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Historian: Pay More Attention To The Midwest

I’m happy to live in Boston and have been for the last 16 years. But I must admit I miss the Midwest. I came here from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, which is also where Here & Now co-host Jeremy Hobson grew up. In fact I worked with Jeremy’s high school class on a documentary when I was at the public radio station there, WILL.

I also worked for a while as a sportswriter for the local newspaper, The News Gazette, and the paper used to send me across the state to cover high school basketball games in the small towns that dot the prairie.

I fell in love with the roads of the region on those journeys, as well as the little gyms where those high school basketball teams would play. If you are a basketball fan and you are ever in Paris, Illinois, I recommend you stop and take a look at Ernie Eveland Gym. Ernie was a legendary hoops coach there. He guided the Tigers to two Illinois state titles, and the gym that bears his name is classic. I wish I could have shot baskets there just once.

If you’re going to understand the whole of American history, you have to understand the role the Midwest played in some very critical events.– Jon Lauck

I used to plop my son Casey in the hard plastic seat on the back of my bike and ride those prairie roads as well. They run straight between the fields of corn and soybeans and they run for miles. It’s a great place to train for marathons because you can just go for miles out and back. You could leave your water at the crossroads and it would be there when you returned on your way back. There’s something soothing about being on those roads. Maybe it was just the quiet, because there wasn’t much traffic. Sometimes, all you could hear was the rustling of the crops in the surrounding fields.

And then there are the storms. It’s something to see when those dark clouds pile up and move across the sky. Even if they are coming toward you, you can be transfixed.

In his new book, “The Lost Region: Toward A Revival Of Midwestern History,” Jon Lauck makes the case for paying more scholarly attention to the Midwest (excerpt below). Jon is part of the Midwestern History Working Group and he and his compatriots will be meeting in Omaha, Nebraska Friday night to promote more study of the history of the region. And as Jon’s book reminds us, there’s plenty to study, or at least acknowledge.

“I think if you’re going to understand the whole of American history, you have to understand the role the Midwest played in some very critical events,” he said. “Places like Illinois supplied dozens of regiments that became decisive in the outcome of the Civil War. If it had been just New England versus the South, the North probably would have lost.”

According to Lauck, Indiana sent nearly 60 percent of its military-aged men to join the Union Army during the Civil War. It was first in the contribution of soldiers. Illinois was second, Ohio fourth, Iowa fifth, Michigan sixth and Wisconsin seventh. They were all ahead of older Eastern states such as New York.

The poet Walt Whitman described a “tan-faced prairie boy” who helped rescue the North during that terrible war. That boy came from the prairie where I was fortunate to once roam. Many of them never came back.

Book Excerpt: ‘The Lost Region’

By Jon K. Lauck

Chapter One: Why the Midwest Matters

The historian Frederick Jackson Turner concentrated his work on forces and moments that mattered in the American past, and his focus yielded essays on the “significance” of the western frontier, the nation’s varied regions, the advancement of democratic institutions and attitudes, the influence of the pioneer heritage, and even the evolution of historical writing itself.1  In an age of cascading data and detailed microhistories, Turner’s breadth of vision provides a welcome respite and offers a rare sense of perspective to a world drowning in information but parched of its relevance.2  Even a critic such as Richard Hofstadter admired Turner because he “eschewed” the monograph “with its minute investigation of details and its massing of footnotes” and because he spoke to the big questions about the nation’s history.3 Turner’s successor at the University of Wisconsin, Frederic Logan Paxson, maintained this tradition, counseling historians to transcend the arcane and “to come to some conclusions” about the nation’s past and to “make an attempt at synthesis, however tentative and inexact.”4 In the 1920s, when Paxson announced that the “time is ripe for [a] synthesis” of western history and he tasked himself with writing a sweeping account of the region, his efforts were rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize.5  Turner’s successor at Harvard, Frederick Merk, similarly emphasized “the longue dureeor long view of events” and sought to explain why they mattered.6

While Turner, Paxson, and Merk supported research on the smaller component parts of American history and fully understood how critical these efforts were to their work, they never lost sight of the bigger picture and the need to explain to a broader audience the significance of their studies. For a revival of midwestern history to be possible, the approach of Turner, Paxson, and Merk must be embraced—historians must first explain why this history matters on the broader canvas of human affairs. If they embrace this mission, they will have much to report. The Midwest matters, in short, because it helps explain the course of foundational events in North America, the origins of the American Revolution, the political and social foundations of the American republic, the outcome of the Civil War, and the emergence of the United States as a world power that shaped global events. The Midwest reveals the evolution of interior resistance to the coastal dominance of politics and culture, which begat forms of populism that still persist and resonate in American political culture, and explains the history of capitalism in the United States, over which the debate will long endure. American Indians, who were deeply involved in the formative military clashes of the early Midwest, were pushed farther west by pioneer settlers, and African Americans who sought an escape from the South increasingly chose the Midwest as their home beginning in the twentieth century.

