Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

American Political Culture

A Frontier Society

The American Mosaic, Chapter 3

Daniel J. Elazar

If students of the American character can agree upon any one thing, it is that the compulsion to move about has created a nation of restless wanderers unlike any other in the world. The people are forever on the go. They cross from place to place in a room, drive unbelievable distances to consume a meal that they could have obtained nearer home, travel interminably by car to country clubs where they transfer to electric carts from which they emerge occasionally to swat a golf ball, and seemingly spend half their lives in automobiles waiting for traffic jams to clear. They squander their vacations by hurrying to distant points and hurrying home again. They shift from country to town, from town to suburb, and from suburb to country. They abandon one home for another with such predictable frequency that bank statements and dividend checks include for convenience a change of address card. When the fever strikes, the American goes, indifferent to the risks and scornful of that attachment to place that restrains the European.
    Ray Allen Billington, America's Frontier Heritage (1966)

Ray Allen Billington, a leading contemporary historian of America's frontier experience, succinctly describes the American desire for mobility by touching on aspects of the nomadic culture familiar to virtually all Americans.1 The continuing American penchant for migration is well known; its connection with the continuing American frontier is not.

Immigration to the United States was responsible for the population and settlement of the country. Emigration from settled communities to new frontiers has continued the process initiated by the initial immigration through each frontier stage. The very fact of migration is a vital element in American life, affecting the shape of its civil society, the character of its communities, and the political demands of its population. It makes possible social mobility through physical movement which breaks up fixed status patterns and limits the development of static population groups in particular localities. Governmentally, migration has turned public attention to national political institutions as the only ones capable of dealing with problems that it has pushed across state boundaries.

The generational rhythm of American politics is intimately connected with the continuing American frontier, which has provided the context in which Americans can express their penchant toward perpetual motion, the search for new horizons. Thus the continuing American frontier is intimately connected with the flow of generations. Indeed, while the first frontier emphasized space more than time, each subsequent frontier has further shifted toward an emphasis on time as the medium within which space is transformed. It is that shift along the space-time continuum that has made the continuing frontier possible in the American experience. This chapter explores the character and content of the American frontier through three stages and into a fourth, explaining why change in America must be seen as a frontier phenomenon and connecting the frontier movement to the rhythm of the generations.

The settlement of the United States was part of the great European frontier experience that began with Columbus and continued until the 20th century and transformed the society and politics of Western civilization.2The great frontier began with the discovery of America and spread until Europeans had colonized every uninhabited or sparsely inhabited land within their reach: the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, Southern Africa, and Siberia, to mention only the largest. The American frontier experience is unique, as is each of the others. The uniqueness of each was produced by the particular pattern of interaction of three factors: 1) the environment upon which the frontier process operated, 2) the character of the peoples who were involved in the frontier experience, and 3) the particular times in which the experience unfolded. The interaction of these three factors continues to provide the ecological basis for political life within the new societies that were created in each case.

The Frontier and the Generational Rhythm

There is a close connection between the movements of the American frontier, the generational rhythm of American life, and the migratory rhythm of the American people. In many respects, the dynamics of the frontier process played out on the American landscape over the past 350 years provide the link between the spatial and temporal dimensions of American civil society. If each generation has had to respond to challenges confronting it, the challenges themselves are products of the country's continuing frontier experience. In American history, the continuing frontier has been the crucial measure, if not the decisive factor, in the progression of generations and centuries and in the constant movement of the American people. At the same time, it has served as the source of natural renewal that has kept American society dynamic and open and the stimulus for changes in the federal system.

The driving force behind American society is the continuing American frontier, the effort on the part of Americans to come to grips with untamed elements of nature and, by taming them, to reorganize their society. The continuing frontier is the source of renewal which sustains the United States as a "new society." Each successive frontier stage has opened new vistas and new avenues of opportunity for the American people in the development of new economic activities, the creation of new settlement patterns, and the mastery of new social problems growing out of the collision of old patterns and demands. Consequently, it has generated new political concerns revolving around the accommodation of the challenges and opportunities resulting from it.

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), the great historian of the American frontier, put it thus.

Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications, lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions. The peculiarity of American institutions is, the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people -- to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life...American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this great nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the great West...

He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American lie has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise....The stubborn American environment is there with its imperious summons to accepts its conditions: the inherited ways of doing things are also there; and yet, in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, 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, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier.3

How to Identify a Frontier

Application of the frontier concept to contemporary American life is not simply a dramatic way to describe change in dynamic society. A frontier is something much more fundamental than that. It is a multi-dimensional wilderness (or primitive) "area," which invites human entry for purposes of "taming" it for "civilization." One major characteristic of the frontier in its American usage is that it suggests that the primary human confrontation is between people and nature rather than between people themselves.

Ten basic conditions appear to be present in every frontier situation.

  1. The frontier involves extensive new organization of the uses of the land, 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 during the course of frontier expansion.

  2. 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.

  3. There must be an expanding, or growth, economy based on the application of existing technologies in new communities or new technologies in existing communities.

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

  5. There must be the opportunity to grow, change, risk, develop and explore within the framework of the frontier, thereby increasing freedom from past restraints and demanding courageous action.

  6. There must be reasonably free access to the frontier sector of society for all who want it; and migration must be a major factor in gaining that access.

  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 levels 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 society as a whole is significantly remade.

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

These ten criteria can be found recurring in every stage of the American frontier. Because each stage is more complex than its predecessor, the manifestation of the criteria are also more complex. Moreover, they obviously have differential impacts at different times and are never as fully realized as the model might imply. It is not likely that everyone or even the majority in a frontier society will be involved in realizing them or even be committed to their realization. In any society, the frontier sector is a relatively small one and the frontier men occupying it are relatively few in number. But a frontier society is a perennially "emergent society," growing and changing, marked by the tone set by the frontier sector and its pioneers.

The Classic Land Frontier

The original and classic frontier was, of course, the land frontier opened by the first British and Northern European settlers of America in the early 17th century. The land frontier or, more properly, the rural-land frontier, was the first frontier in every state and section of the United States as American moved progressively westward. The rural-land frontier persisted as a major force (though not the only frontier) on the American scene until its passing at the close of World War I (1918), when the extended settlement of virgin land anywhere in the country virtually ceased. As the classic American frontier, it has become the model for all subsequent frontier situations.

The dominant characteristics of the rural-land frontier were the preoccupations of a predominantly rural America with the settlement, development, and political organization of the land itself through the establishment of a civil society based on agricultural pursuits. The cities which emerged in that period were, from the first, important institutions in American society developed to serve this rural-land frontier. Their primary function was to engage in "agribusiness," serving as commercial, social, intellectual, and political centers for agricultural regions; and, secondarily, to serve as workshops supplying the increasing number of manufactured "necessities" required by the farmer.4 During the 300-year epoch of the rural-land frontier, the basic social and political institutions, as well as the basic political culture of the United States and of its subdivisions were formed, shaped by the frontier experience itself.

