Tuesday, August 30, 2011

American Founding -- The Untold Story of Our Constitution

September 17 is Constitution Day. The delegates formally began their great adventure on May 25, 1787, when they had a quorum and formal start of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. For almost four months, delegates from 12 of the 13 states debated a new frame of government to replace the Confederation. General George Washington served as president of the Convention. On September 17, 1787, they finished the first phase of their work. The second phase, ratification, would prove to be as difficult and divisive as the Convention. The following essay served as the basis of several talks I delivered on the U.S. Constitution during the spring and summer of 2011.

Our National Story

The story we Americans tell about ourselves is not carved in stone but is revised from time to time. One of the best ways to detect rewrites of our national story is to examine the way we talk about the U.S. Constitution and the convention that produced it. Since the founding of our country, there have been at least five major rewrites of the meaning of the Constitution and the convention in which it was created.

(1) Great Men  Americans born after the framers did their work lived during the Romantic Age. The temper of the age cultivated the belief that the founders were indeed the “assembly of demigods” that Thomas Jefferson claimed they were in 1787. In the 1840s the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle expressed the Romantic theory of history in his famous utterance, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." You can see the hero-worship in young Abraham Lincoln. His lyceum speech of 1838, delivered when he was 28 years of age, was informed by Thomas Carlyle's Great Man theory of history. Lincoln emphasized the “towering genius” of Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, and the other men who produced the Constitution, calling them “a forest of giant oaks,” “pillars of the temple of liberty.” His generation, by contrast, lived in an age of decline that would likely not measure up unless some great test challenged them to rise (such as a civil war?). Otherwise, the best they could do would be to show “reverence for the Constitution and its laws.”

(2) Great Nation  After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Americans rewrote the narrative of the Constitutional Convention to emphasize our common national story since Pilgrim Rock. The need was to knit the nation back together after such a terrible trauma that took the lives of 626,000 men in the North, South, and West. The Great Nation narrative avoided saying too much about the slavery debates that almost tore the Convention of 1787 apart. Rather, it honored the patriotic delegates from North and South who, despite regional differences, came together to create the greatest fundamental law in human history. It is what a nation in need of healing needed to hear.

(3) Great Con Job  Then a landmark book came along in 1913 – during the so-called Progressive Era – that emphasized the economics of the founding and the economic motives of the founders. Written by Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States argued that our frame of government grew out of the reactionary phase of the American Revolution. The Constitution reflected the class interests of propertied delegates who met in Philadelphia in 1787. The result was a shrewd maneuver by selfish men of wealth bent on keeping the middling sort and poorer classes at bay. The propertied class protected their interests by setting up legal guardrails against the democratic excesses let loose in 1776.

(4) Great Debate  By the time I was an undergraduate, Beard’s work had been overturned by R. E. Brown, Forrest McDonald, and historians working in the spirit of John G. A. Pocock, who went back to the archives and saw that the framers were not merely protecting their class interests, but that they had a more disinterested goal in mind: to found an enduring republic, the greatest republican empire the world had ever known. They were unsure of how successful their experiment would be. A basic question they asked was, Does republican self-government rest on the virtue of the people or on the formal political institutions that channel and control human behavior? The Federalists trusted human nature enough to go forward with the bold experiment of a large republic with a strong national government based on republican principles. The Anti-federalists, on the other hand, so distrusted human weakness and our propensity to corruption that they shuddered at the prospect of putting powerful political instruments in the hands of a few. The Constitutional Convention amounted to a great debate over the prospects of various forms of republican government in the modern age.

(5) Great Crimes  That republican rewrite has begun to fade from the scene, and students today are taught mostly about the crimes and sins of the framers who debated and wrote the Constitution. Indeed, they know more about their shortcomings than any previous generation. Many of you no doubt have heard about the brouhaha surrounding the President’s House in Philadelphia. It’s where George Washington lived from 1790-1797. The house, just a short walk from Independence Hall, is presented as a prison for nine slaves that George and Martha kept. As one reviewer for the Denver Post wrote about the site, “Washington is exposed…. The first president’s reputation is savaged….Washington was mean and selfish and worked tirelessly to defend slavery.”

