This is a strange book to be reading about St. Louis right now.
Adam Arenson published The Heart of the Great Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War in 2011. He’s focused his academic studies on the American west and its settlement; his other books include Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire (2012) and Civil War Tests: Testing the Limited of the United States (February 2015). The Heart of the Great Republic is about the role St. Louis played leading up to the Civil War and after, and how the great forces of slavery, abolition and manifest destiny converged on St. Louis.
St. Louis is the prism through which Arenson examines the major American themes of the 19th century, and he largely confines himself to the 19th century. What is both strange and surprising is that some of those themes – perhaps all of them – continue to be played out today.
For most if not all of the 19th century, St. Louis was a larger city than Chicago. It was the gateway to the west (the theme of the Aero Saarinen’s Arch in downtown St. Louis), the place where all the wagon trains started to head to the promised lands of Oregon and California. Henry Shaw, an Englishman who founded St. Louis’ beloved botanical gardens, made his fortune selling hardware to the settlers traveling west and passing through St. Louis.
St. Louis was the largest city in a state where slavery was legal. It became the home of thousands of German immigrants, many of whom left Europe after the failure of the Revolutions of 1848. These Germans brought their fierce notions of freedom with them; they would turn out to be strong supporters of abolition, settling in a slave-owning city.
And thus the fusion of the great themes, the ideas that became the realities of conflict, war, and reconstruction. St. Louis escaped the physical ravages of the Civil War, but experienced the psychological and political ravages perhaps more than any other city of the North or border states.
Arenson, a professor and historian, discusses how these themes developed Arenson discusses how these themes developed in St. Louis through the great fire of 1849, which destroyed much of the city; the Compromise of 1850, whose popular sovereignty led to Bleeding Kansas and Nebraska; the impact of German immigration; the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court (Scott and his family lived in St. Louis); the Civil War itself, and how competing factions battled for control of the city; emancipation and reconstruction; the movement to make St. Louis the new capital of the United States; and what happened when St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis separated themselves in a popular vote marred by corruption. (This separation continues to have a major impact on the metropolitan area today.)
The author’s point is that the conflicts of the 19th century were a cultural civil war, and St. Louis occupied the physical location where that cultural civil war converged. And more than that: the landscape of St. Louis today still reflects the larger history of that cultural civil war. “The local history is national history, and St. Louisans sense it,” he writes.
And that’s precisely where the strangeness of the book is. If Arenson is correct, and I believe he is, then what does the current troubles and tension of St. Louis – arising form the shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer – suggest for the larger reality of the United States? What if the themes of the cultural civil war are still being played out on the streets of St. Louis?
As I write this, the grand jury investigating Michael Brown’s death is still deliberately, and an announcement could come at any time. The city feels like something of an armed camp. If there is one dominant emotion, it is fear. But there is also the understanding that what is happening is here is larger than St. Louis, extending across the nation.
St. Louis history is still American history.
Photograph of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis by Yinan Chen via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.