All then frontier criteria were substantially fulfilled on the classic rural-land frontier. In the first place, there was obviously the land, a wilderness to be settled, and tamed for a wide variety of new uses. Exploration of unknown territories and their subsequent settlement was the essence of the frontier process. The people who came to explore or tame the land were conscious of their involvement in a great task, no matter how they defined it; they had the "frontier spirit."

During the history of the rural-land frontier, excepting only temporary periods of depression and recession, the American economy was an expanding one, growing at what would be considered a phenomenal rate. The overall land frontier combined several very specific frontiers, e.g., the agricultural frontier, the mining frontier, the cattlemen's frontier, the transportation frontier, as well as the various regional frontiers from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific slope. It is hardly necessary to delineate the role that various forms of risk played in the conquest of the land frontier, whether the risk of the eastern capitalist building a railroad or the risk of a sodbuster trying to create a farm on the prairie.

Action was, of course, the basic requirement and the major emphasis of the frontier "way of life." Courage was required, usually in the sheer physical sense of the term. And freedom and equality were concommitants of risk, action, and courage since the courage to take risks by acting invariably led to freedom and, on the whole, promoted social equality as well. There was a freedom to do all this out at the end of settlement, or at the limits of previous human activity, where greater equality of condition was the general rule. Indeed, society's greatest rewards went to those who made use of that freedom (though obviously only to a few of them) in any number of ways.

Generally speaking, access to the frontier was unlimited, except insofar as government imposed limits equally on everyone. It simply involved a willingness to migrate westward. Though this was not entirely true in practice, one of the major tasks of politics in the days of the land frontier was to keep making the adjustments necessary to insure a reasonable degree of equal access.

Of course, not everyone "made it" on the rural-land frontier. There were failures, both individual and communal as reflected in the many ghost towns that still dot the American landscape -- though some made people rich in their heyday. Just as the frontier was open to the virtuous, so also was it open to the unscrupulous who saw it as an opportunity to "make a killing," often in quite literal ways.5 Frontier conditions of change, movement and loose social restraints can give rise to rapacious attitudes and violent practices toward humans and nature. Thus, among the many casualties of the frontier, the most notable, and tragic were the Indians (or Native Americans). In 1492 it is estimated that there were approximately 1,000,000 Indians in what is now the United States. By 1900 they were being referred to as "the vanishing Americans" because warfare, disease and starvation had reduced their population to about 250,000. (Since that time, the Indian population has increased rapidly, reaching 1,789,000 identified Native Americans by 1989.) In 1984, nearly 800,000 were enrolled in their respective tribal reservations.6

Likewise, buffalo were slaughtered in huge numbers, trees were indiscriminately felled, and lands were worn out by improper cultivation. However, the necessarily seamy side of the frontier should not be overly dramatized, just as the virtuous side should not be overly romanticized. Both are part of the bundle of frontier images as well as tensions which have affected the course of American life.

Turner described the epoch of the land frontier as the period when settlement of the land was the most important factor shaping American life and democracy. He associated both the form of American civilization and its social and political functions with the peculiar set of challenges produced by the existence of the frontier. Accordingly, he viewed American institutions as adaptations to the changes experienced by a growing people whose expansion took place in an apparently open-ended arena. Contrasting the blessings of open-ended expansion with the problem of trying to expand in clearly limited space, like Europe, Turner concluded that democratic institutions are born and are able to take root in an open-ended frontier where the same "pie" need not be divided and redivided through internecine struggle, but continues to grow so that it can potentially provide enough for all comers.7

The openness, moreover, meant the absence of a need to battle an entrenched feudal class with controlling interests in existing lands, wealth and political arrangements. The "elbow room" available on the frontier presented opportunities for individual and social advancement, wealth-getting and political experimentation. The establishment of new communities and new enterprises tended to involve larger numbers of ordinary people in the decision-making and management aspects of politics and economics, thereby reinforcing grass-roots political action as well as individual self-reliance and self-confidence.8 The rural-land frontier also gave distinctive groups of people like the Mormons opportunities to establish new and more secure communities fashioned in accord with their own beliefs and ways of life.

Furthermore, the images of the frontier -- partly factual and partly fanciful -- held by Americans had a substantial psychological impact on American feelings of progress, mobility, optimism, and freedom. The grand images of the frontier and the eternal lure of a "second change" had become so compelling that the closing of the rural-land frontier was, for a time, greeted with dismay and not a little fear that the dynamism of America would also run down. As Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked in 1932: "Our last frontier has long since been reached and there is practically no more free land....There is no safety valve in the form of a western prairie to which those thrown out of work by the eastern machines can go for a new start." Many believed that the Great Depression was a natural consequence of the closing of the rural-land frontier.

Even though many of Turner's specific hypotheses about the influence of the frontier on American life have since been revised to take into account new evidence provided by more detailed research (including his own and that of his students), the main thrust of his conceptualizing remains a valid and useful tool for understanding American life.9 What Turner apparently did not foresee was that the rural-land frontier initiated a chain reaction which, even in his time, had led to the opening of a new frontier as the old one was fading, which, in turn, has since generated still another frontier. Turner's frontier was but one manifestation of a greater frontier which transcends the 300-year settlement of the lands of North America.

The phenomena that made the land frontier a distinctive human experience have recurred in essentially similar, if progressively more complex, forms in that the American experience experience to lead to the opening of new frontiers. The striking and patterned reappearance of certain elements originally associated with the classic land frontier at every stage of American development, including the present one, strongly suggests that the continuing frontier is a major force promoting and directing American social development, economic change, and the political responses to both.

The rural-land frontier profoundly affected the development of American society, both in the frontier zone and in the hinterland, by keeping American society in flux, rendering certain categories of privilege obsolete, providing the means whereby American society could continue to grow and change, and offering the promise of progress and a "second chance." The land frontier stimulated the creation of new opportunities for people to begin "on their own" and to succeed on their own merit. Perhaps its greatest success in this regard is the manner in which it gave rise to the urban-industrial frontier out of its own accomplishments, setting of off the chain reaction that the enabled one frontier to breed another.

