Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

American Political Culture

The Frontier as Chain Reaction

Daniel J. Elazar

Students of the frontier know that the term was transformed by Frederick Jackson Turner from the European definition describing the border or border zone between two states or countries to what became the American one, which described the border between the settled and unsettled, the "civilized" and the "wilderness."1 The frontier, in Turner's view, was a dynamic process. Because he described the frontier region in the United States, a vast area in his time where both were combined, no distinction was drawn by him. However, in a relatively short time a definitional dichotomy would have developed, namely the difference between the frontier as a sparsely populated primitive region or occasionally a region of development and the frontier as the process of settling the unsettled, "taming the wilderness," i.e., the process itself.2 Today there are those who refer to the unsettled areas of Canada and Alaska, for example, or interior Australia as frontier areas because they are unsettled and sparsely populated, even though the assumption is that they are not ever going to be settled, that they will remain primitive regions. Canada, for example, has a hundred-mile-deep belt along its border with the United States which contains the vast majority of Canada's population. While development does take place in the Canadian north and similar regions elsewhere, it is far more static and much more in the form of semi-transient oases in the region than the site of an advancing process. This confusion resulted from the fact that Frederick Jackson Turner was able to identify and describe the process in connection with a very large region; namely, the westward movement of the United States across an unsettled or primitive continent to which European civilization or its American derivative was brought in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.

Although Israel was relatively more heavily populated than the United States even during its land frontier period, from just past the middle of the nineteenth century to just past the middle of the twentieth, approximately 100 years in length, it too was perceived by its Jewish settlers as being an area either unpopulated or primitive (that is, populated by a primitive non-European people) and in need of development to bring it up to modern -- meaning European -- standards.3 Today we no longer see the world in those terms, but we need to understand them to understand what happened not only in Israel but in those worlds settled by Europeans (or principally by Europeans) in the five hundred years after Columbus' "discovery" of America. We have to understand how those territories were seen by Europeans at the time, especially the explorers and pioneers of those frontiers.

Most scholars of the frontier have confined their studies to what Walter Prescott Webb referred to as "the great frontier," namely, the European expansion into new worlds for the five hundred years after 1492.4 Following Turner and Webb, a generation of scholars studied the American and other of the world's land frontiers to apply and/or test their theses. But the frontier goes beyond the rather limited segment of it identified by Turner and Webb and described by Billington and his colleagues.5

It is possible to look at the development of Western civilization from its earliest times through the prism of frontier theory.6 The very first frontier can be traced back to the emergence of civilization in southwest Asia in the fourth millennium BCE. The first account we have of the factors that went into the making of a frontier is to be found in the biblical story of Abraham (Genesis 11:27-12ff). As the first new nation, the biblical account of the history of Israel touches on most if not all of the subjects which helped define a land frontier, e.g., a "West," the role of migration and its impact on cultural change, the problem of land distribution, equal or equitable access to land, and the question of appropriate governmental forms.7

It may well be that parallel phenomena can be identified in Asia Minor, that is the northwestern extremity of West Asia. There a land frontier led to the development of the forms of Hellenic civilization. Our studies of Hellenic civilization and its origins have brought us to understand that that belt of Greek cities established along the western coast of Asia Minor were critically important in the development of Hellenic civilization.8 Applying Turnerian categories, we see that they played a role in that development similar to that played by frontier settlement elsewhere in later times. If so, both Hebraic and Hellenic civilizations had their origins in the West Asian frontier from the Negev to Asia Minor.

From there Western civilization expanded along two lines. One went westward through the Mediterranean, then northwestward through west central Europe and western Europe, across the North Sea to the British Isles and Iceland, and then across the Atlantic Ocean to North and South America. The other line moved northward around the Black Sea into the Russian steppes, then eastward across Siberia, then across the Bering Straits to Alaska where it turned southward. The two lines met at Ft. Ross in northern California, about 70 miles north of San Francisco, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, thereby completing the encirclement of the world.

