Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 82: Local Types of Opinion—East, West, and South - The American Commonwealth, vol. 2
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chapter 82: Local Types of Opinion—East, West, and South - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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Local Types of Opinion—East, West, and South
Both the general tendencies and the class tendencies in the development of public opinion which I have attempted to sketch, may be observed all over the vast area of the Union. Some, however, are more powerful in one region, others in another, while the local needs and feelings of each region tend to give a particular colour to its views and direction to its aims. One must therefore inquire into and endeavour to describe these local differences, so as, by duly allowing for them, to correct what has been stated generally with regard to the conditions under which opinion is formed, and the questions which evoke it.
In an earlier chapter I have classified the states into five groups, the Northeastern or New England states, the Middle states, the Northwestern states, the Southern states, and the states of the Pacific slope. For the purposes of our present inquiry there is no material difference between the first two of these groups, but the differences between the others are significant. It is needless to add that there are, of course, abundance of local differences within these divisions. Pennsylvania, for instance, is for many purposes unlike Ohio. Georgia stands on a higher level than Louisiana. Idaho is more raw than Illinois. To go into these minor points of divergence would involve a tedious discussion, and perhaps confuse the reader after all, so he must be asked to understand that this chapter endeavours to present only the general aspect which opinion wears in each section of the country, and that what is said of a section generally, is not meant to be taken as equally applicable to every state within it.
In the Eastern states the predominant influence is that of capitalists, manufacturers, merchants—in a word, of the commercial classes. The East finds the capital for great undertakings all over the country, particularly for the making of railroads, the stock of which is chiefly held by Eastern investors, and the presidents whereof often have their central office in New York, though the line may traverse the Western or Southern states. The East also conducts the gigantic trade with Europe. It ships the grain and the cattle, the pork and the petroleum, it finances the shipping of much of the cotton, it receives and distributes nearly all the manufactured goods that Europe sends, as well as most of the emigrants from the ports of the Old World.1 The arms of its great bankers and merchants stretch over the whole Union, making those commercial influences which rule in their own seat potent everywhere. Eastern opinion is therefore the most quickly and delicately sensitive to financial movements and to European influences, as well as the most firmly bound to a pacific policy. As in the beginning of the century, trade interests made Massachusetts and Connecticut anxious to avoid a breach with England, to whose ports their vessels plied, so now, though the shipping which enters Eastern ports is chiefly European (British, Norwegian, German, French), the mercantile connections of American and European merchants and financiers are so close that an alarm of war might produce widespread disaster.
The East is also, being the oldest, the best educated and if no longer the most intellectually active yet perhaps the most intellectually polished, quarter of the country.2 Not only does it contain more men of high culture, but the average of knowledge and thought (excluding the mob of the great cities and some backward districts in the hills of Pennsylvania) is higher than elsewhere. Its literary men and eminent teachers labour for the whole country, and its cities, which show the lowest element of the population in their rabble, show also the largest number of men of light and leading in all professions. Although very able newspapers are published in the West as well as in the East, still the tone of Eastern political discussion is more generally dignified and serious than in the rest of the Union. The influences of Europe, which, of course, play first and chiefly upon the East, are, so far as they affect manners and morality, by no means an unmixed good. But in the realm of thought Europe and its criticism are a stimulative force, which corrects any undue appreciation of national virtues, and helps forward sound views in economics and history. The leisured and well-read class to be found in some Eastern cities is as cosmopolitan in tone as can be found anywhere in the world, yet has not lost the piquancy of its native soil. Its thought appropriates what is fresh and sound in the literature or scientific work of Germany, England, and France more readily than any of those countries seems to learn from each of the others. These causes, added to the fact that the perversions of party government have been unusually gross among the irresponsible masses that crowd these very cities, has roused a more strenuous opposition to the so-called “machine” than in other parts of the country. The Eastern voter is less bound to his party, more accustomed to think for himself, and to look for light, when he feels his own knowledge defective, to capable publicists. When, either in federal or state or city politics, an independent party arises, repudiating the bad nominations of one or both of the regular organizations, it is here that it finds its leaders and the greatest part of its support. There has also been in New England something of the spirit of Puritanism, cold and keen as glacier air, with its high standard of public duty and private honour, its disposition to apply the maxims of religion to the conduct of life, its sense, much needed in this tenderhearted country, that there are times when Agag must be hewn in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal. If the people of New England and rural New York had been left unpolluted by the turbid flood of foreign immigration, they would be the fittest of any in the world for a pure democratic government. Evils there would still be, as in all governments, but incomparably less grave than those which now tax the patriotism of the party which from these states holds up the banner of reform for the whole Union.
