Mauling McCullough

The period of a year-and-a-half that elapsed between the spring of 1786 and the late summer of 1787 was as consequential as any in American history. Near its end, the Northwest Ordinance was enacted by the Confederation Congress in New York City even as the Constitutional Convention was in Philadelphia writing a plan to replace that Congress. Near its beginning, a band of New England land speculators formed the Ohio Company.

It is this March 1786 event that sets the stage for David McCullough’s latest book, for it played nearly as crucial a role in what would become the United States. 

Emphasized by McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winner and dean of U.S. popular historians, is that the speculators hoping to settle the Ohio Country west of the Alleghenies were from New England rather than Virginia. Puritan values, rather than pro-slavery ones, would guide development of the new land. 

He celebrates the difference. And now he’s in trouble.

Answering One-Sidedness With . . . More One-Sidedness

Surveying the Twitter feeds and book reviews of historians and “woke” journalists commenting on The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, you might assume there was no difference at all between the antislavery New Englanders who made settling the Old Northwest their project and the Southerners who would lead the nation toward civil war.

This uncharitable—and ahistorical—outlook makes one wonder if these reviewers have given any thought to how different U.S. history would have been had Virginians been the guiding force of settlement.

In a series of tweets, author William Hogeland, who has written his own excellent history of the opening of the Northwest, objected to the “nice guy” version of history he sees in The Pioneers. Then, too, the “new generation of historians, scholars and activists,” as the Associated Press put it, “took to social media to accuse McCullough of romanticizing white settlement and downplaying the pain inflicted on Native Americans.”

The book does neither of these things. What it does is tell the settlers’ story from the settlers’ point of view. Every book of history has a point of view. There are no neutral observers of history. 

For a long time, writing from the settler’s point of view was routine. Then for quite a while it wasn’t. Now, apparently, it is verboten.

This is exactly the wrong way to think about history. Nothing is to be gained from simply flipping the narrative.

If the story used to be one-sided on behalf of the settlers, for the last half-century that has been reversed. Too many of McCullough’s critics are not in search of balance. It’s not that they object to only part of the story’s being told. It’s that they want the version they don’t like to be silenced.

Harvard’s Joyce E. Chaplin, reviewing the book in the New York Times, even took exception to McCullough’s description of the Ohio Territory as “unsettled,” because it had people in it. Well, yes, it did. But, until the arrival of white European Americans, it did not have any settlers; thus, it was “unsettled.” To suggest that McCullough is implying otherwise, or that he somehow indicates that the people who were already there don’t count, is not defensible. But if you’re looking for ways to be outraged, you’ll find them.

For these kinds of critics, it’s not enough to dominate the academy and have a virtual monopoly on indoctrinating students. All dissenting voices must be condemned as unworthy of consideration and hectored until they fall silent. 

McCullough, who is considered a national treasure while his critics are not, has thus far remained silent as oracles tend to do—although not out of any fear of being hectored. At 86, he has nothing to gain by engaging in a public spat with people who have resented his success for decades.

The Story of the “First West”

The story of what we could call the first West, the land beyond the Appalachians and Ohio River, is not as well-known as that of the Old West that features cowboys and Indians, prairie schooners, and mountain men. As McCullough shows, it is more an extension of the Revolutionary War period than a precursor to the mass migration of the 19th century. It is a bridge between the two.

That bridge was built by veterans of the Continental Army such as General Rufus Putnam and moral reformers such as Manasseh Cutler, a New England Puritan minister, doctor, lawyer, and educator. These men helped lead settlers and speculators across the Ohio River in the wake of the Northwest Ordinance, which organized the new territory and established a template for free labor, the free exercise of religion, and (less successfully) justice for those already inhabiting the land.

One legitimate complaint registered by a reviewer (Andrew C. Isenberg writing in the Washington Post) is that “casting the Ohio Company as a vehicle of higher ideals is a feat too difficult even for a writer as skilled as McCullough.” 

It’s true that sometimes McCullough can’t separate the well-intentioned individuals he holds up as paragons of Puritan virtue from the inherent corruption of their joint endeavor. It’s also true that noble intentions and overweening self-interest often walk hand in hand. As reviewer Danny Heitman wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, McCullough’s “refusal to embrace cynicism as a form of sophistication, one gathers, is part of his popular appeal.”

