David McCullough’s Idealistic Settlers

A depiction of boats off Marietta by Charles Sullivan, circa 1840. Credit: Ohio History Connection

Here is a brief excerpt from a review of David McCullough‘s latest book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West , by Joyce E. Chaplin for The New York Times. To read the complete review and check out other resources, please click here.

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If every generation of Americans gets the visionary colonizer it deserves, we get Elon Musk, but people in the early Republic got the Rev. Manasseh Cutler. Musk wants to settle Mars. In the 1780s, Cutler set his sights on the Ohio Territory, the subject of David McCullough’s new book, The Pioneers. Plans for Martian colonies dwell on technical feasibility; Ohio’s earlier colonization is a reminder that humans’ treatment of one another matters to such schemes, too.

Ohio has quite a history. The characters who passed through during its early phases as part of the United States could adorn a novel. Folks on the famous side include Lewis and Clark (headed west), Aaron Burr (post-duel and mid-conspiracy against the American government), John Chapman (a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, sower of fruit trees) and Charles Dickens (visitor to Cincinnati). The less famous characters include Harman and Margaret Blennerhasett, Anglo-Irish newlyweds who lit out for the territory because they were uncle and niece; the Revolutionary War veteran Rufus Putnam, whose frontier library tellingly featured Milton’s “Paradise Lost”; and Cajoe, an enslaved Virginia man who gained his freedom in Ohio, preached the Gospel and lived past his 100th birthday.

McCullough tells the history of the Ohio Territory as a story of uplift, of what can happen when the doers of good are let loose upon a place. This is American history as a vision of our better selves. Lord knows we need it. And there are several inarguably admirable elements of Manasseh Cutler’s plan.

Cutler and his supporters wanted the Ohio Territory, and eventual state, to be nonslaveholding, free within a nation where slavery was still legal. Their goal followed the tendency of the states in the North to repudiate slavery — at least within their own borders. Prohibiting slavery in new states extended that revolutionary logic outward. As the Northwest Ordinance (1787) declared, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.” Nor could the eventual states formed out of the Northwest Territory be admitted to the Union as slave states.

And thus a moral border on the nation’s map, a firm resolve that the Ohio River separated two different ways of being American. McCullough notes that Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived for a time in Cincinnati, shaped testimony about slavery she heard from free blacks in Ohio into “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” He might have added that the semifrozen river the fugitive slave Eliza crosses to freedom in Stowe’s novel is the Ohio River, a geo-ethical line within an increasingly divided nation.

The Northwest Ordinance also stipulated that schools and education would be embedded into the new settlements. Ohio had a school system supported by public taxes and it had Ohio University, founded in 1804. Freedom of religion was also part of the Northwest plan and became law in Ohio two years before it would be enshrined in the Constitution, even as many of the old American states still had established churches, with financial penalties or civic exclusion of people of other faiths. It made a difference. The first Ohio Jewish congregation was formed in 1824 — there wouldn’t be a counterpart in Massachusetts for another decade.

McCullough admires the work of the Northwest Ordinance and of Ohio’s high-minded settlers. There is much to admire. Enough, in fact, that the story can withstand some criticism.

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Here is a direct link to the complete review.

To learn more about David McCullough and his work, please click here.


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