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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Connecticut Western Reserve

By Burke Aaron Hinsdale (1837–1900)

[Born in Wadsworth, Ohio, 1837. Died in Atlanta, Ga., 1900. The Old Northwest. 1888.]

THE DEVELOPMENT of the Western Reserve has been as gratifying as its beginning was discouraging. Its area is about five thousand square miles, its population about six hundred thousand souls. It is a trifle larger than Connecticut, but has a somewhat smaller population. No other five thousand square miles of territory in the United States, lying in a body outside of New England, ever had, to begin with, so pure a New England population. No similar territory west of the Alleghany Mountains has so impressed the brain and conscience of the country. No other district gives so fine an opportunity to study the development of the New England character under Western conditions. In externals, the colonists, a majority of whom came from Connecticut, reproduced New England in Northeastern Ohio. It has long been remarked that, in some respects, the Western Reserve is more New England than New England herself. Mr. John Fiske found the illustration that he wanted of an early feature of English life in Euclid Avenue, Cleveland. There is also an undeniable continuity of intellectual and moral life. But the southern shore of Lake Erie is not the northern shore of Long Island Sound; New Connecticut is not a reproduction of Old Connecticut.

The position of Connecticut in history is a most honorable one, quite disproportionate to her territorial area, or to the numbers of her population. Far should it be from a man of Connecticut descent to speak slightingly of the commonwealth of his fathers. But the Connecticut of 1796 was dominated by class influences and ideas; a heavy mass of political and religious dogma rested upon society; an inveterate conservatism fettered both the actions and the thoughts of men. The church and the town were but different sides of the same thing. The town was a close corporation; and the man who did not belong to it, either by birth or formal naturalization, could be a resident of it only on sufferance. The yearly inauguration of the governor is said to have been “an occasion of solemn import and unusual magnificence.” Connecticut Federalism was the most iron-clad variety anywhere to be found, unless in Delaware. In 1804 the General Court impeached several justices of the peace who had the temerity to attend a Jeffersonian convention in New Haven. Mechanics were accounted “vulgar”; farming was the “respectable” calling; “leading men” had an extraordinary influence; and “old families” were the pride and the weakness of their respective localities. The militia captain and the deacon were local magnates. Congregationalism was an established religion; and how restive the Episcopalians, the Baptists, the Sandemanians, the Methodists, and other dissenting churches, and men of no church, were, under its reign, a glance through a file of old Connecticut newspapers will show. For years the General Assembly refused to charter Episcopalian and Methodist colleges. President Quincy paints this picture of a Sabbath morning in Andover, Mass.:

  • “The whole space before the meeting-house was filled with a waiting, respectful, and expecting multitude. At the moment of service, the pastor issued from his mansion, with Bible and manuscript sermon under his arm, with his wife leaning on one arm, flanked by his negro man on his side, as his wife was by her negro woman, the little negroes being distributed, according to their sex, by the side of their respective parents. Then followed every other member of the family according to age and rank, making often, with family visitants, somewhat of a formidable procession. As soon as it appeared, the congregation, as if led by one spirit, began to move towards the door of the church, and before the procession reached it all were in their places. As soon as the pastor entered, the whole congregation rose and stood until he was in the pulpit and his family were seated. At the close of the service, the congregation stood until he and his family had left the church. Forenoon and afternoon the same course of proceeding was had.”
  • Of course, such magnificence as this was unusual; but the passage well marks the awful consequence with which the New England mind, in that period, invested the parson. All the conservatism of Connecticut rallied around the venerable charter of 1662, holding it as sacred as the Trojans ever held the Palladium; and the party which broke down the charter and set up the constitution of 1818 were called “The Tolerationists.”

    It is plain that at the close of the last century Connecticut had shelled over. While a desire to break through this shell was the motive that sent many a man and family to the West, the whole emigration still brought much of the old conservatism and dogma to Ohio. But these people had not been long in their new home before they began to feel the throbbings of a new life, and they soon began to do things that in their old home they would never have dreamed of doing. As early as 1832, President Storrs and his assistants in the faculty of Western Reserve College were preaching and lecturing against slavery, at Hudson. Those sermons and lectures were the real beginning of antislavery propagandism in Northern Ohio. How much the antislavery men of the East counted upon Storrs’s coöperation is shown by Whittier’s pathetic elegy written on Storrs’s too early death. Early in its history, the name of Oberlin became synonymous with Abolitionism throughout the country. Giddings upheld antislavery principles in Congress when there was none but John Quincy Adams to support him. Full fifty years ago the Reserve had a more definite antislavery character than any other equal extent of territory in the United States. A liberalizing tendency may also be traced in religion. The Calvinistic rigidity of the churches was softened. The new theology sounded out from Oberlin, while that seat of learning was still hidden in the woods, was even more hateful to New England orthodoxy than the new theology sounded out from Andover is to-day. Dissenting bodies, as they would have been in Connecticut—Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples—gained a foothold and multiplied in numbers. And the same in education. Men on whom the awful shadow of Yale and Harvard had fallen began at Oberlin the first collegiate co-education experiment tried in the world. Both at Oberlin and at Hudson the finality of the old educational rubrics was denied, and new studies were introduced into the curricula. The common school, the academy, the college, the church, the newspaper, the debating society, and the platform stimulated the mental and moral life of the people to the utmost. The Reserve came to have a character all its own. Men with “new ideas” hastened to it as to a seed-bed. Men with “reforms” and “causes” to advocate found a willing audience. Later years have brought new elements; but to-day the mail-clerks on the Lake Shore Railroad are compelled to quicken their motions the moment they enter its borders from either east or west. Adapting the language that General J. D. Cox once used, there are in Northeastern Ohio the straits in a great moral Gulf Stream. Between Lake Erie and the Ohio, from Pittsburg to Chicago, has been compressed a human tide fed by the overflow of New England, the Middle States, and Europe. Beyond Lake Michigan this stream widens out, fan-like, northwest and southwest, from Manitoba to the Arkansas River, and breaks over the ridges of the Rocky Mountains in streams that reach the Pacific coast. Wherever it has gone this stream has carried the thought-seeds gathered from the banks of the straits through which it rashes. But the Reserve has been conservative as well as radical. Since Elisha Whittlesey took his seat, in 1828, the Nineteenth Ohio Congressional District has been represented in Congress by but five men. In 1872 the greatest of these five men, Garfield, in addressing the convention that had just nominated him for the sixth time, said for more than half a century the people of the district had held and expressed bold and independent opinions on all public questions, yet they had never asked their representative to be the mere echo of the party voice. They supported and defended their representative in maintaining an independent position in the National Legislature, and whenever he acted with honest and intelligent courage in the interests of truth, they generously sustained him even when he differed from them in minor matters of opinion and policy. The old charge of “isms” and “extravagance” cannot be wholly denied; but, on the whole, the plain people, while throwing much of the New England ballast overboard, and crowding their canvas, have held the rudder so true as to avoid dangerous extremes. The historian finds small occasion to defend them on the ground that somewhat of folly and fanaticism always attend a people’s emancipation.