The Urban-Industrial Frontier and Its Impact

The second American frontier was the urban-industrial frontier, which opened along the Atlantic coast after the War of 1812 and predominated in the greater Northeast after 1830, as the rural-land frontier moved westward. The urban-industrial frontier was to spread across the continent by the end of the century, directly manifesting itself in the still dominant greater Northeastern industrial heartland stretching from southern New Hampshire to beyond Lake Michigan were already clear. The essential characteristics of the urban-industrial frontier were to be most intensely expressed in this northeastern-midwestern belt. From the early to mid-twentieth century, these same characteristics were to find modified expression in specific cities and subregions of the great South and greater West.10

The primary characteristic of the urban-industrial frontier was the development of the industrial city as the major form of organized land use. New cities were established and old ones expanded, not merely as service centers for rural areas, but as independent centers of manufacturing, opportunity, capital and wealth accumulation, and social innovation. This new industrial frontier stimulated the development of intensive urban concentrations in the latter two-thirds of the 19th century and first third of the 20th, as it transformed the United States into an industrialized nation.

The urban frontier began the urbanization of American society before it became recognizable as a major frontier manifestation in its own right. There has been a growing migration to urban areas at least since the eighteenth century. Since 1790, the year of the first census, the rate in only one decade, between 1810 and 1820, before the emergence of the urban frontier as a force to be reckoned with. After 1820, the rate of urban growth accelerated while the rate of rural growth began to decline. When the urban frontier came into its own, the city became the center of American life even when city dwellers still represented a small minority of the total population. Virtually every city was taken in hand by its "boosters," who fervently desired to enlarge its size and position as a metropolitan center, to make it a bigger and supposedly grander metropolis than any other city ever, and, in the process, to glamorize urban living.11

By 1850, the urban frontier had become the dominant frontier in the East and the city had become the vanguard of the land frontier in the West. In general, the period between 1816 and 1876 was the "heroic age" for the foundation, incorporation, and growth of what are now the nation's largest cities, just as it was the heroic age for the conquest of the last land frontier. Indeed, the two phenomena went hand in hand. This overlapping of frontiers occurred at a time when the shape of the United States was being crystallized. It is significant that the bulk of the nation's population growth in the past two generations has taken place in the metropolitan areas surrounding the cities created in that era.

During this period when the distinctive American urban pattern took root, the largest cities in the United States were, with one or two exceptions, no bigger in population than the middle size cities of today. These cities grew really large only after 1890 when the land frontier had become secondary to the urban frontier which had become the primary source of individual opportunity and social development. In the years between the Civil War and the turn of the century, the combined influence of the two frontiers stimulated a process of "natural selection" which transformed some of those cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco into national and world centers while limiting others equally as old to lesser frontiers.

As in the case of the land frontier, the opening and progress of the urban frontier led to great changes in American life in a manner which substantially met the ten conditions of the frontier thesis. It involved extensive new organization in the uses of the land through the development of industrial cities with concentrated urban populations as the dominant from of social and economic organization in American life. The assault upon nature was transformed from a relatively simple matter of turning wilderness into productive land, usually agricultural, into a continuous innovative effort to exploit natural phenomena (steam, electricity) or extract and re-form raw materials (coal, iron) in unprecedented way. In place of the land explorer, the scientific innovator, so well typified by Thomas Edison (1847-1931), became the source of new discoveries and the trailblazer into the unknown, while the industrial entrepreneur and the factory worker replaced the commercial entrepreneur and the agriculturalist as the pioneers in the development of the discoveries of the inventor-explorer.

This, of course, had its price. Some of the successful entrepreneurs were justifiably referred to as "robber barons." The accumulation of vast fortunes meant that relatively small groups of individuals could have disproportionate effects on economic and political affairs. Aristotle's ancient warnings about the ill-effects of wealth getting were fully evident by the turn of the 20th century. Meanwhile, cities teemed with poor immigrants crowded into squalid tenements and sweatshops working long hours at low wages. Even before the Civil War, for example, the New York City house occupied by George Washington during his first years as President has been reduced to a crowded tenement. The urban-industrial frontier also saw the rise of urban political bosses -- men like George Washington Plunkitt of New York who "seen" their "opportunities" and "took 'em." the notorious Republican Gas Ring of Philadelphia earned that city the title of "City of Brotherly Loot." Labor-management violence replaced Indian-settler violence on the urban-industrial frontier while class, ethnic and racial conflicts became serious factors in American politics.

This was also the period of the emergence of the organizational society in the United States as people sought to create new bonds of association to replace older, organic bonds of family and community to serve a more mobile and complex society. This was reflected in the organization of labor unions, political parties, professional associations, large and small corporations, free public school systems and libraries, self-help organizations and philanthropic foundations, conservationist and other "do-gooder" associations, civic and ethnic clubs, not to speak of Protestant churches, Catholic parishes and Jewish synagogues. It was also reflected in the emergence of a civil service system accompanied by growing government bureaucracies. This organizational activity was primarily a consequence of the strife and flux of the urban-industrial frontier. It was necessary to develop organizational strength during this period in order to take advantage of the urban-industrial revolution. but organization was also necessary to defend oneself against its exploitative tendencies or to reform its more rapacious aspects.

Despite frequent corruption and periodic depressions, the nation's economy continued to expand at an even more rapid rate, past the "take-off" period described by W. W. Rostow and through the period of rapid industrialization with its corresponding increase in national wealth.12 A new technology fostered in great part by the demands of the land frontier, emerged to become a major force in the promotion of urbanization, industrialization, and economic growth, creating new secondary frontiers of its own. Cities grew up not only to produce ever more sophisticated agricultural implements but also the machine tools needed to make the former. The railroad, itself a revolutionary instrument in transportation technology, created over revolutions in the patterns of settlement on both frontiers. These, in turn, led to the emergence of new specialized functional frontiers (textiles, steel, food processing) or reorientations of old ones (transportation, mining, merchandising), plus new geographic ones.

The urban frontier provided new opportunities for making fortunes, for getting away from home, for taking financial and personal risks, and for achievements based on the willingness to act. There also existed the same kind of freedom to engage in these enterprises previously associated with the land frontier, both for the entrepreneur interested in the development of a new product and a new market and for the "man in the street" interested in new forms of earning a livelihood. The same "boom or bust" spirit, sense of boosterism, and feeling of pioneering found among the pioneers of the land frontier could be found among the developers of the industrial cities on the urban frontier. The popular literature of the day reflects this quite clearly.13

As on the classic land frontier, talent remained more important than either family background or inherited money, so access to the challenges and benefits of the urban frontier remained reasonably free. This access was extended broadly as new occupations developed at a rapid rate with openings for people on all social levels. The new occupations couple with the professionalization of old ones served to break down developing inequalities in the agricultural sector. What was required was migration to the city, whether from the American countryside or from the Old World. As in the case of the land frontier, where the promise of the frontier did not appear to be materializing as a matter of course, seekers of the promise took political action to rectify matters. Despite the tendencies of the new industrialism to promote large fortunes (almost invariably made by entrepreneurs from humble backgrounds), the forces of the urban frontier still operated to promote a rough equality of condition for the majority by destroying many of the established inequalities of the past.

