Despite America’s flawed past, despite the fact that previous generations honored some questionable individuals, our history did not unfold solely within the grid of racism. New England pioneers possessed high ideals of justly ordered freedom, and they carried those ideals west, and in “The Pioneers,” David McCullough is on nothing less than a civilizational mission to make sure the rest of us know it.

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, by David McCullough (352 pages, Simon & Schuster, 2020)

The first half of 2020 will surely go down as one of the more dramatic six months in American history. Three years to the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated—and one month after the President was impeached—the U.S. recorded its first COVID-19 case. There ensued a pandemic; an unprecedented state-by-state lockdown; an equally unprecedented government-induced economic depression that left almost 15 percent of the workforce unemployed; a nationwide conflagration sparked by a black man’s murder on a Minneapolis street; widespread calls to defund the police; anarchic riots in three-dozen cities; and soul-searching debates over which historic figures and symbols deserve a place of honor in our civic spaces.[1]

The first half of 2020 also saw David McCullough’s book, The Pioneers, [2] solidify its place as the number one best-selling book about the Midwest.[3] Is there a connection?

Amid the tumult of this strange year, the genteel David McCullough has given us a story about the Midwest that is a contradiction to our times. Without apology Mr. McCullough reminds us why America is still—to recall Lincoln’s words—“the last best hope of Earth.” Despite our flawed past, despite the fact that previous generations honored some questionable individuals, our history did not unfold solely within the grid of racism. New England pioneers possessed high ideals of justly ordered freedom, and they carried those ideals west, and Mr. McCullough is on nothing less than a civilizational mission to make sure the rest of us know it.

When he was in his mid-eighties, Mr. McCullough was asked in so many words about his civilizational mission. He observed, “I see now that all of my books are about Americans who set out to accomplish something worthy, something that they knew would be difficult—something even more difficult than they expected—who did not give up, who learned from their mistakes, who eventually achieved their purpose… to our benefit. One of the reasons we ought to read and know history is to increase our capacity for gratitude for those who went before us, for what they did for us, for what they achieved for us. For us to take them for granted is rude in the extreme.”[4]

In The Pioneers Mr. McCullough never loses sight of the flawed, flesh-and-blood human beings who populate his pages. They are a lot more interesting than marble statues. But rather than dismiss the early New Englanders for not living up to our values today, he foregrounds the virtues the settlers did show—their courage, tenacity, and capacity to redeem suffering. He alerts us to his purpose in the subtitle of his book: “The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.”

Given the self-indulgence and decadence that characterize large swaths of American society today, we could learn a lot from the Anglo-Americans who first legally settled the Ohio Country, even if they were quite “other.” They did not go West to become rich and famous, notes Mr. McCullough. “Out of their suffering came a sense of purpose…. They weren’t in it for the money or to become famous or to have a lot of fancy possessions. No, they were there to establish a community and values that are of utmost importance for civilization.”[6]

Today it’s easy to forget the story of these pioneers, and unfortunately we often do so out of benign neglect. Their descendants are still neglected. In part it’s because the locus of their story is Marietta, Ohio, in a part of the Midwest where the Rust Belt meets Appalachia. It’s flyover country, ground zero of the opioid epidemic. J.D. Vance well describes the region’s broken dreams in his Hillbilly Elegy. But in the 1780s this stretch of Ohio Country was a magnet of civilizational energy. Already in 1782, Crèvecoeur had exuberantly written that “The Ohio is the grand artery of that portion of America which lies beyond the mountains…. I consider therefore the settlement of the country watered by this great river as one of the greatest enterprises ever presented to man.”[7]

“One of the greatest enterprises ever presented to man” is no exaggeration, and it could have served as the title of Mr. McCullough’s book. His purpose is to direct much-needed light onto the relatively unknown Americans who uprooted themselves from New England and replanted themselves in Ohio Country in 1788 to live out the ideals of the new republic. Indeed, these pioneers undertook a kind of refounding of the republic. He admits that he was not very familiar with them before beginning research on the book in the superb archive at Marietta College. Combing through its collection of source documents, Mr. McCullough discovered remarkable stories and was able to weave together the impressions and experiences of five men: Rev. Manasseh Cutler, the Congregational minister and polymath who led the Ohio Company of Associates; his son Ephraim Cutler, a jurist and political leader who fought to keep slavery out of the Northwest; Gen. Rufus Putnam, the Revolutionary War hero and military leader of the Ohio Company who also succeeded in keeping slavery out of Ohio; Joseph Butler, an architect and builder who, moreover, wrote an important book about the early settlers in Ohio; and Samuel Prescott Hildreth, a physician, naturalist, and scholar who contributed his own works of history about Marietta’s early years. It’s as though Mr. McCullough took his marching orders from Ephraim Cutler who challenged posterity: “The character ought to be known of these bold pioneers…. whence did they spring?”[8]

