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

Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, Mesay Gebresilasse

NBER Working Paper No. 23997
Issued in November 2017, Revised in June 2018
NBER Program(s):Program on the Development of the American Economy, Political Economy Program

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 suggestive evidence on the roots of frontier culture: selective migration, an adaptive advantage of self-reliance, and perceived opportunities for upward mobility through effort. Overall, our findings shed new light on the frontier’s persistent legacy of rugged individualism.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23997

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