The Midwest’s influence on the course of American and global history began in the colonial American backcountry.7 By the middle of the eighteenth century, New France controlled Canada, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Valley and dominated the Great Lakes region while British colonies lined the east coast of what is now the United States. When the French began to fortify their holdings and British traders and settlers started moving into the interior backcountry, or the future site of the American Midwest, frictions along the frontier border of the French and British empires followed.8 In 1754, worried about French encroachment on its western flank, the colony of Virginia dispatched twenty-one-year-old Major George Washington to establish a fort on the Ohio River and to signal to the French that the colony would defend its frontier. Washington returned in defeat, but his failed expedition set in motion the train of events that would lead to a global conflict between France and England, which included a “war for the American backcountry,” or the Midwest.9  By sparking what Winston Churchill called “the first world war,” frontier settlers in the Midwest served as the proximate cause of the liquidation of France’s New World empire, Britain’s acquisition of the Midwest, and the later birth of the American republic.10 As two historians quipped about George Washington’s trek into the colonial backcountry, if “Washington was the father of his country, then here was the moment of conception.”11

After the war, the British made preparations to govern their new western lands, including the deployment of 10,000 troops to the region, a costly plan that, along with the debts from the war with France, led to new taxes and restrictions on their American colonies, which caused colonial grumbling and ultimately chatter of rebellion. Clarence Alvord explained the midwestern origins of these tensions in the colonies, noting that the new imperial taxation plans “arose out of the conditions existing in the Mississippi Valley.”12 The British also made plans to divide the interior region into new colonies, which further angered landholders in colonial Virginia, including Governor Patrick Henry, who maintained claims to the lands to the west. The British decision to assign administrative control over the backcountry to their newly acquired colony of Quebec caused more strife.13 These British imperial designs and bureaucratic machinations and the resulting conflicts over the future of western lands caused many Virginians to support the growing colonial sentiment in favor of rebelling against the British Crown.14 Had the British cabinet pursued different policies in what would become the Midwest, as some ministers counseled, they “might have saved the British Empire.”15

Although overshadowed in histories of the American Revolution by the rebelliousness of Bostonians and coastal merchants, Alvord emphasizes that the “roots” of the American revolt were “not confined within the narrow limits of the tidewater region,” but “stretched far back into the hinterland and found sustenance even beneath the primeval forests that lined the banks of the rivers Ohio and Mississippi.”16

Disputes over British managerial control of the lands in the West intensified with the development of an interior political consciousness. Backcountry settlers increasingly resisted the dominance of coastal areas, which tended to control the colonies. By the time of the Revolution, Kim M. Gruenwald explains, the “friction between the backcountry and the eastern seaboard had been seething for a generation.”17 In social affairs, backcountry settlers became less deferential toward colonial elites and more egalitarian and democratic. They also sought a stronger voice in colonial politics.18 Because of these developing regional sentiments, the controls and diktats of the British imperial system were a recipe for insurrection in the colonial backcountry, which would strongly support the revolt against the Crown.19 When war came, the American revolutionaries were quick to act in the backcountry. Virginia sent forth George Rogers Clark to secure the western lands and established the future American claim to the Midwest, which was recognized in the Treaty of Paris of 1783.20

After the Revolution, more settlers moved west, and the new American nation extended its experiment in republican government beyond the narrow confines of the Atlantic rim. During the 1790s, one New York newspaper deemed this migration a “rage for removing into the back parts.”21 When these settlers arrived in the future Midwest, they “cloned,” to employ James Belich’s genetic metaphor, the republican and constitutional achievements of the original thirteen colonies.22  This cloning was formalized by the Northwest Ordinance, which institutionalized a process of state-making for the western lands.23  Instead of allowing the original colonies to claim the lands to the west and absorb them into the nation’s existing political subunits, the young American government created new territories and eventually new states in the West and mandated that they adopt the republican practices and institutions that had prevailed with the American Revolution. The western territories would then become, as Jefferson foresaw, central pillars of the American “empire of liberty.”24

