Heartland Empire


Review of The Heartland: An American History, by Kristin L. Hoganson.

New York: Penguin Press, 2019  


Three years after the 2016 presidential elections, Democrats still argue about who or what is to blame for Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss to Donald Trump. Yet it is received wisdom that no Democrat can defeat Trump in 2020 without reversing Clinton’s losses in several corn- and rust-belt states that Barack Obama carried handily in 2008 and 2012. So far, no one has Midwestern’ed harder than Senator Amy Klobuchar, an avowed centrist from Minnesota critical of her party’s left wing. “I can win this,” she insisted at July’s Democratic primary debates in Detroit. “I’m from the Midwest. And I have won every race, every place, every time.” In case you did not get the message, Klobuchar calls her signature plan for the economy—a hodgepodge of infrastructure funding, farm subsidies, and tax cuts for companies investing in blighted urban centers—“Heartland Economics.”

The packaging of Heartland Economics is more interesting than its contents. Klobuchar’s political vision is explicitly nostalgic, locational, and normative. As she explained in an interview for the Atlantic

[Heartland Economics] is kind of looking back in time, when the Midwest was driving the economic engine of the country, which it does in certain segments still. It was the Midwest that stood up for people. So ‘heart’ is about, you know, the heart of America, the middle of America, but it is also about economics with heart, which means you’re looking out not just for the people at the top and the titans, you’re looking out for people who are working the economy.

There are none of Clinton’s “deplorables” in this Heartland, just good, decent, working-class “folks” who only become angry or demand change when elites—isolated by geography and culture—violate the social contract. For Klobuchar, there is a straight line from the Spirit of ‘76 to modern American progressivism: “This is a political movement that started here [in the Midwest], and it was a movement that said small farms matter, small businesses matter, entrepreneurship matters, that’s the engine, this is why our Founding Fathers moved from England, because they didn’t want to be controlled by monopolies and the East India Company, and when they did they got really mad and threw the tea into the water.”

By positioning the rural Midwest and its inhabitants as the country’s physical, economic, and moral center, Klobuchar’s pitch for a liberal American heartland is new wine in old bottles. In her new book, Heartland: An American History, Kristin Hoganson explains, “The heartland myth insists that there is a stone-solid core at the center of the nation.” This is a place that is at once: “Local. Insulated. Exceptionalist. Isolationist. Provincial. The ultimate safe space. Love it or leave it, the heartland lies at the center of national mythology” (xiv-xv).

A professor of History at the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign, Hoganson is well-known for her many books and articles on the history of US foreign relations. (Her first book, Fighting for American Manhood, published in 1998, showed how ideas of race, gender, and citizenship influenced US conduct in the Spanish-American War; it is now regarded as a classic of the new diplomatic history.) After teaching at Harvard and “living in the metro-D.C. area with various stints overseas,” in 1999 Hoganson left Cambridge for Champaign, where she has lived and taught ever since.

These details are important. Hoganson explains in the introduction that she was inspired to write Heartland out of the “discordance between the heartland of myth and the one that stared [her] in the face” when she arrived at Illinois twenty years ago (xxiii). And a grim myth it is. At best, we are told, the heartland of myth is depicted as “buffered and All-American: white, rural, and rooted, full of aging churchgoers, conservative voters, corn, and pigs.” At its worst, it is “the crucible of resistance to the global, the America of America first. Walls might be built on the margins, but the impetus for them putatively comes from here” (xiv).  

As Hoganson readily admits, it is easy to dispel such simplistic readings of the politics and demographics of the “rural Midwest,” which makes me wonder why she repeats them in increasingly dark—yet also vague—terms. (The specter of Trumpism haunts the book’s introduction, but the man himself is never named.) Hoganson’s recounting of her own “realization” that the Midwest was more than its stereotypes is also somewhat odd; that “people in the Corn Belt” go on “Caribbean cruises” and “buy pretty much the same imported products in pretty much the same box stores as people on the coasts” is more evidence of homogenized consumer capitalism than shared cosmopolitanism (xx). 

Fortunately, this awkwardness is absent from the rest of the book, which is both a highly readable popular history and original scholarly contribution. Heartland is not about today’s heartland myth per se—Hoganson disposes of its essentially Cold War origins in the introduction—but what came before it. With her figurative backyard—Champaign County—as both “starting point” and lodestar, Hoganson demonstrates how early Midwesterners saw isolation as death and provincialism a trait to be bred out (xxv). From its settlement in the early 19th century to World War I, the Heartland looked up and out—especially to Britain and its empire. Yet it also looked down, on those its leading citizens deemed inferior at home and around the world—including, eventually, the residents of America’s own overseas empire.

Like the New England colonies before them, the settlement of the American Midwest was achieved through the displacement and erasure of native peoples. Heartland begins with the Kickapoos, an Algonquin people who originally inhabited the area around what became Detroit. In the early 1700s, violence generated by the French fur trade forced most Kickapoos to relocate west and south, namely to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois.

