According to the modern right wing, those self-described ‘conservatives,’ America was made great by rugged individuals unimpeded by government and acting entirely on their own.
That, of course, is untrue, but revising history to a more palatable version of how things happened in the past is a growth industry among the modern right wing. Led by ‘historian’ David Barton, the movement to lie about great swaths of U.S. history has been gaining steam over the past several years. Barton, a self-described expert in historical and constitutional issues, is, of course, nothing of the kind. His academic degree is in Christian education from Oral Roberts University, which probably would not qualify him as an educator, much less a historian.
In reality, the history of the U.S. is the history of cooperative ventures on the part of individuals who banded together for various reasons, and heavy reliance on government services and protection.
Here in Illinois, early settlers relied on government guarantees to provide military protection, lay out roads, establish post offices, and administer the law. The settlers themselves created cooperative organizations starting almost as soon as they arrived in order to protect their livestock and their real estate. The government was responsible for purchasing land in the Fox Valley from the native people who lived here, and then became responsible for surveying it and selling it to settlers.
But because settlers arrive before the land was surveyed, they relied on extra-legal land claims. Because they had improved the land by plowing, fencing, and building structures on it, it was actually worth considerably more than the government land office sale price of $1.25 per acre when it was eventually put up for sale by the government. That opened the door to land speculators who would attempt to purchase land previously claimed and improved. They would then either attempt to sell it back to the family already occupying it or to another purchaser for many times what they’d paid the land office.
Enter the claim societies and associations, cooperative organizations of settlers who would deputize particularly trustworthy settlers to travel to the land office in Chicago and purchase the land. Then it would be divided among the claim society members so that the pioneers who had already improved it would get the profit from their work. As the deputized representatives purchased the land, a sturdy group of claim society members stood watch outside the land office door making sure no speculators could get inside to spoil the sale. The process is why when studying Kendall County’s old land records you find such a flurry of land transactions in 1842. That year, land in many of the county’s townships north of the Indian Boundary Line was put up for sale. After the land buys were completed the authorized purchasers came back to Kendall County where the land was officially and legally divided up among it’s actual purchasers, and all the transactions recorded at the courthouse in Yorkville.
Cooperatives weren’t just for pioneers, of course. A variety of cooperative organizations were established for other purposes. With the national economic collapse called the Panic of 1873 (nicknamed the Long Depression) farmers joined together to fight monopolies created by the Gilded Age robber barons so beloved by the modern right wing. Lodges of the Patrons of Husbandry—nicknamed the Grange—popped up all over Kendall County with the aim of cooperatively fighting big business. Farmers also joined cooperatively to establish their own businesses in direct competition with private businesses.
Farmer-owned creameries were established in Oswego and in NaAuSay Township to compete with private creameries that farmers felt were gouging them. In Oswego, the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association bought the old Danforth cooper shop in 1891 and turned it into the Alliance Creamery to compete with C.S. Kilbourne’s Fox River Butter Company.
And in 1924 when the Fox & Illinois Union Electric Railway went bankrupt, a farmers’ cooperative was formed to purchase the line and keep it running for several more years in order to service the string of grain elevators and lumber and coal yards along it from Yorkville to Morris.
Right winters gave Hillary Clinton a lot of grief some years ago when she quoted the old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. But when we were kids, the village really did help raise us–and I don’t think you could find a more conservative small-town populace than that of Kendall County in the 1950s. One of the reasons we had fewer problems with delinquent youth back in that time was because everybody in town knew everybody else, and adults were not shy of not only speaking sternly to misbehaving youth, but of calling their parents to report whatever activity was frowned upon.
It’s this modern disdain of social cooperation while constantly pushing the story that the nation’s success due to fictional rugged individualism is what separates the modern right wing from true conservatives. “Christian educator” Barton and his ilk are working hard to rewrite the nation’s history in favor of a new version that celebrates the “YoYo,” or “You’re On Your Own,” version of U.S. history. That’s not only a misinterpretation of the nation’s history, but in Barton’s case at least, it’s a lie.
Looking for more Kendall County history? Go to their web site to see my weekly Reflections column in the Ledger-Sentinel.