The republicanism of the American Revolution moved west with the settlers and, as Belich explains, was bolstered by “two pairs of Anglophone institutions.”25  The first pair, representative assemblies and the common law, were products of the original English settlements in America. The second pair, a broad franchise for citizens and the continuation of political decentralization or the “cloning” of republican institutions in the western territories, are less directly products of Britain and are instead “neo-British,” or the products of the American Revolution and the movement of Americans westward.26  Thus the heritage of English and colonial republicanism, along with the critical decisions of American political leaders, especially the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance, promoted democratic development in the West.27  In the early 1800s, western states entered the Union with “constitutions that were ultra democratic by prevailing standards.”28 As a result, voting and civic participation in the Midwest were much higher than in Britain, where, in 1800, only 3 percent of Englishmen could vote. The decision about what political institutions to plant in the West “did matter,” Belich explains, and led to strong democratic traditions in the region.29 Because of the Northwest Ordinance, according to the historian James Madison, the republicanism of the Revolution and “basic American freedoms extended Westward.”30

The Midwest’s fate was further determined by Napoleon’s abandonment of his plans to revive the French empire in North America and by the region’s tilt toward the American North. Jefferson’s hopes for an “empire of liberty” that also included western lands beyond the Mississippi River were realized with Napoleon’s sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803, which added millions more acres of prairies and plains to the public domain.31  Gordon Wood emphasizes that “empire” in Jefferson’s mind “did not mean the coercive domination of alien peoples; instead, it meant a nation of citizens spread over vast tracts of land.”32 It also meant the long-run stability of the American republic. In the agrarian territories and states of the West, Jefferson believed, the republican principles and practices of the Revolution would be renewed: “By enlarging the empire of liberty, we multiply its auxiliaries, and provide new sources of renovation, should its principles at any time degenerate in those portions of our country which gave them birth.”33  More western lands also meant more citizen farmers. By the time of Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800, half of white American men owned land, compared to 10 percent in England.34

The nature of midwestern settlement also determined the destiny of the nation. Wood explains that the settlement of the Old Northwest and the new lands of the Louisiana Purchase, which Belich and others see as decisive to American political development, could have shifted American history in a different direction if it had bolstered the strength of the southern section of the new American republic. But the “swarming numbers of anti-slave Yankees from New England” into Ohio and beyond ensured a northern orientation to the Midwest, despite a few sporadic efforts to plant a southern culture and economy in the region.35

In the prairie Midwest, small farms and small towns were the norm, newspapers thrived, civic life blossomed, and political participation was strong.36 As a result, the prairies were “more democratic and egalitarian” than the Southeast, where life was shaped by slavery and plantations, and “without snobbishness,” like the East.37 The Midwest became, said the historian Henry Clyde Hubbart, a “turbulent, youthful, rampant democracy.”38

Jefferson’s plans for the West were not universally embraced. Some early American leaders feared that their republican experiment would stumble over the social, economic, and racial diversity in the West. Fisher Ames saw Louisiana, for example, as a “Gallo-Hispano-Indian omnium gatherum of savages and adventurers” that could not be “expected to sustain and glorify our republic.”39  Still others worried that the delicate new experiment in representative government would not work over an extended territory, but Jefferson remained confident that the republic could be effectively expanded.40  Conservative easterners, who at first feared that republican commitments and religious devotion would erode in the West, came to see the frontier and the resulting prairie states as bulwarks of American republicanism.41

In the territories of the Midwest, American settlers embraced the principles of the Revolution, fought for their right to form self-governing states, opposed what they saw as the arbitrary and aristocratic power of federal appointees, and did so in the tradition and language of republicanism.42  This powerful republican sentiment in the Midwest vexed the appointed territorial governors of the region as settlers clamored for self-government and statehood.43  The settlers understood that “republics were known to fall prey to ambitious and tyrannical men,” and the American republic remained alone in a world of monarchies, so their periodic hyperbole about the danger of aristocratic control is entirely forgivable.44 The republican impulses in territorial Ohio, where the Midwest began, created a “political atmosphere” where a “large majority of the adult male settlers would vote, in which legislators and governors would change office frequently, and in which the power of the governor would be circumscribed.”45  This commitment to republicanism would “dominate” the political culture of the midwestern states.46

Whether the seeds of the American Revolution would take root and flower in the West was no small question. Joyce Appleby notes how reformers and dissenters in monarchical Europe were closely observing the republican experiment in the new United States and praying it would survive and explains how its success led to the wider belief in American exceptionalism, especially among backcountry settlers, and the inculcation of the view that the European monarchical tradition could be escaped.47  “By construing their own liberty as liberation from historic institutions,” Appleby explains, “the enthusiasts of democracy made the United States the pilot society for the world.”48 “We should not take lightly this accomplishment,” Appleby wisely cautions, noting the role of frontier settlers in “rooting out the pervasive colonial residues of hierarchy and privilege.”49  As democracy appeared to succeed in the United States, the influence of its revolutionary model and democratic charter grew proportionally. By the 1820s, American-style declarations of independence had been proclaimed in twenty different nations.50 On Washington’s birthday, reformers in England began toasting the United States as settlers moved west—“may her republican institutions be imitated all over the world.”51 In the American backcountry, where Washington led the first mission that made the future “valley of democracy” in the Midwest possible, settlers shared in his veneration.52 They named the new city of Cincinnati, the “Queen City” of the West, for the society created to honor Washington and his generalship during the Revolution.53