Kickapoo culture’s emphasis on mobility and place—their name translates to “he moves about, standing now here, now there”—made them natural navigators. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries Kickapoos traveled as far as Florida and Texas, by foot, canoe, horse, even (later on) train and steamboat. Engagement with trade, terrain, and technology gave the Kickapoo people an advantage over their pursuers, albeit a temporary one (6). Hoganson describes the failure of two 1791 American “expeditions” against one Kickapoo village in Illinois. The first, led by future Kentucky governor General Charles Scott, made it 135 miles from the Ohio river before giving up, its men exhausted by the “long, laborious march” through swampy wetlands. The second was abandoned when, in attempting to cross a bog, American soldiers’ horses became completely submerged in “morasses” of muck. “Under these circumstances,” the company’s commander wrote, “I was compelled to abandon my designs upon the Kickapoo of the prairie” (10). 

Others, including General Scott, who in the same year led 750 men in a successful massacre of another Kickapoo village, did not. In 1809 the new territories of the Midwest officially launched their own “Indian removal” program, nearly thirty years before Andrew Jackson’s Tail of Tears in the American southeast. The region’s white settlers—hailing from New England, the new states and territories of the Upper Midwest, and across the British Isles and northern Europe—were clearly drawing on colonial precedent when they argued that Native Americans “merely used land without fully possessing it” (14-15). Hoganson persuasively shows how subsequent local histories reified the “pioneers’” property claims post facto. Literally written by the people who owned the place, these stories both turned the Kickapoo and other native peoples into “outsiders” and exaggerated the settlers’ determination to stay put.

While the Heartland’s founding fathers wrote their history in a mindset of “colonial denial,” as Hoganson puts it, post-colonial ties determined the next generation’s success. One of Hoganson’s central arguments is that Midwestern farmers’ dependence on the British Empire for trade effectively made them “from the start agents of empire, if not always directly their own” (124). They were certainly one of the British Empire’s biggest beneficiaries. American farmers imported superior British livestock for improved breeding (more on this soon). Their grain and animals were shipped on British-capitalized railroads like the Illinois Central, at the time of its completion in 1856 the longest railroad in the world. By connecting Chicago with the Gulf of Mexico, the IC also enabled the former’s rise as the center of the American packing industry. When US agricultural goods hit the water, they enjoyed the additional protection of the British merchant marine, gratis

There were more direct connections to empire. Britain’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 increased meat consumption among its growing urban proletariat, creating new market opportunities for American producers. Before long, Midwestern farmers were major pork suppliers to the British Navy. Chicago’s packinghouses provided American salt pork for British troops from the 1868 Abyssinia Campaign to the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion. British colonial markets were also fruitful, especially where there were large numbers of white settlers with the taste and money for meat. Hoganson examines US Treasury Department records to reveal that in 1897 alone the Cape Colony took in more than two million pounds of preserved meats from US producers and an additional 220,000 pounds of salted and canned meat. (Additional destinations on the Treasury’s list included Gibraltar, Canada, the British East Indies, “British possessions in Australasia,” and “British Possessions, all others” (124)). Beginning in 1903 US pork exports entered a ten-year decline, but World War I completely reversed the trend: from 1917 to 1918 the United States provided over half of Britain’s flour and about 80 of its fats and meats. “US grain and pork exports contributed to the Allied victory,” Hoganson concludes,” but also “helped preserve the British Empire,” which rather than contract, expanded after the war’s end (126).

Hoganson is not the first to argue that the Midwest owed its rise in the 19th century to foreign markets and unequal exchanges—she cites influential New Left historian William Appleman Williams, who in the 1950s and 60s made a similar argument about US foreign policy and Latin American markets. But there was more than economic logic at work in American farmers’ relationship with Britain. In fascinating detail, Hoganson describes how in the mid-19th century, a transnational network of aspirational American farmers and aristocratic English breeders developed around the Berkshire pig. A cross between an English and imported Chinese pig, Berkshires were prized for being hungry and efficient—they particularly loved to gorge on corn, one reason why that crop soon replaced wheat in the Midwest. 

By 1870, the Berkshire was the most common hog at the Illinois state fair and provided a major fillip to the US pork and corn industries. But for the Heartland’s new farming and packing elites, investing in Berkshires also meant investing in a particular set of cultural and racial values, in particular white supremacy. In lines “straight out of phrenology books,” publications like the American Swine and Poultry Journal deduced Berkshires’ natural economic value from skull shape and skin color (93). Others predicted that the Berkshire pig would prove “a faithful companion to man in the subjugation of the great west” (95). “They have,” said another Berkshire booster, “followed in the wake of Anglo-Saxon colonization the world over” (95). By the early 1900s, Berkshire pigs could be found at “agricultural experiment stations” across the United States’ growing overseas empire, including the Panama Canal Zone and the Philippines. 

