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The Yankee Reform Impulse Gets Some Issues Right, Some Wrong

Michael Barone on

People talk about culture war politics as if it were a recent development -- a novelty, an exception to a historic rule that American politics is mostly about economics (who gets how much) and only occasionally gets sidetracked into culture (what people should or shouldn't be allowed to do).

In my view, that gets things backwards. Culture war politics goes back to the American Revolution, which united into one nation colonies with different religious beliefs and cultural values.

Many 19th-century culture war issues were fought over reforms challenging traditional behaviors championed by New England Yankees as they spread westward to upstate New York and the Great Lakes Midwest. Yankee culture, with its Puritan roots, was principled and prescriptive, moralistic and intolerant.

In the pre-Civil War republic, New England and upstate New York's "burned-over district" seethed with movements demanding the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, prohibition of alcohol and an end to capital punishment. Each used moral logic to oppose an existing practice.

These causes were initially unpopular, opposed by Jacksonian Democrats but found some sympathy from Whigs and especially the new Republican Party that was formed to limit the expansion of slavery. They met with different fates.

Slavery was abolished in 1865 after a bloody Civil War, but Reconstruction, with its goal of equal rights for Black people, failed. As Thomas Jefferson had predicted, Black people were not treated equally for decades. Women's suffrage spread from the Wyoming Territory in 1869 to the federal 19th Amendment in 1920, but few women were elected to public office for the next 50 years. Prohibition was imposed in Maine in 1851 and then passed nationally in 1919, but it was repealed in 1933. Capital punishment, abolished in Michigan in 1855, remains on the books in 27 states but is seldom used.

 

Some of the reforms were thus successful, but only up to a point or only after many years. Others were cast aside (Prohibition) or never achieved universal acceptance. (No president has opposed capital punishment.) Moral logic does not entirely or easily trump human character.

The Yankee impulse to apply moral logic to existing practice survives today, and not just among those with New England ancestry. It is most common among the highly educated (as 19th-century Yankees were) living in culturally homogeneous communities.

The last half-century has seen multiple examples of the Yankee reform impulse, with varying results. Over time, the concentration has been on applying moral logic to practices that are rarer and rarer.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was overwhelmingly successful at changing laws and changing attitudes, not least in the election of a Black president -- something no one thought possible two generations ago. Approval of Black-white marriages increased from 4% in 1958 to 94% in 2021.

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