Who is the New England Yankee?

December 4, 2020

The distinguished American writer E.B. White had his own opinion of who the Yankee is: “To foreigners, the Yankee is an American; to Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner; to Northerners, the Yankee is an Easterner; to Easterners, the Yankee is a New Englander; to New Englanders, the Yankee is a Vermonter; and to Vermonters, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.”

For the country at large, it is of great interest to determine the essence of the Yankee, an entity that is both well-known and elusive. It was the reticent Yankee, after all, that unfurled the earliest blueprints to plan the America with which we are familiar today. The fundamental structure of the northeastern Yankee hamlet was exported west and mass-produced to become the default model of a small-town locality. This ubiquitous model, which consists of a church or religious house at the center, surrounded by orderly plots of land and neighborly dwellings, as well as schools and other civic structures, reflects the particular values appreciated most by the Yankee.

The Yankees emerged from the diverse denominations of English Protestants that sought refuge in the New World. As England acquired new stability in the eighteenth century following its civil war and violent repressions of religious sects, it came to regard the New Englander as unsophisticated and hopelessly distant from the civilization of European high culture. During the revolutionary revolt, British troops devised a song to mock attempts by the Yankee to imitate the dashing fashion of the time: “Yankee Doodle went to town a-riding on on a pony, stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni!” This song was readily adopted by the Yankee rebels themselves, and subsequently became the state anthem for the New England state of Connecticut—I remember we sang it during music class in second grade.

The Yankees, dispersed among the hills and woods, developed a character of classical liberalism, one which exalted individual enterprise and communal cohesion in equal measure. Their social egalitarianism, coupled with a ruthlessly expansive and highly diversified economy, attested to both the industriousness and the libertarianism of the Yankee spirit, which believed above all else that the world could reform to ever greater perfection. Thus, alongside the rising Enlightenment, the Yankees embarked upon the task of implementing the values and assuring the rights of a better world. The recipients of these irrevocable rights were individuals, not collectives, and their freedoms were not gifts from the state, but birthrights from providence. The Yankee resolved that all were free to speak and practice religion without discrimination or repression.

As time wore on for the Yankees of New England, a connection emerged between the centrality of the church and the centrality of the university. Each of the oldest colleges of New England was founded on behalf of its own religious denomination, and swiftly dedicated themselves to all secular knowledge that was available at the time. For a region that was the most literate and the most economically productive in the world by the late eighteenth century, such schools served a vital mission and education constituted an profound tenet of Yankee life.

New England, already positioned to industrialize before the rest of America, continued to expand its commercial and civic ambitions, as Yankee migrants drew westward and a new wave of Irish immigrants arrived from the east. Perceiving itself to occupy the role of improving the new republic, New England introduced the great majority of nineteenth-century reform movements, including those of temperance, public education, women’s suffrage and abolitionism; indeed, the first organization devoted to women’s electoral enfranchisement was the New England Woman Suffrage Association, founded in 1868.

By the twentieth century, New England had long since been overtaken by the nation it had helped to build, and the Yankee itself had faded from prominence. Yet the existence of Yankee New England persisted, relying upon a timeless balance to sustain itself—balance between the individual and the local community, between innovative enterprise and devoted tradition, between openness to newcomers and mindfulness of local culture, between national loyalty and regional identity. Balance requires meticulous care and conservation, a trait of frugality that is itself a hallmark of the Yankee.

Nimble Yankee hands, unassuming and underestimated, had crafted the delicate instrument of the Republic’s societal organization. The spirit of the Yankee, and its values of enduring timelessness, are well alive in New England, extending to all who arrived over hundreds of years. As waves of Yankee influence rolled over the country, a crest of virtues emerged which defines the foundation of American life. Waltham, a city that is seated in the heart of Yankee New England and which has a history of industrial inventiveness for which the humble Yankee is famous, therefore does not lie when it proclaims that America’s history is its own history. Its history reveals, perhaps, the answer to the enigma of the New England Yankee and where its natural habitat lies. Perhaps, the local Yankee—inventive, frugal, idealist, rooted—lives neither here nor there, but is a cultural spirit that lives in us all and deserves to be preserved. Within New England, it could be that it doesn’t matter who eats pie for breakfast, but that there remains pie to be eaten for breakfast.

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