A lively history of the Ohio River region in the years between the Revolution and the Civil War.
McCullough (The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, 2015, etc.) isn’t writing about the sodbusters and hardscrabblers of the Far West, the people whom the word “pioneers” evokes, but instead their predecessors of generations past who crossed the Appalachians and settled in the fertile country along and north of the Ohio River. Manasseh Cutler, one of his principal figures, “endowed with boundless intellectual curiosity,” anticipated the movement of his compatriots across the mountains well before the war had ended, advocating for the Northwest Ordinance to secure a region that, in McCullough’s words, “was designed to guarantee what would one day be known as the American way of life”—a place in which slavery was forbidden and public education and religious freedom would be emphasized. “Ohio fever” spread throughout a New England crippled, after the war, by economic depression, but Southerners also moved west, fomenting the conditions that would, at the end of McCullough’s vivid narrative, end in regional war three generations later. Characteristically, the author suggests major historical themes without ever arguing them as such. For example, he acknowledges the iniquities of the slave economy simply by contrasting the conditions along the Ohio between the backwaters of Kentucky and the sprightly city of Cincinnati, speaking through such figures as Charles Dickens. Indeed, his narrative abounds with well-recognized figures in American history—John Quincy Adams, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Johnny Appleseed—while highlighting lesser-known players. His account of Aaron Burr—who conspired to overthrow the government of Mexico (and, later, his own country) after killing Alexander Hamilton, recruiting confederates in the Ohio River country—is alone worth the price of admission. There are many other fine moments, as well, including a brief account of the generosity that one farmer in Marietta, Ohio, showed to his starving neighbors and another charting the fortunes of the early Whigs in opposing the “anti-intellectual attitude of the Andrew Jackson administration.”
Vintage McCullough and a book that students of American history will find captivating.