The human drama that arises out of hypocrisy makes a history syllabus more interesting, to be sure, but it does not push discussion very far if other important lessons are neglected. Our students should be learning that, without George Washington and the Constitution he championed, fearless critiques of our Founding Father might not be possible. Students should be learning that, without the Constitution, they would not have the ability to pursue happiness the way they want. They should be learning that, without the Constitution, most of their pop culture icons would not have the freedom of expression to entertain them as they do. In short, we are the freest people on earth. None of our students are going to jail because of their beliefs or manner of expression -- which is extremely unusual in the perspective of world history. 

The Greatest Story Never Told
(in Today's Classrooms)

The Constitution of 1787 is one of the greatest documents ever drawn up by human beings. In fact, because it does such a good job of preserving freedom, we are free to ignore it.

As a history teacher, I say this with irony, of course. Every year, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia conducts a survey to find out how well Americans know their Constitution. What’s our narrative these days? Sadly, nowadays there is not much of any narrative. A few years back, the survey asked teenagers to compare their knowledge of the Constitution with their knowledge of pop culture:
-    3/5 know the names of the Three Stooges, but only 2/5 can name the three branches of government;
-    ¾ know which city has the zip code 90210, but only ¼ know the city in which the Constitution was written;
-    4/5 can tell you how many members the most popular rock bands have, but only 1/5 can tell you how many U.S. Senators currently serve on Capitol Hill.

Looking at the results of the survey, Dr. Richard Beeman, a professor of early American history at Penn, opined that our system of republican government “came with no guarantees. Not in 1787, and not today. They knew that the new republic would require active, informed citizen involvement to preserve, protect, and defend it.”

Today the Constitution may be the greatest story never told to our children, and this should unsettle us all. Kids may be only 25 percent of our population, but they 100 percent of our future. How do I hook college freshmen on the American founding and lay the groundwork for them to know more about the Constitution and to spend a lifetime exploring it?

1. Dramatis Personae -- What a Piece of Work Are Men!

First, I draw students into the very human story of the Constitutional Convention because they don't have a good sense of who these men were. The cast of characters comprises the greatest generation of political talent ever. Historians like to jest that they lived in the "Age of Marble," but of course they're not marble statues, cold and inaccessible. They were human and deeply flawed. Some of them drank too much (Luther Martin), some had illegitimate children (Benjamin Franklin), some were adulterers (Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris), some owned slaves (George Washington and James Madison), and some were so irascible (John Adams) they could hardly get along with others. Yet these men with complicated private lives worked together and performed heroically for the commonweal. They inspire us -- flawed though we are -- to do no less. 

2. The Confederation -- a Time of Troubles

Since learning from the mistakes of the past is important, I expose students to the troubled circumstances that led to the Constitutional Convention. In truth, it came about because of one of the most powerful engines of historical change -- frustration; the Annapolis convention of 1786 had failed to address adequately the economic difficulties among the states. The Convention also came about because of another powerful engine of historical action -- self-preservation; Shays's Rebellion demonstrated that republican liberty is threatened not only when government is too strong, but also when government is too weak.

The nation that succeeded in breaking away from the British Empire seemed more unified by the color on maps than by its culture, society, politics, or economy. Do you know that there had been eight attempts to pull British North America into some kind of greater union together before the Convention of 1787? So the fruit of the framers' efforts -- "a more perfect union" -- was an amazing feat.

Consider the political difficulties. Initially the Second Continental Congress was without constitutional authority. It was little more than a conference of ambassadors from the 13 states. The Articles of Confederation were eventually ratified during the War for Independence. Many regarded them as the “Articles of Confusion" because of their numerous shortcomings.

It is always hard to launch a new government; doubly so to launch a new type of government. The United States was a republic in a world of monarchies. Actually, we were 13 republics. And make no mistake: These 13 republics were sovereign, coining their own money, raising their own armies and navies, erecting their own tariff barriers, and even fashioning their own foreign policies. The legislature of Virginia, for example, separately ratified the 1778 treaty of alliance with France. New York and Vermont almost went to war over their border. Several of the states were engaged in trade wars with one another. The potential chaos went far to convince Americans that too weak a national government is just as much a treat to liberty as too strong a national government. 

Economically the times were among the most difficult Americans have ever faced. The country's war debts oppressed each of the 13 states; the possibility of default was real. Moreover, 1786 was the worst year of a depressed economy. British North America's coveted commerce with the Mother Country had been reserved for loyal parts of the Empire during the war. After the war, British manufacturers had inventory that they dumped on the American market at cheap prices, thereby pulling the rug out from under new American manufacturing. The economic suffering manifested itself when a patriot, Daniel Shays, led a revolt of farmers in western Massachusetts that revealed all the frayed edges around the status quo.