Ft. Ross was an outpost built by the Russians in their efforts to penetrate southward, just north of the northernmost mission settlements established by the Spanish in the late eighteenth century in their effort to expand northward and just below the point where the British and Americans were penetrating into what was then referred to as the Oregon Territory. While circumstances brought about a Russian retreat after a relatively few years, that retreat was accompanied by greater British and American penetration into Alaska and the Yukon, continuing the links between the eastern and western branches of Western civilization, achieved after 3,800 years of "westering." Offshoots of the first line also spread northward into Scandinavia, southward to southern Africa, and eastward through south and southeast Asia to east Asia, in some cases having frontier characteristics.

In the century following the meeting of the two streams, the land frontier -- more accurately, the rural-land frontier -- was completely settled by the West and, except for a few isolated spots, ceased to be a vital force in the development of civilization. Indeed, in most places the frontier period was a short one, marked by the sociological and political fluidity of the settlement of new territories which, once occupied, ceased to manifest the characteristics of a frontier. This was the case, for example, in Latin America.

The Iberian settlement of Latin America began in the sixteenth century, a century before the modern frontier process with its dynamic characteristics opened up. There the Iberian settlers brought the social, political, cultural, and economic patterns of the late Middle Ages to territories rather heavily populated by aboriginal peoples, most living in highly developed civilizations with (for them) strong political frameworks. Nevertheless, they were relatively easily overwhelmed by the Spanish and Portuguese and their military technology. The populations remained, so that the land was not empty in any respect, and the techniques used to establish Iberian hegemony had to take that into consideration. The Spanish and Portuguese did so in the medieval manner.

The Modern Age: The Frontier Continues

In a few cases, however, the original rural land frontier set off a chain reaction which generated a continuing frontier process. Essentially this occurred only in the modern and postmodern epochs, beginning in the seventeenth century.

It is fair to say that all of the pre-seventeenth century territorial frontiers were one-time occurrences, bounded in a particular territory and time-span. The one possible exception, depending on definition, was that of the Jews, whose original land frontier was like all the others but whose history of exile, dispersion, and resettlement gave them at least two additional opportunities to return to the Land of Israel under frontier conditions. On the other hand, the frontiers, initiated simultaneously with the opening of the modern epoch or within that epoch, more often than not set off this frontier chain reaction.

The United States was founded with the opening of its rural-land frontier, a frontier which persisted for 300 years until World War I, more or less, and which brought with it the first settlement of this continent, spreading farms, ranches, mines and towns catering to those industries across the land. Early in the nineteenth century United States, the rural-land frontier generated an urban frontier which was based upon industrial development, just as the rural frontier was based upon the availability of free (or cheap) land. The generation of new wealth through industrialization transformed cities from mere regional service centers to producers of wealth in their own right. That frontier persisted for more than 100 years as a major force in American society as a whole and, as we shall soon have reason to note, perhaps another 60 years as a major force in various parts of the country. The population movements and attendant growth on the urban-industrial frontier created the second settlement pattern in the United States, of free-standing cities built around the new industrial base from coast to coast.

Between the world wars, the urban-industrial frontier gave birth in turn to a third frontier stage, one based upon the new technologies of electronic communication, the internal combustion engine, the airplane, synthetics, and petro-chemicals. These new technologies transformed every aspect of life and turned urbanization into metropolitanization. This third frontier stage generated a third settlement of the United States, this time in metropolitan regions from coast to coast, involving a mass migration of tens of millions of American in search of opportunity on the suburban frontier.9

In the mid-1970s, the post-World War II generation came to an end. As the new generation began, the third stage of the American frontier no longer seemed to be compelling. At the same time, despite the "limits of growth" rhetoric, there was every sign that a fourth stage was beginning -- a citybelt-cybernetic frontier generated by the metropolitan-technological frontier just as the latter had been generated by its predecessor.

The citybelt-cybernetic frontier first emerged in the Northeast, as did its predecessors, as the Atlantic coast metropolitan regions merged into one another to form a 600-mile long megalopolis (the usage is Jean Gottman's) -- a matrix of urban and suburban settlements in which the older central cities came to share importance if not prominence with smaller places.10 It was a sign of the times that the computer was conceived at MIT in Cambridge and developed at IBM in White Plains, two medium size cities in the megalopolis which have become special centers in their own rights. This in itself is a reflection of the two primary characteristics of the new frontier. The new locus of settlement is in medium size and small cities and in the rural interstices of the megalopolis. The spreading use of computer technology in everything from direct dialing of telephone calls throughout the world to microwave ovens is the most direct manifestation of the cybernetic tools which make such citybelts possible. The newspapers in the Northeast published frequent reports of the revival of the small cities of the first industrial revolution, particularly in New England, as the new frontier engulfed them. Country-wide, the media focused on the shifting of population growth into rural areas. Both phenomena are as much a product of direct dialing as they are of the older American longing for small town or country living. Both reflect the urbanization of the American way of life no matter what lifestyle is practiced, or where.

