Dean, Yankee of Vermont

Is Howard Dean’s biggest obstacle to overcome on the road to the White House that he is such a Yankee?

January 9, 2004

Is Howard Dean's biggest obstacle to overcome on the road to the White House that he is such a Yankee?

The values of America's Yankee Puritans were forged in the religious and political conflicts of 16th- and 17th-century Britain. Puritan opposition to Catholicism and Anglicanism translates, among their descendants, into strong support for the separation of church and state.

The Puritan belief that the community of "saints" as well as the individual is a moral actor lives on in a strong sense of civic spirit and support for social reform. New Englanders were over-represented in the campaigns to abolish slavery, to end segregation — and to provide equal rights for women.

The Puritans' hatred of the wasteful royal court and parasitic aristocrats survives as the "Yankee work ethic" and fiscal conservatism in New England and the Midwest. The emphasis of Puritans on individual reading of the Bible has made the New England states the national leaders in public education and higher education.

And the rejection by the Puritans of the British aristocracy's warlike culture of honor — a culture shared by the upper class of the South — has made New Englanders leaders of opposition to foreign wars from the War of 1812 to the 2003 Iraq War.

But the moral virtues of the Greater New England Yankees more often than not have proven to be political vices.

The culture of New England, while admirable in many respects, has often been found alien and threatening by Americans of other backgrounds.

There was plenty of opportunity for clashes of values and policies largely rooted in the fact that Puritan settlers were on a nationwide mission.

After they had colonized New England, their descendants settled Great Lakes states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, where they found political and cultural allies among German and Scandinavian immigrants.

In Illinois, Missouri and Kansas, Yankees moving south collided with northward-migrating Southerners with quite different values. In the 19th century, New Englanders colonized the Pacific Northwest from northern California to Seattle.

It is easy to see that the map of Democratic electoral votes in recent primary elections tracks the Puritan migration closely.

The political line of confrontation involved white Southerners and New England Yankees. These two groups have hated each other warmly since the early years of the Republic.

New Englanders view Southerners as violent, superstitious and reactionary barbarians. Southerners, in return, have always viewed New Englanders as annoying and preachy prudes attracted to utopian fantasies of social reform.

Over the decades — within the Northeast and Midwest — Greater New England Yankees alienated Catholic immigrants for many generations with their anti-Catholicism and their social liberalism.

Even German-Americans — whose support for education and social reform made them natural allies of the Puritans — were offended by Yankee support for Prohibition in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The German beer-garden, like the Irish saloon and the Catholic church, were viewed with suspicion by many earnest Yankee Protestants.

These cultural factors explain why the New Englanders have so often been out of power for generations at a time. There have never been enough Greater New Englanders to form a majority party. But their attitudes often alienate the other groups they need as allies.

The New England-based Federalist Party lost control early in the presidency when Thomas Jefferson was elected in 1800. The party disintegrated entirely after 1815.

Its successor as the New England party, the National Republicans, elected only one president — John Quincy Adams. That success came about only because the winner of the popular vote, Andrew Jackson, was passed over by the House of Representatives in an election without an electoral-vote majority winner.

The next incarnation of the Yankee party, the Whigs, managed to elect only two presidents — both of them Southern-born generals, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor — before it expired in the 1850s.

One successor to the Whigs, the American Party, which was established in 1849, committed electoral suicide by defining immigrants as enemies of Protestant America. That offended not only Irish-Americans, who were mostly Democrats, but otherwise friendly German-Americans.

Most of the Whigs reunited in the immigrant-friendly, anti-Southern Republican Party, which in 1860 elected Abraham Lincoln. Here was a Southern-born Midwesterner who led a New England-based party.

The Lincoln Republicans narrowly escaped being reduced to a minority party of the Greater New England region following the readmission of the Southern states in the mid-1870s.

Only by rapidly turning western territories with mostly-Yankee settlers like Idaho and Colorado into states did the Republicans manage to create a majority in the Senate and the electoral college that lasted until 1932.

During the New Deal era of 1932-68, a sizeable number of Republican and ex-Republican New England progressives joined with Southern conservatives and populists and Northern Catholics in Franklin Roosevelt's unwieldy coalition.

Many other Yankees, however, were offended by the big spending and foreign wars of the Roosevelt Democrats, and remained in the Republican Party, which had shrunk to a small remnant in New England, the Midwest and the Pacific coast by the 1960s.

Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon invited conservative Southerners alienated by the Democratic left into the Republican Party. As a result, by the 1990s the Party of Lincoln had been hijacked by the political heirs of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Today's Democrats are in danger of being marginalized like the Federalists, Whigs and New Deal era Republicans. That will be their fate if the party's white Greater New England voters cannot make alliances with other groups which otherwise share few — if any — of their basic values.

Blacks and Latinos, like white Southern populists, tend to support government spending programs that benefit ordinary Americans — and they also tend to have conservative religious and social views.

A party that combines New England's fiscal conservatism with New England's social liberalism is not likely to appeal to any of these groups. Latinos, like white Southern populists, may be lured away from the Democrats by the Southern Right's use of jingoistic patriotism and traditional values.

The deep strain of anti-militarism among the descendants of the New England Puritans is a political liability as well.
Again and again, Southern conservatives have successfully portrayed anti-war New Englanders as pacifists, defeatists — even traitors.

During the War of 1812, anti-war New Englanders met in the Hartford Convention to discuss the possible secession of their region from the United States in protest.

The Federalist Party was so tainted by their apparent treason that it died. The opposition of most Whigs to the popular Mexican War of 1846-48 was one reason why the party collapsed by the 1850s.

The growing influence of anti-Cold War New Englanders in the Democratic Party from the Vietnam War onward led the American people to entrust the job of commander-in-chief to a series of Republican conservatives.

The exception were two relatively conservative Southern Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

As a percentage of the population, the Yankees of Greater New England, the upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest are dwindling rapidly. If the Democrats are to achieve a stable majority in American politics, they will have to add populist and pro-military voters, of various races, to their Puritan core.

The Puritans will have to learn to tolerate impurity. That is, in one sentence, what Howard Dean's biggest obstacle is on the road to the White House.

More on this topic