Midwesterners had reason to see their region as an imperial center: from the United States’ founding to World War I, agricultural goods constituted the bulk of American exports. Most farmers were neither protectionists nor free-traders, or they were both: that is, like workers in other industries, they looked at policy through self-interest rather than ideology. What they were not, was isolationist. US farmers agitated for US participation in the ambitious but short-lived International Institute for Agriculture, founded in 1905; earlier, Illinois farmers pushed the state’s Department of Agriculture to adopt their call for a “‘pan-national conference’” to create and implement “‘a systematic plan of [weather] observation and reports’” covering the globe (159). 

It wasn’t just heartland farmers sounding the call to globalism. Hoganson unearths the fascinating careers of Champaign elites like US congressman and senator William McKinley (no relation to the president). The son of a Presbyterian minister, McKinley amassed a fortune in public utilities before taking up politics, serving from 1904-21 in the US House and 1921-25 in the Senate. A Republican and friend of Alice Roosevelt, McKinley was also an enthusiastic member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). Founded in 1889 to advance the cause of international arbitration treaties, the IPU connected free trade to world peace decades before the American and British architects of the Bretton Woods system. In 1911, McKinley brought over a dozen Champaign County residents with him to Rome for the IPU’s global congress, which took up issues including the law of the sea and “the use of aeroplanes during war” (which its members strongly opposed) (138). 

Another influential Champaigner was Eugene Davenport, who as dean of the Illinois Agricultural College (today the University of Illinois) brought in students from fifteen different, nearly all non-European countries to study the latest agricultural techniques—including, remarkably, Rathindranath Tagore, the famed Indian poet’s son. Davenport saw his mission in the spirit of colonial uplift that US authorities were then employing in the Philippines; visiting students were expected to observe the latest technology, absorb the latest knowledge, and then somehow apply both back home to lift their countries into modernity (again anticipating a later, in this time Cold War developmental, discourse). At the same time, like McKinley, Davenport paired his global idealism with naked appeals to Champaign’s self-interest. One gets another whiff of the present when we hear Davenport pitching foreign students as an economic “resource” for local corn and pork barons. That much was true. The Champaign Chamber of Commerce invited students from “Chile, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Cuba, Canada, China, India, Turkey, and several European countries” to speak on marketing strategies and “investment opportunities” in their countries, yielding at least one hot tip: “In 1920, J. J. Mirasol, a graduate student in agronomy from the Philippines, spoke of the small proportion of the land under cultivation and the opportunities that afforded (179).”

I’m not sure that our contemporary “heartland myth” is as dark (or at least rigid) as Hoganson presents it in the introduction and conclusion. Still, this does not diminish the book’s major and important contribution, which is to return empire—including America’s own—to the heart of the heartland’s story. Based on the ambitions of its 19th century settlers, developers, and boosters, it’s likely the one they would have preferred.

As the count of contenders for the Democratic nomination narrows, Klobuchar is hanging on, but barely. Former VP (and Scranton, PA native) Joe Biden still leads among “moderate” Democrats and African-Americans, though their support appears to drop every time he speaks about his personal or legislative history. Instead, the political momentum has clearly been on the left, as senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren forced into the mainstream ideas like Medicare for All and cancelling student debt. It’s also worth noting that Sanders continues to attract the most individual donors, with an average campaign contribution of $18. Even more telling, according to a recent New York Times analysis, among individual donors Sanders “dominates [in] key states won in 2016 by Donald Trump like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan, all of which will be critical to a Democratic electoral college victory in 2020.” 

Perhaps the real heir to the nineteenth century Heartland’s global aspirations is Klobuchar’s fellow centrist, South Bend, IN mayor Pete Buttigieg. Like Klobuchar, Buttigieg believes that Medicare for All, a new wealth tax, and other Sanders/Warren policies are some combination of unaffordable, unwise, or unpopular; however, unlike Klobuchar, the Harvard-educated, former McKinsey consultant is the top choice among residents of “the wealthiest parts of Manhattan.” Driving the point home, Chasten Buttigieg, the Mayor’s husband, recently embarked on a “fundraising tour” of London, Paris, and Geneva; hosted by a McKinsey executive and—wait for it—"the chairman of global distribution and international for NBC Universal,” the trip will conclude with a dinner reception at the home of former (2015-17) U.S. Ambassador to Finland, Charles C. Adams, Jr. A top Obama bundler in 2008 and 2012 through the organization “Americans Abroad for Obama,” Adams, a Geneva-based lawyer, is a longtime specialist in—what else?—international arbitration. Congressman McKinley would be pleased.


Posted on 14 November 2019

MICHAEL FRANCZAK is currently a Chauncey Postdoctoral Fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University, where he is completing a book on American foreign policy and global inequality in the 1970s.