It is impossible to draw a line between the East and the West, because the boundary is always moving westward. In 1870 Ohio was typically Western in character; now it has as much in common with Connecticut or New York as with Kansas or Minnesota. The most distinctive elements in the Western states are the farming class, which here attains its greatest strength, and the masses of Germans and Scandinavians, who fill whole districts, often outnumbering the native Americans. For many years these immigrants contributed so much more largely to the voting than to the thinking power of the newer states, that their presence was one of the main reasons why the political power of the West exceeded its political capacity. They are honest, industrious, and worthy people, the parents of good American citizens, useful men to clear the woods and break up the prairie, and now, having learnt the institutions of the country, they are no longer behind their native born neighbors in political intelligence, nor less ready to try experiments in legislation and in the reform of election methods. The predominance of the agricultural interest has the faults and merits indicated in the account already given of the farming class. Western opinion is politically unenlightened, still dislikes theory, and holds the practical man to be the man who, while discerning keenly his own interest, discerns nothing else beyond the end of his nose. It has boundless confidence in the future of the country, of the West in particular, of its own state above all, caring not much for what the East thinks, and still less for the judgment of Europe. It feels sure everything will come right, and thinks “cheap transportation” to be the one thing needful. Reckless in enterprises, it is stingy in paying its officials, judges included. Good-natured and indulgent to a fault, it is nevertheless displeased to hear that its senator lives in luxury at Washington. Its townsfolk are so much occupied in pushing their towns, between whose newspapers there is a furious rivalry—they hate one another as Athens hated Thebes, or Florence, Pisa—its rich men in opening up railroads, its farmers in their household and field toil, labour being scarce and dear, that politics were for a long time left to the politicians, who, however, were not the worst specimens of their class, and the ordinary voter stuck steadily to his party, disliking “independents” and “bolters.” Now, however, the wave of what is called “radicalism” which has from time to time surged up along and beyond the Mississippi, has brought a keener interest into political reform and legislative work, and that splendid energy which the Western men showed when, in the Civil War days, their stouthearted, large-limbed regiments poured down to Southern battlefields has thrown more of itself than it had done since those days, into plans for improving the methods of politics and curbing what is held to be the excessive power of combined wealth. The Western man is no more disposed than formerly to listen to philosophical reasonings, or trouble himself about coming dangers, but his sentiment as well as his interest has been so enlisted in these plans, that he is not likely soon to drop them.
The West may be called the most distinctively American part of America, because the points in which it differs from the East are the points in which America as a whole differs from Europe. But the character of its population differs in different regions, according to the parts of the country from which the early settlers came. Now the settlers have generally moved along parallels of latitude, and we have therefore the curious result that the characteristics of the older states have propagated themselves westward in parallel lines, so that he who travels from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains will find fewer differences to note than he who, starting from Texas, travels north to Manitoba. Thus northern Ohio was filled from New England and western New York, and in its turn colonized northern Illinois, Michigan, and much of the farther Northwest. Southern Ohio and Illinois, together with a great part of Indiana, were peopled from Virginia and Kentucky, and the somewhat inferior quality of these early settlers is still traceable. Missouri was colonized from the slave states, and retains traces of their character.3 Kansas lies just west of Missouri, but it received in the days of the Free Soil struggle many Puritan immigrants from the free states, and shows, though it used to be called the state of “cranks,” a high type of political intelligence. The Scandinavians are chiefly in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the two Dakotas, the Germans numerous in Iowa also, and indeed all over these newer states, including Texas. So far back as 1870 Milwaukee was a German rather than an American city,4 and in 1890 it appeared that there were townships in Wisconsin in which the tax lists had for years been kept in German, and counties in which a paid interpreter was required to enable the business of the courts to be transacted. Oklahoma, into which settlers have swarmed from all parts of the Northwest as well as the Southwest, is preeminently the land of sanguine radicalism and experimental legislation. New Mexico and Arizona were, till Congress in 1910 passed an act for their admission as states, still Territories, and the former has a large Mexican element. Yet over them, too, the network of party organization has been spread, though, of course, the sparser population feeds a feebler political life.
