Confronted with the fragility of human life, Walt Whitman did not turn his back but looked it directly in the eye.
The north-south division that would tear the United States apart in the middle of the 19th century was reflected in the immigration and settlement patterns of the preceding 100 years in the Old Northwest, what today we call the Midwest.
North of a line running roughly along U.S. 40, settlement in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois typically came from the free states of New England, New York, and the mid-Atlantic. South of that line, emigrants (including the family of Abraham Lincoln) from Kentucky, Virginia, and points farther south often predominated. This pattern—within the framework of the anti-slavery Northwest Ordinance—shaped the politics of those areas well into the 20th century and persists to a degree even in this age of diminishing regional distinctions.
I grew up along that dividing line and felt the influences pushing in from both sides. My Indiana hometown was divided not just between Cardinal fans and Cubs fans, but along the political lines laid down by immigrant ancestors long dead and buried.
But other than one year of elementary school Indiana history, the notion that this fascinating past was worthy of study was an alien concept, even in the very heart of the heartland.
Jon K. Lauck, a South Dakotan who has taken it upon himself to lead a revival of the study of Midwestern political, social, and cultural history, offers a guidebook for fellow revivalists in The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest, 1800-1900.
As much a history of the history of the Midwest as a straightforward history of the region, which is rare enough to be valuable, Lauck’s book verges on something even rarer: a history of the United States as viewed from the Midwest.
It doesn’t quite achieve that monumental task, although it certainly lays the groundwork for someone else to do so. As Lauck writes, his purpose is to “fill the hole in the middle of American history,” not just geographically but philosophically. Judged by that standard, The Good Country is a thoroughgoing success.
Symmetry and Proportionality
Lauck, a founder of the Midwestern History Association, editor-in-chief of Middle West Review, and author or editor of a dozen or so books on midwestern history, wants to rebalance the historical view of the Midwest, and in the process reclaim the “good” in American history.
It’s the good, more than simply the history of the Midwest, that has been neglected. Lauck argues also that it has been misconstrued and disrespected, and that this disrespect fuels the broader argument about how to view U.S. history.
He places much of the blame on Carl Van Doren, a native Midwesterner whose 1921 essay in the leftist publication The Nation set the tone for a century of condescending analysis of the Midwest’s culture and politics. Van Doren might have just been performing for his Ivy League colleagues, but he cheated his homeland as surely as his nephew Charles would cheat quiz show viewers two generations later.
But blaming Van Doren can take us only so far. The demise of regionalism, the decline of agriculture as an economic engine, and the rise of mass culture, along with the accompanying concentration of economic and media dominance on the coasts surely played as large a part in the continuing view of the Midwest as “flyover country,” a term of utter contempt that needs to be tossed on the ash heap of history.
It is time, says Lauck, for a reconsideration.
“Surely we can recognize the neglect of the old Midwest and see its virtues and also research and recognize those who were once not a prominent part of the midwestern story, thereby bringing some symmetry and proportionality to the whole affair, avoiding either/or history and round upon round of denunciations and reprisals, and simply work hard to imagine and capture the full story of the region,” he writes.
And what is that region?
One of the author’s favorite conversation starters is to ask, “Where is the Midwest?” Traditionally, it’s considered to be 12 states—Illinois Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Within this dozen are regional and local distinctions that might exclude parts of some of these states, west of the 98th degree of longitude in the Plains states, perhaps the far southern tiers of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. As for Missouri, untroubled by the anti-slavery provision of the Northwest Ordinance and thus the only Midwestern state that was once a slave state, I’m dubious about inclusion of any of it west of Busch Stadium.
The Good Country focuses on those dozen states, first known in American history as the West. Then it was the Northwest. Then the Old Northwest. Around the middle of the 19th century, Middle West came into vogue, and finally that was shortened to Midwest by the turn of the 20th century.
The Good Country walks us through this progression, stressing a nineteenth-century world that revolved around “churches and lodges and community picnics,” as well as “the world of farming.”
The contention that midwestern history has been ignored is fulsomely disproved by The Good Country’s notes, which are a defining feature of the book whose text barely cracks 200 pages. The notes consume 132 pages and cite hundreds of journal articles on a wide variety of topics. They are deliberately intended as starter dough for future researchers on the Midwest, and Lauck overtly appeals to fellow historians to dig in.
