Tag Archives: Northwest Territory

David McCullough turns back the clock on frontier history

When the PR campaign for David McCullough’s The Pioneers kicked off, yours truly said this:

On Twitter, a lot of historians have noted the Turner-esque vibe here.  But what this reminds me of isn’t Turner and the first generation of American professional historians; it’s the filiopiety of Lyman Draper and those other avocational antiquarians who chronicled the trans-Appalachian West.  It isn’t so much a rehashing of a worn-out historiography, but rather a blithe disregard of historiography altogether….Of course, you don’t review any book based on its dust jacket copy, let alone a book that isn’t published yet.  At the very least, though, Simon and Schuster’s marketing department isn’t making McCullough’s job any easier.

Now the book’s out, and it looks like the marketing didn’t lie.  Here’s Rebecca Onion’s take from Slate:

Unfortunately, the book is exactly as advertised. When it comes to representing “pioneers” as isolated and hardworking idealists fighting off “threats” from residents of the land they are taking, this book—about the settlement of Marietta, Ohio, and the Northwest Territory more generally, in the years after the Revolutionary War—is a true throwback. Its success (it is No.
10 on Amazon’s best-seller list for books, as of Friday) shows how big the gap between critical history and the “popular history” that makes it to best-seller lists, Costco, and Target remains.

A “throwback” indeed.  Some of these excerpts could’ve come right out of the work of Lyman Draper and his fellow nineteenth-century antiquarians, fixated as they were on their subjects’ public virtue, sterling private character, and domestic contentment:

McCullough writes of Manasseh Cutler: “He had as well great love for his large family, his wife and children, and was ever attentive to their needs for as long as he lived.” (That’s a stand-alone paragraph!) Later, about Cutler’s son Ephraim: “It would be said of Ephraim Cutler that along with so many of his strengths, virtues, and worthy accomplishments, his place as the most notable of Ohio’s surviving pioneers, he was also blessed in his family.”

Andrew Isenberg agrees that The Pioneers is a historiographical leap backward:

The fortitude of the settlers McCullough describes was quite real. So too was land fraud, racial hierarchy and the ousting of Native Americans from their homes. McCullough so blithely ignores these less-attractive aspects of the settler narrative that he could have written this book in 1893, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous “frontier thesis,” which argued that the conquering of the wilderness forged the American character. For that matter, McCullough could have written it decades before Turner, when the dominant interpretation of U.S. history was that American moral character flowed from New England descendants of the Puritans such as Cutler and Putnam.

Like those 19th-century historians, “The Pioneers” presents American history as a grand civics lesson, in which the accomplishments of our principled forebears serve as inspirations. Rather than wrestle with the moral complexities of western settlement, McCullough simplifies that civics lesson into a tale of inexorable triumph.

For more, check out William Hogeland, who’s been sharing his reactions to the book on Twitter.

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Forthcoming books of note

As if our TBR stacks aren’t high enough.

Next month we’re getting a biography of Daniel Morgan by Albert Louis Zambone.  It’s about time for a fresh look at the Old Wagoner.  (Don Higginbotham’s life of Morgan first appeared way back in 1961.)

Stanley D.M. Carpenter of the Naval War College has a new book on Cornwallis and the Southern Campaign coming out in February.  Looks like the focus is on the failures and miscalculations that led to British defeat:

Distinguished scholar of military strategy Stanley D. M. Carpenter outlines the British strategic and operational objectives, devoting particular attention to the strategy of employing Southern Loyalists to help defeat Patriot forces, reestablish royal authority, and tamp down resurgent Patriot activity. Focusing on Cornwallis’s operations in the Carolinas and Virginia leading to the surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, Carpenter reveals the flaws in this approach, most notably a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of the war in the South and of the Loyalists’ support. Compounding this was the strategic incoherence of seeking a conventional war against a brilliant, unconventional opponent, and doing so amidst a breakdown in the unity of command.

This emphasis on British failures, miscalculations, and infighting is interesting, because it marks something of a historiographic reversal.  Redcoat commanders and strategists have been getting more favorable treatment in some recent studies, most notably Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s Men Who Lost America.

The first volume of Rick Atkinson’s Rev War trilogy hits stores in May.  I haven’t read his World War II series, but I’ve heard good things about it.  I’ll be particularly interested to see whether he deals with some of the more obscure campaigns.

And finally, David McCullough is heading into the Old Northwest.  And it looks like he’s…well, going full-on David McCullough:

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important and dramatic chapter in the American story—the settling of the Northwest Territory by dauntless pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals that would come to define our country.

As part of the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain recognized the new United States of America, Britain ceded the land that comprised the immense Northwest Territory, a wilderness empire northwest of the Ohio River containing the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A Massachusetts minister named Manasseh Cutler was instrumental in opening this vast territory to veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families for settlement. Included in the Northwest Ordinance were three remarkable conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and most importantly, the prohibition of slavery. In 1788 the first band of pioneers set out from New England for the Northwest Territory under the leadership of Revolutionary War veteran General Rufus Putnam. They settled in what is now Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River.

McCullough tells the story through five major characters: Cutler and Putnam; Cutler’s son Ephraim; and two other men, one a carpenter turned architect, and the other a physician who became a prominent pioneer in American science. They and their families created a town in a primeval wilderness, while coping with such frontier realities as floods, fires, wolves and bears, no roads or bridges, no guarantees of any sort, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the native people. Like so many of McCullough’s subjects, they let no obstacle deter or defeat them.

Drawn in great part from a rare and all-but-unknown collection of diaries and letters by the key figures, The Pioneers is a uniquely American story of people whose ambition and courage led them to remarkable accomplishments. This is a revelatory and quintessentially American story, written with David McCullough’s signature narrative energy.

On Twitter, a lot of historians have noted the Turner-esque vibe here.  But what this reminds me of isn’t Turner and the first generation of American professional historians; it’s the filiopiety of Lyman Draper and those other avocational antiquarians who chronicled the trans-Appalachian West.  It isn’t so much a rehashing of a worn-out historiography, but rather a blithe disregard of historiography altogether.  And I really hope he’s not including free universal education and the prohibition of slavery among the “ideals that would come to define our country.”  Those two ideals still had a long way to go in the late eighteenth century.

Of course, you don’t review any book based on its dust jacket copy, let alone a book that isn’t published yet.  At the very least, though, Simon and Schuster’s marketing department isn’t making McCullough’s job any easier.

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