America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest

In my post about Okies, I considered a factor that few know about or understand. Here is a small part of what I explained:

Midwestern culture has become so widespread in American society that it is almost invisible. Midwestern English, specifically in the area centered in and directly surrounding Iowa, became Standard American English which is to say that when someone of this region speaks it is perceived as there having no accent. Ronald Reagan became the great conservative leader from California was born in western Illinois which is part of the region of Standard American English. It was because of Midwesterners such as Reagan that Midwestern English became so common in Hollywood (and so common on nationally broadcast radio and television); by the way, John Wayne also came from this region, having been born in Iowa. This invisibility of Midwestern culture goes along with the invisibility of German-American culture, as the Midwest is the main region where Germans settled and most people don’t realize that there are more Americans of German ancestry than of any other ancestry. Both my parents are largely of German ancestry.

This has been something on my mind for a very long time.

In its most basic form, it relates to an earlier history. The Middle Colonies, as explained by Ned C. Landsman in Crossroads of Empire, helped create a regional culture of multiculturalism that became representative of America in general, despite not being among the earliest of the colonial settlements. This is partly because the population grew there so much faster than in any other region. It was largely because of this fast population growth that the North was able to win the Civil War.

The regional culture of the Middle Colonies had great impact on the Midwest specifically and on the North generally, and because of the Civil War its impact became truly national. The Midwest gets lost in all of this vast history. The regional culture is to Americans as mud is to a mudfish, and it is about as culturally sexy to Americans as is mud.

A big part of this influence was the German immigration. Germans were the single largest group of immigrants in American history (with several large waves of immigration over several centuries), and so they are now the single largest ancestral group of modern Americans.

German culture had a fate not dissimilar to British culture. After the American Revolution, Americans sought to create a new culture independent of that of Britain. After the First World War, Americans also sought to create a new culture independent of that of Germany. There was a nation-wide oppression of all things German which was magnified further with the Second World War. German influences remained, but they became less visible as had the British influences. Both British and German culture have merged almost seamlessly into a general American culture. The influence is there, but few ever notice it or think much about it. It’s just there in the background.

For the first centuries of American history, Germans were a cultural force to be reckoned with. They fiercely defended their culture and large areas of the Midwest were almost entirely German with public schools that taught in German and newspapers that published in German. That American tradition of Germanic culture was almost entirely annihalated in its outward forms. For example, a big reason behind Prohibition was because ethnic groups such as Germans prided themselves on their breweries and loved to drink. There was, however, a revival of German influence after the Second World War when there was a mass immigration of Germans escaping the Nazis, some of them Jews and some of them not but all of them bringing German culture.

So, unlike the English, Germans were able to make a comeback and claim their place as “Real Americans”. The English have always had the taint of oppression from our shared history of war. It is easier to forget and forgive the World Wars in Europe, especially since the Germans who came to America mostly fought on the American side or at least didn’t fight for the enemy (with a few exceptions such as Nazi scientists who came by ‘invitation’, so to speak). However, the British attacked the American colonies (i.e., on American soil) and that is a stigma that will probably remain for as long as the United States continues. The Japanese, likewise, will always have that stigma for Americans.

Nonetheless, Germans have never regained the prominently visible place they once held. Midwestern culture is almost synonymous with German culture, but you wouldn’t know that unless you have closely studied regional history. Even many people living in Midwestern states are oblivious to their own history. In Upper Midwest, they love to celebrate their Scandinavian heritage and yet Scandinavian history is small compared to the German heritage.

Standard American English (or General American) has its origins in the Middle Colonies and the later Mid-Atlantic states, but it didn’t take full form as we know it now until it developed further in a specific region of the Midwest. From there it spread West and through modern mass media became the dominant dialect. It has become so normal of a way of speaking that few notice it, including scholars, when those outside of this small region speak General American.

Walter Cronkite, Ronald Reagan, etc. These were the purveyors of Standard American English and the Midwestern culture that went with it. Interestingly, the purveyors of this have become even more widespread as the influence of the United States has spread. American English and hence Midwestern-originated Standard American English has become the most common form of English taught and spoken in the world, so common that even the BBC has begun to use more American English because its worldwide audience has demanded it.