Socially there were strains. The stabilizing Tory elements had fled to Canada during the war. Thirteen diverse colonies lost some of the glue that held them together during the war. And Shays’s Rebellion revealed just how much many farmers resented the merchants and shippers on the coast.

Despite the difficulties of these times, it is also important to give the Confederation its due. The 1780s saw a lot of good, but the good it did has largely passed out of our communal memory. For instance, the Confederation Congress passed one of the greatest pieces of legislation ever, the Land Ordinance of 1785, which provided that the acreage should be sold and the proceeds used to pay off the national debt – a principle that would apply throughout the 19th century until the closing of the frontier. (This explains why the U.S. didn’t have an income tax till after the frontier was closed and the federal government had sold off most of our public lands.) The Land Ordinance also provided that future land rushes be effectively accommodated with an orderly surveying system, and it provided that the 16th section of each township be sold to fund public education – a stroke of genius in the early republic and one of the glories of this Congress. 

Perhaps most significant of all, in its twilight the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 – part of our organic law – which championed freedom by outlawing slavery in the new lands being settled. And to its everlasting credit, it averted a future civil war by handling the western lands with wisdom. There was no doubt that the new republic would eventually become the world's greatest empire, but the West would have to be "won" with wisdom. New states, new republics, would not be subordinated to the original states, but be admitted on an equal footing. In this measure is embedded an important history lesson. The founders knew that the peace of the Roman Republic and Empire had been disturbed repeatedly by the unequal treatment of outlying provinces -- in part those disturbances were the undoing of the republic. The American Republic could not become a great empire if it repeated Rome's crippling mistakes. [See J. Rufus Fears, "Julius Caesar in History," in Life Lessons from the Great Myths (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2011), lecture 27.]

It is important to keep the Confederation Congress in mind when considering the Constitutional Convention. Both bodies of patriots were meeting at the same time in the summer of 1787, the former in New York City, and the latter in Philadelphia. Both -- both -- built the architecture of freedom that we enjoy to this day.

3. The Convention 

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was one of the most extraordinating meetings of all time, a turning point in history. As Pepperdine government professor Gordon Lloyd sees it, what happened between May 25 and September 17 was a drama in four acts. Delegates tried various proposals on for size -- the Virginia Plan, New Jersey Plan, and Connecticut Compromise -- until a workable institutional mix was found for the new republic. None of the framers thought that they had conjured up the ideal commonwealth. The Constitution that emerged out of the debates was a mish-mash of compromises -- the best they thought they could produce under the circumstances.

Could it fly? The convention was not entirely kosher, and Anti-federalists pushed the point hard in Philadelphia and in the ratification debates that followed. Delegates had been sent to Philadelphia by the states to revise the Articles of Confederation, not to produce an entirely new frame of government. But the latter is what the Federalists pushed for and got. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris -- from day one, they made the Convention an extraconstitutional gathering. Rhode “Rogue” Island was so wary of the enterprise that they never sent delegates to participate in the framing of a new constitution.

The delegates in convention and in the ratification debates that followed had tedius, exhausting discussions over the institutional mechanics of a modern republic. They grappled with the specifics of how power should be (1) divided among three branches of government checking and balancing each other, and (2) attenuated further by a federated polity in which the national government respected the traditional prerogatives of states and locales.

At a more philosophical level, the delegates were probing and pushing the very nature of republics. These were men of the Enlightenment who nevertheless possessed a keen sense of the historic rights as Englishmen. They not only knew the philosophy of Locke, but also the historic reality of the English Bill of Rights; not only Hume, but also Magna Carta; not only the Commonwealthmen, but also their Bible.

They put tough questions to each other. What were republics anyway? (Not just a representative democracy, which we are erroneously taught today.) Why had past republics succeeded or failed? What were the geographic limits of a republic? How were factions contained? How much executive power is too much? (Again, too weak a government is just as much a threat to liberty as too strong a government.) What about standing armies? What are the dangers of pure democracy -- and the mob -- to enduring sovereignty? What constitutes the happiness of a people? (Not just the private pursuit of pleasure, power, and profit, which we are erroneously taught today.) And -- and! -- what about the glaring ugliness of slavery in a so-called free nation?

