A few days ago The New York Times had a piece up that stirred a lot of comment, In the Land of Self-Defeat: What a fight over the local library in my hometown in rural Arkansas taught me about my neighbors’ go-it-alone mythology — and Donald Trump’s unbeatable appeal. It profiles the fight over the funding of (or lack) a library in Van Buren County, Arkansas. The local conflict is situated in national politics, and the gulf between rural and urban, and white Red America and cosmopolitan Blue America.
This is all fine as far as it goes, but a lot of the values expressed among the citizens of Van Buren County make a lot more sense if you take a deeper historical perspective. Long-time readers know where I’m going with this. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, and The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America, all highlight the deep divergences of values and variation of culture which characterize the roots of Anglo-America. That is, the America that was here at the Founding in 1776 was already a variegated thing and America that was created in the 19th and 20th-centuries may have been inflected by waves of Irish, German, and Southern and Eastern European immigrants, but the broad outlines of regional difference predate the later waves.
What is seen cannot be unseen, and once you read one of the above books, you read and perceive the expression of American cultures differently. From Theodore Parker’s The great battle between slavery and freedom (1856):
In 1850…Arkansas had 97,402 white persons under twenty, and only 11,050 attending school; while of 210,831 whites of that age in Michigan, 112,175 were at school or college. Last year, Michigan had 132,234 scholars in her public common schools. In 1850, Arkansas contained 64,787 whites over twenty, – but 16,935 of these were unable to read and white; while, out of 184,240 of that age in Michigan, only 8,281 were thus ignorant, – of these, 3009 were foreigns; while, of the 16,935 illiterate persons of Arkansas, only 37 were born out of that State. The Slave State had only 47,852 persons over twenty who could read a word; while the free State had 175,959. Michigan had 107,943 volumes in “libraries other than private,” and Arkansas 420 volumes….
The reality is that many of the southern regions of the United States have long had a deeply rooted and traditional aversion to public communal investments. This has been to the detriment of the development of broad public education as well as institutions of higher learning. In contrast, investment in primary schools in “Yankee America” was a recurrent feature of town-life in areas settled by New Englanders. This tendency does not today always lean on ideological lines. Much of Utah was settled by Yankees, and its public culture is arguably much more communitarian today than that of the South.