Like a scholarly Gordon Ramsay, Patrick Spero wholeheartedly embraces his own f-word in his new book Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania. Though it is unlikely to earn reproach when uttered in earshot of a Wodehousian aunt, talking about the frontier provoked disgust among revisionist historians, who rightly point out the ethnocentric and triumphalist narrative underpinning the concept first proposed by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893. Down, but not out, frontiers witnessed something of a revival in the 1990s as early American scholars wrestled with ways to resurrect the interpretive power of the concept while stripping the frontier of its Turnerian baggage. Despite these efforts, historians are still far more likely to speak of borderlands—contested spaces between empires—than they are of frontiers. Spero thinks that this is a mistake: borderlands are an anachronism created by historians, while colonists frequently used the term “frontier.” Frontier Country seeks to recover what colonists and colonial officials meant when they used the term “frontier” to describe their world. Spero argues that in colonial America there were “frontiers” (plural, rather than singular). “A frontier in early America was a zone that people considered vulnerable to invasion, one that was created when colonists feared an onslaught from imperial rivals and other enemies” (6). As such, frontiers waxed and waned according to geopolitical conditions that were often disputed between frontier people in the west and colonial officials in the east. Spero extensively mined the Early American Newspapers database to carefully chart the usage of frontier terms over time, revealing that the concept of a single frontier as a line of advancing American colonization, which is central to Turner’s thesis, did not emerge until later in the nineteenth century. Frontier Country is not just an account of how and when colonists used the term frontier. Rather, it argues that the problems of frontier government lay at the heart of Pennsylvania’s political development from the colony’s foundation by William Penn in 1682 until the creation of the revolutionary state of Pennsylvania within the United States. Frontier government was no simple matter in colonial Pennsylvania. As Patrick Griffin has described in American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier (2007), colonists conceived of a reciprocal relationship underpinning eighteenth-century governance, in which fealty to a sovereign was repaid with protection. This was particularly problematic in colonial Pennsylvania. The Frame of 1701 made no provision for expanding the colony’s political institutions to incorporate western territory, which made it difficult for colonial officials to adequately respond when frontier zones emerged. Moreover, the rival colonial claims of Maryland, Virginia, and Connecticut involved Pennsylvania in conflicts that risked confirming the sovereignty of its competitors. Frontier zones transformed civilians into combatants, and frontier peoples often filled the state vacuum by forming their own militias and conducting their own military operations. Frontier people, then, set the terms for government in the west. Spero argues that the experiences of western colonists in the frontier zones of eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, particularly during the Seven Years’ War, primed them for the American Revolution. Both the failure of the British Empire to provide for frontier government and the divisions within the governing elite in the east politicized frontier people as never before. Continuing interracial violence between colonists and American Indians belied the claims of imperial officials that the west was no longer a frontier zone after the 1758 Treaty of Easton was meant to have ended the Seven Years’ War in Pennsylvania. Convinced of the failure of frontier government, westerners took matters into their own hands, rebelling against imperial authority and meting out indiscriminate violence against Native peoples. While imperial officials embraced an expansive vision of empire that would include both Native peoples and colonists, frontier peoples wanted a future free from Indians. By the 1770s, Frontier Country argues, the crisis of frontier government became intertwined with the more familiar story of colonial grievances about taxation and mercantile regulations. Turner’s frontier may have lost its significance, but Spero argues that the challenges of frontier government are central to understanding American history. Well, the history of Pennsylvania, at least. The unique characteristics of Pennsylvania—its proprietary government, religious dynamic, ethnic diversity, and Indian relations—are something of a double-edged sword when it comes to drawing broader conclusions about frontier(s) in American history. In his thought-provoking “Coda,” Spero suggests that frontiers existed “throughout colonial America” (263). But, of course, he really means British America, and even then Spero is thinking about the thirteen mainland colonies that would go on to form the United States. What of other colonists in other places? How did French, Spanish, and British colonists (in places like Nova Scotia or post-conquest Quebec) experience “frontier zones?” Did they conceive of “frontiers” in the same way that Pennsylvanians did? For a concept rooted in local political conditions, how much did place matter? In Frontier Country’s “Coda,” Spero tantalizes readers by suggesting ways in which historians can employ his concept of frontiers as places of invasion and violence. In particular, the author’s brief discussion of vulnerable coastal regions as “frontiers” is strikingly fresh. It is something of a missed opportunity that Spero did not at least partially develop this line of thinking in his book. Nevertheless, his novel formulation of “frontiers” raises the question of where else historians of early America and the Atlantic World might find similar conditions. Were there frontiers in the Caribbean, for example? Could places like Jamaica, in close proximity to colonial rivals and at risk from the rebellion of enslaved peoples or conflict with Maroon communities, be frontier zones? All these questions point to the continuing power of the f-word and the useful way that Spero suggests we can use it. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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