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Allen C. Guelzo

Whiggish History

Three cheers for an anti-Jacksonian America.

Once upon a time, there was a Golden Age in American history. The only problem has been identifying when it happened. Or if it happened at all. Or what you mean by "Golden."

The first among American historians to draw the line between a irretrievably lost past and a ho-hum present was Frederick Jackson Turner, whose "frontier thesis" selected the Census Bureau's "closing" of the frontier in 1890 as the great divide between an American shaped by the rugged realities of frontier life into a towering figure of independence and self-sufficiency, and another American, ground up into pasty conformity by the orderly brainlessness of the industrial economy. American history, Turner said, begins with primitive settlements along the Atlantic coastline, and over time, those settlements experience "the familiar phenomenon of the evolution … from primitive industrial society, without division of labor, up to manufacturing civilization." But each time Americans reach westward from those developed beachheads to the frontier, they start over again, returning Americans to "continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society." Only now, with the closing of the frontier, there would be no more rebirth, and no more primitive simplicity. [1]

┬áThe long-term message of the frontier thesis was that the "authentic" American was a pre-capitalist farmer, living a life free from the lure of getting and spending, and in righteous harmony with his community—a kind of Hull House with log cabins. The enemies of this social idyll were, first, the British imperial economy, and then the larger imperialism of the Industrial Revolution. Its defenders were the Jacksonian Democrats celebrated in Arthur Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson (1945), the rebellious Revolutionary militias glamorized by Gordon Wood in The Creation of the American Republic (1967), the communitarian Puritans who populated Kenneth Lockridge's A New England Town: The First Hundred Years (1970), and—most dramatic ...

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