If the successful expansion of the republican experiment in the Midwest gave hope to democratic reformers stifled by European monarchies and their colonial regimes, it also pushed the American republic closer to its own ideals. When the cultural and economic conflicts between the yeoman republicanism of the North and the plantation aristocracy of the South finally triggered the American Civil War, the Midwest determined which political and economic system would prevail and thus the course of American history. The states of the Old Northwest grew from a quarter million people in 1810 to over seven million people by the eve of the Civil War, “perhaps the highest rate of growth in human history.”54 Minnesota, which straddled the western edge of the original Northwest Territory, grew twenty-eight-fold in the 1850s, and in 1861 the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment became the first unit in the nation to answer President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops.55 Indiana sent 57 percent of its military-aged men to join the Union army and ranked first in the contribution of soldiers. Illinois ranked second, Ohio fourth, Iowa fifth, Michigan sixth, and Wisconsin seventh, all ahead of older eastern states such as New York. The soldier quotas of the prairie states were “greatly oversubscribed” while there was “bare compliance or actual failure in the East.”56  Whitman said the “tan-faced prairie-boy” had come “to the rescue”—“out of the land of the prairies,” he sang, had come the Midwest’s “plenteous offspring” with “their trusty rifles on the shoulders to save the young republic.57

Historians believe the Midwest made Union victory possible. Midwestern soldiers outperformed their eastern counterparts on the battlefield, and, Belich explains, the Midwest enhanced the Union’s military and economic power by 50 percent, which was “probably a decisive contribution” to Union victory.58 The social and economic integration of the American North and the American Midwest helped to “determine history—in this case Northern victory in the American Civil War.”59  Frederick Merk concluded that the states of the Midwest “joined their young strength to that of the Northeast and together saved the Union.”60 Andrew Cayton explains that at “Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and dozens of other places, tens of thousands of men from the Old Northwest, led by generals from the Old Northwest, directed by a president from the Old Northwest, demonstrated the power of the nation-state with a devastating effectiveness” that the American founders had never contemplated.61

Carlyle Buley once noted that the Midwest “not only bore the brunt of supplying and feeding the armies which saved the Union but furnished the leadership as well. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan all were its sons; only this section could have produced a man with the outlook of a Lincoln.”62

Lincoln also personified the elongation of the Midwest and the full incorporation of the western prairies into the republic. The descendants of the first backcountry settlers who crossed the Ohio River and planted the republican tradition in the Old Northwest continued westward and opened the prairies of Illinois that sent Lincoln to Congress, launching the political career of the rail-splitter and country lawyer who became an icon of western democracy. Lincoln’s family moved from Kentucky to Indiana when he was seven because of slavery and the problem of disorganized land titles in Kentucky, and thus, Kenneth Winkle notes, his arrival in the Midwest was a direct product of the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery and developed an efficient land system.63

Lincoln was propelled to the presidency by battles over extending Northern-oriented agrarian republicanism and checking the influence of the Slave Power in future states such as Kansas and Nebraska. During Lincoln’s presidency, the midwestern political model was also extended into Dakota Territory, rounding out the northwest corner of the Midwest, which began to form with the first settlements in Ohio.64 Those first Ohio pioneers had “laid the foundations of a distinct section, the Middle West,” and had “set a pattern for later settlements across the Mississippi in the American advance toward the setting sun.”65 Lincoln understood what his region had accomplished. He saw it as the “great interior region” and the “great body of the republic” that was capable of saving the Union and of uniting the North and South after the Civil War.66 Midwesterners appreciated Lincoln’s faith in the region and honored his legacy. Two-thirds of the places named after Lincoln in the United States are located in the Midwest.67

The Midwest made Northern victory in the Civil War possible and, more generally, made the United States economically and militarily strong and, in a related but less direct way, aided the British Empire, against which the United States once rebelled. The settlers of the Midwest, who provided a settlement model the British could use in other parts of the world, thereby shaped world history. Belich explains that the large-scale settlement efforts of the nineteenth century “gave the Anglos vast ‘Wests’” and “allowed the Anglo oldlands to integrate with these Wests, so boosting the bulk and power of the United States and ‘Greater Britain,’” which made the United States “a superpower and gave Britain an extra half-century of that status.”68 The prairie Midwest helps explain the coming of the American Century, in other words, and its attendant triumphs and burdens. What Belich calls the “settler revolution” on the prairie and other frontiers made the United States larger and stronger and determined the course of its political development. In addition to extending and deepening the republican tradition, the vast interior prairies became the “most fruitful granary of earth” and, when their population grew, supplied armies for decisive wars.69

