Ohio History Journal

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The Failure of Michael Baldwin: A

Case Study in the Origins of Middle-

Class Culture on the Trans-

Appalachian Frontier


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it became

fashionable to publish massive volumes detailing the histories of in-

dividual Midwestern counties. Very often, these books were the

products of the cooperative efforts of several county residents who

employed a topical rather than a chronological approach to their

subject. With the obvious goal of boosting local pride, the authors

traced the evolution of noteworthy economic, social, and political in-

stitutions. Often, they would also devote a substantial portion of their

histories to short sketches of the lives of prominent local citizens.

Whatever the reason these mini-biographies were originally writ-

ten, they now hold our interest as points of entry into the character

and culture of nineteenth century America. In generally attributing

the success and prominence of some men to their industry, piety,

community service and, especially, to their self-discipline, the

sketches implicitly advocated the idea that success followed from

adherence to well-known standards of behavior and belief. As such,

these biographies exemplify the hegemony exercised by what David

Brion Davis has called the "'official' middle-class culture" of Victo-

rian America. They affirmed the importance of "respectable" be-

havior and belief in achieving fame and fortune in an increasingly

complex world. The implication was that people who were materially

and professionally unsuccessful would find the source of their failings

within their private characters. Indeed, the county histories some-

times explicitly defined people who defied or deviated from accept-

able norms as, in Davis' words, "aliens, outsiders, and degener-




Andrew R. L. Cayton is Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University.


1. David Brion Davis, ed., Antebellum American Culture (Lexington, Mass., 1979),