“The Origins of Midwestern Regionality”

The following passage has been excerpted from the book “The Origins of Midwestern Regionality.”


“There were coherent regional stories in the United States by the 1840s and 1850s.

In political and literary discourse, Americans had begun to talk about their section as a peculiar variation on larger national themes, as a particular expression of American life and landscape.

Within imagined regional communities, there was of course considerable resistance to and dissent from emerging definitions.

Regional conversations mirrored the process of nationalism of which they were a part: a multitude of voices worked through issues of definition by focusing on the extent to which they felt included within or excluded from regional stories.

In the face of industrialization and immigration, some nineteenth-century New Englanders created a cozy world of pastoralism and domesticity, of white steeples and village greens, safe from the intrusions of urban hustle and working-class Catholics.

White Southerners had to fashion a tale around the issue of slavery, and many did so by celebrating the peculiar institution as the bedrock of a more humane society than that of Northern industrial cities.

In their broad outlines, these were stories about loss or potential loss, about dealing with the deleterious consequences of rapid change, about celebrating dissociation from national political and economic developments.


In what we call the lower and eastern Midwest there emerged an altogether different tale from very different sources.

Here a remarkably diverse group of people from all over the eastern United States were brought together within a nationally created and administered framework outlined in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Here, too, was a place that attracted large numbers of western European immigrants, most notably Germans and Irish, in the 1840s and 1850s.

Here was a place where the conversation about specificity in the national discourse promised to be especially contentious.


Together, the many voices of the Old Northwest created a basic plot rehearsed again and again in regional newspapers, histories, fiction, and orations.

Obsessively interested in communicating with each other, the residents of the Old Northwest wrote and spoke at great length; they kept diaries, gave lectures, read books and newspapers, listened to sermons, and filled their days with discussions of the place in which they lived.

Those who had access to print dominated the regional conversation.

They were more Yankee than Southern, but there was no rigid separation of the regional migration streams.

Largely middle class in their occupations and manners, they were not defined exclusively by their wealth or profession.

They were, in general, people who not only liked to read and write but who thought it socially useful to do so.

They combined boosterism and morality in the creation of one of the most salient features of their landscape: the local college.

Hundreds of small sectarian schools appeared in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois in the 1830s and 1840s.

At once decentralized and democratized, they served the interests of God, capitalism, and the Republic by putting commercially viable towns on the map and training young men and women to participate in the body politic.



Unlike its New England and Southern counterparts, the Midwestern story as it emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century was not about alienation from either the market or the nation.

On the contrary, it was about near total identification with both, for few whites in the Old Northwest wanted to escape from either.

Difficult as it is for us to remember in an age when the popular image of the Midwest is one of mediocre conformity, contemporaries thought of the territory north of the Ohio River as a promised land.

Remarkable was the extent of social and religious experimentation in communities throughout Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. Shakers, Mormons, English reformers, African Americans and a host of others tried to mold parts of the landscape to their purposes.

Often harassed by their neighbors, they were nonetheless part of the extraordinary complexity of life in the region.

Many people saw the Midwest as malleable, as a place of liberation from tradition and a source of enormous energy for change, both of which were made possible by a unique combination of place, capitalism, and nationalism.

The fortunate residents of the Old Northwest had the power to perfect this world.

“If we do but try – try heartily and cheerfully,” the young and ambitious Ohio lawyer Rutherford B. Hayes asserted in his diary, “we can be, for all the purposes of every-day happiness, precisely what we could wish to be.”


In a larger sense, according to the Cincinnati editor and poet William Davis Gallagher, the Old Northwest was home to “an Experiment in Humanity higher in its character and sublime in its results” than anything tried anywhere else.

Here were “the freest forms of social development and the highest order of human civilization.”

All sign pointed to “a Day…dawning upon this North-Western region,” which would awaken all “to a just sense of their real dignity and importance in the social scale, by proclaiming to them that they are neither slaves nor nonentities, but true men and women.”

Development was the main theme of public life in the Old Northwest.

Seeking access to markets, middle-class Midwesterners trumpeted canals and railroads with such abandon that they often neglected the details of who would pay for them.

What mattered was the promotion of commerce. And they celebrated with gusto their ability to do just that.

By the 1840s and 1850s, a whole host of people in the Old Northwest saw their history as one of rapid and inexorable progress: the arrival of hardy pioneers, the conquest of noble savages, the taming of a wilderness, the transformation of a landscape from forests to farms, the growth of civilization in churches, schools, and cities.

Indeed, Midwestern boosters positively celebrated the loss of simpler, rural times that many New Englanders and Southerners lamented.

By 1850, the regional narrative was so commonplace that an author introduced the popular story of the rough and tumble boatsman Mike Fink by assuming that his readers agreed that “the savage and the wild beast” and “dark forests” had given way to “villages, towns, and cities, rife with the bustle and progress of a vast and rapidly growing population of civilized and enlightened beings.”

Exaggerated and contested, the story of the Old Northwest was a narrative of success: We came, we saw, we conquered, we improved, we are deservedly enjoying the fruits of our labor. What the story lacked in irony and nuance it possessed in energy and optimism.


By the 1850s, middle-class Midwesterners had flattened the complicated and contested history of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions into a linear narrative of unimpeded progress.

It was a story that extolled benefits without reckoning their costs.

The blood and treasure expended on conquest of land and native peoples, the grinding poverty of frontier life, the damage done to nascent commercial networks and transportation systems by two national financial panics and economic depressions – none of these was interpreted to mean that the social and economic development of the region had not flowed smoothly, but instead proceeded by fits and starts.

Utterly unapologetic, Midwesterners had no need to take refuge behind plantations or village greens; unabashedly unrefined, they celebrated the changes wrought by the market and national revolutions: a landscape of small towns and cities, in which banks, stores, and public buildings featured prominently.

To be sure, dealing with some of the same fears as native-born, white New Englanders and Southerners, Midwesterners were creating a history that would both obscure and discipline growing numbers of foreign and urban residents.

But the Midwestern tale was not solely nativist.

German Protestants were deeply implicated in formulating this story.

In Cincinnati, the headquarters of the Midwestern world of print, it was Germans who gave shape to the cultural refinements that the city’s early boosters had craved.

Elsewhere, in Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, prominent Germans became bulwarks of the Midwestern doctrine of materialism and morality.”



The Origins of Midwestern Regionality,” written by by Andrew R.L. Cayton and Susan E. Gray, excerpted from pages 9 – 11 in “The Identity of the American Midwest”, edited by Andrew R.L. Cayton and Susan E. Gray, and published in 2001 by the Indiana University Press.



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