The same goes for religion. The Methodists of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest helped create much of modern American Christianity which spread far and wide, even helping to make the South so strongly religious. However, Midwesterners aren’t known for being dogmatically, politically and vocally religious. Ask most people what Christian denominations are most common in a state like Iowa and they couldn’t even guess.

In the Okie post, I went into great detail about religion. I specifically detailed alternative religion and spirituality. The heretical and/or secular thought of modern American society has much of its origins in this same area of Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. New Age spirituality and New Thought Christianity (Prosperity Gospel, as labeled by Evangelicals) have become so widespread that, like Midwestern dialect and German culture, it has become normalized and amorphous. No one thinks of these things as being Midwestern, for sure. Most people probably assume they were created ex nihilo in that crazy state of California on the West Coast, West of the West.

Many don’t know of the massively influential history of socialism that existed down in states such as Oklahoma and up in states such as Wisconsin, both regions influenced by the Midlands culture of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest as it was carried by the migration patterns going West and then, in the far extent of the Midwest, heading both South and North. Socialism was another popular aspect of German culture and, more generally, Northern European culture. It had been these radical left-wingers during the Populist Era during the 1890s that helped to force the hands of the powerful in eventually creating progressive reform.

This all began with the Quaker colony of William Penn (aka Pennsylvania) along with the Dutch colony of New Netherlands (aka New York). These both introduced a concentrated German influence that was injected into the central regions of early settlements. In time, this influence made itself known in so many ways as to no longer be recognized. It was simply American.

The ancestors of these early settlers, unlike many Appalachians for example, don’t usually identify as ‘American’ on census records and they’ve never tried to force their culture onto the rest of the country. I suppose it was just the fate of history that they ended up having such a powerful impact. And it was the result of being so culturally successful that they were so easily forgotten about.

The Midwest is called the Heartland for reasons beyond it being the center of the most productive farming in the US and in the world. Farming is important and made our country wealthy, but there is a deeper current to why the Midwest captures the American imagination.

It is where Dorothy seeks to return from Oz. It is Superman’s adpted home. It is the future birthplace of Captain Kirk. It is where new things are hoped for and things of the past are longed for. It is a place of renewal. It is where greatnss is seen in the simple. Or so that is how it is seen in the landscape of the American Dream.

It is the Heart of America. A heart that still beats.

Common Law & Civil Law: Response to a Review

Interesting review. A worthy analysis you present.

It seems we have different biases, but I appreciate the type of data you use to back up your argument. I largely agree that distinctions as you make are important such as between common law and civil law. The tricky party is teasing out what they mean in a diverse society like the US with a complex history and also what are their origins.

There is a complicating factor to your analysis. The English were divided by traditions of common law and civil law long before the colonial era. The Germanic tribes (Anglo-Saxons) brought their common law tradition which was syncretized with the prior Celtic traditions and they formed the early kingdoms. Later, the Romanized French (Normans) conquered England and brought the kingdoms under the civil law tradition. This created a conflict in English society from early on. It eventually led to the Glorious Revolution.

The conflict wasn’t created in America after the colonies gained independence, but was formed long before in England wherefrom Americans inherited it. In the early to mid 19th century, many Americans began to identify this conflict with the regionalism that had formed from settlement patterns of the earlier colonial immigrants. The Cavaliers of Virginia had an outsized influence on Southern culture, including the dialect. The word ‘cavaliers’ is of French Norman origin and the Cavaliers were of Norman nobility. The Puritans fought on the opposite side of the Glorious Revolution and, interestingly, they came from the regions of England originally settled by Anglo-Saxons. Northerners and Southerners prior to the Civil War had come to see themselves as defined by the respective cultures of Anglo-Saxons and Normans.

