Geographer Wilbur Zelinsky begins his discussion of U.S. culture areas with New England because "if any single section must be nominated as the leading source of ideas and styles for the remainder of the nation from about l780 to l880, New England is the logical candidate."New England may have been strong, if not preeminent in the fields of manufacturing, commerce, finance and maritime activity, but it was in the spheres of higher social and cultural life that the area exercised genuine leadershipin education, politics, theology, literature, science, architecture, and the more advanced forms of mechanical and social technology....
Incidentally, it also furnishes an impressive example of the capacity of strongly motivated communities for rising above the constraints of a parsimonious environment.
The Rev. Timothy Dwight (President of Yale) would have concurred. For a thorough-going discussion of all aspects of New England life and all varieties of nineteenth century Yankees, a browse through Dwight's Travels is highly recommended. One sample:The persons of the New Englanders, their complexion, manners and language, much resemble those of Englishmen. Whether we are brave or cowardly, I will leave to be decided by the battles of Breed's Hill, Hoosick, Stillwater, and Saratoga and by the attack on Stony Point. We are said to be grave. Gravity is merely a comparative term. Our social meetings are probably as cheerful, sprightly, and replenished as often with sallies of wit and good humor as those of any other people. It must be acknowledged that we think, converse and write much less concerning theaters and actors than the inhabitants of London. Amusements are not here the principal concern of life....
Most of Dwight's contemporaries in New England lived by farming and they generally shared Thomas Jefferson's preferences for the agrarian life. But their land and their climate were not as good as his and they had to keep an eye out for other employment. As James Hillhouse (U.S. Senator and Commissioner of the Connecticut School Fund) put it to a friend in England a few years after the Revolution,Agriculture is a business in my opinion more congenial with human happiness than any other in lifethere is scarcely any other in which what is one man's gain is not another man's loss, and in which we are not more or less dependant on the will and pleasure of our fellow men; the income of the husbandman seems to be a sort of creation, it grows up out of the earth, and does not lessen the store of our neighbour, but adds to the common stock....
I have often lamented that my circumstances and situation in life did not enable me to devote myself wholly to agricultural pursuits but you know it is the lot of us New England people to be obliged in most instances to depend on our own industry and exertion in some more productive business to provide a decent support for our families and make a little provision for the education of our children and a comfortable old age if we should live to it....
A decade later, the Niles Weekly Register reprinted the following:A New England farmer having finished his attention to autumnal duties, thought of going to Europe to dispose of the timber cut from his last new field, as captain and owner of his sloop. His eldest sons received the following orders, to be observed during his absence: "John, you may work in the smith's shop till you have iron shod the plough and the cart-wheels you have made, after which you may either build a saw or a grist-mill for yourself, on your own place. If I should not return in three months, you may repair and adjust the old quadrant and take charge of the sold sloop, after you have new decked her. Joseph will help you spin the new rigging the sloop will want, after he has finished the loom for your mother to weave a topsail; on which, after turning the rounds for the spinning-wheel, he may plough the old field , and then go on a voyage to Labrador for cod, or a whaling to Falkland's Island, just as he likes. You must take command of the sloop yourself, load her for the West Indies, unless you find that governor Phillip's last prices will do for young stock and provisions, if so, go to New Holland and I shall be home, God willing, to welcome your return. My son Joseph it is time to leave off making wooden clocks and fiddles; tan the hides and make shoes for the family." This is not beyond the character of the people, however it may agree in the minutiae with any known incidents. (Blodget)
From The Biglow Papers, by James Russell Lowell in 1848:Thrift was the first lesson in their hornbook, pointed out, letter after letter, by the lean finger of the hard schoolmaster, Necessity. Neither were those plump, rosy-gilled Englishmen that came hither, but a hard-faced, atrabilious, earnest-eyed race, stiff from long wrestling with the Lord in prayer, and who had taught Satan to dread the new Puritan hug. Add two hundred years' influence of soil, climate, and exposure, with its necessary result of idiosyncracies, and we have the present Yankee, full of expedients, half-master of all trades, inventive in all but the beautiful, full of shifts, not yet capable of comfort, armed at all points against the old enemy Hunger, longanimous, good at patching, not so careful for what is best as for what will do… A strange hybrid, indeed, did circumstance beget, here in the New World, upon the old Puritan stock, and the earth never before saw such mystic-practicalism, such niggard-geniality, such calculating-fanaticism, such cast-iron-enthusiasm, such unwilling-humor, such close-fisted-generosity. This new Graeculus esuriens will make a living out of any thing. He will invent new trades as well as tools. His brain is his capital, and he will get education at all risks. Put him on Juan Fernandez, and he would make a spelling-book first, and a salt-pan afterward. Yet, after all, thin, speculative Jonathan is more like the Englishman of two centuries ago than John Bull himself is… John Bull has suffered the idea of the Invisible to be very much fattened out of him. Jonathan is conscious still that he lives in the world of the Unseen as well as of the Seen. To move John, you must make your fulcrum of solid beef and pudding; an abstract idea will do for Jonathan.
Send us your favorite quotes by, for, and about Yankees.
Dwight, Timothy. Travels in New England and New York. Edited by Barbara Solomon. 4 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.
The Hillhouse Papers. Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University.
Lowell, James Lowell. The Biglow Papers. Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1848.
Niles' The Weekly Register. June, 1814.
Zelinsky, Wilbur. The Cultural Geography of the U.S. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1973.