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When we survey the course of the slavery struggle in the United States it is clear that the form the question took was due to the Mississippi Valley. The Ordinance of 1787, the Missouri Compromise, the Texas question, the Free Soil agitation, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska bill, the Dred Scott decision, "bleeding Kansas"- these are all Mississippi Valley questions, and the mere enumeration makes it plain that it was the Mississippi Valley as an area for expansion which gave the slavery issue its significance in American history. But for this field of expansion, slavery might have fulfilled the expectation of the fathers and gradually died away.
Of the significance of the Mississippi Valley in the Civil War, it is unnecessary that I should speak. Illinois gave to the North its President; Mississippi gave to the South its President. Lincoln and Davis were both born in Kentucky. Grant and Sherman, the northern generals, came from the Mississippi Valley; and both of them believed that when Vicksburg fell the cause of the South was lost, and so it must have been if the Confederacy had been unable, after victories in the East, to regain the Father of Waters; for, as General Sherman said: "Whatever power holds that river can govern this continent."
With the close of the war political power passed for many years to the northern half of the Mississippi Valley, as the names of Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley indicate. The population of the Valley grew from about fifteen millions in 1860 to over forty millions in 1900 half the total population of the United States. The significance of its industrial growth is not likely to be overestimated or overlooked. On its northern border, from near Minnesota's boundary line, through the Great Lakes to Pittsburgh, on its eastern edge, runs a huge movement of iron from mine to
factory. This industry is basal in American life, and it has revolutionized the industry of the world. The United States produces pig iron and steel in amount equal to her two greatest competitors combined, and the iron ores for this product are chiefly in the Mississippi Valley. It is the chief producer of coal, thereby enabling the United States almost to equal the combined production of Germany and Great Britain; and great oil fields of the nation are in its midst. Its huge crops of wheat and corn and its cattle are the main resources for the United States and are drawn upon by Europe. Its cotton furnishes two-thirds of the world's factory supply. Its railroad system constitutes the greatest transportation network in the world. Again it is seeking industrial consolidation by demanding improvement of its vast water system as a unit. If this design, favored by Roosevelt, shall at some time be accomplished, again the bulk of the commerce of the Valley may flow along the old routes to New Orleans; and to Galveston by the development of southern railroad outlets after the building of the Panama Canal. For the development and exploitation of these and of the transportation and trade interests of the Middle West, Eastern capital has been consolidated into huge corporations, trusts, and combinations. With the influx of capital, and the rise of cities and manufactures, portions of the Mississippi Valley have become assimilated with the East. With the end of the era of free lands the basis of its democratic society is passing away.
The final topic on which I shall briefly comment in this discussion of the significance of the Mississippi Valley in American history is a corollary of this condition. Has the Mississippi Valley a permanent contribution to make to American society, or is it to be adjusted into a type characteristically Eastern and European? In other words, has the United States itself an original contribution to make to the history of society?
This is what it comes to. The most significant fact in the Mississippi Valley is its ideals. Here has been developed, not by revolutionary theory, but by growth among free opportunities, the conception of a vast democracy made up of mobile ascending individuals, conscious of their power and their responsibilities. Can these ideals of individualism and democracy be reconciled and applied to the twentieth century type of civilization?
Other nations have been rich and prosperous and powerful, art-loving and empire-building. No other nation on a vast scale has been controlled by a self-conscious, self-restrained democracy in the interests of progress and freedom, industrial as well as political. It is in the vast and level spaces of the Mississippi Valley, if anywhere, that the forces of social transformation and the modification of its democratic ideals may be arrested.
Beginning with competitive individualism, as well as with belief in equality, the farmers of the Mississippi Valley gradually learned that unrestrained competition and combination meant the triumph of the strongest, the seizure in the interest of a dominant class of the strategic points of the nation's life. They learned that between the ideal of individualism, unrestrained by society, and the ideal of democracy, was an innate conflict; that their very ambitions and forcefulness had endangered their democracy. The significance of the Mississippi Valley in American history has lain partly in the fact that it was a region of revolt. Here have arisen varied, sometimes ill-considered, but always devoted, movements for ameliorating the lot of the common man in the interests of democracy. Out of the Mississippi Valley have come successive and related tidal waves of popular demand for real or imagined legislative safeguards to their rights and their social ideals. The Granger movement, the Greenback movement, the Populist
movement, Bryan Democracy, and Roosevelt Republicanism all found their greatest strength in the Mississippi Valley. They were Mississippi Valley ideals in action. Its people were learning by experiment and experience how to grapple with the fundamental problem of creating a just social order that shall sustain the free, progressive, individual in a real democracy. The Mississippi Valley is asking, "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"
The Mississippi Valley has furnished a new social order to America. Its universities have set new types of institutions for social service and for the elevation of the plain people. Its historians should recount its old ambitions, and inventory its ideals, as well as its resources, for the information of the present age, to the end that building on its past, the mighty Valley may have a significance in the life of the nation even more profound than any which I have recounted.
The problem of the West is nothing less than the problem of American development. A glance at the map of the United States reveals the truth. To write of a Western sectionalism," bounded on the east by the Alleghanies, is, in itself, to proclaim the writer a provincial. What is the West? What has it been in American life? To have the answers to these questions, is to understand the most significant features of the United States of to-day.
The West, at bottom, is a form of society, rather than an area. It is the term applied to the region whose social conditions result from the application of older institutions and ideas to the transforming influences of free land. By this application, a new environment is suddenly entered, freedom of opportunity is opened, the cake of custom is broken, and new activities, new lines of growth, new institutions and new ideals, are brought into existence. The wilderness disappears, the "West" proper passes on to a new frontier, and in the former area, a new society has emerged from its contact with the backwoods. Gradually this society loses its primitive conditions, and assimilates itself to the type of the older social conditions of the East; but it bears within it enduring and distinguishing survivals of its frontier experience. Decade after decade, West after West, this rebirth of American society has gone on, has left its traces behind it, and has reacted on the East. The history of our political institutions, our democracy, is not a history of imitation, of simple borrowing; it is
1 Atlantic Monthly, September, 1896. Reprinted by permission.