Econometrica: Nov 2020, Volume 88, Issue 6

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

https://doi.org/10.3982/ECTA16484
p. 2329-2368

Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, Mesay Gebresilasse

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 United States, including urban–rural and north–south. We provide evidence on the roots of frontier culture, identifying both selective migration and a causal effect of frontier exposure on individualism. Overall, our findings shed new light on the frontier's persistent legacy of rugged individualism.



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Supplement to "Frontier Culture: The Roots and Persistence of “Rugged Individualism” in the United States"

This zip file contains the replication files for the manuscript.

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Supplement to "Frontier Culture: The Roots and Persistence of “Rugged Individualism” in the United States"

This appendix includes the following material: Appendix A details the procedure for mapping the frontier; Appendix B presents robustness checks for Sections 3 and 4; Appendix C presents additional results on partisanship; Appendix D describes our instrumental variables results; and Appendix E provides robustness checks for Section 5.2. Additional supplemental material can be found in the replication files and on the authors’ websites: Appendix F presents alternative approaches to inference; Appendix G provides further results characterizing historical frontier demographics and institutions; Appendix H presents a case study to illustrate the long-run effects; Appendix I presents an alternative estimate of selective migration; Appendix J presents additional results; and Appendix K describes data sources and construction.

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