Answer the following prompt in a three to four-page paper using standard font and margins, typed doublespaced.
Frederick Jackson Turner argues that westward movement and the frontier defined the creation of the American experience throughout American history. Do you agree or disagree with this statement in the period following the Civil War, using evidence from the textbook?
Questions to consider:
Describe American society after the Reconstruction. Who flourished in industry and business after the war and why were they successful? Does this support his argument? How does city life compare with the frontier in terms of creating an American identity? What other factors shape American identity during this time period? How does immigration during this period impact his argument?
As he approached the rostrum to speak before historians gathered in Chicago in 1893, Frederick Jackson
Turner appeared nervous. He was presenting a conclusion that would alarm all who believed that
westward expansion had fostered the nation’s principles of democracy. His conclusion: The frontier—the
encounter between European traditions and the native wilderness—had played a fundamental role in
shaping American character, but the American frontier no longer existed. Turner’s statement raised
questions. How would Americans maintain their unique political culture and innovative spirit in the
absence of the frontier? How would the nation expand its economy if it could no longer expand its
Later historians would see Turner’s Frontier Thesis as deeply flawed, a gross mischaracterization of
the West. But the young historian’s work greatly influenced politicians and thinkers of the day. Like a
muckraker, Turner exposed the problem; others found a solution by seeking out new frontiers in the
creation of an American empire. The above advertisement for a theater reenactment of the Spanish-
American War (Figure 22.1) shows the American appetite for expansion. Many Americans felt that it was
time for their nation to offer its own brand of international leadership and dominance as an alternative to
the land-grabbing empires of Europe.
22.1 Turner, Mahan, and the Roots of Empire
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
• Explain the evolution of American interest in foreign affairs from the end of the Civil
War through the early 1890s
• Identify the contributions of Frederick Jackson Turner and Alfred Thayer Mahan to the
conscious creation of an American empire
During the time of Reconstruction, the U.S. government showed no significant initiative in foreign affairs.
Western expansion and the goal of Manifest Destiny still held the country’s attention, and American
missionaries proselytized as far abroad as China, India, the Korean Peninsula, and Africa, but
reconstruction efforts took up most of the nation’s resources. As the century came to a close, however,
a variety of factors, from the closing of the American frontier to the country’s increased industrial
production, led the United States to look beyond its borders. Countries in Europe were building their
empires through global power and trade, and the United States did not want to be left behind.
AMERICA’S LIMITED BUT AGGRESSIVE PUSH OUTWARD
On the eve of the Civil War, the country lacked the means to establish a strong position in international
diplomacy. As of 1865, the U.S. State Department had barely sixty employees and no ambassadors
representing American interests abroad. Instead, only two dozen American foreign ministers were located
in key countries, and those often gained their positions not through diplomatic skills or expertise in foreign
affairs but through bribes. Further limiting American potential for foreign impact was the fact that a strong
international presence required a strong military—specifically a navy—which the United States, after the
Civil War, was in no position to maintain. Additionally, as late as 1890, with the U.S. Navy significantly
reduced in size, a majority of vessels were classified as “Old Navy,” meaning a mixture of iron hulled and
wholly wooden ships. While the navy had introduced the first all-steel, triple-hulled steam engine vessels
seven years earlier, they had only thirteen of them in operation by 1890.
Despite such widespread isolationist impulses and the sheer inability to maintain a strong international
position, the United States moved ahead sporadically with a modest foreign policy agenda in the three
decades following the Civil War. Secretary of State William Seward, who held that position from 1861
through 1869, sought to extend American political and commercial influence in both Asia and Latin
America. He pursued these goals through a variety of actions. A treaty with Nicaragua set the early course
for the future construction of a canal across Central America. He also pushed through the annexation of the
Midway Islands in the Pacific Ocean, which subsequently opened a more stable route to Asian markets. In
frequent conversations with President Lincoln, among others, Seward openly spoke of his desire to obtain
British Columbia, the Hawaiian Islands, portions of the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and other territories.
He explained his motives to a Boston audience in 1867, when he professed his intention to give the United
States “control of the world.”