What Makes History

The lessons of a New England landscape

THE best thing about winter is that I can go cross-country skiing from my front door. I live in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where the sharp, determined lines of steeples and old houses manifest the tight certainties and revealed truths of the early settlers. The landscape is austere, and makes me long for the sensuousness of southern Europe, where I used to live. In fact, what I like about skiing here is that the perfection of the view concentrates my mind on the more troubled and passionate places on which I report.

Consider the Caucasus, the towering mountain system that separates Russia from the Middle East and is home to Chechens, Ingush, Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, and others. There, because of sectarian wars and internal rebellions following the fall of communism, more history has happened in the past decade than has happened in Stockbridge in the past 200 years. The Georgians alone have seen in just one century a Menshevist regime, civil war, Stalinist destruction and deportations, democracy, anarchy, and, finally, benign despotism, under Eduard Shevardnadze, which at this moment appears to be moving toward democracy.

That's history in heaps, and it's happening now. Where I live, the history, and the violence, happened then. In western New England white settlers arrived, gradually replaced the Native Americans, and then prospered under a democratic government. Here the population has increased only modestly since 1900, unlike in most other places in the world. And because the Native Americans had no written language, much of what occurred before the seventeenth century is a void.

In places the windy emptiness of the landscape through which I ski, marked by a river and fieldstone walls, suggests the frontier that Stockbridge once was. In the early eighteenth century Stockbridge and other towns nearby constituted the real frontier in North America. Being on the frontier required doing rather than imagining: clearing land, building shelter, obtaining food supplies. Frontiers test ideologies like nothing else. That, ultimately, is why America has not been friendly to communism, fascism, or other, more benign forms of utopianism. Idealized concepts have never taken firm root in America, and so intellectuals have had to look to Europe for inspiration. People here are too busy making money -- an extension, of course, of the frontier ethos, with its emphasis on practical initiative.

Perhaps it was the extreme climate of eastern North America, with its heat, dampness, and freezing cold, that led not only the Native American cultures but also the European one that replaced them to be far more functional and utilitarian than Europe. Americans rejected every ism, and that has been to the good. Even the "European Enlightenment," Daniel J. Boorstin, the former librarian of Congress, has written, "was in fact little more than the confinement of the mind in a prison of 17th- and 18th-century design." The Enlightenment, Boorstin argues, "itself acquired much of the rigidity and authoritarianism of what it set out to combat." In western Massachusetts, and elsewhere along this icy, unforgiving frontier, the Enlightenment encountered reality and was ground down to an applied wisdom of "common sense" and "self-evidence." In Europe an ideal could be beautiful or liberating all on its own; in frontier America it first had to show measurable results.

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The Enlightenment philosophes, comfortable in their salons, saw the state as the proper and rational instrument of progress; on the virginal slopes of the Appalachians the state was fine so long as it didn't get in the way of development. Because the Enlightenment was an intellectual discovery, it was, inevitably, elitist, whereas an oral philosophy of common sense issued from the ground up. To wit, the separation of Church and State in America was no beau idéal but a practical response to the fact that the rugged pioneer spirit of optimism and free thought begot different Protestant sects, and none of them held sway over the new political establishment. These sects competed fiercely for souls throughout New England. For the first time in recorded history faith became purely a matter of choice. Such free religious competition and the fervor that ensued became known as the Great Awakening. Democracy in America was the product of a specific culture's interaction with a harsh landscape.

The native inhabitants were part of that landscape. The Stockbridge Indians soothed the soul of Jonathan Edwards, the severest Calvinist of the Great Awakening, who came here in 1751 to write and to minister to them as part of an exile from the swirl of doctrinal controversy he had stirred up in Northampton. The Native Americans here were the first to be granted U.S. citizenship, in honor of their service as scouts in the Revolutionary War. But that is local minutiae, and the broader picture counts for more.

King Philip's War, in 1675-1676, was as brutal as any spate of Balkan atrocities, with native and white civilians, many of them children, central to the carnage. The settlers' losses were awful, but the war's end saw the virtual extinction of native life in southern New England. Though Native Americans fared better in western Massachusetts, the very process of development, combined with unsavory land deals, drove them onto reservations. The fact is, as King Philip's War proved, removing the Indians was eminently practical: the same applied wisdom that had made the rarefied notions of the Enlightenment usable for ruthlessly pragmatic settlers in North America also closed the door on accommodation with the native inhabitants. Here is an even more troubling reality: much or all of what America has achieved domestically and internationally might have been impossible had its dynamic new capitalist society -- which emphasized self-discipline and industry and allowed the individual to rise above the group -- been diluted by the mores of the native culture.

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"History," according to its Greek root, means merely a narrative, and a narrative that is rich and deep is often unresolvable. The Caucasus still endures such bloodshed because all the isms that promised utopia there have been reduced to ethnic blood feuds. The American narrative is morally unresolvable because the society that ultimately saved humanity in the great conflicts of the twentieth century was built on enormous crimes -- slavery and the extinction of the native inhabitants.

History, though, can also be the story of ideas -- and the more useful the idea, the greater the history. America's was an anti-idea: all philosophers are finally wrong, and the masses -- left alone to seek their own interests -- know best. Such democratic populism tempts cruelty and barbarism, and it cannot be successfully applied everywhere, even if Americans -- the missionary zeal of the Great Awakening still within them -- believe otherwise. Nonetheless, America's democratic populism broke ground in New England, where the necessities of frontier life overthrew Europe's established hierarchies. That, along with the removal of the native inhabitants, is the sum of history in western Massachusetts. Judging by its effect on the rest of the world, perhaps no other place has produced more history in these past thousand years.

Robert D. Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and the author of to be published this month.

Illustration by Wendell Minor.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; What Makes History - 00.03; Volume 285, No. 3; page 18-20.