Whatever unsavoriness lurks at the heart of the enterprise is far outweighed by the saving grace of the project: that it produced the Northwest Ordinance, a much-overlooked Founding document that, McCullough rightly says, “stands alongside the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as a bold assertion of the rights of the individual.”

The Ordinance’s “utmost good faith” clause was more aspirational than practical, considering the thousands of settlers rushing in. This clause guaranteed that Indian “lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress.” 

It didn’t turn out that way, and over the first two decades of the 19th century, Ohio and other lands in the Northwest Territory would be the scene of bloody confrontations between European and Native Americans. 

Remarkably, even as the tragedies proliferated on the banks of the Wabash and at Fallen Timbers, the settlers kept at bay the practice of chattel slavery. In this they were led by Ephraim Cutler, son of the Massachusetts clergyman, U.S. Representative, explorer, and Ohio Company official Manasseh Cutler. Ephraim moved beyond his father’s Marietta settlement at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers to become a leader in the territory’s military, legal, and political life. When proslavery elements attempted to overturn the Northwest Ordinance’s prohibition of slavery during the 1802 debate on statehood, an ill Ephraim Cutler made a dramatic entrance onto the floor of the constitutional convention to cast his vote in defense of liberty. The motion to include a ban on slavery in Ohio’s constitution prevailed by a single vote.

It’s a riveting story. But Isenberg calls McCullough’s treatment of the slavery debate “blinkered” because Ohio went on to impose draconian restrictions on free black residents. Perhaps. But the failure to acknowledge the difference between an Ohio settled by Virginians and one settled by New Englanders, essentially treating all alleged 19th century malefactors as indistinguishable, is truly blinkered.

Their Failings and Their Accomplishments

Historians today may lump together all pioneers, but those alive closer to their time did not. “We can hardly predict what the consequences would have been,” Cutler’s eulogist declared when he died in 1853, “had there not been a few men such as Judge Cutler to resist the insidious aggressions of the monstrous evil of slavery.” One consequence, of course, would have been slavery in Ohio, and likely across much of what we now call the Midwest.

Isenberg’s central complaint is that The Pioneerspresents American history as a grand civics lesson, in which the accomplishments of our principled forebears serve as inspirations.” He seems not to realize this is a feature, not a bug, and that the inspiration is all the more remarkable given the all-too-human failings of the pioneers. Isenberg wants to tell one story; McCullough wants to tell another. May both write for many years, and let readers enjoy the cornucopia.

To be clear, reviewers are not citing errors of fact; they just don’t like McCullough’s presuppositions. They don’t like his word choices—just look at the book’s subtitle, with its talk of a “heroic story” and of spreading “the American ideal” to new lands.” Slate’s reviewer confessed to being triggered by them. Such characterizations are anathema to those who view the settlement West as an unrelieved litany of horrors. 

Certainly, the horrors were all too real, and they are part of the story. But they are not the entire story. Like the 1619 Project over at the New York Times, it’s a monochrome theory in which everything that ever happened is viewed through a single lens. What’s the correct balance? I don’t know. But neither do those claiming that they do. 

Scholarly Revisions and Layers

From Frederick Jackson Turner to William H. Goetzmann, from Elliott West to Vine Deloria Jr., Amy Greenberg, Patricia Limerick, and countless others across the decades, the story of westward expansion has been framed and reframed. The current generation might think it has the final frame in place, but it does not.

If all this revisionism has taught us anything, it is that in history there are facts, but there is no final truth. What Deloria and Goetzmann wrote 50 years ago remains relevant today, if only their heirs would pay attention. It’s also worth remembering that Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), to cite just two of many examples, are not new books. The notion that approaching historical study of the West from the Native American’s viewpoint is somehow a 21st century improvement is simply wrong. This approach has been taken for longer than many of those complaining about McCullough have been alive.

Scholarship revises and layers; trends change; academic fads come and go. Stories remain. How these are interpreted evolves over time, as more information becomes available and different perspectives are considered and reconsidered. Each new age tries to put its spin on the events of the past. I hate to break this to the wokest of today’s “woke” McCullough critics, but a century from now, your captiousness about The Pioneers will seem as quaint to the scholars of 2119 as Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 analysis of the frontier seems to you.