The coming of urbanization transformed the social structure of American life, moving first the most energetic and ultimately the majority of the nation's population into the cities where they had to modify aspects of the agrarian outlook in an effort to meet the problems of high density living in a complex, highly organized society. It also changed the nation's demographic base by adding a polyglot population of Catholics and Jews from all over Europe to a previously overwhelmingly Protestant Anglo-Saxon base. Industrialization, with its introduction of recurring technological obsolescence, introduced a level of continuing change unheard of in any earlier society.

The Opening of the Metropolitan Frontier

The history of the urban frontier in the United States appears to envelope two contradictory trends. On one hand, the urban frontier brought about the urbanization of American society. On the other hand, even as the rate of urbanization began to accelerate, a counter, almost anti-urban, trend began to develop as well, a trend that would not become dominant until four generations later, in the 1920s when the physical setting of American society had become thoroughly urbanized.

Americans moved to the cities with seeming reluctance. Only in 1890, when the urban frontier was entering its highest stage of development, did the numbers of urban places in the United States exceed 1,000 and the urban population exceed one third of the total population). Not until after 1900 was one quarter of the nation's total population living in cities of over 50,000.

The urban population did not exceed the rural population until 1920, when the urban frontier was already passing the peak of its influence. That same year, the total population in cities of 100,000 and over came to exceed the total population in all smaller urban places. The age of the big city had seemingly arrived. However, no sooner did the big city become the apparent embodiment of the American style of life than it began to be replaced by a less citified style. The upward trend in the growth of big cities ended during the Depression, giving way to the development of medium size and smaller cities within large and medium metropolitan areas as a new embodiment of American urban life and a major aspect of the Third American frontier.

By 1950, the trend toward big city living had been reversed and the number of people living in cities of over 100,000 had declined to less than the number of people living in smaller urban places. By 1990, only 25 percent of the total population in the United States lived in urban places of more than 100,000 population, the lowest figure since 1910 and less than the percentage living in rural areas. The percentage of population living in cities of over one million, which had peaked in 1930, had declined sharply since then and was below the 1920 level by 1970. By 1980 the new trend was even sharper, with the percentage dropping below that of 1900.

All this occurred despite the increasing metropolitanization of the nation's population. By 1970, 6 percent of the nation's total population lived in the 243 Census Bureau-defined Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas. Although these SMSAs occupy only about 11 percent of the nation's land area, their population increased by 23.5 percent between 1960 and 1970, in contrast to the overall national growth of 13.3 percent. By 1980, fully 74.8 percent of all Americans lived in SMSAs which covered 16 percent of total U.S. land area, and by 1990 this number had grown to 77.5 percent.14

The positive yet reluctant response of most Americans to urbanize reflects a basic desire on their part to have their cake and eat it too. They want to have the economic and social advantages of urbanization, which they value for essentially hedonistic reasons, while preserving the erstwhile "rural" amenities of life -- both physical and social -- which they value for essentially moral and aesthetic reasons.15

The expansion of cities continued as long as city life was able to offer most of the amenities of "rural" living, as well as the economic, social, and cultural advantages of urban life, to those who were in a position to determine the city's growth. Throughout the 19th century, many newly settled suburbs and smaller cities were annexed to already large cities because their residents, or those holding power locally, felt reasonably confident that loss of their suburbs' independent political status would not mean an end to their suburban style of life. Not only did large cities continue to grow larger but small cities still aspired to become great metropolitan centers. City leaders were infected with the idea that "bigger is better" and that large organizations were more efficient and businesslike.

The full impact of big city life in its less attractive aspects -- crowding, apartment living, tenement slums, governmental remoteness, and lack of such natural amenities as clean air, grass, and trees -- had not become sufficiently apparent to the majority of the residents in their cities, so had evoked no negative response to the idea of indefinite city growth. thus, in 1854, Philadelphia grew from 2 to 129 square miles through a gigantic consolidation of city and county which absorbed the formerly independent suburbs of Northern Liberties, Spring Garden, Kensington, Southwark and Moyamensing. In 1898 the population of New York City increased by some two million and its land area jumped from 40 to 300 square miles when Manhattan (the original New York City) was joined with Brooklyn -- then the fourth largest city in the U.S. -- Staten Island, much of Queens, and a portion of Westchester County which became known as the Bronx to from a single city of five boroughs -- essentially the New York City of today.

The truth of the matter was that, before 1890, big cities in the United States had not yet become big enough to evoke these negative reactions, except in a few isolated cases along the eastern seaboard. This is not to say that many industrial cities did not have extensive tenement sections before 1890, but even in them, the majority of the socially and politically articulate population could still live in private or semi-private homes along tree-lined streets. Tenement living remained the preserve of newly arrived immigrants who as yet had little or no voice in civic affairs and little means to escape the tenements to which they were, in effect, confined.

There came a point in the development of most of the larger cities, however, when even the politically articulate city-dwellers found it difficult to maintain their semi-urban style of life. Even enlargement of the city limits came to mean the enlargement of the city's problems without any reasonable recompense. At the same time, several other factors coalesced to encourage metropolitanization in place of simple urbanization.

As maintenance of even the simpler rural-style amenities began to cost more money within the large cities, the wealthier city-dwellers began to seek new residences outside the city limits. The cities themselves began to run up against increased difficulties in their attempts to annex new areas, coming up against already existing cities which, while being suburbanized socially and economically, desired to retain their political independence in order to better maintain their distinctive character. It had become apparent that annexation to the great cities was tantamount to absorption into a citified environment with little or no possibility to control the extent of citification. Hence neither old residents nor new settlers fleeing the big city were willing to be brought into its embrace. Annexation, which had been relatively easy under the law in most cases, was made more difficult as the small cities on the fringes of the giants went to the legislatures with their demands for self-preservation. In fact, as these fringe area cities began to attract settlers from the central city, they frequently began to annex vacant land themselves, often in small and even medium size cities within the larger metropolitan regions that were in the process of formation.

Simultaneously, improved transportation technology made it possible for more people to move out of the great cities into surrounding area, while retaining jobs within the cities they left. This movement, begun in the days of the railroads and streetcars, was intensified with the development of the automobile and the construction of road suitable for heavy motor traffic. At the same time, the previously deprived groups living in the substandard areas of the large cities prospered sufficiently to seek alternatives to their relatively poor living conditions, while their offspring acquired the American taste for a semi-urban environment. Following the "old tenement trial"16 to the suburbs, they began to move out to a new metropolitan frontier where it became possible to live in the same style that earlier prestigious groups had endowed with considerable status. Moreover, as the movement to the metropolis accelerated in the country as a whole, many rural residents moved directly into the suburban fringes of the major cities, preferring them over city living from the first.