While the Northeast was first, like its predecessors the new citybelt-cybernetic frontier is finding its true form in the South and West, where these citybelt matrices are not being built on the collapse of earlier forms but are developing as an original form. The present sunbelt frontier -- strung out along the Gulf coast, the southwestern desert and the fringes of the California mountains -- is classically megalopolitan in citybelt form and cybernetic, with its aerospace-related industries and sunbelt living made possible by air conditioning and the new telecommunications.

The fourth frontier stage did not simply repeat the patterns of the previous three. The metropolitan frontier had rather exhausted those. Instead, the same chain reaction that set off the rurban-cybernetic frontier in essence generated a new form of space, cyberspace, as it has been labelled in the 1990s as people have become more aware of it. This is the space occupied by telecommunications obtained by electronic mail, faxes, and communications satellites. Cyberspace adds a whole new dimension to space, in essence a fourth dimension, that offers the same challenges as more conventional space did at the time of the land frontier and its two immediate heirs. Indeed, like those two heirs it absorbs conventional space within it and transforms the land and those things associated with it, such as time and distance, as much or more than the earlier frontiers did.

The American frontier is paradigmatic. The continuing frontier, wherever it is found, has all the characteristics of a chain reaction. In these lands of great opportunity, each frontier, once opened, has bred its successor and has been replaced in turn by it. Each frontier stage has generated its own new world with new opportunities, new patterns of settlement, new occupations, new challenges and new problems.

As a result, the central political problem of growth is not simply how to handle the physical changes brought by each frontier, real as they are. It is how to accommodate newness, population turnover, and transience as a way of life. This is the frontier situation. It is a recurring one in history and needs to be understood if we are to find ways to solve our problems, or at least meet them adequately, and at the same time, preserve those characteristics which have enabled certain countries to continue to develop for a period far longer than has been historically true in the case of other countries and societies.

Frontier Characteristics

The foregoing is meant to suggest that the frontier is not merely a dramatic imagery but a very real process, indeed the basic socio-technical process that informs the experience of certain people and countries. As a process, it is dynamic and essentially progressive, although fraught with problems of its own, as is every other dimension of human life.

So the rural-land frontier gave birth, in turn, to the urban-industrial frontier which in turn gave birth to the metropolitan-technological frontier, all in the modern epoch. In the postmodern epoch, the metropolitan-technological frontier has given birth to the rurban-cybernetic frontier which is the latest stage in the chain reaction. Today different countries are situated on different points of this chain reaction, principally animated by one or another of the four frontier stages, although more than one may exist simultaneously within a particular country. On the other hand, some countries have moved from the first frontier stage to the second or even the third and then lost the characteristics of a frontier. Still, the likelihood is that if the chain reaction is initiated, it will continue at least into the fourth stage.

A frontier in the sense used here involves ten characteristics:

  1. Frontier activities are those devoted to the exploration of that which was previously unknown and the development of that which was previously "wild" or undeveloped.

  2. The frontier involves extensive new organization of the uses of the land (or space), uses so new that they are essentially unprecedented but so much a part of the process in question that they will be applied across the length and breadth of the continent.

  3. The frontier involves an expanding or growth economy based on the application of existing technologies in new communities or new technologies in settled communities.

  4. The frontier movement, though manifesting itself as a single "whole," actually coalesces a number of different "frontiers," both geographic and functional, that exist simultaneously and successively; each with its own goals, interests, character, and frontiersman, yet all tied together by their common link to the central goals, interests, and character of the larger frontier of which they are parts.

  5. The frontier generates opportunities to grow, change, risk, develop, and explore within its framework amid elements of risk and action, and demands responses involving courage, freedom, and equality.

  6. There must be reasonably free access to the frontier sector of society for all who want it.

  7. A frontier situation generates a psychological orientation toward the frontier on the part of the people engaged in conquering it, endowing them with the "frontier spirit."

