From Individualism to Unionism: The Changing Meaning of Freedom in America

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From Individualism to Unionism: The Changing Meaning of Freedom in America

In 1893, when Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his speech on the significance of frontier at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he was addressing an audience that had witnessed the drastic changes that swept through the country over the past sixty or so years. The United States had gone from the agrarian nation of Jefferson’s vision—one with a relatively balanced division of wealth, a population of homogenous skilled workers, and a narrow definition of equality based on a broad definition of freedom—to the highly industrialized urban nation glorified by the World’s Fair itself—one of polarized wealth, vast and increasing numbers of unassimilated, unskilled workers, and a demand for a return to the old equality at the expense of the old concept of freedom. Turner’s thesis was threaded with observations of these changes, and made an attempt to account for them in terms of the changing geography of America. “Each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas,” Turner wrote (Turner, 17).

Viewed from this perspective, freedom in pre-industrial frontier America was freedom from a dominant and centralized federal government and towards what Turner termed “that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism” (Turner, 17). This definition is supported by writers like William Legget, and John C. Calhoun, who argued against the consolidation of broad political power in the hands of a few. However, that kind of freedom hinged on the opportunity for economic mobility for those seeking it,...

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...y which to govern it. The open frontier provided an outlet away from government and towards the individual, both politically and economically. On the most practical level, cheap land, requiring little capital investment, was always available in the territories and they offered a constant opportunity for economic advance as a result. Politically, the idea of frontier resonated with Americans as a place of almost anarchic individual freedom. The closing of the frontier symbolized both the end of the kind of unregulated economic growth and the distinct meaning of freedom that had been the hallmarks of the 19th Century.

Works Cited

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Dover, 1971.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of Frontier in American History.” In The

Frontier in American History. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/TURNER/>.

1-17.

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