"Permanent" metropolitanization (as distinct from the "temporary" suburbanization of earlier years) began in the east in the last third of the 19th century in response to the urban frontier and spread to the larger cities in the middle and far west by the turn of the century, just as the urban frontier had begun in the heyday of the land frontier as a response to the needs of the land frontier and spread in the same manner. However, it was not until the close of World War II that the metropolitan frontier came into its own when the pressures to leave the great cities which had been building up through the Depression and war years burst their bounds. Thus, between 1960 and 1970 the population of central cities in metropolitan areas grew by 6.4 percent while their suburban areas grew at the rate of 26.8 percent.

The great migration to the suburbs was simply one aspect of the new metropolitan frontier. The urban-industrial frontier lost its primacy in the Great Depression. With the completion of the nation's basic urbanization and industrialization, the complex of opportunities needed for frontier-style development temporarily disappeared. Urbanizing and industrializing trends did persist in regions until then on the peripheries of the urban-industrial frontier, just as pioneering on the land frontier has continued in isolated areas. However, the opportunity to foster the continuous reconstruction of the social order associated with the frontier was no longer available through simple urbanization and industrialization.

So, after a brief hiatus due to the Depression and World War II, the third great manifestation of the American frontier began to unfold. Its reappearance as the metropolitan-technological frontier of science, suburbia, and synthetics led to the emergence of new versions of old frontier situations. As in the case of the land and urban frontiers, the metropolitan frontier is most immediately a local phenomenon that has spread within and across these sections in a generally east-west direction to become manifest nationwide. Movement on this new frontier, however, is not tied to national geography alone. While it has been moving across the continent, almost every one of the nation's urban center has responded to the new frontier locally be developing a metropolitan frontier of its own.

Thus frontier areas of new growth have emerged around the fringes of the great majority of the nation's urban centers. Within those urban centers areas of decline have developed because of an inability to respond positively to the new frontier's demands. They have come to resemble the "backwash" regions left in the wake of the earlier frontiers with all the problems of areas returning to "wilderness."

On the metropolitan frontier, land is once again a crucial factor. The "metropolitan fringe" -- the area of expanding urbanization and the non-urban area into which it expands -- is the locus of frontier expansion. Within the metropolitan area, it is even possible to delineate a frontier line (where settlement falls below a density of 500 people per square mile) which marks the limit of metropolitanization and to watch that line move as settlement expands. The metropolitan frontier has organized the use of land in a new way, combining densities that would be considered rural in much of the Old World with urban social and economic organization to create quasi- (or sub-) urban, metropolitan complexes encompassing cities of all sizes, towns, and villages, and rural dwellings.17

By the standards of the urban frontier era (which are all too often still applied in discussions of contemporary metropolitanization), the land uses of the metropolitan frontier are considered "urban sprawl." But, in view of the goals of deconcentration implicit in the development of these variegated metropolitan land use patterns, this so-called "sprawl" is what makes urban living tolerable to many (if not most) Americans. Even with the spreading of metropolitan forms of land use, as of 1987, 16.2 percent of the land area of the United States was within Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas and only about four percent of land outside the federal public domain (which represents approximately one-third of the total U.S. land area) was viewed as actually urbanized. More accurate survey techniques actually led to a decline in the latter figure in 1982, to three percent18 -- leaving what is, in effect, near-limitless area for future expansion of metropolitan settlement in this country, a key manifestation of its frontier character. Though land is no longer "free" or unoccupied and there is no longer the once-prevalent feeling that it is limitless, the facts of availability of new land for metropolitanization do not differ substantially from similar facts regarding the land frontier.

Though the physical world of the metropolitan frontier appears highly tamed, it is likely that humanity has never before confronted the "wilds" of nature to the extent that it does today with the new ability to explore under the oceans and outer space, the increased mastery of the physical, chemical, and biological structure of the universe, and the new technology. Of course, these wilds (or the wilderness they add up to) whether they be of this earth, below or beyond it, must be approached through the techniques of science rather than through the simple exertion of brute physical force (not that science did not supplement brute force on the land frontier or that physical power is no longer needed). This shift to the primacy of intellectual effort, with all its consequences for society as a whole, is itself one of the most profound impacts of the contemporary frontier.

The metropolitan land boom and the growth of "brain" industries are but two manifestations of the twenty year economic boom which began with the opening of the new frontier and, though occasionally slowed down by recessions, has continued as the feedbacks of the frontier (ranging from the demands of space exploration to the needs of newborn babies) have exerted increasing influence on the economy. The results of scientific exploration on the new frontier have stimulated the pioneering of many new technologies, so important that technological change has become the equivalent of land and industrialization as the motive force of the metropolitan frontier.

Case Study: The Automobile and the Metropolitan Frontier

As in the case of earlier frontiers, changes in transportation and communication technology were crucial in opening the metropolitan technological frontier. On this new frontier, the key to the expansion of settlement was the automobile, whose development is illustrative of the frontier impact of science and technology. From certain theoretical principles of physics, "discovered" by the first scientific explorers a century or more ago, the inventor-pioneers of the urban industrial frontier were able to create the internal combustion engine and, ultimately, the automobile. The new vehicle and the technology it represented rapidly revolutionized society, creating a myriad of new industries -- automobile manufacturing, the oil industry, an expanded military industry, and many others -- and providing a wide range of opportunities for those willing and able to take advantage of them. By 1963, at the height of the metropolitan frontier, over seven million jobs were directly dependent on the automobile, none of which had existed two generations earlier.

American society became automobile-oriented which, in turn, led to a revolution in its physical organization, its social structure, and its moral sense. The automobile, like the railroad before it, made possible the opening of new geographic frontiers. Whereas pre-automobile communities could only develop along rail lines, new ones could develop wherever roads could be built. This fact was of particular importance around the nation's cities. Suburbs, previously few in number and the preserves of the rich because they had to be located along railroad lines, now became accessible to the vast majority of the people, offering them better housing, lands and open space, and greater feeling of community. This, in turn, radically changed the uses of land in potentially suburban areas, the social structure of urban populations, and the political organization of metropolitan regions.

The automobile also extended freedom of travel to people who were unable to travel before, transforming isolated villagers into participants in wider regional communities. It changed the pattern of rural settlement no less than urban, turning villages into ghost towns, towns into small cities, while farm equipment using the internal combustion engine increased the size of economic farms many-fold.

The impact of the automotive frontier had some important (and often unforeseen) byproducts as well. The new automative society enriched numerous automobile manufacturers and dealers as well as manufacturers and dealers in subsidiary products, creating a whole new class of millionaires with interests and values reflecting the culture that made them. Thomas H. McDonald, for 34 years had of the federal Bureau of Public Roads, put the matter succinctly: "The roads themselves helped us create a new wealth, in business and industry and land values....So it was not our wealth that made our highways possible." It transformed the socio-economic structures of whole states, creating among other things, modern Michigan, contemporary Texas, and twentieth century California (the very acme of the new frontier). The automotive frontier also contributed to the new five dollar day, making it possible for black as well as other Americans to earn a living wage for the first time in their history on those shores and promoting their migration northward. In this and other ways, it broadened both the opportunities and horizons of a people previously restricted in every way with ease and contributed mightily to stimulating the present drive for black equality.

