and creators. Their tales inspired those who remained behind in relative comfort and security. Dreams of what could be created an alternative life vision for those who sought it.
The end of the frontier meant that this steam release for society no longer existed. Those not content with conventional and civilized life have to remain side by side with those who both prefer an orderly society and also create its rules and structure. Cities gain precedence and seek to impose their values on the small towns and countryside.
The meritocracy that promises the best results to those with the most developed skills and strongest work ethic fades in such an environment. Nepotism or aristocracy based on family name or the name of the university on one’s degree conferring unearned privilege with seemingly endless entitlement. Favor is bestowed, not earned in all too many circumstances.
A loss of purpose has also afflicted human society, especially in the West.
Until very recently in human history, those fed up with the system, or those seeking a greater purpose outside of it, could simply leave and hack out a new life elsewhere, either individually or collectively. Nowhere can one go today to escape, should they find civilization unfair and suffocating.
What are the social consequences of this over the long term?
How much has this contributed to the social dysfunction slowly undermining the West?
Why has no one asked these questions?
What does this all mean for human society going forward?