Title Reviewed:
America's Frontier Heritage

Author Reviewed:
Ray Allen Billington

Kenneth R. Walker


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 63, Issue 2, pp 162-164

Article Type:
Book Review

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America's Frontier Heritage. By Ray Allen Billington. [Histories of the American Frontier. Edited by Ray Allen Billington.] (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. Pp. xiv, 302. Notes, bibliographical notes. $5.96.)

Although Billington in his voluminous writings has produced monographs on many phases of American history, his first love is American frontier history. In addition to this work, he has authored four other major works on the frontier, the most comprehensive of which is Westward Expansion. At present he is engaged in editing an eighteen-volume series entitled the Histories of the American Frontier of which this is the fifth volume.

America's Frontier Heritage is in the tradition of Michel-Guillaume St. Jean de Crevecoeur's Letters From An Ammecan Famner, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and Frederick J. Turner's, The Frontier in American History. Although Billington essentially is in agreement with the basic Turner thesis, he does attempt in this work to indicate the modifications and complexity of the frontier influence as it merges with other factors in the creation of the "American." Generally, however, whenever a historian attempts to balance historical factors, he leaves the thesis muddied and less striking, and this is the case in America's Frontier Hehtage. Probably Billington's best generalization on the influence of the frontier on Americans is as follows: "To say that three centuries of westering made the people of the United States more democratic or more nationalistic is to invite the criticism of scholars who can prove that this group or that in America was less democratic or nationalistic than such and such a group beyond the seas. Yet one generalization seems justified : the pioneering experience helped exaggerate certain traits until the differences were observable to visitors from other lands" (p. 219).

In America's Frontier Heritage, Billington has attempted to identify attitudes and behavioral traits that were judged to be distinctively American by overseas visitors. Traits discussed include social mobility, political democracy, individualism with a sprinkling of cooperation, nationalism, wastefulness, resourcefulness and inventiveness, physical mobility, optimism, ethnocentrism, inquisitiveness, braggadocia, antitraditionalism, belief in hard work, anti-intellectualism, materialism, and deference for the female.

As Billington attempts to present the pros and cons on the origin and presence of these behavioral traits in Americans, he encounters some built-in obstacles. First, to prove conclusively the origin of a people's character traits is virtually impossible. Second, it is equally difficult to attain the objectivity necessary to analyze scientifically the behavioral traits of a people. Third, it is perhaps even harder to generalize on the average characteristics of millions of people. Considering the magnitude of the problems inherent in research of this nature, Billington on the whole has done a very commendable job in describing and delineating the heritage of the American frontier.

Billington's exploration of sources relating to the frontier has been thorough and comprehensive. Sources which he particularly scrutinized include travel accounts of European visitors to the United States and writings of sociologists, anthropologists, and demographers. One of the most significant portions of this work is the sixty-five pages of "Notes" and "Bibliographical Notes" which is the best bibliography on the American frontier that the reviewer has seen. The book has no index, but in light of its content, an index would probbaly have been of very little value.

It is possible that the Indian played little or no part in the development of the character traits of Americans, but if he did, America's Frontier Heritage sheds little light on his role.

Overall, America's Frontier Heritage is an excellent work that should be in most libraries and of great interest to all students and general readers who desire to know more about the origins and peculiarities of the American character.

Arkansas Polytechnic College

Kenneth R. Walker

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.