  8. The "feedback" from the frontier leads to the continuous creation of new opportunities on many level of society, including new occupations to be filled by people who have the skills to do so, regardless of such factors as family background, social class, or personal influence, thus contributing to the maintenance or extension of equality in the social order.

  9. The frontier feedback must influence the total social structure to the point where the society as a whole is significantly remade.

  10. The direct manifestations of the frontier can be found in every section of a country at some time (usually sequentially) and are visible in a substantial number of localities that either have, or are themselves, frontier zones.

The Frontier Spirit, Government, and Private Initiative

One of the elements that it is important to recognize is that, as a chain reaction, each of the frontiers generated its successor through myriad local and private activities. Government played its role, but these were not centrally planned movements, nor have centrally planned movements been able to generate frontiers. Government has a major role in providing the law and order necessary for frontier expansion, and for assisting in providing the infrastructure needed, usually at the initiative of those who are in the process of settling the frontier.

Government assists in supporting the exploration of what is to be the new frontier and it plays a major role in the public organization of the frontier region; but unlike in post-World War II theories of development, governments trying to plan development do not open frontiers. They are more likely to stifle them. Government, then, is not a pioneer but a supporter of pioneers. Changes in frontiers are initiated as frontiersmen see unexplored areas and explore them, and then pioneers see unexploited opportunities in those areas and pursue them. These mechanisms involve the accumulation of many relatively small actions on the ground, as it were. They cannot be pushed forward from some center.

In essence, that is what the frontier spirit is all about. To manifest itself it needs a great deal of freedom and willingness to take risks that really are risks -- that is to say, without some outside source protecting the risk-takers from negative consequences because that same outside source will limit the benefits which can be gained from the positive results. People with the frontier spirit see opportunity where others see only danger; will tend to say "yes, it can be done," rather than immediately responding "no, it has never been done before." Most can handle the ups and downs of risk-taking and are able to begin again, if necessary.

The frontier spirit animates two types of people: frontiersmen and pioneers. Frontiersmen are those who go out ahead of the camp and who gain their primary satisfactions from exploring something new or from the fallout of being first at something and thus freer with regard to it than those who follow them. They may or may not gain the more conventional benefits of pioneering but often do not, nor are those their primary interest.

Pioneers, on the other hand, seek those conventional gains. First and foremost, they follow the frontiersmen to plant settlements where only explorers have gone before them; in the imagery of the land frontier, to farm the land rather than merely trap furs on it, not to invent computers but to establish networks in cyberspace and profit from them.

In sum, frontiersmanship and the frontier spirit are as much a part of culture as of personality. Personality may be the most important when we try to identify individuals with that spirit, but certain cultures appear to produce more people with those personality traits than do others. Anthropologists have explored the relationship between culture and personality for a century and we will not try to review all of that literature here.11 Inkeles has suggested a concept which does apply here, that of modal personality.12

Some cultures seem to have a penchant to produce a modal personality that is frontier-oriented. Even in such cases, no doubt, we are talking about a minority of the population, but a minority significant and large enough to influence the entire society. This is similar to the case of other kinds of revolutionary movements, particularly religious, where whole populations are moved by key minorities in key positions.

In 1958, at the dawn of the space age, the New York Times published a short poem by A. Kulik entitled "Pioneers" that summarizes the frontier spirit as well as anything:

Across the years, in every clime, they were a different breed; on ice or sand, on sea or land, they answered to the need.
The need to find the thing that called
From out of some Other place that must exist beyond the mist Of intervening space.
And now the winking stars send out
That whisper, soft and low....
But they can hear, and it is clear that they will have to go.13

Frontier Stages and Development

Just as government cannot take the lead in frontiersmanship, so, too, frontiersmanship and pioneering cannot be inculcated within a relatively short space of time by conscious effort. It may be that development can be, but that is something else again. For example, of the frontiers of modernity, all but one were initiated in western, northwestern, and northern Europe, principally by the English-speaking peoples. These frontiers, in turn, have continued to attract people from all continents, races, and religions as individuals who have the frontier spirit and who find their way to the frontiers. But in most cases their societies, whatever progress those have made, have not been able to do so in a frontier-like manner, even when they have succeeded in development.

