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

By Jon Gjerde | Go to book overview

plementary identity may have seemed to immigrant leaders, they often created intellectual quandaries. For one thing, they suffered from an underlying paradox that Peter Berger and others call "cognitive contamination." 103 By attempting to control the modernizing forces that swirled around nineteenth-century American life, the leadership was attempting to guide them. In striving to regulate these forces, they were accepting ideas -- the possibilities of choice, the use of manipulation -- that were "modern" in and of themselves. By making compromises, they were implicitly accepting terms with which they disagreed.

In a more immediate sense, their solutions begged the questions underlying spiritual confrontation. Perhaps American providence would result in a Catholic or Lutheran "victory." Perhaps one religion would "win" because it would naturally occur to the citizenry that it was better. But how should the leadership of one faith, or one ethnic predilection, confront "defeat" if its adversary won the war for the hearts and minds of the West? How would such leaders be able to accept the idea of majority rule when the majority might not necessarily be right? And how were they to stem the tide of freedoms in the family and community if they were celebrated in the region and the polity? These questions would endure among the immigrant families embedded in the rural communities that dotted the nineteenth-century Middle West.


Conclusion

The past two chapters have argued that for those of "foreign" and "Puritan" pasts alike, the West represented a locale of providential possibility. It was a place where material wealth predicted the potential for the fulfillment of human promise. Yet because people had different definitions of that potential, the cultural development of the West throughout the nineteenth century was expressed in large part by the countervailing forces of the minds of the West. Basic precepts of individualism and hierarchy, authority and relativism, materialism and piety, confronted one another in the West, a locale that by all accounts was to play a crucial role in the future of the United States, if not the world. And these contending principles, as contemporaries were well aware, were based on fundamental intellectual disputes of the "minds" moving westward.

Protestant republicans, as we observed in Chapter 1, forcefully outlined a scenario in which European immigrants, dupes of a regressive, authoritarian, and hierarchical leadership in the United Statesand Europe, were key players in a diabolical plot that could destroy the American Republic and its potential for progress nearly as efficiently as the curse of

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