A half-century after the Civil War, the Midwest again helped tip the balance in conflicts that determined the course of global affairs. During World War I, when the conflict between the Western democracies and the authoritarian Central Powers reached a stalemate, the troops of the American and British Wests proved to be crucial. American soldiers, many from the prairie, made Allied victory in World War I possible in the final decisive battles in France. The Indianan Meredith Nicholson described the “quiet, dogged attitude of the sons of the West” who marched off to war to fight for the “English tradition of democracy,” which had been transplanted to the Midwest.70  The British Wests also bolstered the Allied cause by adding 20 percent more soldiers to the British army and boosting British gross domestic product (GDP) by 40 percent.71 Canada manufactured one-third of the shells fired by British artillery units in France, and Canadian wheat fed Britain during the war.72  Two decades later, during World War II, the British Wests contributed 2.4 million soldiers to the Allied cause, including nearly half of Bomber Command’s pilots.73 In addition to the millions of American troops mobilized for the war, the historian Milo Quaife said the food supplied by the Midwest, the “richest agricultural region of the world,” along with its vast quantities of iron and steel, “made possible the winning of World War II.”74  The “special relationship” between the United States and Britain that developed during these world wars, which was rooted in the eighteenth-century backcountry that became the Midwest, continues down to the present.75

In addition to its critical role in the Civil War and the two world wars, the Midwest altered American politics. The republicanism of the prairie, as first Frederick Jackson Turner and then other historians noted, was not static. It produced its own variations and emphases. Belich and Wood have explained, for example, that the franchise broadened in the West, more citizens became involved in government, and popular participation in civic and community affairs was common. While these trends explain the once-popular views of Turner about the influence of the frontier democratic tradition on American politics, the work of Belich and Wood also underscores that Turner tended to downplay the American political system’s debts to English republicanism and parliamentary tradition.76  But Turner had a point about democratic adaptations in the West and the erosion of gentility. In the course of promoting self-government, people on the midwestern prairie often voiced their frustration with their economic overdependence upon the East and the political and cultural dominance of eastern metropolitan centers. This “settler populism” was “a political creed that proved to be a brake on, and sometimes rival of, elite rule throughout the Anglo-world and throughout the nineteenth century,” and it produced political leaders who brought sectional balance and a midwestern voice to American politics.77  These interior impulses also undergirded the farmer activism and Populist movement of the late nineteenth century. This interior populism, in various forms, remains a mainstay in American politics.

A variant of political populism was settler resistance to the cultural domination of the East. Although the Midwest boasted a strong tradition of independent western newspapering and book production in the early years of the region’s development, this independence declined with the coming of the telegraph and railroad.78 By 1850, New York had gained an “informational hegemony” that only grew in subsequent decades.79

Belich notes that “some Westerners deeply resented this, and some resent its vestiges, such as the scholarly denigration of Western history, to the present.”80  These frustrations helped precipitate midwestern regionalism, or midwestern variations in art, literature, and other cultural forms, which the Iowan Ruth Suckow described as efforts designed to cut through the “alien haze that belittles and distorts” local and regional culture.81 Westerners pursued an “intellectual independence” by building their own cultural institutions such as libraries, museums, theaters, schools, and colleges and organizing debating and discussion clubs.82

Merle Curti noted that the wonder was not that the “agencies of intellectual life were so meager [in the West], but that they were relatively so ample.”83 The study of history was a prominent component of regionalism and was first given shape by midwestern historical societies. In his recent survey of midwestern regionalism, Terry Barnhart pointed to the Midwest’s “new conception of the function of a historical society in a republic—that of making history serve a democratic role in the development of community culture.”84  This tradition of supporting midwestern history aided the efforts of Frederick Jackson Turner and others who sought to explain the uniqueness of midwestern history and to lessen the grip of eastern historians who emphasized the history of the Northeast and United States’ connections to Europe.85

Excerpted from the book THE LOST REGION by Jon Lauck. Copyright © 2014 by Jon Lauck. Reprinted with permission of University Of Iowa Press.


  • Jon Lauck, author of “The Lost Region: Toward A Revival Of Midwestern History.” He tweets @jlauck1941.

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Alex Ashlock