As for the other 200 pages, Lauck synthesizes this vast store of research seamlessly.
He is especially strong on the Midwest literary tradition, antebellum politics, and the midwestern roots of the Republican Party (founded in Ripon, Wisconsin, Jackson, Michigan, or Crawfordsville, Iowa, depending on who you ask).
His treatment of the war itself is necessarily condensed, although he notes the oversized role played by the unionists of the Midwest. “The original five midwestern states sent nearly a million soldiers to war for the Union,” Lauck writes, “and the Midwest provided nearly all of Lincoln’s generals and most of his cabinet.” On its own, Ohio provided 64 Union generals, including the greatest, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
A Democratic Culture Worth Remembering
And, of course, the Midwest also provided Lincoln, whose image as a down-to-earth, self-made man epitomized the midwestern ethos that, Lauck contends, vied to become the American ethos in the second half of the 19th century.
It was a period dominated by midwestern politicians (Presidents U.S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley), and their midwestern party. Even some of the influential losers (Frank Blair, William Jennings Bryan, and populist James B. Weaver) were Midwesterners.
The successful politics were grounded in a successful culture that was “rooted and decent and democratic and worth remembering,” Lauck writes.
Worth remembering and, Lauck contends, worth emulating. On that score, the chapter on reform is the least persuasive, in large part because, as the author admits, “reform in the 19th century Midwest was not radical.” The chapter title says it all: “The Age of Mild Reform.” Here we begin to see the coming chasm as the prosperous Midwest begins to confront the growing economic behemoth of the East.
After the great victory over slavery, the post-war crusades all proved less fulfilling and far less successful—temperance, organized labor, populism, and progressivism of the La Follette variety. Temperance would win a great but temporary victory with the 18th Amendment. Labor reform was marred by violence, had a brief high-water moment in the mid-20th century, then eventually gave way to corruption and economic change. Populism comes and goes, and its many variants often run counter to its midwestern origins. Progressivism survives, of course, always in search of new dragons to slay, real or imagined, never satisfied with success. It seems likely that Wisconsin’s Battling Bob La Follette would not recognize the current incarnation of his movement.
The author takes pains to stress that the book is titled “The Good Country, not The Perfect Country,” and he devotes a full chapter and parts of others to “the failures of the Midwest with regard to women, Native Americans, racial and ethnic minorities.”
Contrasting the Midwest with the Northeast and the South, Lauck shows the region was more representative of mass American opinion than either of the other two. The Midwest was broadly anti-slavery, but Midwesterners had a wide range of opinions on granting full civil and political rights to African Americans. Cairo, Illinois, he notes, is further south than Richmond, Virginia (although he doesn’t note what might be more geographically and politically significant—that Cairo, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, is closer to New Orleans than to Chicago).
Still, it is important to remember that the mobs that destroyed the press owned by abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy did their work in Alton, Illinois, not across the river in Missouri. Midwesterners denied the vote to blacks, imposed “black laws” that denied African Americans basic civil rights, and enacted laws to block free blacks from entering their states.
It’s also important to remember that at the same time they were forming more than 300 abolition societies; attending lectures by Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Oscar Wilde; repealing many of the earlier-enacted racist laws; and dying by the tens of thousands in a war to set slaves free.
Unlike too many historians today, Lauck stresses the need for such balance. “The history profession in the United States, many would concede,” he writes, “has become too one-sided, too critical, too focused on American faults and not sufficiently attentive to what would have been considered great achievements in their proper historical context.”
As a member of the profession, Lauck wants to give his colleagues every benefit of the doubt, though it’s far from clear they’ve earned it. If “many” would concede the one-sidedness, far too few of those are practicing historians, of whom far too many remain intent on cataloging America’s “long train of abuses” and ignoring her long arc bending toward justice.
Maybe, as Lauck concludes, a more honest appraisal of the good country—one driven by a fair assessment of the historical record rather than a desire to aid a contemporary political cause—can “help guide us out of the current darkness and loneliness and cynicism.”