Frontier Culture: The Roots and Persistence of “Rugged Individualism” in the United States

87 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2017 Last revised: 4 Dec 2020

See all articles by Samuel Bazzi

Samuel Bazzi

Boston University - Department of Economics

Martin Fiszbein

Boston University - Department of Economics

Mesay Melese Gebresilasse

Boston University

Date Written: November 2017

Abstract

The presence of a westward-moving frontier of settlement shaped early U.S. history. In 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously argued that the American frontier fostered individualism. We investigate the Frontier Thesis and identify its long-run implications for culture and politics. We track the frontier throughout the 1790–1890 period and construct a novel, county-level measure of total frontier experience (TFE). Historically, frontier locations had distinctive demographics and greater individualism. Long after the closing of the frontier, counties with greater TFE exhibit more pervasive individualism and opposition to redistribution. This pattern cuts across known divides in the U.S., including urban–rural and north–south. We provide evidence on the roots of frontier culture, identifying both selective migration and a causal effect of frontier exposure on individualism. Overall, our findings shed new light on the frontier’s persistent legacy of rugged individualism.

Suggested Citation

Bazzi, Samuel and Fiszbein, Martin and Melese Gebresilasse, Mesay, Frontier Culture: The Roots and Persistence of “Rugged Individualism” in the United States (November 2017). NBER Working Paper No. w23997, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3065808

Samuel Bazzi (Contact Author)

Boston University - Department of Economics ( email )

270 Bay State Road
Boston, MA 02215
United States

Martin Fiszbein

Boston University - Department of Economics ( email )

270 Bay State Road
Boston, MA 02215
United States

Mesay Melese Gebresilasse

Boston University

595 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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