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Workshop 5:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript Three:
Unrest in 1893 and the Closing of the American Frontier

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In 1893, as people start to cope with this idea, they're not quite sure of what to do. One solution is to shut the doors. And so when in 1893 a group of second-generation Americans living in Hawaii overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy and immediately ask to be absorbed into the United States, they're told no. What was feared that Hawaii would bring in is large numbers of Chinese, Hawaiians, a large nonwhite population, that would automatically become part of the United States. The Chinese issue was especially terrifying since it would bring in about four or five times the number of Chinese already living in the United States, people who, by definition, could not be naturalized as citizens. So Hawaii is turned down.

And then five years later, with the Spanish American War, the principle of expansion takes hold in another kind of way, as a way of protecting American institutions. The presence of the railroad, being able to ship oil to China— A wonderful phrase that resonates is "Oil for the lamps of China," "Shipping grain to help the starving masses of China," that this would alleviate a number of real problems in America. One solution that emerges is one that's not so pleasant, given the context of what you framed in terms of your presentations. There's a kind of expansion and nationalism that would govern and shape America for the next century. Are there any questions?

Andrew Sullivan: Turner's thesis about the frontier and the problems that it's going to bring, or the next phase of American life that it's going to bring now that it's closed, draws on, definitely on the idea of individualism and the fact that people could move to the frontier, and they could get away, and they could be rugged, and they could be cowboys and all of that. I think it also draws on Jefferson's idea that ownership is key to democracy, and now that I'm going to run out of land, and we have more people crowded in cities, less people will be owning, and that's going to erode democracy.

Professor Chu: Part of the whole process of the Populist revolt is the sense that you have this foundation of American society as framed by Jefferson, that democracy best rests with a landed group, the yeoman farmer, and so the Populists feel especially aggrieved in this particular period because not by any stretch of the imagination these people are subsistence farmers. They've become dependent upon national and international grain and cotton markets, but they feel themselves especially aggrieved, precisely because of that tension, not so much that it's property owning, but that farmers are being left behind in the new economy and that it's businessmen who are now starting to dominate and corrupt the system; or alternatively, it's labor who are being violent, and this violence is reminiscent of European-style labor violence, socialism, all of these terrible bogeymen that frighten them. So the Turner Thesis rang especially resonant because of these factors.

Yvonne Powell: I didn't find his thesis to be a fair reflection, though, of what was actually going on in the new frontier at that time. I mean, we're talking about the— the lone—almost the Lone Ranger, you know, conquering the West. That's not what happened. There were women out there; there were Africans out there; there were Native Americans out there. This vision, his vision was not a true vision of America at the turn of the century.

Professor Chu: Well, just in the same way that you took—you embedded in the value of your presentation for the next World's Fair a sense of multiculturalism, of internationalism, a kind of global village, for Turner, those people that you've described are outside the story. They're marginal. And the way in which the historian constructs the story, the way in which the historian gives significance to one factor or another factor, is part of it. It's the humility that learning history ought to teach us. Someone, somewhere, is going to read over our shoulder and going to say exactly what you said about Turner. You are absolutely right. It is ethnocentric; it's gender-centric. You know, one of the things he points to, for example, is that women in Wisconsin voted. Well, we know that, why men want women to vote. They want to dilute the votes of other people who are coming that they don't like, and they can always presume that their wives, their spouses, their daughters will vote the way that they tell them to. It doesn't always work out that way. Again, that's another hazard of new experiences. Thank you very much.

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