A Community in Search of Itself: A Case History of Cairo, Illinois

A Community in Search of Itself: A Case History of Cairo, Illinois

A Community in Search of Itself: A Case History of Cairo, Illinois

A Community in Search of Itself: A Case History of Cairo, Illinois


Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, was a city favored by geography and climate. It was founded in the early 1800s on great expectations. Its location at the head of major rivers navigable both summer and winter and its proximity to coal fields generated predictions that Cairo would soon surpass Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and even Chicago. Yet itfailed to realize the success its promoters believed inevitable.

Using mainly primary sources such as newspapers, city council records, and census data, Herman R. Lantz has traced the history of the city and has pinpointed the economic, social, and psychological factors that helped to retard Cairo's progress while other cities with the same, or even fewer, advantages flourished. The result is an important socio-historical contribution that attempts to explore the process of community failure in the perspective of national success.


Americans were so impressed with their own achievements that figures of speech, of growth and rise and expansion came immediately to mind in any examination of their past. The future was always more promising than the present and the present seemed always superior to the past. And, indeed, evidence of this roseate view of development was abundantly available. It did not take much imagination to lend reality to the conception of a great nation emerging from the wilderness to world power as if propelled by some irresistible, natural, or providential force--only the adjectives varied through time. The belief in success hardened into a mythical faith. It colored the view of foreigners who visited and described the country; and it subtly influenced the successive generations of historians and social scientists who analyzed the character of the United States.

By extension, the concept of national destiny applied also to smaller communities. The local histories of the nineteenth century commonly made growth their central theme, often mingling pride of place with boosterism. The chronicle of every country and municipality demonstrated the benign influence of geography or popular character on growth. Scholars too unconsciously fell into the same pattern. The places of study were those which grew most rapidly and most impressively. The written record therefore added up to one colossal success story, whether on the urban, the state, or the national level.

Yet there has been another side to the history of American communal life, one which contained failure as well as success, stagnancy as well as growth, and decline as well as . . .

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