Burlington, VT: "The Myth of a Yankee Town" (1937)

Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History. This document is: "The City Selected," "The Myth of a Yankee Town" (excerpts)We Americans: A Study of Cleavage in An American City, Anderson, Elin L.. 1937.


WALKING along the streets of Burlington, the visitor sees nothing in the appearance of the citizens to remind him of the not-too-distant past when the shawl or apron of a foreigner was a usual part of an American street scene.

But to a Yankee farmer they are not all alike. To him Burlington has a lot of foreigners. As he walks along the main street, he looks in vain for a few faces which remind him of the features of Calvin Coolidge. Going into a store he may be greeted by a proprietor whose short and stocky build little resembles the long, lean Yankee storekeeper of earlier days. While waiting to be served he may listen abstractedly to an animated conversation between the clerk and a customer only to realize suddenly that he is listening to a foreign language. "French," he probably decides, as he turns to give his order. He goes into another store to be waited on by the Jewish proprietor, and comes out a little fearful lest he may have met his match in bargaining. If he stays in town for lunch, he will have to look hard along the main street to find a restaurant which is not Greek, or Syrian, or Chinese, or run by some other "foreigner." It is only when he goes into the bank that he can breathe easily, knowing that here he is still on Yankee ground.

Burlingtonians themselves are occasionally interested in speculating on the extent to which the city is no longer an Old American community. The Federal Census gives them some picture of the changes: according to the figures of 1930, 40 per cent of the population of 24,789 are either immigrants or children of immigrants, 12 per cent being foreign-born and 28 per cent of foreign or mixed parentage. This group of immigrants and children of immigrants is composed of several elements. The French Canadian, with 4,895 members, is the largest; it comprises one half of all the people of foreign stock belonging to the first and second generations, and one fifth of all the people of the community. The next largest group is that of English-speaking Canadians, who number some 1,208 persons. The Irish come next with 1,102; and the Russians and Poles (most of whom are Jews) come fourth with 741 persons. Other groups of some size are the English, with 457 members; the Italian, 392; and the German, 309. In addition to these, twenty-nine other nationalities are represented in lesser numbers.

The Census, however, does not tell the whole story, for it does not distinguish the nationality or stock of the grandchildren of immigrants. It is therefore only by a count of the three Catholic parishes - two French-Canadian and one Irish - that a more comprehensive picture may be obtained of the size of the ethnic groups of the city which have been here for more than two generations.

Such a count reveals that the French-Canadian element is much larger than it appears to be from the Census enumeration. By the priests' estimate there are in St. Joseph's, the first French-Canadian parish, some 6,000 souls of French-Canadian stock; in St. Anthony's, some 1,500; and in Cathedral, the English-speaking parish, at least 2.000. Hence, according to this count, the people of French-Canadian stock number approximately 9,500 and comprise almost two fifths of the total population of the city. In Cathedral, the English-speaking parish, there are also some 5,000 persons of Irish stock, and 1,000 Italians, Syrians, and persons of other smaller groups. In this Yankee community, therefore, 15,500 persons, more than three fifths of the population, are members of ethnic groups identified with the Roman Catholic faith; and when to this total is added the Jewish group, numbering 800 persons, the elements foreign to the Old Yankee stock are found to compose 66 per cent of the population of the city.

This does not mean that the remaining 34 per cent is a "pure" Yankee group. Rather, it, too, is composed largely of foreign elements, though of kindred ethnic stocks -English, English Canadians, Germans - with the Old Americans themselves, those of the fourth generation or more in this country, making up an extremely small part of the population of the city. Their ranks are reinforced by the peoples of the related ethnic stocks who are of the Protestant faith, and it is chiefly as Protestants in contrast with Roman Catholics that these form a cohesive group.

[pp. 21-24]

Every community contains its corps of people who consider themselves its charter members. They have determined its nature, created its organizations, fostered its development. In Burlington this corps consists of Old American Protestants -- the Yankees, as they still are called. They have always lived here, they love the place, they own it. No matter what changes may come over the city, no matter how far it has lost its early character, they watch over its development and growth with a certain sense of responsibility born of the feeling of proprietorship. This feeling is justified in a sense by the fact that most of the institutions around which the life of the city centers today were founded by their forefathers. These had, immediately upon their settling in 1763, set up a town government and public schools, and, as early as 1791, the University of Vermont. After these agencies symbolic of the principles of free government had been established, they turned their attention to the organization of a religious society, which was formed in 1805. Today the descendants of these Old Americans have to a large extent retreated from the commercial life of the city, but they still control the banks, most of the city's manufacturing, and the University. Furthermore, they have through their institutions, and aided by the fact that the immigrant invasion was never great enough to threaten their position of dominance, set an indelible stamp upon the life of the community. An internationally known writer who returned after years abroad to make his home in the city explained how deeply satisfying it was to find here a town where the spirit of early American democracy still endured; where independence of thought, appreciation of character on the basis of worth - qualities which are fast disappearing from the American scene - still survived. Here among the elm-arched streets he felt as if he were coming back to an early American democratic community in which Emerson might still be living.

The small Old American group has been helped to maintain its predominant position by the strength of its traditional feeling of the racial superiority of the Anglo-Saxon. As one woman, concerned about a more successful interrelationship between the various ethnic groups of the community, explained: "Of course you do believe that the English are the finest people yet produced on earth. You do believe that they have the most admirable human qualities and abilities that any people have ever had!" Interestingly enough, the newer peoples on the whole accept the Old Americans at their own valuation, perhaps partly because the premium placed on conformity to standards already set has not permitted them to value their own standards and interpretations of America. At any rate, they always speak highly of the Old Americans as fine people with superior ability, shrewd business men, and leaders of the community; though some qualify their appreciation by commenting that the Old Americans tend to be snobbish and ingrown, and that they place undue emphasis upon the forms of their culture, which they expect all newer peoples to emulate. The criticism, however, is always good-humoredly qualified by: "But they can't help themselves, you know. A Yankee just is like that. You have to accept that when dealing with him."

Traditions of family and name, of power and influence in the financial and civic life of the community, of race consciousness, plus a very deep conviction that the Protestant traditions of their forefathers are basically important to the development of free institutions in America, set the Old Americans apart as a group distinct from other people. Within that group there are the usual divisions of classes and cliques, of rich and poor; but the common elements of culture and tradition give an impression of a common unit in relation to other ethnic groups in the community. The Old Americans are charter members; they give a kindly welcome to newcomers, as behooves people of their position, but they expect in return the respect that is due charter members. One who can claim even remote blood connections with any of the group is cordially welcomed without question; he is "one of us," while one who cannot claim such connection is "accepted" only as he obeys the forms and the codes of the group, because, after all, he is "not one of us."

Freed from the kind of economic pressure that is known to a great proportion of the people in the other groups, the Old Americans are concerned primarily with "nice living." Their interests and activities connect them with persons outside the community more than with those within; thus they have broad views, wide interests in the arts, literature, and even international relations. In the community, however, their interest is in keeping their place and their prerogatives; their influence tends to preserve the status quo and puts a check on too rapid an invasion from the lower ranks into their society.


M said...

In Bellows Falls at the moment. I see some long, lean, dolichocephalic Yankee types among the homeless, LOL.

n/a said...

Doubtful. And even the remaining English element in New England is probably no more than half Yankee/Puritan (later arrivals from Canada, England, and other regions of America making up the rest).

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