When my mother attended our town’s public high school, a long enough time ago, everyone had to take a course in Pennsylvania history. The first time I heard her say so, I knitted my brows and wondered what that could possibly be, and why anybody might think it so important. I knew, besides, that the high school offered a real mélange when it came to covering basic fields of cultural, scientific, and mathematical knowledge. They offered four years of Latin, with the usual progression from the basics to Caesar, then to Cicero, and finally to Virgil. My mother took three years of Latin; she told me she liked Caesar best. But their coverage of English literature was spotty, certainly no more thorough than what you will typically find now, though doubtless more intelligent and less bound to political grandstanding and haranguing.
And there was Pennsylvania history. It appears that such a separate course is offered here and there in Pennsylvania schools, though the state Department of Education does not require it. The department folds Pennsylvania history into the history of the United States, so that you might fulfill its demands if you glance now and then at events and movements in American history that took place in Pennsylvania, such as Penn’s treaty with the Indians, the first oil well drilled near Titusville, and the Battle of Gettysburg.
But I’ve come to see that the old view was healthier than mine. I believe so for two reasons. The first is that history, uprooted from a strong sense of place, tends to dry up and fray and turn to dust; then it is replaced by ideology, with its dreary and predictable plots, and its tendency toward disembodied madness. But when you return to places, you must address the practical needs of people struggling to live from one spring to the next, with all the specific opportunities the land offers and the challenges it poses; and under the heading of “land,” we must include the climate or environs, meteorological, animal, and human. Then do the questions arise. The Ohio River is navigable along its entire course, from its mouth at the Mississippi to the confluence of its initial tributaries at Pittsburgh. How could the bright new United States remain independent for long, if that waterway were in the control of a still hostile Britain? How could eastern Pennsylvania be safe, if western Pennsylvania were not?
The British, too, did not scruple to ally with the Indian tribes along the Great Lakes, to halt the westward press of American settlers. The interests of the Indians were not of the same kind as were those of the Americans: hunters and trappers are not large-scale farmers and manufacturers. That led inevitably to war, and so George Washington sent one of Pennsylvania’s favorite sons, “Mad” Anthony Wayne, to lead the American army against the alliance, which he all but obliterated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, on August 20, 1794, in northwestern Ohio. Wayne pressed on—establishing Fort Wayne in what is now Indiana and opening up the northwest.
Early Americans grasped the importance of the battle and its aftermath, as we gather from places they named in honor of Wayne and his officers, especially around the Great Lakes. Detroit is the seat of Wayne County, in Michigan. Waynesburg, south of Pittsburgh, is the seat of Greene County, in Pennsylvania, named after Nathanael Greene, another hot-tempered friend of Washington, but unlike Anthony Wayne, a brilliant tactician, too. There’s a Wayne County along Lake Ontario in New York, a Wayne County in Indiana, Wayne counties in other states, and one in northeastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. If you penetrate the innards of Detroit, you may happen on the city of Hamtramck, named for Jean-Francois Hamtramck, one of Wayne’s lieutenant colonels, a Canadian who regularly and ably fought on the American side. You will find Clark Counties in about a dozen states, named for then Lieutenant William Clark, all of 24 years old when he served with Wayne at Fallen Timbers; it was he and his fellow explorer, Meriwether Lewis, who set out on the famous expedition to map the lands and the passages of the great northwest, from St. Louis all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
That vast continent west of Pennsylvania included some of the richest farmland on earth. It was blessed also with more fresh water than you can find in any area of similar size, anywhere in the world. Its mighty rivers were navigable for hundreds, even thousands of miles. I understand why “manifest destiny” is considered a dreadful idea, soaked in blood, justifying one act of governmental treachery after another in American treatment of native Indians. But it was also something other than an idea. It was a recognition of the inevitable. You have land, deep with black soil, that could feed many millions of people—billions, now; and most of it was not tilled. You have navigable rivers, with no ships upon them, ships that might carry food, lumber, iron ore, and other commodities to ports all across the United States and far beyond. Why should those rivers remain without commerce?
People do not sit still. If a field can be tilled, and if someone has the tools to till it, and the mouths to feed with its produce, that field is going to be tilled. How it happens, of course, is another matter. There you can find much to praise and to blame. If you have a mature mind, you will understand that; but the mind of the ideologue is not mature. It is a brat’s mind, hasty and proud and unappeasable, but also slovenly and irresponsible.
Mad Anthony Wayne is a fit object for praise and blame. Washington needed Wayne’s madness once in a while, and it is hard to imagine a couple of the most decisive battles of the Revolutionary War without him. But Wayne had a fiery temper, he owned slaves, he estranged his wife; he and Washington’s dear friend and fellow soldier, the Marquis de Lafayette, could hardly endure each other. We honor Wayne for the benefits he conferred upon his nation; and whether he has since enjoyed the mercy of God, or he lies among fallen timbers in the realm below, is not ours to say.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania continued to grow, the German-speaking Amish and Mennonites farming the rolling hills of the Piedmont, while others, immigrants from Scotland, Wales, and Germany, began to hew the coal-rich mountains and tunnel in the earth; and they dug canals for the coal barges and laid down the railroads. One of those was the famous Gravity Railroad that took the coal from my county across a ridge of mountains to a tributary of the Delaware River, whence the goods would be floated along a canal to the Hudson and from there they would arrive in New York City. That’s why there is a Gravity Street in my town and in several of the towns nearby. And because there was coal and a way to transport it, there would be steel; and for a long time, Pennsylvania was the steelmaker to the world. That meant plenty of jobs, so a wave of immigrants arrived from the dry and dusty and poverty-stricken mountains of southern Italy; among them were my grandparents.
Which brings me to the second reason why the study of your home state is not a foolish thing. It instructs you in the pieties. You should love your family. You should have a special attachment, a feeling in your blood, for the place where you grew up, with all its beauties, its quirks, and its faults. You should be proud of your state, or at least of what your state was, when it was really a state and not just a provincial appendage of the national government.
I don’t believe people who say that they love mankind. Who or what is this “mankind”? Where is it to be found? People—those I do see; but “mankind” I can neither see with my eye nor take by the hand. It exists; I can grasp it in the mind; but it is all too easy for people to express their love for it while they despise their next-door neighbors. I don’t have any allegiance to “the globe.” Why should I? I do understand that we must not foul the earth and the air and the waters, or kill off everything that lives, but those are moral prohibitions rather than incitements to love.
Our love of America, then, may rise or fall accordingly as we love the nearer places, the more homely things. Hence, Pennsylvania history. But hence also the imperative that there continue to be a Pennsylvania with a history; that states and towns and schools and neighborhoods not be reduced to functions of an all-invading and all-assimilating national government. And that is another matter.