The British Isles had a close relationship with Europe for millennia. British societies were conquered and ruled by many different European groups, the most influential being those from Northern Europe: Germany, Scandanavia, Norway, Netherlands, etc. Also, the influence went the other way for at times British rulers held control or kingship over European territories. The English language is of German origins. The English in general are as German as they are Celtic. Even the later Normans who had a massive influence were originally Germans. albeit Germans with more of a Roman social and political structure. All of Europe, like all of the British Isles, were influenced by the competing interests of Germania and the Roman Empire, the two cultures forming various amalgamations.

The reason Germany had such outsized influence on the British Isles was because both areas were never fully conquered by the Romans. With the fall of the Roman Empire and the concomitant Mongol invasion, German tribes were forced South and West. Also, with the European wars, later Germans were forced to migrate in great numbers to the New World. From the beginning of the Pennsylvania colony, Germans were the majority there, not Scots-Irish. Germans are the largest ethnicity in the United States, beyond just the region of the former Quaker colony. The Union would have lost the Civil War without the massive German immigration, partly because many of these immigrants were seasoned revolutionaries who had stronger idealism of democracy than any other immigrant population. Along with radicalism, they also brought with them their Protestantism, work ethnic, highly skilled labor, and high levels of education.

The entire area influenced by the German migration included the Midwest and then down into Northern Texas. This is why the only socialist run city was in the Midwest and why socialism was even found in Texas in the 19th century. But many Americans don’t know what socialism is for these German immigrants were simultaneously mistrusting of big government because of the oppressive governments they escaped in Europe. So, the socialism they developed was more in the libertarian tradition of local democracy and self-rule. The reason Germans mostly settled in the Quaker colony was because it was one of the least oppressive colonies at the time.

By the way, socialism wasn’t a foreign concept to the British isles or no more foreign than the rest of Enlightenment thinking. The Welsh businessman Robert Owens built a socialist community in Southern Indiana during the early 19th century. Owens and his sons became some of the most influential politicians in their day. This isn’t surprising as radical leftism began to make it’s mark in London going back to before Thomas Paine which is what caused Paine to bring that English radical tradition to America, thus being a major force that inspired revolution and offered forth a vision alternative to colonial empire.

Germans were also known for their Enlightenment thinking which related to their revolutionary and radical idealism. One of the Germanic countries that influenced England greatly also influenced America greatly: Netherlands. Locke sought refuge in Netherlands when the English government sought to censor and imprison him. The Netherlands published more books than anywhere else in the world at that time. Spinoza, the founder of the radical Enlightenment, lived in Netherlands. The Dutch founded the New Netherlands colony which, even after being taken over by the British maintained its founding culture and politics which is what makes New York City unique to this day.

Also, you have to consider the French and Spanish. Modern Britain would be entirely different without the French Normans. The French Empire later had much influence on Canada, parts of Northeastern US, and Louisiana. The early explorer Champlain helped establish one of the most democratic visions ever brought to North America. The Quakers inherited the good relations with Native Americans that Champlain had helped to develop in the Ohio Valley. The Spanish Empire took over Louisiana along with the rest of their territory throughout the South such as Florida over to Texas, the Southwest and California. After the Spanish Empire receded, Mexico controlled much of the former imperial territory. Spanish and French demographics and culture were well established in these areas long before and long after the US took possession. One significant factor is that states like Louisiana and Texas have the remnants of the civil law tradition written into their constitutions and legal system.

The Catholic Church had it’s influence, but the early radical influences in America preceded any large immigration of Catholics to the Eastern seaboard. There are many other possible influences that might have undermined the common law tradition, besides of course the Norman influence. The Deep South plantation owners were the sons of Barbados plantation owners. They came to America looking for land to start their own plantations. Barbados was known as the most violent slave colony in the entire Western world and this was imported to South Carolina and then throughout the rest of the Deep South.

I don’t have any ultimate conclusion. I’m just suggesting that it is complicated.

The Cultural Amnesia of German-Americans

My reading lately has been varied, by which I mean I’ve been jumping between many books without finishing any of them, but I’ll finish them all eventually. This jumble of reading has my mind in a jumble. I was also doing some genealogical research, actually for someone else’s family as a favor to a friend. Looking at this other person’s family reminded me of my own family with lots of German ancestry. The German aspect came up in my reading as well.

