Albion’s seeds in Arkansas

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.


11 thoughts on “Albion’s seeds in Arkansas

  1. “Communitarian Utah”? Well, maybe, but the “deeply rooted aversion to communal investment” is just as strong or even stronger in Utah than in the South. It is dead last by per-student spending for public schools in the ranking of US states. And its ostensibly public school system has been brought into agreement with the religion by the peculiar system of “seminaries”, a religious instruction classrooms located door-to-door to the public schools albeit technically off campus (with the class schedules leaving room for the seminary instruction)

  2. Before you get all excited about the Yankees, you need to understand the curdling of their faith and their path down hill to the modern swamp of leftist politics. They arrived as Calvinists, became Arminian in the middle of the 18th Century when Jonathan Edwards (Aaron Burr’s grandfather) was sent into exile, Unitarian in the 19th Century, then Transcendentalist and Social Gospel followed by Marxism in the 20th Century. Now Marxism has collapsed into incoherent nonsense that the left spouts today.

    But they still believe that they are the elect and that the lower orders are damned and hopeless.

    “In 2016 Hillary Clinton famously expressed this contempt for Trump voters when she told wealthy donors at a Manhattan fundraiser “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” She went on. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

    In “Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling,” reporter Amy Chozick confirms this was no one-off gaffe. Mrs. Clinton, she reports, used the line repeatedly to Democratic audiences she knew would appreciate the sentiment. “The Deplorables always got a laugh, over living-room chats in the Hamptons, at dinner parties under the stars on Martha’s Vineyard, over passed hors d’oeuvres in Beverly Hills, and during sunset cocktails in Silicon Valley,” wrote Ms. Chozick.”

    “Impeaching Trump Voters: It’s revenge for 2016, and nervousness about Democratic prospects for 2020.” By William McGurn on Oct. 7, 2019

  3. I do have to part ways and be pretty skeptical of claims of deep roots of American folkways. There have been huge amounts of internal migration in the US. (So for instance any genetic trace of migrations by “Scots-Irish” that shows any particular link to regions of Britain and so on is wanting in large scale sequencing, and so to work these tend to require that all later internal migrations subsequently meekly followed in early patterns… for some obscure reason).

    In the one case where I’ve seen a deep folkway claim looked at properly, claims of Nordic egalitarianism (carried over to the USA), it is found wanting and pointed out that the Scandos were fairly inegalitarian until late 19th and early 20th century movements. E.g.“The Swedish Sonderweg in Question: Democratization and Inequality in Comparative Perspective, c.1750–1920”. High inequality also the case in Norway –“TO THE NEW WORLD AND BACK AGAIN: RETURN MIGRANTS IN THE AGE OF MASS MIGRATION”, Ran Abramitzky, discussing how Norwegian migrants seem to have been negatively selected from the Norwegian population (and return migrants even more so), mentions in passing that Norway was more unequal than the USA.

    In terms of claims of low investment in collective, communal property, the 1858 speech doesn’t adjust for what would be expected based on incomes, nor looks at investment in other types of collective, communal property, like churches, or hospitals, or local military and police institutions. Nor does it look at geographic distribution factors – public goods have more incentive when there is a particular type of clustering and will more possible when there is a more even income distribution (so will be effected by if different populations spread out, or clustered, and making similar income, or different). So it is hard to believe it says much, in itself standing alone.

  4. As a separate thing (to be downvoted separately 😉 ), have to admit, further my dislike of this deep roots claim in particular is that you tend get certain kinds of rather starched, stodgy Northern US Conservatives and Liberals who have a tendency to scapegoat any deviation from their idealized mythical republic, with its world class Yankee democratic institutions, as a result of those “bad” Southern folkways. (“Curse, those meddling Cavaliers, and Scots-Irish, have ruined us again!”).

    Without much admitting that there could be something in any institutional weakness for America’s attempts to dissolve a vast and diverse set of European migrant populations, or influences by African Americans, or things that were actually present and at fault in Yankee culture itself, and that this may have fallen far short of the image that they project on it. It’s the sort of thing that seems a bit ridiculous and self regarding from an outside perspective. And I suppose that the fact that the axe falls heavily on those Americans today who probably have the most British descent would exacerbate it for me a bit, as a Brit.

  5. matt, migration isn’t dispositive cuz it may be about founding institutions.

    . Nor does it look at geographic distribution factors – public goods have more incentive when there is a particular type of clustering and will more possible when there is a more even income distribution (so will be effected by if different populations spread out, or clustered, and making similar income, or different).

    weak objection. there are places where yankees and southerners interacted and migrated and colocated. yankee houses and non-yankee houses, and yankee towns and southern towns were very distinct (this is also a thing in parts of the lower midwest where germans are distinct from anglos in their towns).

  6. It’s also worth noting that Arkansas is quite poor, and actually ranks in the top 10 states on education spending as a percentage of fiscal capacity. They spend above their weight. Contrary to claims by rich state progressives, the US has very low redistribution to state governments via intragovernmental transfers compared to other federal states like Canada, Germany, or Australia, and it is not correlated with fiscal capacity or income. (This is exacerbated by rich states using zoning to prevent poorer people from living there or moving there.) There’s a reason why in countries with equalization payments, richer states and provinces tend to vote for the right and poorer ones for the left. That used to be true in the United States, at least until the formulas were upset to freeze payments in place and zoning locked poorer people out of moving to the richer states.

    There are transfers on the individual level, but note that, e.g., the TANF block grant gives much more per poor child to rich states than to poor states. Matching fund systems instead of equalization payments in other areas exacerbate this.

    The basic story is that Arkansas is a poor state, spends as much as it can afford on education (which is greater as a percentage of state income than many richer states), but balks at taxing and spending more for the same reason that poorer countries don’t spend as much as richer countries.

  7. Arkansas is only 77% white versus Washington state at 81%, Massachusetts at 83%, Oregon at 85%, New Hampshire at 93%, Vermont 94%. It’s population of African Americans is at least double that found in any of the Blue states. Most Blue state non-whites are Asian immigrants.

    The point is that Arkansans are more than just poor white trailer trash, and that critics from rich, white, liberal states are also attacking black Arkansans dealing with the legacy of slavery.

  8. Maybe the wrinkly old vampires at the New York rag haven’t heard about the internet. Personally, I enjoy the library experience and old-fashioned paper word, but 97% of what I read is pdf based. Modern libraries are essentially coffee shops with a conference room and a lot of city retirements. It’s a huge burden for a rural tax base.
    Another thing, not one person in the article is a land owner paying taxes other than the pissed off taxpayers. The whole “Mississippi or West Virginia ranks 48th in blah, blah, blah” is just so damn dopey and juvenile.

  9. Modern libraries are essentially coffee shops with a conference room and a lot of city retirements.

    I was going to say that modern libraries are essentially places for hobos to surf porn. But you said it better than I did!


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