Saturday, February 25, 2012

American Nations: How Puritans Turned the Left Coast Blue

We continue to mine Colin Woodard’s fine book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, for interesting facts about our national heritage. His main point is that the North American continent is divided into cultural regions that are defined by the characteristics of the original settlers who arrived and proceeded to spread throughout the continent. The figure below details the pattern, and the discrete nations, created by this migration.

The association of Woodard’s "Yankeedom" with New England is easily understood. Less well known is the immigration pattern that spread Yankeedom characteristics to other parts of the continent.

These original settlers of New England had a unique view of society, and considered it a religious duty to propagate this view (or impose it if you wish) on the remainder of the continent.

"Yankeedom was founded on the shores of Massachusetts Bay by radical Calvinists as a new Zion, a religious utopia in the New England wilderness. From the outset it was a culture that put great emphasis on education, local political control, and the pursuit of the ‘greater good’ of the community....Yankees have the greatest faith in the potential of government to improve people’s lives, tending to see it as an extension of the citizenry, and a vital bulwark against the schemes of grasping aristocrats, corporations, or outside powers....Yankeedom has always had a middle-class ethos and considerable respect for intellectual achievement. Its religious zeal has waned over time, but not its underlying drive to improve the world and the set of moral and social values that scholars have sometimes described as ‘secular Puritanism’."

In other words these people were, politically, what we would call progressives today. Since the Tidewater and Deep South sections were controlled by aristocrats, there was a north-south tension from the earliest days of our nation.

"It has been locked in nearly perpetual combat with the Deep South for control of the federal government since the moment such a thing existed."

So how did it happen that these Yankees could play a role in defining the culture of the far away Left Coast?

The Yankees were seafarers and businessmen. One place where both pursuits came together was in the fur trade on the northern section of the Pacific coast. Their competitors there were the inland French traders coming out of what is now Canada. To the south they encountered the established Spanish/Mexican culture that Woodard refers to as El Norte. They concluded that the land was being overrun by—horror of horrors—Papists! Clearly this was a challenge that could not be ignored.

"Not surprisingly, their intellectual and religious leaders soon added this new ‘wilderness’ to the list of places in need of Yankee salvation. In the 1830s Lyman Beecher was calling on his followers to save the West from the cruel machinations of the Pope and his obedient Catholic immigrant followers."

This mission of salvation began slowly in the 1820s. "Missionaries" began landing on the Pacific coast from San Francisco north to Vancouver in present-day Canada. The Oregon towns of Salem and Portland are evidence of their efforts. Curiously, the Yankees did not fare well in Southern California where the gentle climate and the easy going ways of El Norte tempted too many to go native.

It was the discovery of gold in California that created urgency for the mission.

"In what was one of the largest spontaneous migrations in human history to that point, 300,000 arrived in California in just five years, increasing the new American territory’s non-Indian population twentyfold. Within twenty-four months San Francisco grew from a village of 800 to a city of 20,000."

Needless to say, the lure of gold and the accumulation of rootless young men led to an environment that the New England Puritans found both offensive and challenging.

"All of this deeply offended Yankees on both coasts, prompting yet another moral crusade, this time to save California. The reverend Joseph Bendon....proclaimed the Gold Rush a challenge to Protestants to complete the civilizing effort that had been begun by the Franciscan missions....seeing an opportunity not just to save California but to create a Protestant beachhead for taking on the ‘strong holds of Paganism’ in Asia."

The Yankees came in large numbers, mostly by sea, and set about their task as best they could. They would establish schools and take control of civic institutions, mostly on the coast, but the goal of setting up a "Protestant beachhead" was beyond their reach. There were too many people arriving with different sets of values. On the other hand, the civic contributions and attitudes did stick and became part of the coastal culture.

"The coast blended the moral, intellectual, and utopian impulses of a Yankee elite with the self-sufficient individualism of its Appalachian and immigrant majority. The culture that formed—idealistic but individualistic—was unlike that of the gold-digging lands in the interior but very similar to those in western Oregon and Washington. It would take nearly a century for its people to recognize it, but it was a new regional culture, one that would ally with Yankeedom to change the federation."

Woodard’s Nations do not align with state boundaries. This leads to states where the political environment is suggestive of a form of bipolar disorder. The political attitudes of the people of inland California are closer to those of Greater Appalachia than to those of their neighbors just a few miles to the west. Similar regional contrasts exist in many states. The context provided by Woodard’s book allows for our incomprehensible political environment to become just a bit more comprehensible.

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