The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917

By Jon Gjerde | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Reverend Albert Barnes, a Presbyterian clergyman, ascended pulpits in New York City and Philadelphia in 1849 to deliver a series of sermons on the state of the nation at a time of tremendous change. Naturally, his attention was drawn westward, to the rich river valleys beyond the Appalachians that had been the locus of great change during the preceding few decades. Amid this growth, Barnes associated the West with a heterogeneity of "minds." Whereas New England had historically been characterized by a "sameness" and homogeneousness of character, Barnes observed, in the West, "nearly all the world has its representatives." The historical moment was singular. In the West, "a strange and mighty intermingling of minds of great power, under different propensities and views," was producing "a population as the world has never before seen on the settlement of a new land." 1

The migration westward, Barnes affirmed, was not only unique but also of pivotal relevance to the future of the United States. The "minds" that he observed in the West were diverse in their "elements." On the one hand, the "Puritan mind" -- characterized by its love of civil and religious liberty, hatred of oppression and wrong, and desire to promote the cause of sound learning -- infused the region. Barnes contrasted it with what he called the "foreign mind," diverse with "little homogeneousness of character and views" and with myriad languages, faiths, and cultures. It was a "mind mostly bred up under monarchical forms of government; little acquainted with our republican institutions; restrained at home less by an intelligent public sentiment than by the bayonet; tenacious of the forms of religion in which it was trained; and to a large extent, having little sympathy with the principles of the Protestant faith." Lesser intellectual streams -- including that of the "indolent" southerner -- were also present, but it was the foreign mind that most troubled Barnes, for the population was "not yet . . . amalgamated" and its elements were to a great extent "still embodying the sentiments which they cherished in the lands where they were born." 2 Most ominously for Barnes, those "sentiments" were

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