A Century Later: Frederick Jackson Turner and the Spanish-American War

Nils Gilman, April 1998

Historians are notoriously reluctant to address contemporary events. It used to be argued that only with the advantage of hindsight could the "meaning" of an event be adequately assessed. In contrast to journalists, historians were supposed to avail themselves not only of the considered reflection that retrospect afforded, but also of the additional information available in archives, most of which opened long after the events they concern had passed. Under these circumstances, "contemporary history" struck most historians as little more than an oxymoron. Given this aversion, perhaps it will seem odd to inquire what, if anything, the American Historical Review had to say about the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Not surprisingly, it was not until 1925 that the AHR published an article directly concerning the Spanish-American War, when Lester B. Shippee weighed in with considerations about "Germany and the Spanish-American War" (AHR 30:4, p. 754--97). Predictably enough, it was not contemporary politics that inspired Shippee, but rather the opening of European archives on the diplomacy surrounding the war. Although this would seem to support the idea that historians avoid contemporary issues, when we reread the pages of the 1898 AHR, it turns out that perhaps the bellicose events of that year did not go entirely unremarked.

In the June 1898 AHR, Frederick Jackson Turner contributed an article entitled "The Origin of Genet's Projected Attack on Louisiana and the Floridas" (AHR 3:4, p. 650--71). Turner retold the famous story of how Edmond-Charles-Edouard Genet, a diplomat dispatched by the revolutionary French state in 1793, sidestepped the federal government in Philadelphia to encourage the citizens of Kentucky (to the point of supplying them with arms) to attack the Spanish in New Orleans. To the outrage of trans-Appalachian citizens, Spain had blocked United States use of the Mississippi, thus slowing the development of the U.S. interior. Genet exploited their grievances to benefit the work of the French government. But if this was common enough subject matter, Turner's version gave it a decidedly contemporary flavor.

Turner used the words of the French observer Brissot de Warville to describe the ire westerners directed against Spain for shutting off access to the Mississippi: "Men who have shook off the yoke of Great Britain and who are masters of the Ohio and the Mississippi, cannot conceive that the insolence of a handful of Spaniards can think of shutting rivers and seas against a hundred thousand Americans." Turner's argument implied that the Genet affair corroborated his famous thesis that the struggle to advance the frontier was the basis for the American idea of freedom, rather than simply showing the disunity of the nation in the 1790s. In this case, the desire to advance the frontier had encouraged upstanding Americans (albeit at the behest of a foreign meddler) to stand up against the tyranny of a decadent Spanish empire. But did Turner also suggest that this Spanish insolence had not dissipated entirely?

With hindsight, we can read Turner's tale as a covert apologia for the coeval American intervention in Cuba. Certainly the idea seems to linger in the air. Turner's concluding words demonstrate that he considered his topic timely: "Enough has been said to reveal the fact that this attempt was an important chapter in the history of the Mississippi Valley in its relations to the future of the United States, of France and of Spain. It is, in fact, a chapter in the long struggle of the people of that Valley to hold the approaches to their great river--a struggle that is not yet ended." What ongoing struggle was Turner referring to? Probably not to the threat of imminent Canadian invasion.

Given that, for all the heat which debates about contemporary events can generate, little light is usually shed on the historical context in which these events unfold, perhaps historians are wise to avoid recent history. Nevertheless, historians are well advised to read today's newspapers even as they are producing works about the more distant past. Although some might look askance at Turner's political choices, his approach to the history of the Genet affair shows that great historians are always keenly aware of the contemporary relevance of their work. As one historian once remarked, although historians are obliged to be Tory in their approach to evidence, they are free to be Whiggish in their choice of subject matter.

—Nils Gilman is a graduate student of history at the University of California at Berkeley and is an AHA volunteer-associate.