Not the least of the automobile's effects was the change it induced in family life, giving children greater freedom from parental control than at any given time in history. These changes, in turn, forced a variety of adjustments in traditional American social institutions. In the governmental realm, they profoundly influenced the structure and scope of government -- local, state, and national -- raising new problems of police, changing the span of political control and pressure, and making new demands on government in the social realm as well.

The automobile also produced new environmental, economic and social problems for America. Auto emissions raised levels of air pollution, especially in highly congested cities -- though the automobile was initially greeted by urbanites as relief from the pollution and odor created by hundreds of tons of horse manure along with dead horses lying about city streets. New legislation, like the various clean air acts, and new technologies have been required to try to reduce auto pollution. Although street, highway and parking spaces occupy no more than about two percent of the land area of the United States, auto critics have charged that highways are devouring the land. The increase in the number of automobiles and their travel speeds also produced a new source of death along with charges that automobiles are "unsafe at any speed." During the early 1970s the automobile, which consumed about 30 percent of all the oil used in the U.S. (with another 10 percent being used by trucks), was also linked to the "energy crisis."

More serious social problems arose with the construction of inner city freeways which, in many cases, destroyed pleasant neighborhoods and displaced people, especially the poor, whose homes stood in the way of automotive "progress." By facilitating the movement of people and jobs to the suburbs, freeways contributed to the erosion of tax bases in some big cities and to the increase in the proportions of poor and unemployed persons living within the big cities. In turn, urban renewal programs designed to attract suburbanites back to center city displaced still more low income people as their homes gave way to office buildings, shopping areas and upper income housing developments. On a national scale, the interstate highway system, coupled with air travel and refrigeration, facilitated the migration of people and jobs from the "frostbelt" to the "sunbelt" cities which became especially evident during the 1970s.

Nevertheless, despite the problems created or facilitated by the automobile, social criticism and mass transit schemes have not yet been able to lure Americans from their benefits still outweigh the costs, and many of these costs can be appreciably reduced without significant reductions in automobile usage.19

Like its predecessors, the metropolitan frontier was also a composite of many specialized geographic and functional frontiers. The automative and suburban frontiers have already been mentioned. The recreation and consumer frontiers are yet others, not to mention the particular frontiers of the eastern megalopolis or southern California. Each of these specialized frontiers offered many opportunities for exploration, growth and development, all requiring the taking of risks and active pursuit of frontier-style goals while offering great material and moral rewards. The builders of subdivisions, the creators of franchised "chains," the researchers in the laboratories, and perhaps even the promoters of psychedelic art and psychic renewal all potentially shared this aspect of the frontier experience insofar as their courageous application of effort brings them the rewards that comes from exploring or pioneering.

The very complexity of the metropolitan frontier and variety of specialized frontiers within it heightened the freedom of access to the frontier zone in one form or another. In particular, the existence of a standard body of scientific and technical knowledge formally (if not actually) available to all on the basis of ability alone whose mastery offered access to the frontier is simply a more complex variation of the kind of equality of access that prevailed in the days of the land frontier. Then the "standard body of techniques" grew out of physical prowess rather than intellectual ability but it served the same general purpose. Moreover, the use of intelligence as a prime means of access to the frontier is not confined to the realms of science and technology. Migration as a factor in promoting access not only involves movement from central cities to suburbs but from suburb to suburb and metropolitan area to metropolitan area.

If the publications and pronouncements of the press and mass media and the orientation of recent political campaigns were at all indicative of public attitudes, popular awareness of the frontier-like opportunities present in American society during the metropolitan frontier was very high and public response to the challenges of that frontier were no less impressive than in earlier periods in American history. All in all, the repeated references to "new frontiers" were not simply a matter of rhetoric. This frontier psychology existed despite the strong tendency in American society to view the problems of each era as unique, an outlook that in itself, reflects the thinking of people engaged on a frontier.

Frontier-based economic change brought even greater social fluidity. Rapid technological change stimulated the creation of new industries, creating new occupations on all levels of society which demand talents not transmitted by heredity and which consequently had to be open to those who qualified regardless of their social backgrounds. It has been reliably estimated that some 80 percent of the jobs that exist in the United States today were not in existence two generations ago, when the urban-industrial frontier was at its peak. Moreover, there has been a shift in the character of American occupational structure from production to service comparable to the shift from agriculture to industry produced by the advance of the urban frontier.20

At the same time, the social "feedback" from the advancing frontier continued to have strong pro-democratic effects on American social structure and civil society, promoting both freedom and equality through its continued fostering of social mobility and its expanding conception of the rights of all to participate equally in social and political life. The civil rights revolution, the war on poverty, and the emergence of radically new forms of individual freedom and self-expression were all in response to the frontier-related developments in postwar American society.

The greatest social contribution of the metropolitan frontier was the impetus it has given to the breakdown of major social and economic differences among population groups. As a result, the older institutions of the Republic and its subdivisions which had more or less excluded those non white, Protestant, and Northern European had to readjust to include the rest of the country's population in the system of politics and power, public and private, through which decisions are made.

That readjustment included desegregation of blacks and the election of the first Roman Catholic president, new access to the corporate world for Jews and the revival of ethnicity for the children of southern and easter European immigrants. All these changes were secured in a manner consonant with the American mystique and the basic institutions and tradition through which that mystique is expressed. As the very designation of the new frontier indicates, most of these adaptations had to be made in the community arena. Indeed, the best expression of the socio-political consequences of the new frontier has been in urban America as it has become transformed into metropolitan America. The key to the adaptation lie in that very transformation as the contemporary extension of the continuing American frontier.21

The Rurban-Cybernetic Frontier

In 1976, the post-World War II generation came to an end. Nothing symbolized this better than the election of Jimmy Carter, the first American president to have come of age since World War II, a man who ran on a platform that suggested that the issues of the post-World War II generation were no longer central in American life. 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 rurban or citybelt-cybernetic frontier generated by the metropolitan-technological frontier just as the latter had been generated by its predecessor.

The rurban-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.22 It was a sign of the times that the computer was conceived at MIT in Cambridge first built in the University of Illinois and Champaign-Urbana, and developed at IBM in White Plains, three medium size communities -- two cities in the megalopolis that have become special centers in their own right and the other two forming a freestanding small metropolitan area. 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. In 1979, the newspapers in the Northeast published the first reports of the revival of the small cities of the first industrial revolution, particularly in New England, as the new frontier engulfed them. A decade later, such places were booming -- in New England, in the Southern Piedmont, in the Colorado Rockies, and along the West Coast.23 Countrywide, population growth shifted into rural areas.24 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.