Thinking about this other guy’s family, I was reminded of how much German ancestry there is in the American population. It is the single largest ethnicity in the entire country. What is odd is how invisible is the German influence.

In a post a while back, I wrote about a few books related to American whites, two of which were about specific ethnic populations. One book focused on the Scots-Irish and the other on the Irish. These two cultures have received a lot of attention and they are in many ways very visible cultures. Even if not English, they are still British and so they more easily fit into the standard narrative of America. German immigrant culture fundamentally undermines this simplistic narrative in a way no other ethnicity is capable of doing. Yet I know of no book about German Americans that is equivalent to the many books on the Scots-Irish and Irish.

A little over a century ago, German culture was the complete opposite of invisible. The German language was widely spoken in the US, second only to English. In German majority cities, public schools were taught in German and the newspapers were printed in German. Now, the only viable surviving German culture and language is that of the Amish, and it has survived for the reason the Amish isolated themselves from the changing world around them.

Germans were among the earliest settlers, the British government offloading German refugees onto ships heading for various colonies and plantations. In the American colonies, Germans even formed their own separate communities early on. The influence of Germans only increased over time with several massive waves of German immigrants in the 19th century. The sewer socialism and progressivism emerging out of the early Midwest was mostly the result of German ideas. Germans loved promoting projects for the public good such as public education, even as they mistrusted the federal government and the often nativist populations surrounding them.

The nativism is where I’ve gained a foothold of understanding. The Republican Party arose partly out of the support of the Know-Nothings who were anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, the former being especially directed at the sizable German population. Non-English immigrants were initially wary of the Republican Party for good reason and non-English immigrants to this day are wary of the Republican Party for good reason.

Nonetheless, the Republican president Lincoln wouldn’t have been able to win the Civil War without the large ethnic immigrant influx that gave the North a population advantage, not to mention the quality of immigrant was very high with Germans on average being more well-trained and well-educated than the average non-German American, specifically more well-trained in fighting modern warfare as many were political dissidents fleeing revolutionary wars against empire. Many of Lincoln’s administration and military leadership were German immigrants and even more were soldiers in his army.

Much of the political foment following the Civil War involved the German population or was in reaction to the German population. Germans fought for workers’ rights and farmers’ rights, the two coming together within the Populist movement. Germans fought against corporatocracy in the way they fought against empire back in Europe. More importantly, they won many of the political battles they fought and we today benefit from their struggle such as with the 8 hour work day and 5 day work week (try working every waking moment continuously 7 days a week and then tell me you aren’t grateful for their struggle and sacrifice). On the other side, Prohibition and Sunday laws were partly enacted in order to control the influence of ethnic immigrants such as Germans and Irish who were fond of their drink.

The ugliness of nativism became a central issue on the national stage when World War I began. The media of the day portrayed Germans as being vile and dangerous which led to mobs forming and many Germans dying. Also, the Germanic culture was nearly eliminated. German newspapers were censored, German names of buildings and streets were changed, German traditions were attacked, and German-Americans experienced political and economic oppression. They were arrested, imprisoned, and deported. They had hard time finding work. Their formerly influential culture suddenly became a liability. Along with the impact of World War II, nearly all traces of German heritage had been eliminated. Many German-Americans experienced a cultural forgetting that scoured the German culture from the collective memory of American history.

There was only one saving grace that helped some minor German identity to survive. The German refugees escaping the Nazis included many of the greatest intellectuals of their day. These German intellectuals gained employment in the arts and education. Slowly, German-American culture has been rehabilitated in correspondence with the German nation itself being rebuilt after WWII. It is no longer shameful to be of German descent, but the living culture in America was nonetheless destroyed beyond repair. The only thing left are a few German newspapers and the popular German festivals involving beer drinking.

This saddens me as so much of my ancestry is German, on both sides of my family. My German ancestry goes back for centuries in American history. But my family has complete amnesia about its Germanic past. America as we know it wouldn’t exist without the German influence. It’s hard to imagine what America would be like if Germans hadn’t been around to help win the Civil War or to help America live up to its democratic promise.