On Yankees and Damn Yankees

Welcome to North of Boston. Glad you could join us.

For those of you who are from away, I thought I’d put together this little primer to answer the question, “What makes a Yankee a damn Yankee?”

A Yankee is someone who lives north of the Old South and east of the Midwest. But those are just points on a map. A damn Yankee is a pure, unreconstructed New Englander. You’re not going to find him on the Amtrak commuting from Greenwich to Manhattan. He doesn’t pahk his cah in Hahvahd Yahd much these days. We’re not welcome in those parts no more.

Most history teachers like to draw a neat line between the liberal North and the conservative South. Actually, not a few conservatives like to do the same. But, like everything you learned in school, that’s all hogwash.

Before the Industrial Revolution got into full swing, the Northern economy was dominated by small family farms. It was only the South, with its slave-based economy, that was able to run those massive plantations. And the owners of those plantations tended to be self-consciously urbane and progressive. Think of Thomas Jefferson, with his splendid neoclassical Monticello and his penchant for French radicals.

Those Southerners saw the North as puritanical rubes, all huddled together in our little saltboxes, helplessly clinging to Mother England. Which, in fairness, we were.

So, curiously enough, much of what we associate with the Southern tradition—the yeoman farmer, rugged individualism, fear of Big Government, hatred of Big Business—are really Northern traditions. And, for the better part of four centuries, damn Yankees across New England have kept that flame alive.

But it’s not just about politics. It’s the whole Yankee thing. It’s the Puritans and the Transcendentalists. It’s the sea chanties and the fireside poets. It’s the endless, frozen woods and the jagged Atlantic coast. It’s the weathered, grumpy old-timers won’t make small talk if you pay them, but who’d give a kidney to a stranger if he asked.

Damn Yankees know what Christ meant when He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But they also know what Robert Frost meant when he said, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Here in New England, we’ve always sought to find harmony between independence and community, between freedom and duty. Because neither can exist without the other.

But don’t take my word for it. When the Arbella set out for the New World in 1630, its leader, John Winthrop, vowed to raise up New England as “a model of Christian charity”:

“As in this duty of love, we must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.”

For the last 400 years, that has been the heart of what it means to be a damn Yankee. In the words of John Adams—the father of American conservatism and perhaps the damndest Yankee of all—”I could express my Faith in shorter terms. He who loves the Workman and his Work, and does what he can to preserve and improve it, shall be accepted of him.”

Speaking of Robert Frost, that’s him in the photo at the top of this post. He’s a fellow expat from Massachusetts to New Hampshire. The blog’s name is cribbed his second book of poetry. Frost is, to my mind, the archetype of the damn Yankee. He’ll be a kind of patron saint for this blog. And so I can do no better than to close this first post with his words:

Well, if I have to choose one or the other
I choose to be a plain New Hampshire farmer.

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