The most successful frontiers have been those of the United States, Canada, and Australia. In all three, the original settlers were English-speaking, reinforced by others from western, northwestern, and northern continental Europe. In all three cases, the lands they occupied were large enough to allow the frontier processes to work themselves out as completely as they ever have. There was enough space for the land frontier and for the generation of other frontiers through chain reaction in due course without having to endure those transformations too quickly or, for that matter, too slowly either. In all three, the indigenous populations, who to some degree posed barriers to the frontier process, and certainly were unfairly handled in the process because of the attitudes of the pioneers, were very small relative to the pioneering populations and, at least after the initial phase of settlement, could only serve as nuisances in their effect on the advancing frontier.14

South Africa, New Zealand, and Iceland partook of the same initial frontier thrust; the first principally by Dutch- and French-speakers of a Reformed Protestant background; the second by English-speakers of the same kind as those who went to the United States, Canada, and Australia; and the third a millennium earlier by Scandinavians. In all three cases there were deviant circumstances that limited the implementation of the classic frontier model in some way. In South Africa, in the white community the frontier model has played itself out in the classic pattern, but until very recently blacks were excluded from equal access to its benefits. Since the black population vastly outnumbered the white settlers and their descendants, this generated an enormous distortion which is only now being overcome, and whose consequences with regard to the continuing frontier are still unclear.15

In New Zealand, the smallness and isolation of the island country have limited the impact of the chain reaction subsequent to the land frontier stage. It exists, but apparently is not as extensive as in the classic models.16 Iceland was settled as a land frontier well before the modern epoch and then became isolated, so its frontier of development was interrupted. Iceland's isolation and small population operate against a continued frontier of development.17

Israel is the only example of a successful frontier initiated by people outside of the previously described area of Europe. It was initiated by Jews, principally from Eastern Europe but also from the Islamic world. Its exceptionalism can only be explained by the Jewish cultural component of its frontiersmen and pioneers which has included a strong frontier dimension since biblical times, reinforced by the circumstances of the Jewish people, which have involved continuous uprooting, migration, and having to reestablish themselves in new places. These have served to reinforce many of the cultural and social characteristics associated with frontiers.

Israel was also the last European frontier opened in the nineteenth century, either considerably or slightly later than the others. The Jewish pioneers also encountered a large indigenous population which, while not primitive in the way of aboriginal peoples, were "Old World"; that is to say, set in a traditional culture that they were prepared to modernize to a degree but did not intend to abandon for frontier-like adventures. Still, in the short space of four or five generations, Israel has passed through or into all the frontier stages and the chain reaction seems to be working for it as it has for the classic frontiers.18

The Iberian world in both its Hispanic and Lusitanian branches has not been successful in generating true frontiers. The initial colonization of Latin America was indeed a frontier experience, but it ended with the reimposition of a modern variant of the medieval feudalism that they brought with them. Subsequent efforts at modernization in Latin America have removed much of the medieval component of that feudalism, but have drawn their effective models from modernizing Europe rather than from New World frontiers.19

Siberia might have been a frontier area and, indeed, scholars who have studied its settlement have found some frontier-like characteristics, but its domination by autocratic Russian regimes and settlement by Russian pioneers who were not themselves transformed kept it from being a true frontier.20 In a different way the Caribbean islands, though in part settled by the same peoples who generated frontiers elsewhere, were too small to allow their settlers enough scope for the development of full-blown frontiers. Also, the forced importation of Africans who came as slaves without any desire to migrate at all, much less with a frontier spirit, and who rapidly became majorities in many of those islands, also served to stop the continuation of the frontier once the islands were initially settled.21

While the frontier lands may have been settled at different times, by today they have more or less caught up with one another. The United States remains the most advanced in the chain reaction of frontier stages, Canada a very close second, and Australia and South Africa slightly further behind. New Zealand and Israel follow them, but both are already entering into the fourth frontier stage, hardly a generation after the United States did so. This is because of the diffusion of frontier-generated invention throughout the world to frontier areas and others. Those countries with the frontier spirit may pick up those inventions more rapidly and thereby move forward at a pace similar to that of their sisters, but those inventions are available to almost any developed country.

