DP12406 Frontier Culture: The Roots and Persistence of Rugged Individualism in the United States

Author(s): Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, Mesay Gebresilasse
Publication Date: October 2017
Date Revised: March 2019
Keyword(s): American Frontier, Culture, Individualism, Persistence, Preferences for Redistribution
JEL(s): D72, H2, J11, N31, N91, P16, R11
Programme Areas: Development Economics, Economic History
Link to this Page: cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=12406

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 1790â??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 urbanâ??rural and northâ??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.