Despite heated debates that on several occasions almost brought the Convention to an intemperate end, most of the delegates kept their tempers within the reasonable bounds of procedural debate. No one resorted to arms. The rule of law prevailed. Aristotelian prudence combined with a spirit of flexibility, compromise, and accommodation. The Convention was a major chapter in the development of the American leadership style. As Thomas Jefferson observed, “The example of changing the constitution by assembling the wise men of the state, instead of assembling armies, will be worth as much to the world as the [other things] we have given it.”

To make the Constitution the law of the land, the Federalists' ambitious agenda was to overcome the opposition of the Anti-federalists and get 13 republics to secede from the existing Confederation. Only eleven years earlier, the American colonies had seceded from the corrupt British Empire, and now the idea was to get them to secede from the ineffectual American confederation. That is what the hard-fought ratification debate from September 1787 to July of 1788 boiled down to. As MIT historian Pauline Maier argues in her authoritative study, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, the ratification debates were good training for citizens in the new republic.

4. The Preamble

Toward the end of the Convention, Gouverneur Morris was tasked with creating an opening statement for the Constitution. His handiwork became the most economical lesson in political philosophy ever written --Morris condensed 2,500 years of wisdom into a few lines. Allow me to explain.

The central problem with which the Constitution grapples is power – how to order power. Since we are lower than the angels, it is prudent to disperse the powers of government. And that is precisely what the delegates to the Constitutional Convention did by creating three branches of government that could check and balance each other, and by creating a federal system that further diluted national power by respecting the prerogatives of states and traditions of locales. The resulting order of government is one of the most elegant contrivances ever wrought by the hand of man.
But that is not all that the Constitution does for liberty. The Founders’ understanding of the idea is strikingly harnessed in Gouverneur Morris's one sentence Preamble. Its 52 words declare:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

These ordinary words pack extraordinary meaning. Note the six aims of the Constitution, announced by the words “in order to.” The six great aims of our Constitution define the common good. They are union, justice, peace, defense, welfare, and – not just liberty – but the blessings of liberty. In that order. The ordering of the six aims is deliberate, not accidental. In these few words our Founders established the official priorities of our government. A little reflection shows that the Founders expressed their priorities in the proper sequence (and I am happy to acknowledge my debt to Michigan Chief Justice Thomas Brennan for the following observations).

     a.  Form a more perfect union.  The Founders made union or unity the first priority. There is no possibility of serving the common good unless the community is first identified and defined. It is a question of physical and social geography. There must be a jurisdiction in which the common good can be pursued and defended. Lines on the map that say: this is our community, our state, our nation. Within these boundaries, it’s all for one, and one for all.

     b.  Establish justice.  The Founders made justice the second priority. Unless a society is just, unless it is committed to render to every person what is due that person, nothing it does will be for the common good.

     c.  Insure domestic tranquility.  Domestic tranquility is the third priority, after unity and justice. Should justice be done at the cost of tranquility?  Absolutely. That’s why policemen carry guns. Peace without justice is a pax terrorem.  It is the gray streets of Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany.  The fact is, there can be no true and lasting peace where there is no justice.

     d.  Provide for the common defense.  The fourth priority in the Preamble is to provide for the common defense. It logically comes after union, justice, and domestic tranquility. A nation that is not unified cannot be defended. A nation that is not just should not be defended.  A nation that is not at peace with itself will not be defended against foreign aggression. Witness the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.

     e.  Promote the general welfare.  The fifth priority is the one politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, citizen groups, and the media give most of their time and attention to: promoting the general welfare. To the Founders this did not mean welfare in the sense of relief from poverty or privation. The overwhelming majority of immigrants to America were by definition poor; the well off stayed back in the Old World. Well aware of this fact, our Founders did not call for the national government to provide assistance in the sense we understand it today. Rather, “the general welfare” is understood as legitimate public action on behalf of the common good; public expenditures for public purposes like transportation, communication, and the like – the public infrastructure people need to generate the wealth to provide for themselves, their families, and the goods and services society requires.

     f.  Secure the blessings of liberty.  Now we come to the sixth and most interesting priority set out in the Preamble – to “secure the blessings of liberty.” Two things are noteworthy. First, the word “liberty” comes last in the list of aims and priorities of our Constitution. Why? Because the other aims – union, justice, peace, defense, and the general welfare – must be realized before a people can enjoy true liberty. Is this not what Iraq and Afghanistan are teaching us today? The fact that liberty is not first tells us that the Founders realized it is a fragile achievement of civilization, hard won and easily lost. To keep liberty from being lost, it must be built on the scaffolding of other institutions. It must be guarded with vigilance and upheld by our morals, reason, and willingness to live under the rule of law.