It often seems that development through modernization is the same as development through frontier, but there are important differences. Frontier societies assault and ultimately replace traditional societies, in part because of the importance of migration in detaching the migrants from the sources of their pre-frontier traditions. Modernized societies, even developed ones, have modernized in place, so that their people have never been detached from their traditional environments; instead they have had to modify their traditions in place.

The differences in migration patterns between frontier and non-frontier societies also are very great and quite influential. The people who settled in frontier lands for the most part chose to migrate to those lands and hence were willing to uproot themselves. Once in the new lands, many, if not most, continued their migratory patterns. They and their descendants have not been afraid to move from place to place in search of opportunity. This is true not only in the three large frontier lands, but also in little Israel, where the amount of movement of individuals and families from place to place in a relatively small area, also in pursuit of better housing or better job opportunities or other kinds of opportunity, resembles that in the large frontier lands.22

In the Old World, on the other hand, even in the developed Old World, residents were not interested in migrating. They, too, were self-selected; they stayed behind. If they, then, had to migrate from rural to urban areas because of changing economic conditions, they tried to make one move and one move only and then to reestablish themselves. In Germany, for example, industrialists have found that it is easier to build factories near the workers than to get the workers to move to where the industrialists would prefer to locate the factories. People just do not move. Now, when commuting distances have increased greatly, some of these limitations can be overcome in the manner of a compromise. As in the case of the substantial rural to urban migrations of the Third World, while they may bring about some characteristics which resemble those of frontier societies, they are not frontier migrations.

Table 1 summarizes the four frontiers and their characteristics, noting the frontier stage, the principal manifestations of each frontier stage, and the approximate years in which each frontier country of modern times passed through that frontier stage. This paper has already described the four frontier stages. With regard to the principal manifestations listed, in each the principal innovative pattern of settlement is listed first, the economic base second, and the character and role of cities is listed third. Political innovations are fourth on the list, the dominant modes of transportation including innovations are fifth. Each is worthy of a chapter in and of itself.

Rural-Land Settlement of New Lands
Agricultural / Extractive
  Economic & Social Bases
Cities Serve Tasks of Rural
Founding of New Polities
Simple Roads & Animal
  Powered Transportation
Federal Arrangements
United States (1607-1917)
Canada (1608-1929)
Australia (1784-1929)
New Zealand (1814-1872)
South Africa (1652-1899)
Israel (1840-1973)
Iceland (850-1261)
Caribbean (1492-1714)
Latin America (1519-1890)
Urban-Industrial Settlement & Growth of
Manufacturing and Related
  Commercial Economic
  and Social Bases
Cities Became Independent
  Generators of Wealth
Founding of New Civil
Railroad and Telegraph
United States (1816-1929)
Canada (1877-1976)
Australia (1914-
New Zealand (1948-
South Africa (1948-
Israel (1927-
Iceland (x)
Caribbean (x)
Latin America (x)
Metropolitan-Technological Growth of Conurbations
New Technologies and
Provide Economic and
  Social Bases
Independent Metropolitan
Multiplication of Local
Automobiles and Aviation
  Telephone, Radio & TV
United States (1898-1976)
Canada (1948-
Australia (1948-
New Zealand (1968-
South Africa (1948-
Israel (1968-
Iceland (x)
Caribbean (x)
Latin America (x)
Rurban Cybernetic Settlement of City Belts and
Combining Rural and Urban
Service Economy and
  Cybernetic Technologies
World Economic
Confederal Arrangements
Advanced Transportation
United States (1977-
Canada (1977-
Australia (1977-
New Zealand (1977-
South Africa (1977-
Israel (1977-
Iceland (x)
Caribbean (x)
Latin America (x)

With regard to the final column, nine new societies, all but one a product of the modern epoch, are identified. Iceland, the only exception, is included because it represented a clear example of a medieval frontier whose history is known to us. Three -- Iceland, the Caribbean frontier, and the Latin American frontier -- involve one stage only. In that sense they are less than true frontier societies as discussed in this paper since they were unable to generate the requisite chain reaction to initiate other frontiers. The other six have succeeded in generating those chain reactions and, once begun, have continued to move from one frontier stage to the next. Indeed, while each began at its own time and with its own rhythm, through each frontier stage their rhythms have moved closer together until by the fourth they were essentially the same.