In 1983, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget recognized this phenomena by changing its definition of standard metropolitan statistical area (SMA) to metropolitan statistical area (MSA).25

Like the early definitions, an MSA is defined as including at least one city with 50,000 or more population. What is new is the addition of a Census Bureau-defined urbanized area of at least 50,000 inhabitants and a total MSA population of at least new standards provide that an MSA can be based upon "central counties," that is to say, where there is no clearcut central city -- a reflection of the new rurban settlement patterns. Although a larger city in each MSA is designated a "central city," there are often situations such as that of the Benton Harbor metropolitan area in Michigan which has a total population of 75,000, of whom only 12,000 live in Benton Harbor, a depressed older city that actually is the area's backwater but has been designated the "central city."

While the Northeast was first, like its predecessors, the new 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.

It is still too early to delineate with surety all the imperatives or even the propensities of the rurban-cybernetic frontier, but some are already visible. Perhaps first and foremost is the new sectionalism, the reemergence of an older basis of American politics in new form. The urban-industrial frontier brought in its wake a politics of class, reflected at its height in the New Deal and the political realignment of which it was a part. This politics of class attacked the division of urban America into "two cities," the "Protestant" and privileged versus the "ethnic" and denied. It persisted through the metropolitan frontier years in no small measure because even after affluence and influence came to Protestants and ethnic alike, it was reinforced by the transformed politics of race. As blacks moved from the Southern backwaters remaining from the old rural-land frontier to the world of the metropolitan frontier, their problems took on an economic dimension previously submerged by the legally enforced caste system.

The politics of class divided the country into liberals and conservatives, a division which most concede has become very blurred in recent years. The blurring of what were once relatively clear-cut differences is a reflection of the emergence of the new frontier with its new problems and politics revolving once again around "have" and "have not" sections whose economic interests are often diametrically opposed. Significantly, the emergence of this renewed sectionalism is tied to the end of the economic dominance of the Northeast. The "sunbelt-frostbelt" division is only one aspect of this new sectionalism; presidential contests have revealed how sharp are East-West divisions as well. The reallocation of House seats in the wake of the 1990 census will further sharpen these divisions as they are translated into new power balances in Congress and the Electoral College. These sectional divisions are reflected in lifestyle differences as well.26

The issues associated with what current idiom denominates "lifestyle" for the moment have contributed to a great weakening of the political party system and single issue politics. While these particular manifestations may be less long-lived than the conventional wisdom suggests, it is very likely that a continued concern with lifestyle issues will be a major propensity of the rurban-cybernetic frontier and at least some resolution of the conflicts associated with those issues will become a major imperative. This problem is intensified as the citybelt dimension, with its emphasis on smaller communities, will encourage recrudescence of the kind of territorial democracy that potentially allows different lifestyles to flourish without clashing, while the cybernetic dimension, with its propensity to foster a global village tied together by telecommunications, will work in the opposite direction.


The United States is a "new society" founded by immigrants from old societies who came to this once relatively open territory to establish new lives and communities. In the New World the settlers underwent a frontier experience which has continued to shape American political life. The American frontier has had four successive stages, each of which has generated sets of political, social and economic challenges, problems and opportunities. 1) The rural-land frontier saw the initial opening, settling and cultivating of the continent. 2) The urban-industrial frontier witnessed a rapid growth in the number and size of cities and of great centers of industry and capital. 3) The metropolitan-technological frontier has seen a second industrial revolution accompanied by a reverse in the trend toward big-city living. Instead, suburbs and free-standing towns in the small and medium-size range have experienced the greatest growth during the third frontier. 4) The rurban-cybernetic frontier is now in its early stages. It rests on a global revolution in communications and information technology which, in turn, is further dispersing urban life. This frontier has also involved the exploration of new space like the undersea and outer space, and the development of wholly new and exotic technologies.

The global village is the key to the latest frontier stage which, even as it follows the tried and true paths of spatial diffusion of earlier frontiers, has a global, indeed an extraterrestrial, reach. In the last analysis, the frontier is the driving force for the reshaping of time and space in the United States. In the forthcoming chapters we shall see how it is also the driving force for the transformation of American culture and politics.


1. Ray Allen Billington, America's Frontier Heritage (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966).

2. See also Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Frontier (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952).

3. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1920).

4. See also Carl Bridenbaugh, Cities in the Wilderness: Urban Life in America, 1625-1742 (New York: Capricorn, 1964), and Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in America, 1743-1776 (New York: Capricorn, 1964); Richard C. Wade, The Urban Frontier (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973).

5. See also Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973).

6. U.S. Census Bureau; Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of Interior, 1984. Since thousands of Native Americans have intermarried with other Americans and assimilated into the larger society over the years, it is impossible to give an accurate figure for their number. How is one defined as a Native American? Full descent? Partial descent -- in which case how much? Self-identification? See also C. Matthew Snipp, American Indians: The First of This Land (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1989).

7. Turner, Significance of the Frontier. For a sampling of the literature on Turner's theories, see the bibliography in Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion (New York: Macmillan, 1967).

8. See Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, "A Meaning for Turner's Frontier," Political Science Quarterly, 69 (September 1954): 321-353 and (December 1954): 565-602; and the Amherst pamphlet series, The Turner Thesis Concerning the Frontier in American History (Amherst, 1949).

9. While the Turner thesis was widely accepted by American historians after 1893 and soon became the regnant explanatory theory in American studies, by the 1930s it was being challenged by a new generation of historians who pointed out what they took to be empirical flaws in Turner's evidence (e.g., Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land [New York: Vintage, 1957]) and criticized the essentially romantic nature of Turner's presentation. By and large, Turner's students met those challenges and, even when conceding specific points, were able to defend the thesis itself.

In the 1950s, counter-theories were suggested encompassing the frontier thesis but broadening it in different directions (e.g., David Potter, People of Plenty [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954]). They continue to enjoy a certain popularity. Then, beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing to the early 1990s, yet another generation of historians challenged the whole idea of the winning of the West or of European settlement in the Americas as progress, applying the anti-colonialist political ideas developed in or for the Third World in the postwar generation or the new environmentalist sensibility. The myth of the West itself is challenged from this perspective. Among the contemporary revisionists are Patricia Nelson Limerick, who in her writings claims, in McMurtry's words, "that America's westward expansion was a mosaic of failure, financial and personal, but also, in the largest sense, moral," and Kirkpatrick Sale, who in The Conquest of Paradise (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990) attacks Columbus as a committer of genocide. For an overview of this challenge and a reply to it, see Larry McMurtry, "The Winning of the West in Retrospect," New Republic (1990). Also responding to these revisionsists are William H. Goetzmann in New Lands, New Men: America in the Second Great Age of Discovery (New York: Viking, 1986), and The West of the Imagination (New York: Norton, 1986); and Robert Athearn, The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986).