The second thing to note comes from parsing the sentence. Grammatically, liberty is not a direct aim set forth in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. Grammatically, the word is relegated to a prepositional phrase – the object of “blessings.”  What is going on?  

One way to interpret this wording is that liberty was a given in 1787. The Patriots had won back their ancient rights as Englishmen. The new republic was free; its citizens, sovereign. The Founders had proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that all men are endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to liberty.  This self-evident truth was implicit in the Constitution.

Now, the wording states that the aim of the Constitution is to “secure the blessings of liberty.” If the Founders seem as interested in securing “the blessings of liberty” as in liberty itself, then it is because they viewed liberty as instrumental. It is a means, not the end – rather like money. Most people want money, not for its own sake, but for what it allows one to have: status, security, power, material comforts, and so on.  It’s not the money per se but the blessings of money that we want.

By analogy, the grammatical treatment of liberty in the Preamble suggests that the Founders viewed liberty not as an end in itself, but as the means to the end. What is the end? In a republic of virtue, the end is the good life. So liberty is good because it allows us to achieve other good things. But liberty can only be good if it is ordered – ordered by the infrastructure of surrounding institutions and also by our morals, reason, and willingness to be subject to the rule of law.

So this ennobling sentence, this Preamble of the Constitution, provides a veritable tutorial in freedom to citizens. More precisely, its 52 words drive home a lesson not just in freedom, but in ordered freedom.  Pondering the Founders’ idea of ordered freedom should give us pause about the notions of freedom most Americans hold today.

5. Results

The work of the Constitutional Convention must not have seemed very promising when delegates adjourned on September 17, 1787. Fully 16 of the 55 delegates wouldn’t even sign the document they had debated. Moreover, the nation's political elite split into two dominant parties -- Federalists vs. Antifederalists -- a pattern that has prevailed in various permutations ever since.

After ratification in 1788, the U.S. Constitution endured, although amended 27 times. Today it is not the oldest extant constitution (a distinction belonging to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts), but the oldest national extant constitution.

After so many tests over the past 23 decades, the U.S. Constitution stands as the best framework in the modern world for diffusing power on the one hand, yet having a strong enough national government to address the challenges of the modern world on the other.

Significantly, the U.S. Constitution has enabled America to endure -- and even reinvent itself several times -- in the face of serious challenges:
- we resolved the issue of sovereignty and slavery in the Civil War, with what Lincoln called "a new birth of freedom";
- we morphed from an agricultural Eden into the greatest industrial power in the world;
- we absorbed the Progressive Movement without a revolution;
- we did not just survive but thrived after World War II when we faced our greatest existential threat, and our nation became the economic, political, and moral superpower of the world.

In conclusion, allow me to leave you with a counterintuitive thought. We have looked at all the ways the Constitution is at the center of a great story. Yet I've not mentioned the most important element that has helped our nation survive -- the most important reason that our Constitution serves us generation after generation: It is because of our nation's unwritten constitution. America's unwritten constitution is composed of the habits of a free and virtuous people who cherish ordered liberty under the rule of law. Our unwritten constitution is found in citizens who balance rights and duties. The unwritten constitution exists where a people jealously guard the just treatment of fellow citizens: equal justice under law. These elements ultimately derive from a culture that traces back to Angles, Saxons, and Germanic tribes of the Middle Ages. Indeed, our politics work because of our long culture of ordered freedom. So long as America remembers her cultural roots, then we should be all right politically. And that's a story that should be told over and over and over again.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Iowa geography and history

Contour farming enhances the rolling landscape.

Pure American Prairie  As you slip south of the Great Lakes, traveling west, somewhere in Illinois you all of a sudden realize that the woods are receding and the groves are farther apart. The trees look shorter, the sky looks bigger, and the horizon looks farther away. This Illini prairie wedge is preparing your senses for the "splendor in the grassland" that is Iowa (... apologies to Elia Kazan)!

