In his stunning book, States’ Rights and the Union, the historian Forrest McDonald offers the best insights in print regarding the very complicated history of the understandings of sovereignty in early American politics. As McDonald correctly notes, a complicated but generally accommodating tension held together those who disagreed with one another. As Bruce Frohnen has persuasively argued, this healthy tension between various shades of nationalisms and localisms reveals much about a prudent, pre-ideological understanding of republican politics. “The ratification debates were an argument among men who were dedicated to a common heritage, and who were as often close friends as political rivals,” the brilliant lawyer-historian-political philosopher explains. “The compound republic that resulted from their conflict was a creature of compromise and accommodation….[leading to] decades of well-ordered liberty.”
What has been less studied, though, are the ways in which local partisans of each of the three great sections of the United States attempted—either through design or merely through discovery and spontaneous order—to create a mythology of the American founding that gave place of primacy to their home region.
While studying such attempts is obviously a legitimate part of historical studies, it is also necessary to employ techniques from literature and other liberal arts to understand—at any meaningful level—what these sectional patriots wanted to express and advance. Abraham Lincoln, of course, would eagerly accept the nationalist narrative presented by earlier generations of politicos, but he also importantly accepted literary and mythic ones.
Almost immediately after the successful conclusion of the War for Independence, for example, each section privileged the bravery of its own. New Englanders looked to the martyrs of Lexington, while Southerners dreamt of palmettos and swamp foxes. Virginians, naturally, could choose from commanders in chief to authors of Declarations of Independence.
Still, even the last point was contentious for many Americans. For much of his life, John Adams insisted that he had been the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and not just one of three members of the committee to write it. Many New Englanders backed him. Scholarship since has given this honor, though, to Jefferson.
Going back to the very beginning, setting up its region as the fountainhead and touchstone of America, a number of New England patriot scholars and myth makers in the 1790s decided to emphasize the founding document of Massachusetts, the Plymouth Combination, signed in 1620. Embarrassed by the religious overtones of the document, though, “modern” New Englanders—who did not want to emphasize the ultra Calvinist origins of their region—retitled it, The Mayflower Compact, a name never before even suggested. The rechristened document sounded fresh and Lockean, American rather than parochial and partisan. Though New Englanders failed to make the John Adams as author of the Declaration stick, they certainly did well creating the myth of the Mayflower Compact. Even the most inclusive and left wing of modern textbooks, especially for children, promote the narrative of American history as a direct line from Plymouth Rock to Rodeo Drive. Multiethnic centers such as St. Louis, St. Paul, San Antonio, and Santa Fe be damned! They merely offered some strange opposition (or, more generously, contributed) to the ever advancing American frontier line.
Most dramatically, compare an 1860 map of the migration of New Englanders west into the Great Lakes with a map of who voted Republican in that same year’s presidential election. The two maps are nearly identical.
Who says one cannot separate the political from the cultural? Well, whoever they are, they’re correct.
We might even branch out, especially while in a generous mood, and talk about the four folkways so readily and ably explored by scholar David Hackett Fisher—the Puritan, the Quaker, the Anglican, and the Scotch-Irish. This is better than Plymouth Rock to Rodeo Drive, but only slightly so. What about Africans, French, Spanish, Jews, Catholics, Dutch, American Indians, Swedes, Germans, etc., etc.? Whatever Fisher dreams, America is as multi-ethnic as the most imaginative person can imagine. And, while Philadelphia matters, so does San Antonio. And, so does Vincennes and so does Kekionga.
With a Fisher viewpoint, we can explain the Americanness of, a Willson, a Church, and a Lawler. But what about a Birzer, a Bonilla-Alvarez, or a Horwitz?
