The Myth of the Morally Superior Yankee
by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
"Hillary Clinton is a museum-quality specimen of a Yankee — self-righteous, ruthless, self-aggrandizing"
~ Clyde Wilson
Being born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a northerner but not a Yankee. The same is true of my friend Lew Rockwell, a native of Massachusetts who would qualify for membership in Sons of Union Veterans. The word "Yankee" gained popularity in the early to mid nineteenth century to describe a particular brand of New Englander: arrogant, hypocritical, unfriendly, condescending, intolerant, extremely self-righteous, and believing that he and his were God's chosen people.
Yankees have never shied away from using the coercive powers of the state to compel others to be remade in their image. That's why compulsory government schooling originated in New England, as did prohibitionism. It's also why Stalinism took hold in the North (especially in New York City) in the twentieth century, as did its offshoot, neoconservativism, in more recent times. Indeed, many of the more notorious neoconservatives openly admit that they were Stalinists in their youth and have never fully abandoned those beliefs.
At the outbreak of the War to Prevent Southern Independence there was a vigorous secession movement in what were known then as the Middle States — Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, New Jersey. During the war there were thousands of Northern "peace Democrats" who opposed Lincoln and his Yankee cabal. These people, who were essentially Jeffersonians, had one thing in common with the Southern Confederates: they despised the arrogant, pushy, greedy, and insufferably self-righteous Yankees. They were ruthlessly censored and imprisoned by the tens of thousands by the Lincoln government. When they rioted over military conscription, the Yankee army shot them dead in the streets by the hundreds if not thousands (See Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots).
The idea of Yankee moral superiority was carefully crafted almost from the time of the Pilgrims. By 1861, New England Yankees and their Midwestern cousins had concocted the myth of a free, white, and virtuous New England that, by virtue of its moral superiority, had a right to remake all other sections of the U.S. in its own image, creating a Heaven on Earth (i.e., the New England-ization of North America). A corollary of this myth was the notion of the morally corrupt, slave-owning South.
But the notion of a morally superior New England Yankee nation is all a myth, as is explained in great detail by Joanne Pope Melish in her book, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1780—1860 (Cornell University Press, 1998). Professor Melish, who teaches at the University of Kentucky, documents how New England propagandists rewrote their own history, not unlike how the Soviets rewrote Russian history, to say that slavery in that part of the country was only very brief and very benevolent.
The truth of the matter is that slavery existed in New England for more than 200 years (beginning in 1638) and it was every bit as degrading and dehumanizing as slavery anywhere. In mid eighteenth century Rhode Island slaves accounted for as much as one third of the population in many communities. Newport, Rhode Island, and Boston, Massachusetts, were the two biggest hubs of the transatlantic slave trade. Many slaves worked in the shipping industry in New England. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island were the three biggest Northern slave-owning states.
Virtually all of the household and farm labor of New England's aristocracy was done by slaves, Professor Melish shows. "These servants performed the dirty, heavy, dangerous, menial jobs around the household, or they acted in inferior roles as valets and maids to masters and mistresses of the upper class" (p 17).
Professor Melish documents the pervasive sexual abuse of slaves by their New England slave masters. The famous New England cleric Cotton Mather advised his fellow Yankees to Christianize their slaves so that they will become even better slaves. "Your servants will be the Better Servants," Mather preached, "for being made Christian servants" (p. 32). Christianize your slaves, and they will be "afraid of speaking or doing any thing that may justly displeasure you." All of this history has been whitewashed and hidden by politically-correct, Northern historians for generations.
With the growth of industry that required a more and more educated and skilled labor force, slavery became uneconomical. So, beginning in the late eighteenth century gradual emancipation laws were introduced in New England. In general, these laws stated that the children of existing slaves would be freed upon reaching a certain age, usually either 21 or 25. In principle, a one-year old slave in the year 1784, who had a child at age 25, would remain a slave for life, but his or her child would be freed in around 1834.
Slaves were included in the New England population census for 1840, and as late as 1848 Rhode Island was passing new laws outlawing slavery. New Hampshire passed a new law outlawing slavery there even later — in 1857.
Some New England slave owners kept their slaves in ignorance of the gradual emancipation laws, or never told them exactly when they were born to keep them enslaved as long as possible, in violation of the laws.
Many New England slave owners did not free their young slaves upon reaching age 21 or 25, but sold them to Southern plantation owners. Slavery may have ended, but these men did not free their slaves.
Along with gradual, peaceful emancipation was the belief among most New Englanders that all blacks were aliens and should either be deported or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson insisted, they would "follow the Dodo into extinction" (p. 285). As soon as gradual emancipation laws were passed there were accompanying laws that would assure that "free" blacks would never be granted anything like citizenship. "A complicated system of seizures, fines, whippings, and other punishments for a legion of illegal activities" was imposed, Stalin-style, on the small number of free blacks in New England (p. 69).
Freed slaves were denied titles to property, which tended to pauperize them. Then vagrancy laws were passed so that various communities could deport as many free blacks as possible from their midst. Free blacks were routinely accused of "disturbing the peace" and subsequently deported out of their communities.