As McMurtry puts it, the major problem with "historical revisionism about the west is its post-ness." None of the information presented by the revisionists is new. True students of the frontier experience, not to mention those involved in directly, were well aware of the difficult and tragic elements of the frontier, but today that information has an audience willing to draw negative conclusions about the whole enterprise, something it did not have in the past.

In this writer's opinion, the revisionists are also morally wrong. The settlement of the West did change the Western environment and its ecology but the settled West is at least as pleasant a place for all as the harsh landscape and climate of the primordial West and is useful to people as well. Unless we are species self-haters, which so many of the revisionsists seem to be, one can be rather thankful for that.

The theory presented in this book may be described as neo-Turnerian. It encompasses all the criticisms, empirical and normative, and still argues that while everything has its price, the frontier challenge is itself the engine of liberty and equality.

10. See also Constance McLaughlin Green, The Rise of Urban America (New York: Harper and Row, 1965); Charles N. Slaab and A. Theodore Brown, A History of Urban America (New York: Macmillan, 1967); Howard P. Chudacoff, The Evolution of American Urban Society (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975); Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Rise of the City, 1878-1898 (New York: Macmillan, 1933), and Prisoners of Progress: American Industrial Cities, 1850-1920 (New York: Macmillan, 1976).

11. For a discussion of urban "boosters," see Daniel J. Boorstein, The Americans: The National Experience (New York: Vintage, 1965), pp. 113-168. See also Anselm L. Strauss, Images of the American City (Glencoe, IL.: Free Press, 1962); Christopher Tunnard and Henry H. Reed, American Skyline (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955).

12. W.W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1960); Brigitte Berger, The Culture of Entrepreneurship (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1991).

13. See R. Richard Wohl, "The 'Rags to Riches' Story: An Episode of Secular Idealism," in Reingard Bendix and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Class, Status and Power, 2nd ed. (New York: Free Press, 1966), pp. 501-506.

14. The United States Census Bureau reports five types of ubran concentrations.

  1. Urban is defined as any incorporated or unincorporated place having 2,500 or more people.

  2. An Urbanized Area is defined as a central city and all contiguous territory having population densities of 2,000 per square mile or more.

  3. The general concept of a metropolitan statistical area, according to the Office of Management and Budget which establishes the definition of MSA's, is one of "a large population nucleus, together with adjacent communities which have a high degree of economic and social integration with that nucleus." (Statistical Abstract of the United States 1988) The current standards, which were adopted in 1980 for what were then called standard metropolitan statistical areas (the OMB changed the name from SMSA to MSA in 1983) provide that each MSA must include at least "(a) One city with 50,000 or more inhabitants, or (b) A Census Bureau-defined urbanized area of at least 50,000 inhabitants and a total MSA population of at least 100,000 (75,000 in New England). The MSA must also include as "central counties" the county in which the central city is located and any adjacent counties which have at least 50 percent of their population in the urbanized area. Other "outlying counties" to be included in the MSA must meet specified requirements of commuting to the central counties and of metropolitan character. While the SMSA (now MSA) concept was not developed until 1940, if we were to project these criteria backward, we would have found 44 MSA's in 1910. In 1950 there were 169 MSA's, 265 in 1974, and 281 as of 1987.

  4. By the 1980 standards, metropolitan complexes of 1 million or more population contain separate component areas if specified criteria are met. "Such areas are designated primary metropolitan statistical areas (PMSA's); and any area containing PMSA's is designated a consolidated metropolitan statistical area (CSMA)." (Statistical Abstract of the United States 1988). As of 1980 there were 21 CSMA's, most of which were previously known as Standard Consolidated Areas. These areas contain contiguous MSA's that are somewhat interdependent such as New York-Northeastern New Jersey and Chicago-Northwestern Indiana.

  5. While the term "city" is sometimes used to describe any urban concentration of people, in the United States a city (like a state or the nation itself) is also defined politically. It is a municipal corporation, a body politic created by the state for purposes of local government. Thus in any metropolitan area, there are many cities, each with a separate local government of its own.

15. Daniel J. Elazar, Building Cities in America (Lanham, Md.: Hamilton Press, 1987), and "Are We a Nation of Cities?" The Public Interest, No. 4 (Summer 1966): 42-58.

16. See Samuel Lubell, The Future of American Politics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1956), p. 65; Kenneth J. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

17. See Scott Donaldson, The Suburban Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969); Robert Wood, Suburbia (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1959); John J. Harrigan, Political Change in the Metropolis, 3rd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1985); Jean Gottman, Megalopolis (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1961).

18. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Resources Inventory Division, 1982 National Resources Inventory (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1984).

19. On automobiles and their political/social impact, see Robert E. Passwell, Problems of the Careless (New York: Praeger, 1978); David L. Lewis and Lawrence Goldstein, eds., The Automobile and American Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983); Garth Mangum, ed., The Manpower Revolution (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965); Daniel J. Elazar, Cities of the Prairies (New York: Basic Books, 1970), pp. 41-42.

20. See Mangum, ed., The Manpower Revolution; Kenneth E. Boulding, The Meaning of the 20th Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).

21. For further discussion of these frontier themes, see Elazar, Cities of the Prairie.

22. See Gottman, Megalopolis.

23. Just a generation earlier it had changed the definition from standard metropolitan area (SMA) to SMSA. The history of these definitions is itself a reflection of the metropolitan frontier. The standard metropolitan area was established as a category by the Bureau of the Budget, in 1949 just as the metropolitan frontier was becoming dominant. The term was changed to SMSA in 1959 while that frontier was in its heyday. The criteria for the establishment and definition of SMSA's were modified in 1958, 1971, and 1975, in each case in the direction of deemphasizing the central city and in recognizing that metropolitanization was increasingly a form of noncentralized low-density urbanization. Another modification was made in January 1980 and the term itself was changed in 1983 to metropolitan statistical area. Further revisions of MSA definitions were made in 1984, 1986, and 1987. They were principally designed to add newly-qualified MSA's or central cities, alway in the direction of less population and less density for each.

24. On the small town, see John Herbers, The New Heartland (New York: Times Books, 1986).

25. On the shift of population growth to rural areas, see Herbers, The New Heartland. See also "Final Court will Shift Seats to Far West, Southeast," Congressional Quarterly 48 (35): 2793-2794; "Census Data Shows Sharp Rural Losses," New York Times (August 30, 1990); "West Coast, Sun Belt States Show Big Gain in Census," Wall Street Journal (August 30, 1990).

26. Applying the theory presented here, this writer forecast many of the trends in "Megalopolis and the New Sectionalism," The Public Interest 11 (Spring 1968): 62-85.

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