Frederick Jackson Turner
Throughout the nineteenth century, the most restless Americans continued to expand outward, creating a culture unlike any in Europe, albeit one that devastated the cultures it ran across. In 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote an influential paper declaring that American-style democracy, a radical reinvention of the classically inspired republic envisioned by the Founding Fathers, had been created by the expanding frontier. Every time people moved 50 or 100 miles from the farthest settlement, they left behind old rules and customs, Turner said. The American spirit was renewed every time a trapper or a family picked up and moved west.
At the time Turner wrote his famous thesis, however, the frontier was being settled rapidly. In fact, the 1890 census had officially declared that the frontier no longer existed. Americans had gone all the way west and had established scattered settlements in every blank space left (blank except for Native Americans, that is). Without a frontier, Turner surmised, the American spirit would diminish. The restless and the explorer would no longer determine the evolution of the nation’s culture.
Turner could not realize that, ten years after he wrote his thesis, the Wright brothers would enter a new frontier of an entirely different dimension: the air. Aeronautics created a different species of frontier mentality; not Turner’s separation from civilization but a frontier that tied the nation, and eventually the world, together. America continued to lead in invention and discovery, of a technological nature. The boundaries of flight kept getting pushed back.
American dominance in the air became literal during the Second World War, when U.S. manufacturers cranked out 300,000 planes in just four years. The acceleration of production was unprecedented, ramping up from just 3,000 planes in 1939. Aeronautics leaped from 41st place among American manufacturers to first place during the war. The rest of the world couldn’t help but be impressed. America’s air forces helped win the war and make the United States the world’s most powerful nation. Still, we shouldn’t miss the larger lesson: American energy and restlessness created the planes and the technology.