The Tragic Dimensions of the Frontier

All of the foregoing might suggest that the frontier is an unmitigated blessing, but like every aspect of human life it has its tragic dimensions. The most easily known and widely recognized today are the tragedies that accompanied the displacement of the aboriginal inhabitants by the new settlers, often in the most brutal ways, and the injustice and inequalities that have resulted.

More recently, we have come to place great emphasis on the environmental tragedies that have accompanied the frontier. In the rush for the benefits of the frontier, no attention was paid to long-term consequences, in some cases because they were not even suspected, but in others simply because rapaciousness and greed became the dominant influences on pioneer behavior. There were also many mistakes based upon miscalculations. For example, resources, with forests or wildlife or minerals, were often thought to be inexhaustible when they were not. However, that recognition is not altogether new. Nevertheless, it often was neglected until the rise of the conservation movement in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and even more so the ecological movement in the Western World in the latter part of the twentieth.

Less frequently noted are the tragedies of the backlash of the frontier, that is to say, what happened to the people who either failed on the frontier or who, born in frontier areas and raised as the products of the frontier, could not cope with the frontier environment and became sociopathic in one way or another. Along with this were those areas which fell victim to the advancing frontier as the result of emigration, economic obsolescence, or in a relocation out of the line of development as a result of the moving frontier, all of which caused and causes tremendous dislocations for existing places and populations. One need only think of the cut-over lands of the land frontier or the contrast between the "rust belt" and the "sun belt" in the latest stages of the North American frontier or, even worse, the development of urban black ghettos in the backwash of the urban-industrial frontier in the United States that brought blacks northward in the search for opportunity but then left their descendants without possibility for employment as the urban-industrial frontier faded into history.

While frontier phenomena are cultural and depend upon the relatively widespread existence of a frontier spirit, even in the most successful frontier lands there are people who do not have that spirit, who are not suited to pioneering for one reason or another. Even if they are the descendants of people who were, they may not have inherited their parents' or grandparents' predilections. Thus they become the casualties of the frontier, with the social inequality that results.

The final tragedy of the frontier usually is only recognized by those who suffer from it, yet it is in a certain sense the most poignant of all, i.e., closely conforming to the original meaning of tragedy; that is to say, that tragedy arises out of the very circumstances of the human activity involved. This is the tragedy of the frontiersmen, explorers, and pioneers who inevitably destroy what they love through their very successes. The people attracted to the frontier and successful on it normally are those who, as we have already suggested, are frontiersmen or pioneers; that is to say, those who have the qualities necessary for the frontier and who find the frontier experience exhilarating. As they succeed, however, they tame the frontier and remove their raison d'etre, ending up in the end at best as old folks reminiscing about a glorious past and at worst as people broken by their own successes.

The Americans have a literature which describes this, written mostly by Westerners who either experienced it or who witnessed the results of this tragedy with their parents and grandparents. John Steinbeck's The Red Pony comes to mind as one of the first great works of that genre.23 Steinbeck was from a pioneer family in California. More recently, Larry McMurtry of a pioneer West Texas ranching family wrote Lonesome Dove, the story of two aging Texas Rangers who are lost in the world that they helped to establish, who no longer have a place in it, and who seek one last frontier adventure before their active lives come to an end.24 Many of John Ford's later Western movies deal with the same theme, often with John Wayne as the tragic figure. As one who has been fortunate enough to have experienced all four frontier stages -- growing up in Minnesota in the shadow of the closing of the land frontier, living in Chicago in the last stages of the urban-industrial frontier, having been a settler on the metropolitan-technological frontier, and an active pioneer on the rurban-cybernetic frontier -- these characteristics and tragedies are an integral part of my own life experience and I can attest to their reality.

Since we cannot know the future, we do not know whether the frontier chain reaction will continue or whether it is a particular phenomenon of modernity that has been able to carry on into postmodernity but will then come to an end. At the same time it is not unreasonable to assume that the chain reaction, once begun, will continue unless overwhelmed by some external force. It is possible to see future frontier stages having to do with technological change, biological (genetic) alterations, or space exploration. They will transcend the lands and waters of Earth, to occupy cyberspace and outer space. If these come about, then understanding the frontier as a continuing phenomenon will be even more necessary in order to understand human civilization. Even if not, those portions of human civilization which are the products of the frontier process have been found on the cutting edge of civilization and their frontier background is worth exploring in order to better understand them.