New Englanders announced over and over that they didn't believe black people were capable of citizenship and did everything they could to get rid of them. The American Colonization Society was very active in New England. This organization raised funds to deport blacks to Liberia and other foreign lands. By 1861 some 12,000 free blacks had been deported to Liberia, most of whom perished there. To New Englanders, "abolition" meant the complete absence of black people from their "chosen land." As Emerson stated, "the abolitionist wishes to abolish slavery, but because he wishes to abolish the black man" (p. 164). That would "restore New England to an idealized original state as an orderly, homogenous, white society. A free New England would be a white New England" (p. 64).
In the first half of the nineteenth century New Englanders were bombarded with graphic and literary representations of blacks as being preposterous, stupid, or evil. Melish reproduces some of these vulgar, racist posters in her book.
There was a New England version of the Ku Klux Klan as well, in the form of roving gangs that conducted "terroristic, armed raids on urban black communities and the institutions that served them" (p. 165). So it turns out the "Klan," like the Black Codes, was a New England invention.
Free blacks in New England in the first half of the nineteenth century were lampooned and savagely ridiculed publicly, urged to leave the country, attacked, rioted against, excluded from juries, and even from cemeteries. Black graves were dug up so that white cemeteries would not be "tainted." "The corpses of people of color seem to have become a target of grave robbers," writes Melish (p. 186). Black children were excluded from most public schools, even though their working parents were taxpayers.
Entire predominantly black communities in New England were assaulted and burned to the ground, Sherman style. "By the early 1820s whites had begun to apply a strategy for their [blacks'] physical removal — assaulting their communities, burning down their homes, and attacking their advocates" (p. 199). There was, writes Professor Melish, a "crescendo of mob violence against people of color" in the 1830s with as many as a hundred violent incidents between 1820 and 1840.
All of this violence was motivated by the fundamental New England belief that black people were "anomalous and troublesome strangers." The ultimate objective of all the violence and harassment was to realize the "promise" that "Negroes would slowly diminish in number until finally they would disappear altogether" (p. 209). Keep this in mind the next time you see one of those gushy, touchy-feely speeches by a Joshua Chamberlain character in a "Civil War" movie that attempts to portray what a benevolent and charitable attitude the Yankee soldiers had toward blacks in the South.
The degraded situation of the poor, hapless ex-slaves of New England was a direct result of both slavery and the savage, institutionalized discrimination against them by new Englanders. By 1853 Frederick Douglas would observe the situation in New England and ask, "What stone has been left unturned to degrade us? What hand has refused to inflame the popular prejudice against us? What whit has not laughed at us in our wretchedness?"
New England Yankees did not blame any of this on themselves. The reason why New England's black population was in such dire straights, they said, was Southern slavery. This makes no sense at all, but it was repeated often enough that the idea apparently took hold. Indeed, this notion is alive and well today; Melish cites contemporary social scientists who insist that racism in the North is not the fault of Northerners but has supposedly been imported from the South. (As someone who grew up in the North, I can attest that this is unequivocally false).
This is how the myth of the morally superior Yankee came into being — by rewriting 200 years of New England history. By 1861 this Yankee myth pervaded much of the North, especially the Midwest, where New Englanders had been migrating to for generations. At the time, states like Illinois constitutionally prohibited the emigration of black people into the state, deprived the miniscule number of free blacks there of any semblance of citizenship, and actively attempted deportation with the help of state colonization societies. Abraham Lincoln was the head of the Illinois Colonization Society and he supported the allocation of tax funds to be used to deport free blacks from Illinois.
When the extension of slavery into the new territories became a big issue, one of the chief reasons Northerners were opposed to it was that they intended to New England-ize the territories, and that meant keeping them all white. That could never occur with either slaves or free blacks there. This policy — and Lincoln's support of it — is one reason why Ebony magazine editor Lerone Bennett, Jr. wrote such a passionate and scathing criticism of Lincoln in his book, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream a few years ago.
As early as 1784, an American dictionary quoted a British visitor to America as saying "New Englanders are disliked by the inhabitants of all the other provinces, by whom they are called Yankeys . . ." (Melish, p. 236). By 1865, the Yankee victory in the war marked "the stunning success of the cultural imperialism" that was a salient feature of New England nationalism. At that point "New England had become the nation and, in the process, the nation had become New England" (p. 236).
This is why very few Americans have ever been exposed to American history. What they have been indoctrinated in by the government-run schools is the self-righteous and self-serving New England version of American history, the paramount idea of which is myth of Yankee moral superiority. In other words, they have been taught one big bundle of lies that serves primarily to glorify the centralized state that we all slave under today.
February 10, 2004
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, which was just re-released in paperback with a new chapter by Three Rivers Press/Random House.
Copyright © 2004 LewRockwell.com
Now there is a study guide and video to accompany Professor DiLorenzo's great work, for homeschoolers and indeed anyone interested in real American history.