The Pacific slope, as its inhabitants call it, geographically includes the states of Oregon and Washington, but Oregon and Washington resemble the Northwestern states in so many respects that she may better be classed therewith. California and Nevada on the other hand, to whom we may now add Arizona, are distinctly peculiar. They are more Western than the states I have just been describing, with the characteristics of those states intensified and some new features added. They are cut off by deserts and barren mountain ranges from the agricultural part of the Mississippi basin, nor is population ever likely to become really continuous across this wilderness. Mining industries play a larger part in them than in any other state, except Colorado. Their inhabitants are unsettled and fluctuating, highly speculative, as one may expect those who mine and gamble in mining stocks to be. They used to be chiefly occupied with questions of their own, such as Oriental immigration, the management of the great Central and Southern Pacific railroad system, which has been accused of dominating the trade and industries of California; and the reconcilement of the claims of miners and agriculturists to the waters of the rivers, which each set seeks to appropriate, and which the former claims the right to foul. Now forces and tendencies, generally similar, are at work on both sides of the Rocky Mountains, and so are the issues which occupy men’s minds. Yet public opinion is here, in spite of the proverbial shrewdness, energy, and hardihood of the men of the Pacific, somewhat more fitful and gusty, less amenable to the voice of sober reason, and less deferential to the authority of statesmen, or even of party than anywhere else in the Union. “Interests,” such as those of a great mine-owning group, or of a railroad, are immensely powerful, and the reactions against them not less so.
Of the South, the solid South, as it is often called, because its presidential vote has since 1876 been cast almost entire for the Democrats, some account will be found in three later chapters, one sketching its history since the war ended, two others describing the condition of the Negro and his relations to the whites. Here, therefore, I will speak only of the general character of political opinion and action in the former slave states. The phenomena they present are unexampled. Equality before the law is in theory absolute and perfect, being secured by the federal Constitution. Yet the political subjection of a large part (in one state a majority) of the population is no less complete.
There are three orders of men in the South.
The first is the upper or educated class, including the children of the planting aristocracy which ruled before the Civil War, together with the Northern men who have since 1865 settled in the towns for the purposes of trade or manufacture. Of this order more than nine-tenths—those in fact who have survived from the old aristocracy, together with those who have since arisen from the humbler class, and with most of the newer arrivals—belong to the Democratic party. Along with the high spirit and self-confidence which belong to a ruling race, these Southern men showed an enlargement of view and an aptitude for grasping decided and continuous lines of policy, in fact, a turn for statesmanship as contrasted with mere politics, which was less common in the North, because less favoured by the conditions under which ambition has in the North to push its way. The Southern man who entered public life had a more assured position than his rival from a Northern state, because he represented the opinion of a united body who stood by him, regarding him as their champion, and who expected from him less subservience to their instructions. He did not need to court so assiduously the breath of popular favour. He was not more educated or intelligent; and had lived in a less stimulating atmosphere. But he had courage and a clear vision of his objects, the two gifts essential for a statesman; while the united popular impulse behind him supplied a sort of second patriotism. The element of gain entered somewhat less into Southern politics, partly because the country is poor and though the South begins to be commercialized, the sensitiveness on the “point of honour” and a flavour of punctiliousness in manners, recall the olden time. Opinion in the slave states before the war, in spite of the divisions between Democrats and Whigs, was generally bold, definite, and consistent, because based on a few doctrines. It was the opinion of a small class who were largely occupied with public affairs, and fond of debating them upon first principles and the words of the federal constitution. It has preserved this quality, while losing its old fierceness and better recognizing the conditions under which it must work in a federal republic. On the other hand, the extreme strength of party feeling, due to the extreme sensitiveness regarding the Negro, has prevented the growth of independent opinion, and of the tendency which in the North is called Mugwumpism. And although the leading statesmen are not inferior to those whom the North sends to Washington, the total number of thoughtful and enlightened men is, in proportion to the population, smaller than in the Northeast, smaller even than in such Western states as Illinois or Ohio.
I have used the past tense in describing these phenomena, because the South is changing, and the process is now scarcely swifter in the West than in those parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama where the coal and iron deposits have recently been opened up. Most parts, however, are still thinly settled by whites, and so poor that a traveller finds it hard to understand how, when still poorer, the people managed to resist for four years the armies of the wealthy and populous North. There is therefore less eagerness and hopefulness than in the West, less searching discussion and elaborate organization than in the East, less of everything that is characteristically democratic. The machine has, in some states, been brought to no such terrible perfection as in the North, because the need of it was not felt where one party was sure of victory, and because talent or social position usually designated the men to be selected as candidates, or the men whose voice would determine the selection. Of late years, however, the aristocratic element in Southern politics has grown weaker, and merits that were deemed characteristic of Southern statesmen are more rarely seen. Those who regret that there has not been, since the Civil War generation died out, a stronger group of leaders sent from the South to Washington, attribute the fact to the superior attractions of a business career in a region which is growing and developing so fast and to the departure of some of the ablest intellects to Northern cities where they expect to find a larger field for their talents.