In private correspondence with Frank S. Meyer, Rose Wilder Lane presented a much more complicated view of America, going well beyond the more simplistic narratives so often embraced:
Can you get yourself out of Europe? Can you see the world, events, history, from the Mississippi Valley? Can you feel that The East is Europe and behind you? That the West is California, Oregon, the Pacific, the Orient that you are facing and going toward? Can you know in your blood and bones that you are living in the beginning, that this is all new, that nothing like this has ever been, that here is the REAL change, the revolution, that is transforming the whole world? Do you see history from here? The Pilgrims coming toward here, the Spaniards coming up from the Gulf into the grassy hills and wooded valleys along the Mississippi and from the southwest across the endless ‘like the sea’ plains between the Mississippi and the Shining Mountains—and going back to stay in the far south; then the French voyageurs escaping from the creeping Social Security of France along the St. Lawrence in the north east and scattering among the Indian tribes in the wilderness where you are, and the Sieurs de Lemoine in Mobile (where de Soto’s troops were routed before) in New Orleans, and coming up the River to build Fort de Chartres. Can you see the French elegance, the Twelfth Night parties, the ladies and gentlemen in their sedan chairs, the Little Paris on the Mississippi, the flat-boat flotillas going away, down the River in the spring to distant New Orleans and returning in August, September, to lie in masses along the west bank opposite the clear water of the Ohio waiting for the customs officers to search them, to stamp their papers, to give them permission finally to cross the frontier between Lower and Upper Louisianas? Can you feel the Commandant’s paternalism to his “mes enfants,” the French subjects, and their disdain, dislike, for the disorderly lawless ‘Bostonais’ (so precisely the Continental attitude toward Americans still.) And the shock, the horror, when in 1803 these lawless ‘Bostonais,’ occupied the Louisianas. The mutual shock and horror: the Americans saying, My God, these Frenchmen are savages, uncivilized; they have no laws And the silently weeping crowds of French, watching their flags—Louis’s, Napoleon’s,—come down and the new flag go up, and going home to face the end of their world, saying, These barbarous Bostonais, they are uncivilized; they have no social order, no Ruler. Can you see American history from here? Can you possibly stop seeing it from London, Paris, Rome, Athens?
As our own wonderful John Willson has argued, it is foolish to try to explain the American founding as a singular event or, especially, with a particular person, event, or device. It was, Willson so correctly notes, a moment of competing and colliding and combining personalities, ideas, motives, and outcomes.
Just as the nationalists of Lincoln’s and Grant’s day tried to lessen and soil such diversity, so, too, did the progressivisms around Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. If you can stomach it, read the following from one of the leading progressives and sociologists of the 1910s.
These oxlike men are descendants of those who always stayed behind.… To the practiced eye, the physiognomy of certain groups unmistakably proclaims inferiority of type. I have seen gatherings of the foreign dashboard in which narrow and sloping floor heads were the rule. The shortness and smallness of the crania were very noticeable. There was much facial asymmetry. Among the women, beauty, aside from the fleeting, epidermal bloom of girlhood, was quite lacking. In every face there was something wrong—lipstick, mouth course, upper lip too long, cheek–bones too high, chin poorly formed, the bridge of the nose hollowed, the base of the nose tilted, or else the whole face prognathous. There were so many sugar–loaf heads, moon–faces, slit mouths, lantern–Jaws, and goose–bill noses that one might imagine a malicious jinn had amused himself by casting human beings in a set of skew–molds discarded by the Creator. (E.A. Ross, The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People (New York: The Century, 1914), pg. 286)
The overlooked that this man will beget children in his image—two or three times as many as the American—and that these children will in turn beget children. They chuckle at having opened an inexhaustible store of cheap tools and, Lo! the American people is being altered for all time by these tools. Once before, captains of industry took a hand in making this people. Colonial planters imported Africans to hoe in the sun, to ‘develop’ the tobacco, indigo, and rice plantations. Then, as now, business minded men met with contempt the protests of the few idealists against their way of quote ‘building of the country.’ Motors of prosperity are dust, but they bequeathed a situation which in four years wiped out more wealth than 200 years of slavery had built off, and which presents today the one unsolvable problem in this country. Without likening immigrants to Negroes, one may point out how the latter–day employer resembles the old–time planter in his blindness to the facts of his labor policy upon the blood of the nation. (Page 287)
It is reasonable to expect an early falling off in the frequency of good looks in the American people. It is unthinkable that so many persons with crooked faces, coarse mouths, bad noses, heavy jaws, and low for heads can mingle their heredity with ours without making personal beauty yet more rare among this than it actually is. (Page 287)
Such a disordered and disturbing vision readily plays into the diabolic views of a Sanger or a Hitler.
The same is even more true with a larger understanding of American history. Outside of Singapore, America as a whole is the most cosmopolitan and multiethnic place in the world. It’s not just genetics that have come together, it’s also cultures and ideas and languages and laws and norms and mores.
For those of us who love ordered liberty and truth—meaning those who read The Imaginative Conservative—we must constantly fight against the tendencies so prevalent in the modern world to narrow, to exclude, and to compartmentalize.
Every human is utterly complex at every moment of her or his life. A huge part of being right thinking is dismissing simplicities and conformities. This is as true for the individual human person as it is for a few or even a myriad of human persons acting over time or at any given moment.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.