The Urban-Rural Divide: Deep Roots In American History

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tags: election 2016



Daniel Blake Smith is the author of several books, including "Our Family Dreams:The Fletchers’ Adventures in Nineteenth Century America," "The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown," and "An American Betrayal." Formerly a professor of American History at the University of Kentucky, Smith now lives in St. Louis where he works as a screenwriter and author.  

Anyone observing America’s ongoing culture wars, especially as they surface in the current presidential election cycle, is forcefully reminded that we are not a country divided by red and blue states; it’s an urban-rural divide that represents the political and cultural fault lines in the nation. The difference is no longer where people live, it’s about how people live: in widely-dispersed, open rural areas with plenty of privacy or in high population density, diverse urban areas where tolerance becomes almost mandatory among its residents.

According to many contemporary political observers, people don’t make cities liberal—cities make people liberal. The gap is so stark that some of America’s bluest cities are located in its reddest states. For example, all of Texas’ major cities—Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio—voted Democratic in 2012; likewise, other red-state urban areas—Atlanta, Indy, New Orleans, Birmingham, Tucson, Little Rock and Charleston, South Carolina—also voted Democratic.

But how far back does the urban-rural divide go? Before the Civil War, our political and cultural differences fell mostly along state and regional borders. Worldviews and politics followed a mostly north-south direction. For example, the city of Charleston was as staunchly anti-northern as most plantation areas. Economic energies, moral perspectives, and life-ways changed above the Mason-Dixon line, where the North began.

But even in the early 19th century, one can spot the primitive origins of the town-country, urban-rural divide that has become so pervasive in modern America. This was powerfully driven home by the Fletcher family, a clan initially rooted from the colonial era in Massachusetts and Vermont but after the Revolution descendants spread into the South and West. In looking at the lives of the two most prominent brothers who left their Vermont home in the early 1800s (Elijah Fletcher heading South to become a tutor in slave-holding, plantation Virginia, and his younger brother Calvin, who migrated as a teen into Ohio, then settling permanently in Indianapolis) we can glimpse how these New England plowboys—raised on Congregational tenets and antislavery values—developed wildly different social and political values in large part because of where they lived in antebellum America.

A graduate of the University of Vermont, Elijah left the mountains at age 20 in 1805 intent on becoming a school teacher in the South, a common enough ambition for young educated New England men determined not to become mired back home as impoverished plowboys. He made his way into southwest Virginia near Lynchburg where he eventually took over as a tutor in a plantation neighborhood. After marrying into a prominent slave-holding family, Elijah stunned his entire antislavery family back in Vermont by abandoning the teaching business to become a slave-holding planter himself. “You must not think too badly of slaveholders,” he cautioned his doubtless disapproving father back in Vermont, “for your son is one.” While he owned a political newspaper, The Virginian, Elijah stayed mostly out of politics preferring, like many of his fellow planters, to adopt a detached worldview, focusing on conserving the slave-holding, rural way of life. Reform and change, he came to believe, were disruptive, unwelcome elements in his pastoral world. ...




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