1. Both uses are prefigured in the Bible where the Hebrew term gevul, today translated frontier as in border, actually means the borderlands region, whereas border itself in proper Hebrew is kav gevul (the borderline). That usage carries over into modern Hebrew with regard to borders and borderlands. Modern Hebrew has, however, another word for frontier in the Turnerian sense, sfar, which also has both connotations of the word frontier.

2. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962).

3. Aharon Kellerman, Society and Settlement: The Jewish Land of Israel in the Twentieth Century (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).

4. Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Frontier (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).

5. In 1963, this writer was doing research at the Henry Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where one of the senior scholars in residence was the great Western historian Ray Allen Billington, who had left Northwestern University to move out to that great center of frontier studies, the repository of the Turner papers. When I came to the Huntington Library from Israel, Ray wanted to hear all about my experiences in actually crossing a frontier line, going back to 1953 when the line was even more distinct just south of Beer Sheva, until 1963 where it still could be noted moving southward around Sde Boker and Mitzpe Ramon. Noted frontier historian though he was, he had never had that experience. Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (New York: Macmillan, 1967); and America's Frontier Heritage (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966).

6. The thesis advanced here is presented in greater detail in Daniel J. Elazar, Cities of the Prairie: The Metropolitan Frontier and American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1970) and idem, The Metropolitan frontier: A Perspective on Urbanization in America (New York: General Learning Press, 1973).

7. Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press, forthcoming), ch. 6.

8. Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (Garden City, NJ: Rand McNally, 1962).

9. A very useful description of this new frontier and its political implications was provided by Samuel Lubbell when it was at its height in The Future of American Politics (New York: Harper and Row, 1965). See also Deborah Dash Moore, At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981); and To the Golden Cities (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

10. See Jean Gottman, Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard in the U.S. (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1964); Daniel J. Elazar, "The 1980s: Entering the Citybelt-Cybernetic Frontier," Publius, vol. 10, no. 1 (Winter 1980).

11. Clyde Kluckhohn, "Cultural Behavior," in Gerdner Lindzey, ed., Handbook of Social Psychology (Cambridge, Mass.: Addison, 1954); Ralph Linton, The Cultural Background of Personality (New York: Appleton-Century, 1945); Seymour Martin Lipset and Leo Lowenthal, Culture and Social Character (New York: Free Press, 1961).

12. Alex Inkeles and Daniel J. Levinson, "National Character: The Study of Modal Personality and Sociocultural Systems," in Handbook of Social Psychology, op. cit.

13. New York Times, 12 September 1958.

14. On the U.S. frontier, see Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Frontier, op. cit.; and Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History, op. cit. On the Canadian frontier, see Pierre Berton, The Wild Frontier (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978); Arthur R.M. Lower, Colony to Nation (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977). On the Australian frontier, see Alan Lindsay McLead, The Pattern of Australian Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963); Geoffrey Norman Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australian History (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1977).

15. Robert Lacour Gayet, A History of South Africa (New York: Hastings House, 1978); Manfred Nathan, The Voortrekkers of South Africa (London: Gordon and Gotch, 1937); Oliver Ransford, The Great Trek (London: J. Murray, 1972).

16. W.H. Oliver with B.R. Williams, eds., The Oxford History of New Zealand (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981); David Oswald W. Hall, Portrait of New Zealand (Wellington: A.H. and A.W. Reed, 1957).

17. Kirsten Hastrup, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland: An Anthropological Analysis of Structure and Change (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).

18. Daniel J. Elazar, Israel: Building a New Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986); Aharon Kellerman, Society and Settlement, op. cit.

19. Robin A. Humphreys, The Evolution of Latin America (London: Oxford University Press, 1946); German Arciniegas, Latin America: A Cultural History (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1966).

20. Donald Warren Treadgold, The Great Siberian Migration (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).

21. Bonham C. Richardson, The Caribbean in the Wider World, 1492-1992 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

22. Eliyahu Ben-Moshe, Tahalikhei Hegira P'nimit B'Yisrael: Heibetim Demografiim, Etniim ve'Hevratiim (Internal Migration Processes in Israel: Demographic, Ethnic, and Social Aspects) (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 1989).

23. John Steinbeck, The Red Pony (London: Corgi, 1971).

24. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).

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