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.* * *
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.