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Countering the Myth of the Frontier,
This review is from: The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities, 1790-1830 (Paperback)
I first read this book while preparing for my Ph.D. general exams in history in 1981; and although it had then been more than twenty years since its first publication in 1959 it was required reading. "The Urban Frontier" has remained required reading to the present, and I recently reread it to refresh my memory of its key points. After doing so I have a much greater appreciation for Richard Wade's work than before, and I recommend "The Urban Frontier" as a seminal analysis of the rise of the west.
Using a wealth of material ranging from the census to city records Wade constructs a portrait of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, and St. Louis between 1790 and 1830. As might be expected his focus is on the development of civic institutions, on the establishment of commerce, and on the political, economic, and social structure of these towns. Not surprisingly, Wade finds that these western cities evolved quickly to mirror their eastern counterparts. As he wrote: "The urban origin of Western towndwellers was significant, for it meant that the new cities would be built in the image of older ones. There was little need to experiment, because tried ways and methods were well known and seemed appropriate. Indeed, the newcomers, their lives disrupted by movement, were anxious to recreate as much as possible of the familiat landscape they had left. Hence, it is not surprising that Western towns bore a physical likeness to Eastern ones. Even social institutions were shaped by the same impulse. Whatever provided continuity was cherished" (p. 321).
This is a powerful conclusion, one that directly challenged the famous "Frontier Thesis" of historian Frederick Jackson Turner first enunciated in 1893. Turner's ideas about the American experience being fundamentally shaped by its frontier origins has exerted a powerful force on the historiography of the United States, in no small measure because of its commanding statement of American exceptionalism. Turner took as his cue an observation in the 1890 U.S. census that the American frontier had for the first time closed. He noted, "Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development." He insisted that the frontier made Americans American, gave the nation its democratic character, and ensured the virtues of self-reliance, community, and the promise of justice. He noted that cheap or even free land provided a "safety valve" that protected the nation against uprisings of the poverty-stricken and malcontented. The frontier also produced a people with "coarseness and strength...acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical and inventive turn of mind...[full of] restless and nervous energy...that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom." It gave the people of the United States, in essence, virtually every positive quality they have ever possessed. (See Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Frontier in American History" (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1920), which includes the seminal 1893 essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History").
"The Urban Frontier" of Richard Wade demonstrates that this reading of American development is flawed. If Americans recreated in the early western urban experience the look and feel of eastern cities then the "Frontier Thesis" was suspect and another model for explaining why Americans were different from others had to be found. This book remains a compelling refutation of Turner and his ideas, based on sound research and lucid writing.