The United States began as a group of colonies launched by people from a series of countries – England, of course, but also Ireland the central European region of Germany, which until 1870 lacked political or geographic continuity even as it had a cohesive regional culture. The U.S. became a nation with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was formally recognized as a state in 1783, when its territorial boundaries were drawn as part of the Treaty of Paris. We think of the “nation” part of this equation as stable, largely because the U.S. has been a republic governed by a Constitution since 1789. (Before that it was more a federation of states.) But even that was tenuous; until the Civil War, people spoke of the U.S. as plural – “these United States” – rather than singular. Many foreigners, perhaps reflecting their own experiences, still do, referring to the U.S. as “the states.”
For a long time, the most obvious feature of the United States was its shifting frontier boundary. Indeed, a century ago a lot of people thought this was the most significant thing about it. A big part of the reason why was a gifted historian by the name of Frederick Jackson Turner, who in an 1893 delivered a speech at an American Historical Association conference in Chicago that distilled his (and a lot of other people’s) thinking into a single sentence: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development."
Here in the 21st century, it may be hard to appreciate just how unusual an assertion this really was. Turner, born in 1861 was a native of Wisconsin – which is to say he was from the edge of the American world – got his doctorate (among the first people to ever get one) at Johns Hopkins, where he was taught the then-dominant "germ" theory, which argued that western civilization owed its origins to the forests of Germany, out of which emerged a Teutonic seed that brought down the Roman empire, spread across western Europe, jumped to America, and now dominated the world. Like so much academic thought of the time, this approach to history was modeled on science, both in its emphasis on primary source research and its use of a biological model—more specifically a (Social) Darwinian model—to explain historical change.
Turner embraced a process-driven approach to History—colleagues and students remember him as an obsessive collector of data and maps—and he too embraced scientific ideas. But when it came to evolution, Turner was decidedly on the environmental side of the Darwinian equation: he was fascinated not by the fixed, but rather the adaptable. The frontier was a place that did something to people, he said: it made them Americans. Which is to say it turned them into something new. And that's because they had lots of room to evolve through a renewable cycle. First would come the scouts, who explored a new region, wrangling with the natives as necessary. They would be followed traders (think furs), and then farmers, and tradesmen. Once an area got settled, a new wave of scouts would push west, and the whole process would repeat in a new location. The process continued until 1890, Turner said, by which point the frontier as Americans had known it had disappeared. (They would have to come up with new frontiers, like a space program.)
Over the course the next fifty years or so, the Turner Thesis became common sense. Textbooks at the time gave more space to western expansion than they do today, describing the settlement of places like Tennessee and Arkansas. Even a historian like Charles Beard, who in fact was skeptical of Turner’s ideas and had his own about that nature of American history (one rooted in class conflict) still gave a chapter to the rise of new states in his classic 1927 book The Rise of American Civilization. These days, when textbooks do talk about western expansion, they almost always mention that the addition of new states, whose voting rules opened them up to mass participation (at least for white men) pressured older states to follow suit.
But in the second half of the century the Turner thesis came under increasing attack. Some scholars questioned Turner's data, others his findings, especially his assertions that the frontier was the engine of U.S. democracy. The most serious challenge came from those historians, notably the modern historian Patricia Limerick, who rejected the assumptions underlying the very idea of the frontier and Turner’s tendency to describe land as "empty" when he really meant it didn’t have white people on it. To Limerick, Turnerism was little more than a racist fantasy, at one point joking that for her and like-minded scholars the frontier had become “the f-word.”
Besides, there were other things – immigration, industrialization, efforts for social reform in ways that ranged from votes for women to rights for workers – that seemed more obvious in terms of determining the real boundaries of the United States. Whatever considerable regional or political differences remained in the nation in the decades following the Civil War, it still seemed to be inexorably stitching together. Nothing did a better job of this than the World Wars, which promoted mass migration (especially black people to Northern cities), the growth of industry in previously remote areas (like Los Angeles, but also places like Nevada and New Mexico), and a sense of national identity in combating the challengers like Communists or Nazis across the globe. Never before or since was the federal – which is to say, national, or central – government stronger.
But I want you to pay attention to that word “federal,” which I’m actually using for the first time in this conversation. It’s a word that has a lot of different meanings, but at the heart of all of them is some kind of alliance or partnership among a set of entities. In the U.S., as in many nations, there are subdivisions in the form of provinces, or in our case, fifty states, each of which has a measure of political autonomy. Those states, in turn, are subdivided into counties, cities, villages.
But there is another kind of geographic unit in the United States that doesn’t often make it onto maps, even though it might help explain ourselves to ourselves better than most maps do. This unit is closer to the concept of country than it is nation or state, because it reflects a set of attitudes and practices of large sets of people independent of whatever political system happens to be in place, or wherever state or municipal boundaries that happen to be drawn. Unlike some places where country/nation/state may once have been aligned, these never managed to gain recognition as discrete entities in North America. We know them as “regions” or “sections,” and give them names like “New England,” “the Midwest,” and “the South.”