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The Most American Region

A new book restores the Midwest to its central place in our national history.

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Fall colors are a backdrop to farmland along north Saginaw street on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022 in Lapeer, MI. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest, 1800-1900, Jon Lauck, University of Oklahoma Press, 366 pages.

Of all America’s regions, the Midwest captures the American imagination the least. Inhabitants of coastal cities reduce it to “flyover country,” the in-between areas one must avoid even setting foot in on one’s way to more interesting places. The belief that the region lacks enough cultural attractions belies the fact that it did a great deal to establish what Americans consider central to our national culture today, including religious tolerance, abolitionism, and the importance of public schools. In The Good Country, Jon Lauck restores the Midwest to its proper central place.

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Whereas the Thirteen Colonies brought much of the Old World with them, the Midwestern states aspired to create a more perfect polity on the frontier. The Northwest Ordinance established the land around the Great Lakes as the Northwest Territory, for which the Continental Congress drafted guidelines that differed from the charters establishing the original colonies. The ordinance guaranteed freedom of religion and encouraged the establishment of schools, because “religion, morality, and knowledge” were “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.” The Continental Congress also prohibited slavery within the Northwest Territory. While the Midwest territories further to the west, which became the Great Plains states, would not have the same guarantee, they later created legislation to abolish slavery.

Lauck emphasizes the centrality of education for Midwesterners and the immense breadth of their intellectual pursuits. Their interest in local history and in agricultural techniques meant that curricula could be rather practical. Nevertheless, Midwesterners read widely. On the shelves of the Midwestern settlers, one could find von Ranke’s Lives of the Popes and History of the Reformation, Redpath’s History of the United States, Kingsley’s Greek Heroes, Macaulay’s History of England, Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales, and Froissart’s Chronicles. Young Iowa boys may well have sat at the banks of the Des Moines River, daydreaming of the battles they read of in Froissart, fought long ago in the country that would later lend its language to the naming of that river. 

This interest in education, combined with the religious diversity of the Midwest, contributed to the development of numerous colleges, usually of a reforming religious character. Thus the curriculum at Miami University “emphasized both the Bible and the classics, good morality, good manners, and good literature.” Others forbade the use of alcohol and tobacco. Catholics, seeking institutions where they could study free of persecution (and perhaps with an occasional tipple), founded their own universities throughout the area. 

Oberlin and Hillsdale, both founded by abolitionists, stand out. Both colleges accepted women from an early date. The former staged a rescue mission for a fugitive slave, and the latter sent a large portion of its students to fight for the Union in the Civil War. The radical roots of both institutions remain today, with Oberlin interpreting its early abolitionism as an endorsement of progressive policies and Hillsdale using its curriculum to celebrate the American republican experiment.

Despite the radical tendencies of Midwestern politics, the region did on occasion fall short in racial relations. I should note here that Lauck includes in the Midwest Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri, all states with ties to the South and outside the Northwest Ordinance’s ban on slavery. Though the states established out of the Northwest Territory could not institute slavery, some slaves maintained servitude through a variety of loopholes. When it came time to write their own state constitutions, though, even the more southern-leaning states refused to institutionalize slavery. 

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Midwestern states brought their dedication to education to all their citizens, whatever the color of their skin. Lauck provides the rather remarkable comparison of Ohio with Eastern and Southern states:

In 1860 a greater percentage of Black children attended school in Ohio that in large eastern states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York (Ohio also had a greater percentage of Black children in school than there were white children in school in Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas).

Lauck subtitles his chapter on race relations, “Racial Failures and Advances in the Good Country.” One may question in what way the Midwestern states “failed” when they abolished slavery, ended segregation a century before the South, and educated their African-American citizens better than the South educated its own white citizens.

Certain aspects of the Midwest are missing. Lauck writes about the practical education of Midwesterners who would go back to their farms, but we do not read about what a Midwestern farm looked like. Similarly, the development of the Midwest’s industry and infrastructure is nearly absent. Traces of canals litter the Midwestern landscape, but for Lauck the Erie Canal is only a symbol of economic independence from the South.

Lauck could also have discussed the religious diversity of the Midwest. The region had a heterogenous religious population from the beginning, made only more so as the Second Great Awakening burned through it. Joseph Smith built his first temples in Ohio and Illinois, and he met his earthly end close to the latter temple. More orthodox groups flourished in the area as well, such as the Campbellites. As immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Ireland settled in the region, Lutherans and Catholics became increasingly common. This religious diversity confirms and emphasizes the freedom of religion promised in the Northwest Ordinance.

The Good Country argues for the centrality of the Midwest as a region apart from the East and the South, with characteristics that many would today recognize as generally American ones. The citizens of this region, residing at the fringes of the civilized world, sought to establish a unique polity with citizens both farmers and scholars. Despite the views prevalent in other parts of the country, they abandoned slavery and segregation, and many of the institutions of the region engaged in radical acts to aid the abolitionist cause. The reforming zeal of the Midwesterners in establishing colleges and tending farms, abolishing slavery, and appreciating religious freedom created the values that Americans across the country hold dear even today. 

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