New England self-perception circa 1950

"The inhabitants of New England," said an observer of a hundred years ago, "are of a character equal in strength to the austerity of their beliefs."

So, doubtless, are they to this day, though the austerity of their beliefs has been softened. (Weakened, say the surviving men of granite.) It was softened by the hordes from the Old World who swarmed into New England while Yankees were swarming into Ohio, Kansas, and Oregon. [. . .] The swarming immigrants brought a complexity in their religions, and even though the Yankees themselves had invented a number of religions of their own they still, one and all, spoke directly to the Lord without intermediary. With each of their homemade religions, it seemed, there was even less of divine authority than before. Now, with the immigrants, came a church armed with the same sort of absolute authority that had caused the Pilgrims and Puritans to leave old England. So, it was little wonder that the Yankees, who relied chiefly upon their individual consciences for guidance, feared it, found it alien, and were ready to believe the worst that any scoundrel could concoct about its clergy. [. . .]

But libel the Yankee if you will. He is today the most set-upon, the most abused, the most caricatured American of all. He is, in fact, almost the only American who pays no heed to libels about him. Who is the favorite villain of the stage, of the movies, of novels? He is a Yankee banker, name of Peabody or something similar, and not Cohen or Guggenheim. The favorite spiritual mountebank of the stage and movies and novels is not good Father O'Houlihan, bu the Reverend Dr. Sears, or something similar, patently a Congregational minister. The simple clown is not Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, but a clod from Pumpkin Center, Maine. [. . .] Uncle Tom's Cabin is not to be shown on the screen because it reminds that Negroes once were slaves--and not because of its cruel Simon Legree, born a Yankee. Oliver Twist is banned because of Fagin, a Jew; and the clever magicians of Hollywood have at last produced The Three Musketeers without the unfrocking of a Cardinal Richelieu.

The time rapidly approaches when the only safe target of libel in the United States will be the Yankee of the old stock; nor is he likely to give a tinker's dam for't. He is content in his smug belief that Yankees are above and beyond libel, as secure as are Yankee legends, such as the Horseman of Boston named Revere, as Colonel Allen at Ticonderoga, Nathan Hale at the gibbet, and the flowering of New England's bards and philosophers. Almost the only canard he will rise to refute is that his forebears were burners of witches. They were not burners of witches; they hanged them by the neck. . . .

Libels of the living Yankees are as of the wind. But, sir, commit no improprieties with History. [. . .] Narrow, sir, as the Yankee culture may have seemed, say, to the Episcopalians, and narrow and harsh to the Quakers, yet it was the only valid culture to withstand the rigors and disintegrating effects of the wilderness frontier. Consider, too, its magnificent vitality. It splintered, true enough, yet in every splinter remained something of the basic vitality--as witness those who call themselves Mormons or Adventists or Unitarians or Christian Scientists. [. . .] Yes, indeed, the Presbyterians were dynamic, too. They had a much stronger organization than the Puritans. They also were superb tamers of the frontier. One doubts that America ever saw more efficient pioneers. Yet I bid you read your history right. A full century before those stout people came, the Yankee Puritans called Congregationalists had founded schools and colleges, had founded a new form of civil government. [. . .]

Three hundred and thirty years after establishment of the first New England settlement [. . .], the surviving Yankees have adjusted themselves to living in a world that is no longer, except in very small part, their own. They come close to being, if they are not already, a minority in their own region. The old Yankee blood grows thinner, though slowly, by intermarriage with other stocks. In another two centuries or so the Yankee may well be extinct. What his descendant will be like must be left to prophets in the field of anthropology. [. . .]

You say that our poets are wrong? that the New England character is neolithic and is thus unsuited to a more plastic age? Very well, then. What would you consider as a base for the underpinnings of a nation? Surely, you do not mean that they state, the government, should be the source of energy, of enterprise, of intellect? That is not he way in which the small republic became a great nation. Much of the energy and even more of the intellect which have characterized America stemmed from New England sources. [. . .]

Aye, the Puritan, the Yankee, the New Englander has indeed been the butt of much sport and ridicule. He has been attacked and demolished for his narrowness, for his calm assurance that he alone was right. But, sir, you must either admit that somehow or other he accomplished prodigies; or you must cite some other group of people who accomplished more, or even as much, in the New World. Such a people does not come readily to mind. [. . .]

But what are the tidings? How goes the nation? In the middle of the twentieth century there seems to be no solid, no granitelike assurance. Many Americans say that we are without a positive philosophy, that we are confused, that we search here and there and in vain for some anchor rock that is more than a treacherous reef. No such doubts contaminated the thinking of the old Yankees. Perhaps that is why their notions interpenetrated the whole confederation. At the head of those notions was Industry, along with a rigid moral code for which there was not, nor is, another name. And somewhere in their baggage of notions was Economy, which one of their number, who was Noah Webster, declared to be "management without loss or waste." The foundation of all their notions was, of course, their belief, so clear and so unshakable as to mystify those who did not have it--their belief in a Power from which they could draw, as water form a well, the strength needed for their prodigious works of both mind and body. You must comprehend that when a Yankee went out to pick rock and build a fence, he picked rock and built fence to the glory of his God. When he went out to break path through snowdrirfts, it was to the glory of God. If he went to capture Louisburg, he captured Louisburg to the glory of God. When he decided to defy George the Third, it was for the glory of God that he defied him, because he understood that he, a Yankee, was a work with God. Yea, because he knew that he had an ally in the Almighty, this man succeeded. . . .

Simple and austere notions they were. They survive, here and there, but they are not held in any esteem by the mass of Americans today, who dismiss them as old-fashioned, as backward, as narrow, as antiquated. Perhaps they are. But they were notions formulated by an amazingly durable and most effective people who thought that their legs were made to stand upon. For three hundred years, more or less, that belief and those notions served them and America well. I could wish, sire, that we in mid-twentieth century were better acquainted with old Bradford of Plymouth Plantation, he, the governor of the Pilgrim colony, who was certain that all great & honorable actions are accompanied with greate difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages.

The Rock at Plymouth may have been overdone as a sentimental symbol. But the spirit revealed by old Bradford, and the generations following him, might well point the way, might even fill the void of which an uneasy "whole confederation" has become increasingly conscious.

[Stewart Hall Holbrook. The Yankee exodus: an account of migration from New England. Macmillan, 1950. pp. 353-362]

Related: New England self-perception circa 1810


Anonymous said...

About Puritans:

Anonymous said...

"Who is the favorite villain of the stage, of the movies, of novels? He is a Yankee banker, name of Peabody or something similar, and not Cohen or Guggenheim. The favorite spiritual mountebank of the stage and movies and novels is not good Father O'Houlihan, bu the Reverend Dr. Sears, or something similar, patently a Congregational minister. The simple clown is not Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, but a clod from Pumpkin Center, Maine." (published in 1950)

What I take from this is that the Jewish-led coalition was perceived on the rise in the 1930s-1940s, but the USA's White-Protestant core was still sure of itself, saw itself as a group with interests, saw itself as the core of the USA (which it always has been and remains today, let's be honest).

We see this spirit lasting for decades more, arguably still to the present day. The Nixon and Reagan movements, and recently the Tea Party of the late 2000s into the 2010s, but from the 1960s it was always winking and nodding its way to success.

One interesting thing is that the author even "names the Jew," something that his successors have rarely if ever done, outside the fringes, in subsequent decades. This side observation may be related closely to the "winking and the nodding". As Jewish ideas began to dominate intellectually, open self-advocacy was discouraged and "pathologized" (as Dr. MacDonald says).

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