Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Why the Midwest Matters

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Why the Midwest Matters

Article excerpt

Recounting these reasons that the Midwest mattered to the course of historical events is not an exercise in assembling "Washington Slept Here"-style factoids or in regional chauvinism, but all exercise aimed at broadening our sense of the nation's component parts, and demonstrating why, in particular, one understudied region deserves more consideration from historians and how this region's history can help us see the totality of our national past.

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THE HISTORIAN FREDERICK JACKSON TURNER concentrated his work on forces and moments that mattered in the American past and his focus yielded essays on the "significance" of the Western frontier, the nation's varied regions, the advancement of democratic institutions and attitudes, the influence of the pioneer heritage, and even the evolution of historical writing itself. In an age of cascading data and detailed micro-histories, Turner's breadth of vision provides a welcome respite and offers a rare sense of perspective to a world drowning in information but parched of its relevance. Even a critic such as Richard Hofstadter admired Turner because he "eschewed" the monograph "with its minute investigation of details and its massing of footnotes" and because he spoke to the big questions about the nation's history (73).

While Turner supported research on the smaller component parts of American history and fully understood how critical these efforts were to historical work, he never lost sight of the bigger picture and the need to explain to a broader audience the significance of his studies. For a revival of Midwestern history to be possible, the approach of Turner must be embraced: historians must first explain why this history matters on the broader canvass of human affairs. If they do so, they will have much to report. The Midwest matters, in short, because it helps explain the course of foundational events in North America, the origins of the American Revolution, the political and social foundations of the American republic, the outcome of the Civil War, and the emergence of the United States as a world power that shaped global events. The Midwest reveals the evolution of interior resistance to the coastal dominance of polities and culture, which begat forms of populism that still persist and resonate in American political culture, and explains the history of capitalism in the United States, over which the debate will long endure. American Indians, who were deeply involved in the formative military clashes in the Midwest, were pushed farther West by pioneer settlers and African-Americans, who sought an escape from the South, increasingly chose the Midwest as their home beginning in the twentieth century.

The Midwest's influence on the course of American and global history began in the colonial American backcountry. By the middle of the eighteenth-century, New France controlled Canada, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Valley and dominated the Great Lakes region while British colonies lined the East coast of what is now the United States. When the French began to fortify their holdings and British traders and settlers started moving into the interior backcountry, or the future site of the American Midwest, frictions along the frontier border of the French and British empires followed. In 1754, worried about French encroachment on its Western flank, the colony of Virginia dispatched 21-year-old major George Washington to displace a fort on the Ohio River and to signal to the French it would defend its frontier. Washington returned in defeat, but his failed expedition set in motion the train of events that would lead to a global conflict between France and England, which included a "war for the American backcountry," or the Midwest. By sparking what Winston Churchill called "the first world war," frontier settlers in the Midwest served as the proximate cause of the liquidation of France's New World empire, Britain's acquisition of the Midwest, and the later birth of the American republic. …

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