Now let’s turn to the term, “American Ideal,” in the subtitle. For Mr. McCullough had another high purpose in writing The Pioneers. In addition to introducing readers to the men and women who transplanted Anglo-American civilization to the right bank of the Ohio River, he also wanted to highlight the congressional law that made their enterprise possible: the Northwest Ordinance. Hardly ever taught today, the Northwest Ordinance is one of the greatest laws ever produced in the Anglophone world, and it is the crown jewel of the Confederation Congress. It was the governing document of the land that the U.S. had secured at the 1783 Treaty of Paris at the conclusion of our War for Independence with Great Britain. The acquisition of the Northwest doubled the size of the young United States. It encompassed the territory north of the Ohio River, south of the Great Lakes, west of the Appalachian Mountains, and east of the Mississippi River. Remarkably, the Northwest Ordinance was signed into law in New York City at the exact time when, down the road, the U.S. Constitution was being debated and crafted in Philadelphia. Thoughtful readers will understand that these two great documents complement each other and together express the founders’ best hopes for the New Republic. While the Constitution provided the blueprint for our republican democracy, the Northwest Ordinance argued for a certain type of culture that made a sustainable republic possible.

This is where Mr. McCullough’s book speaks to us today, in the telling of the founders’ hopes for America’s future. In 1786, eleven men met in the Bunch of Grapes Tavern in Boston to launch a dream. They drew up a proposal to develop the Ohio Country on republican principles. The subsequent Northwest Ordinance of 1787 became a kind of Urtext for what the New Republic was to become. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton—they all influenced the document with their highest ideals. For example, in the 1780s Washington wrote letters proclaiming that the Ohio Country was “the second promised land” that beckoned new generations of immigrants to our shores.[9] The hope was for a kind of refounding of the American republic in the lands north of the Ohio, this time correcting the mistakes and perfecting the wisdom of past generations.

All the idealism that the founders projected onto the Northwest is not to suggest that passage of the Ordinance was devoid of politics; au contraire, supporters engaged in some fancy logrolling. Reputedly a number of delegates had to be bribed to vote for the measure. In the real world, idealism must often lean on sausage-making to have any hope of realization.

Mr. McCullough tells the story with verve but also stresses that America’s founders wanted the “Ordinance Society” in the Old Northwest to be built on four cornerstones.[10] First was the prohibition of slavery, a repudiation of race-based chattel slavery on American soil north of the Ohio. The Confederation Congress had to deal with the fact that slavery had been legal back East, in the Thirteen Colonies, every one of them, including those in the North. Pennsylvania had only abolished slavery as recently as 1780, Massachusetts and New Hampshire only as recently as 1783, Connecticut only as recently as 1784. Thus, Article Six, composed by Manasseh Cutler in 1787, was revolutionary in its boldness:

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise  than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted… [11]

Not only that. Free Blacks north of the Ohio River could vote. Mr. McCullough tells us that in the 1802 election to send delegates to the Ohio state constitutional convention, a man named Kit Putnam cast his ballot, “the first vote cast by a free Black African in the Northwest Territory.” [12]

Mr. McCullough does not say it outright, but the exclusion of slavery in the Northwest is one of the most powerful arguments against the recently launched “1619 Project,” which claims that the founders’ object in the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery and insure the conditions for its spread. The founders’ Article Six in the Northwest Ordinance, composed just prior to the drafting of the Constitution, presents powerful evidence to the contrary.