Boundaries defined by the two great Western rivers  Iowa looks more like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle than most states. If the states were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, Iowa's squiggly left and right sides would squeeze between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, fitting snugly on top of Missouri, and capped by Minnesota. Did you notice that Iowa is bordered by four "m" words?

This breadbasket has fed billions  "Rolling prairie, the homesteaders called it. Part of the greatest unbroken, unspoiled expanse of land found anywhere in the world -- that area of this wonderfully new, pure continent that was to become the breadbasket of the world. A land distinguished by the wonderfully rich soil that would feed billions. A land nurtured by its native peoples. Absolutely unspoiled.... One can still see the land as the pioneers saw it. Marvelous. Quiet. Stretching endlessly. Verdant. Grasses swaying in the ever-present wind. Having come from the worn-out lands of Europe, how wonderful this rolling prairie must have seemed to those people of no fear." ~Kent Baker, "A Stroll across Hillside Farm," in Glimpses: Iowa's Rural Legacy, p. 72.

90 percent of Iowa's landscape is devoted to agriculture. Contour farming magnifies the visual impact of a rolling landscape, as this aerial photo from the archives of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service shows.

The greatest story never told  Apropos of our Iowa breadbasket, Dumas Malone, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Thomas Jefferson, once told journalist Hugh Sidey, "So much of recorded history is about the struggle of individuals and families to feed themselves. That changed dramatically in this country. The greatness of this country was rooted in the fact that a single farmer could produce an abundance of food the likes of which the world had never seen or imagined and so free the energies of countless others to do other things." It's the greatest story never told, in Hugh Sidey's opinion.

Iowa's changing landscape since the early 1800s  The Iowa that Lewis and Clark encountered in their journey up the Missouri River was carpeted by prairie grasses so dense that there was no room for bushes or trees to take advantage of the unbroken soil. Periodic fires swept through the grasslands, keeping bushes and trees at bay. Since the Corps of Discovery went through the region, Iowa's landscape has gone through three overlapping transformations.
  • Settlement: In the early 1830s, the territory was opened by Congress for settlement. The surveyors' straight chain was imposed on the rolling landscape. Land rushes resulted in pioneers churning up the tall-grass prairie, transforming the rolling hills into angular croplands. There were few conservation measures, and much rich, black topsoil ended up washing downstream into the Gulf of Mexico, where it found its graveyard in the Mississippi River Delta. 
  • The New Deal: One hundred years later, the New Deal brought widespread conservation measures to the Hawkeye State. Contour farming became the practice. Rows of trees were planted to act as windbreaks. It's surprising to see how many old trees still grow at the edges of fields. Farmers needed shade from the scorching summers and windbreaks from the freezing winters, as Kent Baker notes [p. 73]. The lack of prairie fires that once swept through the region also allowed the trees to persist.
  • Turning silos into smokestacks: The family farm has been disappearing, replaced in recent decades by agribusiness and factories. In Waterloo, for example, you can see John Deere tractors being assembled. John Deere, the world’s leading manufacturer of agricultural tractors, is the sole tractor manufacturing plant left in the world that retains its founder’s name. 

Native Iowan Henry A. Wallace
Henry A. Wallace  This native son of Adair County took his degree from Iowa State University, where he was trained as a plant scientist. In rapid succession he served as FDR's secretary of agriculture, secretary of commerce, and second vice president -- before running for president in his own right in 1948. Words associated with the Secretary of Agriculture (from an Iowa monument to their native son): prairie restoration, terracing, contours, erosion control, soil restitution, crop rotation, single-cross hybrid seed, farm ponds, woodland restoration, first U.S. Soil Conservation District.

Big tractors, corn, soybeans, hay -- that's Iowa, which bills itself the "Food Capital of the World." It's the kind of place where, if you spend any time there, you should know the difference between a John Deere A and a John Deere B.

At the edge of a rural neighborhood.
Transformation of farms  If you talk to people whose families have farmed in Iowa a long time, you learn that two twentieth-century developments made all the difference in rural America: technologically, tractors replaced horses by the end of World War II, bringing much more power to farming; genetically, hybrids replaced older plants, producing superior crops that could grow through disease, drought, and grasshoppers. ~Neil E. Harl, Introduction, Glimpses, pp. 7-8.

