2011 is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, an era in which St. Louis had grandiose ideas for itself. A just-published book, The Great Heart of the Republic, looks at the role St. Louis played in the cultural conflicts of those tumultuous times. And, if you read between the lines, there are lessons—and conflicts—that still apply today, as St. Louis continues its quest for recognition, redemption and advancement in the constellation of American cities
Historian Adam Arenson’s account of St. Louis’ late-19th Century civic struggles flows more like a novel than what one might expect from such a deeply researched, academic investigation. His straightforward writing style pulls you along, immersing you in the political wrangling of the times and introducing you to information that explodes some of St. Louis’ favorite historical myths.
It all starts with the Great Fire of 1849. Rather than a tragedy for the city, it was, in Arenson’s account, the spark that—as the city was rebuilt—transformed a French fur-trading hub into a potential commercial powerhouse on the doorstep of the vast Western territories.
It’s Arenson’s focus on that Western connection that sets apart his view of St. Louis and the Civil War. He shows us a St. Louis—and an America—that were not just in conflict over slavery vs. abolition, but also in contention over the future of everything west of the Mississippi. In Arenson’s view, that third aspect of the cultural civil war is often overlooked.
Arenson’s book is absorbing and refreshingly short—an easily digestible 222 pages, not counting the extensive and fascinating bibliography. If understanding history is a way to help us avoid repeating it, the book offers more than just a new and intriguing prism through which to view St. Louis’ past: It’s also a guidebook to the future. Here are a few civic-development lessons that I took away from The Great Heart of the Republic:
Transform a crisis into an opportunity
The Great Fire of 1849 could have wiped St. Louis off the map, but it didn’t, because city leaders and citizens didn’t let that happen. I certainly don’t wish for a similar disaster to spur St. Louis into action. But somewhere in Arenson’s dramatic account of the fire, I think there’s a metaphor. Is it that much of a stretch to say that the City of St. Louis is in an existential crisis in 2011? The public schools are failing. Downtown is devolving into a hollowed-out core, as businesses go elsewhere. We can view the situation as hopeless, or we can see it as an opportunity for sweeping innovation and rebirth, as city leaders did in 1849. The parallels aren’t perfect, I know. But the lesson is there, and to move forward St. Louis needs to…
One of the surprises [for me] in Arenson’s book is the fascinating story of how several prominent local citizens tried to get the Capital of the United States moved to St. Louis in the 1870s. Apparently, people in the late 19th Century were not afraid to propose “crackpot” ideas and be taken seriously. In those heady times of the emerging industrial revolution and Manifest Destiny mania, people thought anything was possible. The leaders of the “capital removal” project made some excellent arguments, earned a measure of credibility, and got national attention. Okay, so ultimately, they failed. But the effort showed creativity and the willingness to take a risk. Lesson taken: Contemporary St. Louisans need to take a self-esteem pill and think bigger. The effort to win the hosting contest for the 2012 Democratic convention is a positive example [even if the convention itself will inevitably be a meaningless exercise in political theatre.]. But I digress.
Some of the teachable moments in Arenson’s book derive from bad decisions. One of the worst, with implications still felt in St. Louis, came from politicians’ inability [or unwillingness] to…
If you haven’t heard of the Great Divorce of 1876, you haven’t lived in St. Louis—or at least not for very long. In The Great Heart of the Republic, Arenson shows how and why, in 1876, St. Louis civic leaders circled the wagons around the known world of the existing city and seceded from the perceived burdens of supporting farmers and their cows and pigs and cornfields in the rest of what was then St. Louis County. Many also viewed the notion of Forest Park, at the western end of the city, as a waste of money and developable land. Their lack of imagination is particularly stunning because of the ultimate irony of closing off the city from neighboring tracts of land: At the same time that city leaders were touting St. Louis as the gateway to the vast Western territories that stretched to California—and looking for ways to exploit those possibilities and the accompanying riches—they turned their backs on their own western frontier!
The reversal of fortune resulting from their decision has been dramatic, as St. Louis County has prospered, while the City [which became its own county in the divorce] has suffered. Understandably, city leaders probably couldn’t have predicted the impact that cars would have on life in a metropolitan area. But the lesson endures. And as St. Louis movers and shakers kick around—for the umpteenth time in the 20th and 21st Centuries—the concept of rejoining the suburbs with the city, some imaginative, big-picture, non-parochial ideas could be very helpful in shaping a better future. [Two of which are not, in my opinion, represented by billionaire Rex Sinquefield’s selfish, ideological, unfair plans to eliminate the City earnings tax and to replace Missouri’s state income tax with a flat sales tax.]
Just read it
I’m fairly sure that Arenson didn’t write his book as a cautionary tale for contemporary metropolitan leaders. And there’s much more in it than I’m talking about here. Some of what he documents may surprise people who learned their St. Louis history from conventional sources. Even some Civil War aficionados may find something new to ponder. Without spoiling the story, I’ll simply mention that in Arenson’s view—contrary to local lore—the Eads Bridge over the Mississippi was not the most important bridge in St. Louis’ railroad and economic history. That story is a dramatic highlight in the book. But it’s a story that I recommend you read for yourself.