The second cornerstone of the new republic’s Ordinance Society, according to Mr. McCullough, was the Christian duty to respect Native Americans as fellow human beings. Article Three of the law expresses the moral imperative to deal with aboriginal peoples in “the utmost good faith”:

The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and  property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property,  rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful  wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time  to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace  and friendship with them. [13]

Already these two cornerstones of the Ordinance Society challenge Americans to ponder the possibilities of America’s future race relations, and Mr. McCullough is eager for us to do so. Just think if subsequent generations of Americans had been able to embrace these two articles as American society became increasingly multicultural. Had we lived up to the ideals of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, there would have been an ongoing reckoning about the operational meaning of equality in a multiracial society, and we might have avoided the racial tensions we are experiencing today.

The third cornerstone of the new republic’s Ordinance Society, according to Mr. McCullough, was freedom of conscience and religion. The founders did not specify which religion—whether it had to be Protestant, Unitarian, Deist, Catholic, or Jewish—but they signaled their belief that day-to-day regard for a higher power is important to a republican society and its culture. Belief can reinforce moral precepts and encourage citizens to consider the welfare of others in their calculations of self-interest. Article One reads:

No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be  molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory.[14]

The fourth cornerstone of the new republic’s Ordinance Society was education. The prerequisite to good citizenship in a self-governing republic has been, is, and forever will be education. The Marietta pioneers had learned that civilizational lesson growing up in New England, with its numerous schools and town halls. Thus, they intended schools to be at the literal and symbolic center of the New Republic. Each township that was laid out in accord with the Land Ordinance of 1785 would dedicate Section 16 to education. Section 16, at the center of the township, set aside acreage both for locating a school building and for generating revenues from land sales to fund education.

These far-seeing pioneers also had a passion for higher education. From the beginning, Manasseh Cutler had insisted on establishing a college. It was of the utmost importance to introduce “the higher classics to the Northwest.” He wanted to call the territory’s first college “American University,” but the name eventually chosen was Ohio University, chartered in 1804. In 1828 the university’s first Black student, John Newton Templeton, earned his bachelor’s degree—the third Black man to graduate from a college in the U.S. So intrigued was Mr. McCullough by Ohio University’s history that a visit to the campus prompted him to write The Pioneers.[15] The Northwest’s commitment to education would eventually result in one of the glories of American higher education—the Big Ten—which includes the University of Michigan, established in 1817, and America’s first land-grant college, Michigan State University, established in 1855.

These last two cornerstones, concerning religion and education, were encapsulated in the most famous line of the Northwest Ordinance:

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the  happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. [16]

This line, from Article 3, has been incorporated in the state constitutions of the Midwest, to their everlasting credit.

The pioneers’ considerable achievement began as a dream back in New England. Under the guidance of Manasseh Cutler and Rufus Putnam, they embarked on an errand in the wilderness. Settling on the right bank of the Ohio River at its intersection with the Muskingum River, they founded the first legal settlement in the Old Northwest, Marietta, and also one of oldest public universities in the U.S. It was hard work to realize the good life in the New Republic, but they persevered to the benefit of the rest of us. And that’s what David McCullough wants us to know. He tells the neglected story of America’s republican refounding better than anyone else.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] It is a pleasure to acknowledge the generous assistance of Linda Showalter and her colleagues at the Marietta College Library for being such accommodating hosts when I conducted research in their archive in July 2019.

[2] David McCullough, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).

[3] July 1, 2020 Amazon ranking. Also see the publisher’s information here.

[4] David McCullough, remarks at the Library of Congress National Book Festival, Washington, DC, August 31, 2019; recorded by C-SPAN at Author’s note: McCullough’s words are lightly edited for easier reading.

[5] Ibid.

[6] David McCullough, interview with Brian Lamb, C-SPAN Q&A, May 16, 2019.

[7] Crèvecoeur quoted in McCullough, Pioneers, p. 3.

[8] Ephraim Cutler quoted in McCullough, Pioneers, p. 2.

[9] Gleaves Whitney, “The Upper Midwest as the Second Promised Land,” in Finding a New Midwestern History, eds. Jon K. Lauck, Gleaves Whitney, and Joseph Hogan (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), pp. 281-302.

[10] I use the term, “Ordinance Society,” as developed in Steven Keillor, Shaping Minnesota’s Identity: 150 Years of State History (Minneapolis: Pogo Press, 2007).

[11] McCullough, Pioneers, p. 143.

[12] See here.

[13] See here.

[14] See here.

[15] McCullough, Pioneers, pp. 29, 146-47; see also here.

[16] See here.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email