The American historical “dark matter”

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1936 presidential election, blue = F.D.R.

Walter Russell Mead has a fascinating blog post up, The Birth of the Blues. In it, he traces the roots of modern American “Blue-state” liberalism back to the Puritans, the Yankees of New England. This is a plausible argument. I believe that many social-political coalitions and configurations in contemporary America do have deep historical roots. But assertions and models must be tested. It is for example absolutely correct that early New England was the redoubt of American statism. First the Federalists, and then later to a lesser extent the Whigs, took refuge in New England during the long phase of anti-government Democratic ascendancy which led up to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. But New England statism has its limits; the map above shows that it is in Greater New England that resistence to FDR seems to have been deepest. I don’t necessarily chalk this up to “flinty Yankee” anti-government sentiment. Rather, I think we need to consider that the ideological content of social-political coalitions and configurations sometimes matter less than long persistent affinities across cultural networks and domains.

Very few Americans for example are aware today that in 1800 New England was the region with the strongest adherence in the United States to orthodox Protestant Christianity. In contrast, Deism was firmly rooted among the Southern planter aristocracy. As late as 1850, even after the Second Great Awakening transformed the religious landscape of the South, the conservative Carolina aristocrat John C. Calhoun remained a Unitarian. And it was in the South than support for Revolutionary France ran strongest, while New England favored the United Kingdom and its allies. I suspect most modern Americans would be taken aback by such affinities simply based on the substance of what New England and the American South represent in terms of ideology at any given moment.

Until a few years ago I was very ignorant of American history. And therefore I was totally innocent of many important patterns which span the generations in our nation. Scholars such as Walter Russell Mead would have impressed me with their erudition, but I didn’t have the data base to evaluate the plausibility of their claims. In everyday discourse we often bandy about history learned when we were teenagers as if they can serve as robust frames for the sorts of inferences we make. Alas, they can not. There is no substitute for genuine knowledge. Albion’s Seed is a good start, but many accessible books which cover the first period of American sectionalism are filled with much relevant insight.

9 Comments

  1. Don’t tease us with just Albion’s Seed! How about a small list of good history books to start with?

  2. Daniel Larison criticizes Walter Russell Mead on “Jacksonian” etc divisions of foreign policy pretty frequently. I imagine he’ll do the same here.

    There was a strong anarchist movement around Boston in the 19th century, with figures like Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner. Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated Massachusetts’ history of anarchy. Thoreau may not have been an anarchist, but he did believe in civil disobedience and was jailed for refusing to pay taxes. While it’s not relevant to the discussion, I felt like quoting this about him from Wikipedia: “Thoreau also wore a neck-beard for many years, which he insisted many women found attractive. However, Louisa May Alcott mentioned to Ralph Waldo Emerson that Thoreau’s facial hair “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.”" And here’s David Friedman on how technology may have affected the prevalence of facial hair.

  3. Liberalism is a universal delusion. It existed before Christianity, but clearly Christianity influenced secular humanism, liberalism, progressivism and all other egalitarian-individualist forms of thought. I think at this point it’s a mistake to regard it as anything other than signaling behavior, much how American racial/class egalitarianism is generally seen as a sign of prosperity.

  4. I was confused by the statement about Calhoun. I read it as referring to brand-name Unitarianism, the church of his president, JQA; which would make it false, since he attended his wife’s lax Episcopal church. It would have been clearer to me to repeat the word “Deism” of the previous sentence.

  5. Razib,

    Excellent entry. Many people forget that Southerners and Catholics were allies during the 19th-century in opposition to blue laws like no working on Sunday or restrictions on alcohol consumption. These blue laws were beloved by Notherners at that time. So much has changed, the South has become so notorious for blue laws.

    On Southerners and Catholicism, by the 19th century Southern protestants were anti-Catholic in the Anglo nationalistic traditon. But the ancestors of these Southerners came from those parts of England (West and Northwest) that resisted the Tudor era religious innovations the longest. Note the history of the Reformation in Scotland is a different story, more of a bottom up process. As an undegrad I had a professor whose specialty was the history of Northern England in the Early Modern era and he told me that one of the still debatable issues is what happened. Why did the descendants of a bunch of 16th-Century Catholics become extreme low-church Protestants in the late 17th and 18th centuries.

    You are right on Mead, he has some great insights, but he is beloved of his own model that he has limited his interpretive skills

  6. [...] review all this ethno-history because I think that to a great extent it is part of the “Dark Matter” of American political and social dynamics. Americans are known as “Yankees” to the rest [...]

  7. [...] review all this ethno-history because I think that to a great extent it is part of the “Dark Matter” of American political and social dynamics. Americans are known as “Yankees” to the rest [...]

  8. [...] in the USA redound down to the present in surprising and often cryptic ways. I refer to this as the “dark matter” of American history; deep structural patterns which shape the cultural geography of the world around us to which we are [...]

  9. [...] in the USA redound down to the present in surprising and often cryptic ways. I refer to this as the “dark matter” of American history; deep structural patterns which shape the cultural geography of the [...]

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