This is an excerpt of a piece original published in American Purpose here.
Although many now worry that it is endangered, American civil society has long been an important element of what has made the United States an “exceptional nation.” Historian Jon K. Lauck argues that in 19th century America, the surprising epicenter of that civil society turns out to have been the Midwest, a region frequently derided by the literati and others as close-minded and unenlightened. Lauck makes a strong case against this latter view, proposing that a better understanding of the Midwest would shed light not only on the roots of American exceptionalism, but also on its prospects.
In The Good Country: A History of the Midwest, 1800-1900, Lauck argues that during the 19th century, nowhere in the United States—indeed, in the world—was democracy as far advanced as in the twelve states of the Midwest (then more frequently called the “Northwest”). “There was,” he writes:
a communally agreed to ideal, a model for behavior, a goal to be striven for, a moral code, a way of inspiring the young, a motivation for civic duty, a virtuous patriotism, a recognition of civic obligations, and, perhaps most telling, a willingness to bleed and die for one’s home, especially as against sinful rebels who put the young republic at risk.
Historians, writers, and social critics have often portrayed the region, Lauck notes, as “the old square world.” But social equality was the norm, religion was ubiquitous, immigrants plentiful, and literacy was high. “By the Civil War,” Lauck says, “over 90 percent of Midwesterners could read and most middle-class families owned books.” Though initially limited to White men, the right to vote extended further and with fewer conditions (such as property ownership) than in other parts of the United States. Rooted in agriculture and later in small businesses, its economy reinforced what Lauck terms “the moral teachings of Christian/Victorian culture.” In his view, the Midwest epitomized American “exceptionalism.”
Even so, Lauck writes, while the Midwest was “a good country,” it was not a perfect one. Although women played a larger role in the region’s civic and cultural life than they did elsewhere, they faced obstacles to voting and holding office that changed slowly. While slavery was legally prohibited, various forms of discrimination were still practiced in many states, especially those that had French settlers. (Though frequently mistreated as well, Native Americans, Lauck reports, often fared better than Black people.) Still, the Midwest became a hotbed for reform movements, not least of all for ending slavery. (The first abolitionist paper, The Philanthropist, was published in Ohio.) Eventually, the Civil War helped to solidify the region’s identity, including through being memorialized in statues and pageants.
Underpinning the democratic ethos of the Midwest is the least well-known of the nation’s founding documents, the Northwest Ordinance. Promulgated in 1787 by the short-lived Confederation Congress, it is usually understood as outlining the requirements for admitting new states into the Union. But it was much more: In advance of the U.S. Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance included a bill of rights that protected religion, the right to jury trials, and the ownership of property. Finding “religion, morality, and knowledge … necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind,” it proclaimed that “the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” And most importantly, the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the region (though it allowed for the return of fugitive slaves to other parts of the country).
According to Lauck, the Northwest Ordinance was not simply a piece of parchment to the residents of the Midwest. It was no less than a regional Magna Carta, which left its imprint on their political cultures. It spurred constitutional conventions and competitive elections to chart a pathway to statehood. It protected the flourishing of religious expression as people from the eastern and southern states, as well as from Europe, moved into the new territories. It kept slavery and its peculiar social arrangements below the Ohio River; Senator John C. Calhoun, in fact, regularly called the Northwest Ordinance a “sin against the South.” And it led to the creation of an extraordinary number of schools—not only elementary and secondary ones, but also academies for higher education—many of which continue to exist.
By the middle of the 19th century, the Midwest had developed a vibrant civic life, built around not just its churches and schools, but also its societies for art, music, philosophy, and literature. Theaters and opera houses grew common, as did public sculpture, Lauck reports. “Much of this commitment,” he writes, “was driven by prominent charities, generous individuals, and general civic commitment.” He adds: “Midwestern elites saw civic and cultural stewardship as a duty.” After the Civil War, the influence of the Midwest expanded, including in the nation’s political life, reaching what Lauck calls “peak Midwest” by the end of the century.
A few years after I moved to the Midwest, Commentary Magazine asked me to participate in a symposium on “the national prospect.” My assignment was to write about what it looked like from the nation’s heartland. “There is much to be optimistic about,” I wrote, “as traditional values still infuse much of civic life.” But, I added, “places like Indianapolis cannot isolate themselves from the major streams of American culture.” The Midwest would be shaped, I argued, by the tension between its traditional civic values and the modern ones of our increasingly national (and international) culture. So too for the uses Americans make of civil society.
Judging from where I live in Indiana, civil society in the Midwest remains alive and as a recent poll showed, still has considerable appeal to Americans. As Faith Bottum wrote, “Midwesternism is a state of mind. Geography matters less than having nice neighbors, a sense of community and questionable cuisine.” But like the Midwest, civil society has changed. The ability to adapt may, in fact, be its least appreciated aspect. Strangely enough, the roots of American exceptionalism may be most discernible in “the square old world” of the Midwest.
Leslie Lenkowsky is emeritus professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University. This was originally presented at a conference on “Exploring Civil Society,” sponsored by The Winchester Foundation, Winchester, IN, October 5, 2023.