The second order consists of those who used to be called the mean whites. Their condition strengthens the impression of half civilization which the rural districts of the South produce upon the traveller, and which comes painfully home to him in the badness of the inns. While slavery lasted, these whites were, in the lowlands of the planting states, a wretched, because economically superfluous, class. There was no room for them as labourers, because the slaves did the work on the plantations; they had not the money to purchase land and machinery for themselves, nor the spirit to push their way in the towns, while the system of large slave-worked properties made, as the latifundia did long ago in Italy, the cultivation of small farms hopeless, and the existence of a thriving free peasantry impossible. The planters disliked these whites and kept them off their estates as much as possible; the slaves despised them, and called them “poor white trash.” In South Carolina and the Gulf states, they picked up a wretched livelihood by raising some vegetables near their huts, and killing the wild creatures of the woods, while a few hung round the great houses to look out for a stray job. Shiftless, ignorant, improvident, with no aims in the present nor hopes for the future, citizens in nothing but the possession of votes, they were a standing reproach to the system that produced them, and the most convincing proof of its economic as well as moral failure. In the northerly slave states, they were better off, and in the highlands of Western Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, where there were few or no slaves, they had, along with much rudeness and ignorance, the virtues of simple mountaineers. Their progress since the war has been marked, both near the mining and manufacturing towns, which give work and furnish markets, and in the cotton-bearing uplands, where many have acquired farms and prospered as tillers of the soil. Everywhere, however, they remain, in point of education and enlightenment, behind the small farmers or artisans of the North and West. Before the war they followed, as a matter of course (except in the mountains, where the conditions were different), the lead of the planting class, not more out of deference to it than from aversion to the Negroes. The less a man had to be proud of, the more proud was he of his colour. Since the war, they have been no less anxious than their richer neighbours to exclude the Negroes from any share in the government. But they are no longer mere followers. They have begun to think and act for themselves, and, though one of the first signs of independence was shown in the acceptance of the impractiable projects that were for a time advocated by the Farmers’ Alliance, they have become a body which has views, and with whose views it is necessary to reckon.
The Negroes constitute nearly one-third of the population of the old slave states, and in two states (Mississippi and South Carolina) they are in a majority, being nearly equal to the whites in Louisiana and Georgia. Though their presence is the dominant factor in Southern politics, they cannot be said to form or influence opinion; and it is not their votes, but the efforts made to prevent them from voting, that have influenced the course of events. I reserve for subsequent chapters an account of their singular positions.
Remembering that of the whole population of the Union, nearly one-third is in the Southern states, and that the majority of that one-third, viz., the lower part of the poor whites and nearly all the Negroes, has no political knowledge or capacity, nothing that can be called rational opinion, and remembering also the large mass of recently arrived and ignorant immigrants, it will be seen how far the inhabitants of the United States are from being a democracy enlightened through and through. If one part of the people is as educated and capable as that of Switzerland, another is as ignorant and politically untrained as that of Russia.
Of the four divisions of the country above described, the West (including Oregon and Washington) has already the largest vote, and since it grows faster than the others, will soon be indisputably sovereign. But as it grows, it loses some of its distinctive features, becoming more like the East, and falling more and more under Eastern influences, both intellectual and financial. It must not therefore be supposed that what is now typically Western opinion will be the reigning opinion of the future. The Pacific states will in time be drawn closer to those of the Mississippi Valley, losing something of such specific quality as they still possess; and centres of literary activity, such as now exist chiefly in the Atlantic states, will be more and more scattered over the whole country. Opinion will therefore be more homogeneous, or at least less local, in the future than it has been in the past; even as now it is less determined by local and state influences than it was in the earlier days of the Republic.
 Some Germans and Italians enter by New Orleans or the ports of Texas.
 The percentage of persons able to read and write is as high in some of the Western states, such as Iowa and Nebraska, as in New England, but this may be because the recent immigrants depress the level of New England.
 In Oregon there is a district which was settled by people from Kentucky and Tennessee, rather exceptionally, for the outflow of these states seldom moved so far to the north. The descendants of these immigrants are now less prosperous and enterprising than those of the men who came from the free states.
 Asking my way about the streets, I found German more helpful than English. In the same year it was noticeable that in Wisconsin the paper money (then alone in use) had got a marked smell from the use of skins and furs by the newly arrived Swedes and Norwegians.