Neighboring skills  Iowa is the kind of place where a lot of people live in identifiable rural neighborhoods. (Think about that word -- an area where people know each other by name and sight and are often "neighborly.") Traditionally at the center of an Iowan rural neighborhood were two institutions: a one-room schoolhouse and a church. A 4-H club might meet nearby. Rural sociologists, studying the cooperative nature of these remote neighborhoods, have observed the "little platoons" people form to help one another. But in recent decades the decline of "neighboring skills" has been noticeable. ~Jack Van Laar, "Maple Grove -- A Rural Neighborhood," in Glimpses, pp. 13-16.

Land of rural towns  People justifiably think of Iowa as an agricultural state. Yet, improbably, Iowa lays claim to 950 towns and small cities -- more than any state but Texas. [LaVon Griffieon, "Let's Keep the 'I' in Iowa," in Glimpses, p. 118.] I don't believe it. As I travel I-80, the nation's greatest, most historic, east-west transportation corridor, I just don't see that many towns.

In the case of I-80, the kitsch is countered by a historic transportation corridor that follows the journey of the American Dream into the West. The Mormon Handcart Trail was blazed across Iowa near I-80, and it approximates the later Lincoln Highway, the nation's first coast-to-coast road. West of the Missouri River, I-80 approximates the Oregon and California trails, and is associated with the first Transcontinental Railroad.

I-80  It is fashionable to blast travel by interstate as kitschy, soul-sucking monotony. But the Interstate-80 corridor, connecting New York and San Francisco via Chicagoland, is one of the great conduits through which our nation's history has pulsed. America's second-longest interstate highway, I-80 most closely approximates the route of the historic Lincoln Highway, the first road across America; and it roughly traces other historically significant travel routes into the West: the Oregon Trail, California Trail, Mormon Trail, Pony Express, and first Transcontinental Railroad.

Cities  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 the United States had 275 cities with a population of more than 100,000 people. Iowa has only two cities that make the list: Des Moines is ranked 106th with 203,000 people; and Cedar Rapids is 196th with 126,000 people.

Iconic Iowa: Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930
American Gothic  Speaking of which, Cedar Rapids is famous for the most iconic work of art ever associated with Iowa. Grant Wood's American Gothic, one of the most parodied paintings of the 20th century, was created in 1930. A product of the Great Depression, American Gothic depicts an Iowa father and his daughter (modeled after Wood's dentist and sister) expressing grim determination to get through hard times. Many modernist critics believed the painting's "deeper" meaning amounted to a satire of the Midwest's provincial lifeways, but apparently Wood was not aiming at social criticism. You can decide for yourself if you go to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the painting.

Hawkeyes  The logo on Iowa football helmets is called the Tigerhawk. The mascot is named "Herky the Hawk." Both are traditions that developed after World War II. But the nickname "Hawkeye" was actually coined in the 1830s to commemorate Chief Black Hawk of Black Hawk War fame.

Pie shakes  An Iowa original. Can't miss 'em!

Iowa's Loess Hills present some of the best loess (windblown silt) topography in the world. You can see picturesque landforms carved out of loess on the western rim of the state above the Missouri River floodplain in places like Council Bluffs and Sioux City. (Again, the Plains are not flat!) Abraham Lincoln ascended Council Bluffs to inspect a potential site for the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad. And Sargeant Charles Floyd, the only fatality in Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, was buried in the Loess Hills above Sioux City. The silty deposits came about during the Pleistocene, when continental glaciers ground down rocks to the consistency of flour. When the glaciers retreated and the vast meltwater lakes receded, winds blew the floury silt that had lined the lakebeds into dunes mostly on the east side of the Missouri River floodplain. In many places, the silt deposits are more than 90 feet thick, and erosion has sculpted the loess into fantastic ridges.

Splendor in the Grassland

Iowa in August  County fairs, butter cows, bikers on their way to Sturgis (South Dakota), and the quadrennial straw poll mark the waning days of summer in the Hawkeye state.

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Bibliography  Iowans have great pride in their landscape, which is one of the reasons I enjoy visiting the Hawkeye State. Two gems edited by Robert F. Sayre include, Take This Exit: Rediscovering the Iowa Landscape (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1989); and Take the Next Exit: New Views of the Iowa Landscape (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 2000).

Another little gem I found, on the Mississippi River overlook near the Quad Cities, is Glimpses: Iowa's Rural Legacy (Ames: Iowa Farm Business Association, 2004).