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Frontier Creation: The Discarded Intro to my Prospectus

As I first started to piece together ideas for my dissertation prospectus, I was amazed by the fact that within the negotiations of peace that ended the Revolutionary war lay the first political seeds of Manifest Destiny.

Though writing about it helped me dig into my actual dissertation topic, I removed this historical discussion from the finished product.

So, I thought I would post it up here for my future benefit and the thought that some might find it interesting:


Frontier Creation: Revolutionary Movements and the Turning of a Vision

During the negotiations that ended the American Revolution at the Treaty of Paris in 1783, founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams were instructed by the Continental Congress to be resolute only on independence and let the British, French, and Spanish negotiators decide territorial boundaries. However, the American commissioners soon found that, their interests and the interests of the rest of the negotiators, particularly in the establishment of boundaries, were not in America’s favor. The long war had caused the new government to form under the weight of heavy debt, and the weak Articles of Confederation had no real power of taxation. This caused large problems for the young nation that could be partially alleviated by the selling of governmental land to settlers.[1]

American commissioners disregarded the advice of their allies and met with British ambassador, David Hartley in private, negotiating a separate peace between America and Great Britain that guaranteed a large western territory to the thirteen colonies consisting of “approximately 541 million acres of land, about 230 million acres of that total being west of the Appalachian Mountains” (Joy 1). The boundaries established in these meetings and the Treaty of Paris as a document is not only of import for how they establish the United States as a independent nation, but also for what they say about the birthing screams and perceived needs of the new republic. As America was breaking its ties with the old world it had its eyes turned inevitably west.

The westward vision of the new country had everything to do with the expansionist ideals that brought about the different concepts of the frontier. According to Andrew R. L. Clayton and Fredrika J. Teute, British colonists through the mid-eighteenth century refereed to the unsettled land to the west as the “backcountry,” pointing out that the colonies always faced east toward England (1). However, in the late 1700’s, as more and more settlers began to move west, the term frontier began to have more and more use in the writings of the time.

John T. Juricek provides a breakdown of the word in his 1966 article, “American Usage of the Word ‘Frontier,’ from Colonial Times to Frederick Jackson Turner,” as “derived from the classical Latin root ‘frons’ (from or forepart) by way of the later medieval Latin term ‘fronteria’ (frontier or line of battle)” adding that English use of the word can be traced as far back as the 1400s (10). With this in mind, the historian can never underestimate the movement in American thought that turned eyes away from England and toward the “backcountry,” reshaping it as a frontier.

A little over a century after the signing of the Treaty of Paris gave America her first politically sanctioned steps into the backcountry, the 1890 census, using the definition of “settled area as containing two or more people per square mile” claimed that the frontier no longer existed (qtd. in Cayton & Teute 3). In a little more than a hundred years the American frontier was created and destroyed. The findings of this census was the basis for Fredrick Jackson Turner’s 1893 “Frontier Thesis” that has controlled the way scholars talk about the American west ever since.[2] Turner’s argument focused on how westward expansion removed American pioneers from old world influence creating an environment that fostered a uniquely American character, a character that championed individualism and democracy.

[1] For a longer discussion of the disputes over land and the negotiations of the Treaty of Paris see Mark S. Joy, American Expansionism, 1783-1860: A Manifest Destiny? Seminar Studies in History London: Pearson\Longman, 2003; Howard Jones, Crucible of Power: A History of American Foreign Relations to 1913 New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

[2] For examples of scholarship that fully engages Turner’s “frontier thesis” see David Mogen, Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant. The Frontier Experience and the American Dream: Essays on American Literature College Station, TX: Texas A&M UP, 1989; George Rogers Taylor, ed., The Turner Thesis Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History Boston: Heath, 1972; Wilbur R. Jacobs,. On Turner’s Trail: One Hundred Years of Writing Western History Lawrence, KS: UP of Kansas, 1994; Billington, Ray Allen & Martin Ridge. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier Albuquerque, NM: U of NM Press, 2001.

Works Cited:

Cayton, Andrew R. and Fredrika J. Teute, eds. Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750-1830 Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1998.

Joy, Mark S. American Expansionism, 1783-1860: A Manifest Destiny? Seminar Studies in History London: Pearson\Longman, 2003.

Juricek, John T. “American Usage of the Word ‘Frontier,’ from Colonial Times to Frederick Jackson Turner,” American Philosophical Society, Proceedings CX (Philadelphia, 1966): 10-34.

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