About the Book by Jon K. Lauck Titled “The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest, 1800-1900”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Kelly Scott Franklin of the book by Jon K. Lauck titled “The Good Country:A History of the American Midwest, 1800-1900″:

In September 1879, Walt Whitman headed for the American Midwest. The 60-year-old poet traveled from Philadelphia to St. Louis, then visited Kansas before moving on to Colorado. The beauty and scale of the heartland stunned him, but he saw more, musing that “no one can begin to know what America is, or what it is destined to be in the near future, without exploring and living a while in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado.”

These central states distilled the American project, Whitman felt, and foreshadowed what America would become. In his poem “The Prairie States,” he called the Midwest the culmination of history: “The crown and teeming paradise, so far, of time’s accumulations.” Whitman’s enthusiasm might raise eyebrows today, but in “The Good Country,” Jon Lauck argues that from 1800 to 1900 this region was the best existing version of America, taking democracy to new heights, and achieving material and cultural prosperity.

Whitman called it “the West.” By the 1850s some said “the Middle West”; the shortened “Midwest” stuck in the 20th century. The Founders called much of this region “the Northwest” when Congress in 1787 wrote the Northwest Ordinance. It was a road map for the American future. “Some of the founders,” Mr. Lauck writes, saw the Midwest as “a place where the remaining obstacles to a properly functioning American republicanism could be overcome.” The ordinance set a lofty agenda: representative government, religious liberty and the prohibition of slavery. Its territory would form Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota, later expanding into Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

The first Midwestern states took their cues from the Northwest Ordinance. Ohio’s 1803 constitution, Mr. Lauck tells us, banned slavery, “ensured the free exercise of religion” and “promoted free speech and assembly and democratic governance.” Other states followed, and some extended the franchise to all white men, a strong democratic move: Many Northeastern and Southern states at the time had tax and property requirements even for white voters. The ordinance promoted education, and the region responded: “By the time of the Civil War there were over one hundred colleges in the Midwest,” Mr. Lauck writes, with Ohio alone boasting 20—“more than in any other state.” By 1900, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas would have the highest enrollment of school-age children in the country. The Midwest also saw an explosion of newspapers, libraries and a lyceum circuit featuring speakers like Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau. The Midwest was becoming, in Mr. Lauck’s words, a place of “democratic advancements, open politics, literacy and learning, economic self-determination, and ordered freedom.”

But liberty and justice came unevenly. Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and other Midwestern states denied suffrage to African-American men. Various Midwestern territories and states oppressed African-Americans with “black laws” preventing blacks from testifying against whites, serving on juries or in militias, and more. Race riots drove African-Americans from Cincinnati in 1829 and from Detroit in 1833. In the early 1850s Indiana and Illinois prohibited free blacks from entering the state. Mr. Lauck traces these failures, but cautions against seeing American history as merely “one long train of abuses”; Midwestern history was also made by people who fought a sustained battle for justice. In the 1850s, Michigan and Ohio defied the Fugitive Slave Act with “personal liberty laws” thwarting slave-catchers, and Wisconsin “declared the fugitive law unconstitutional.” Still, Mr. Lauck acknowledges the flaws. “This book is titled ‘The Good Country,’ ” he writes, “not ‘The Perfect Country.’ ”

Opposing slavery helped create the Midwest’s distinct regional identity. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 threatened to allow slavery in the territories, it galvanized the Midwest, and the Republican Party was born. When war erupted, the Midwest poured itself into the Union effort: “The original five midwestern states,” Mr. Lauck records, “sent nearly a million soldiers to war for the Union.”

Midwesterners worked for equality in education, too, outstripping much of the country. Colleges like Oberlin and my own institution opened their doors to women and African-Americans. “In 1860,” Mr. Lauck reports, “more Black children were being educated in Ohio than in the entirety of the American South.” By 1865, some schools in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois were already racially integrated. In 1870 the first American woman graduated from law school—in Chicago.

By the turn of the twentieth century,” Mr. Lauck writes, “the region had reached Peak Midwest,” with a strong regional identity alongside material and cultural prosperity. It produced writers like Ohio’s William Dean Howells, and Willa Cather, who grew up in Nebraska. Institutions of higher learning, art and culture proliferated, and national politics gained a Midwestern flavor—six of the 10 presidents after Lincoln came from Ohio.

Mr. Lauck laments that historians have largely ignored the Midwest—a neglect all the more perplexing since this region has done America so well. But what caused this Midwestern American flourishing? “The Good Country” identifies a set of underlying values: Christianity, self-improvement, “a reverence for physical work . . . prudence and temperance . . . educational aspiration, optimism, democratic openness, republicanism, and meritocracy.” These principles permeated the churches, schoolrooms, speeches and private diaries of Midwesterners; they also challenge the cultural assumptions of what Mr. Lauck calls “our own period of decay.” As “The Good Country” shows, these old virtues worked. It may be time to give them another try.

Kelly Scott Franklin is a Midwesterner and an associate professor at Hillsdale College.

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