In the United States, Frederick Jackson Turner predicted, each geographical region "will find its place as a fit room in a worthy house."
Turner — the chronicler of the "closing of the frontier" and a Midwest native — viewed the Midwest as the place where "American democracy will make a stand" against aristocracy, corruption and mass culture.
Jon K. Lauck, founding president of the Midwestern History Association and author of several books, agrees. In "The Good Country," he argues that the history of the Midwest in the 19th century reveals "the most advanced democratic society that the world had seen to date," and refutes stereotypes about the region's dull, sectarian and repressive culture.
In his detailed and informative narrative, Lauck celebrates the Midwest's anti-slavery, free labor ideology; Victorian norms; civic culture; entrepreneurial ideals, and democratic egalitarianism. The Midwest, he indicates, was the first region in the country to grant unconditional voting rights to all white males. It led the way in granting women the right to vote and establishing coeducational colleges and universities. Before Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887, Midwestern states enacted laws regulating railroad rates.
An unapologetic booster, Lauck at times gilds the lily. Midwestern states, he declares, "constructed a substantive safety net" long before the federal government passed welfare reforms. He claims that efforts to promote public morality were rarely harsh, coercive or punitive.
Lauck acknowledges that the treatment of Native Americans and the exploitation and oppression of Blacks "will forever tarnish the Midwest's reputation." However, he seems determined to find evidence of mercy as well as heartlessness to demonstrate that the Indian policies pursued by state officials and settlers "were often done in good faith."
Prior to removal, he writes, for example, some Indian leaders were allowed to examine the lands to which they were moving; some were relocated to arable lands instead of dry places farther west.
Nor do the anti-discrimination statutes he cites justify his claim that "African Americans in the Midwest made enormous strides during the nineteenth century … witnessing a veritable civil rights revolution."
"The Good Country" concludes with Lauck's plea for a "complete picture" of America's past that includes "the smiling parts," the "voices of the squares," moral training for citizenship, and respect for traditional social norms. Lauck wants to end "journalistic safari-like expeditions into the dark interior of the American continent," and judgments based on contemporary standards.
Lauck is surely right to expect serious students of history to bring balance, symmetry, proportionality and an understanding of context to their work. That said, he can — and no doubt will — be criticized for mischaracterizing the analysis of Midwest historians who preceded him. And for going too far in celebrating the values and behavior that that he believes have been discounted.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest 1800-1900
By: Jon K. Lauck.
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press, 350 pages, $26.95.