Progressive Historians

One must decide the meaning of "progressive historiography." It can mean
either the history written by "progressive historians," or it can mean
history written by historians of the Progressive era of American history and
shortly after. The focus that was chosen for this paper is more in keeping with
the latter interpretation, if for no other reason than it provides a useful
compare-and-contrast "control" literature. The caveat is this: the focus of
this report is on the predominant question of the historiographical period: was
the war a revolution or a war for independence? One could choose many other
questions to argue, questions that historians have for years disputed about the
revolution, but there are a number of reasons why this report was chosen for
this particular assignment; the two best follow. First, it is an old and
time-honored question that professors and instructors have posed to their
students for years; of pre-Civil War historiographical questions, it is perhaps
second only in fashion during the last twenty to twenty-five years to the

Jefferson-Hemmings paternity controversy. Second, the revolution-or-independence
question is one of those which must be answered through interpretation. A case
cannot be made that is so utterly conclusive as to exclude all others; it is
that very fact that makes history at once so frustrating and so fascinating.

What better way could there be to look at the writings of a specific school of
historians? Therefore, in the pursuit of "personal truth," we must
proceed... Perhaps the most famous of all progressive historians is Frederick

Jackson Turner. His most famous argument is not devoted strictly to the American

Revolution, but instead to the effects of the American frontier. In a sentence,
his argument is that the frontier was the chief determinant in American history.

This is not to say that Turner did not write about the war; he did, in his
seminal work, "The Frontier in American History," there are discussions of
the frontierís effect on the coming of the revolution. It is worth noting,
before exploring Turnerís arguments, that the frontier in this period was only
about one hundred miles from the Atlantic coast. Of course, as the period under
scrutiny approaches the war chronologically, the frontier moves away from the
ocean. But it is important to remember that Turner defines the Jamestown of

Captain John Smith in 1607 as the frontier in its initial stage. So, in this
context, it makes sense to the almost-twenty-first-century reader when Turner
refers to the frontier as defined by the Proclamation of 1763 as the "Old

West." Turner gives an idea of his world-view near the end of the book: The
transformations through which the United States is passing in our own day are so
profound, so far-reaching, that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that we are
witnessing the birth of a new nation in America. The revolution in social and
economic structure of this country during the past two decades is comparable to
what occurred when independence was declared and the constitution was formed, or
to the changes wrought by the era which began half a century ago, the era of

Civil War and Reconstruction (Turner 1920, 311). This point bears further
examination in the context of all the historians being compared in this paper,
but in a later section. It is more important at this point to continue with the
discussion of Turnerís examination of the war as it relates to his frontier
thesis. Briefly, Turner argues five points specific to the war in his overall
treatment of the frontier. First, a fighting frontier had been established from

Georgia to New England as a result of the colonial wars with the French. Second,
a primitively agricultural and democratically self-sufficient society had been
established on the frontier that was profoundly and fundamentally different from
the society from which the frontiersmenís progenitors had sprung; it is of
course because those progenitors were different from their fellows that they
came across the ocean in the first place. Third, the frontier developed home
markets for the growingó--though still smalló--colonial industrial base,
lessening the importance of the triangular trade. Fourth, non-English settlers
had caused an unintended and at first informal breach with the mother country
that later fueled separatist sentiment; it is no great thing in the thick of
rebellion to forget that the war was at first a war for the rights of Englishmen
when one is not an Englishman in the first place. Fifth, the frontier by its
very nature reflected a contest between the privileged and the non-privileged;

Turner maintains that this dichotomy was more in evidence outside New England