Thursday, August 04, 2011

Arenson: "THE GREAT HEART OF THE REPUBLIC: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War"

[The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War by Adam Arenson (Harvard University Press, 2011) Hardcover, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:227/347. ISBN:9780674052888 $35]

As Cairo, Illinois can attest, being located at the confluence of a pair of iconic western rivers does not necessarily confer greatness. Geography always plays a part, but relentlessly forward looking local leaders, powerful political patrons, and just plain luck are all at least as important. St. Louis, a populous colonial city strategically situated where the Missouri River joins the Mississippi, appeared on the surface to have these traits and was poised in the mid-nineteenth century to become the nation's premier jumping off point of Manifest Destiny. Alas, it was not to be so, with St. Louis overshadowed by competition to the north (Chicago), but the city was important nonetheless, especially in the turbulent years before, during, and after the Civil War. Historian Adam Arenson's The Great Heart of the Republic examines critically the role of St. Louis in the nation's 1848-1877 culture clash of competing geographical interests and ideologies. The Civil War is just a part of Arenson's wide ranging investigation. Where Louis Gerteis's Civil War St. Louis offers a fine social and political history of the war years, Arenson adopts a more long term view capable of capturing broader cultural trends.

The idea that Missourians increasingly viewed themselves first as westerners, rather than northerners or southerners, does not originate with Arenson but serves as a useful starting point. Perhaps the most pervasive theme of the book is the constant striving of St. Louis leaders to act as a non-sectarian and non-partisan bridge between North and South, one that could then direct a more politically united country safely toward the development of the West.

For his study, Arenson effectively selected prominent St. Louis figures representational of broader cultural trends. For the antebellum era, the political aspect of St. Louis and the "cultural civil war" as presented in The Great Heart of the Republic centers around the person and influence of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, one of the nation's foremost promoters of Manifest Destiny. Benton believed that slavery would fatally hinder Missouri's ability to become the prime facilitator of the economic development of the vast western lands acquired by the war with Mexico. Unfortunately, the violent Missouri-Kansas border clashes and the high profile Gasconade Bridge disaster would throw a wrench into Benton's dream of a centrally located St. Louis rail link to the West. Instead, Chicago interests funded and completed a railroad spanning northern Missouri, linking Hannibal and St. Joseph. Through his ecumenical approach as a minister and his role in the founding of Washington University, Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot embodied the religious and educational aspirations of St. Louis. Washington University would indeed become a nationally recognized institution, and eclipse the Catholic St. Louis University in local influence. The book's discussion of slavery dwells heavily on Dred Scott. Surrounded by free states, defending the institution of slavery in Missouri would always be difficult. On the surface, the Dred Scott decision was a victory for Missouri and St. Louis's pro-slavery adherents, but Arenson traces the reasons behind why it was a broader cultural defeat.

During the time period covered in the book, St. Louis's ethnic German population exploded in terms of economic and political influence. While Arenson avoids the simplistic portrayal of all Missouri Germans as Radical Republicans, he credits them with forming the backbone of the free labor cause in the city and support for the Union. Interestingly, the author observes that Germans like Carl Schurz were a key force behind the blocking of the 1860 Republican presidential candidacy of conservative Missourian Edward Bates, helping to ensure a nominee unacceptable to the South.

Like Gerteis before him, Arenson does not detail St. Louis's critically important role as a military nerve center for the Union war effort in the West (especially for 1861-62). That book has yet to be written. However, given the cultural focus, it is rather expected that The Great Heart of the Republic would be light on military matters. Indeed the passages that are present are decidedly not a strength of the book.

In the post war years, St. Louis and its promoters again sought to enhance the city's stature as a national force that would economically and culturally unite North, South, and West. As outlined by Arenson, three schemes were attempted: the completion of the first transcontinental railroad through Missouri, the formation of a new political party (the Liberal Republicans), and the movement (founded by Logan Uriah Reavis) to relocate the national capital to St. Louis. All of these failed. The railroad could not be supported, Horace Greeley lost badly to Grant in 1872, and the capital change (while somewhat popular for a time) never gained traction. Nevetheless, Reavis's quixotic quest made for particularly interesting reading.

Adam Arenson's meticulous recounting of three decades of cultural civil war in St. Louis during a critical period of national social and political change provides a revealing portrait of failed civic aspiration. St. Louis remained a great American city but was denied its goal of becoming the great American gateway to the West. A shining example of vast page length not being a requirement of interpretive depth, Arenson's work succeeds as both city study and broad social history. The Great Heart of the Republic is heartily recommended reading for students of westward expansion, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

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