Analysis: Is Howard Dean a modern Puritan?

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  Oct. 16, 2003 at 3:43 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 16 (UPI) -- Is Howard Dean of Vermont, the current frontrunner for the Democrat Party presidential nomination, a 21st-century version of the New England Puritan? According to historian David Hackett Fischer, cultural patterns laid down by different groups of British settlers before 1776 explain much about the extent and limits of Dean's appeal.

According to Fischer, a Brandeis University professor who is the author of the landmark 1989 book, "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America," Dean has positioned himself as a "classic New England candidate who closely fits the cultural framework that evolved out of 17th-century Puritanism."

Fischer noted in a telephone interview from his home in Massachusetts that Dean's followers admire him for what they see as "a very strong moral impulse, an intellectual quality that sets him apart from the others, and a particular quality of striving." These are all traits associated with the old New England WASP culture, Fischer told United Press International.

Commenting on Dean's opposition to President Bush's pre-emptive attack on Iraq, Fischer said, "New Englanders are apt to make very strong moral judgments on just versus unjust wars. New Englanders haven't had an anti-war tradition in general. They strongly supported the Revolution, the Civil War and WWII. Yet, they were also the strongest center of opposition to the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War and Vietnam."

Fischer contended that the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emptive war on Iraq was foreign to New England's traditional self-image. "It's very important to New Englanders not to fire the first shot," he said.

Over the last three centuries, New Englanders migrated west along the northern tier of the United States, where much of Dean's support resides. Some of the more liberal parts of the country, such as Minnesota, Oregon's Puget Sound and the San Francisco Bay area were colonized by New Englanders, who established cultural templates that persist today, even among other ethnic groups now living in those regions.

Most of the United States, however, was settled first by other kinds of British settlers, which poses questions about how Dean's brisk personality and moralistic foreign policy will go over in the rest of the nation.

"If nominated, will Dean be able to reach into other regional cultures?" Fisher mused. "New England has been home to many presidents, not many of them recently." The last president to be both a Yankee and a resident of a New England state was Dean's fellow Vermonter, the curt Calvin Coolidge.

The Democrats have lost each of the last four times they nominated someone from the Puritan-influenced northern tier of states: Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale from Minnesota, George McGovern from South Dakota and Michael Dukakis from Massachusetts.

By birth and recent ancestry, Howard Brush Dean III is actually a New York Yankee, rather than a New England one. One of his supporters, who knew him as a youth when they both would summer at the Maidstone Club on the eastern end of Long Island, told UPI, "By Hamptons standards, the Deans were not rich. No safaris in Africa or chalets in Switzerland. Howard's father went to work every day. He didn't own a company, or have a father or grandfather who founded one, as mine did."

There's an urban legend that one of Dean's ancestors started the famous old brokerage house of Dean Witter, now part of Morgan Stanley, but that firm was actually founded by a man named Dean Witter. The confusion is understandable, however, because the candidate's father was an executive at Dean Witter.

Just as Dean was a Park Avenue New Yorker who found he fit in well in Vermont, the cultural distinctions between the New England and the New York WASP elites are not that distinct. In the 19th century, many ambitious New England lads moved south from their rocky farms to the booming metropolis, where they often joined the Episcopal Church.

The New York WASPs typically looked to New England for the education of their scions. Dean attended St. George's School in Newport, R.I., and Yale in Connecticut.

In the 1970s, Dean briefly became the fourth generation of Deans to sell stocks on Wall Street, but quit to become a doctor. After he moved to Vermont to practice medicine, he switched from the Episcopal Church in which he was raised to Congregationalism, which is the most direct denominational descendent of the Puritans who immigrated in 1630.

How would Dean's New England brusqueness compare in popularity to George W. Bush's folksiness? "No predictions," laughed Fischer. "As a historian, I have problems enough with the past."

He observed, though, "Presidents who find it easiest to move over regional lines have backcountry ties, like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It's no accident we have more presidents of Southern Highlander background than any other."

"The family tree of George W. Bush is as close to pure Yankee Puritan as any presidential candidate's in many decades, but Bush has mastered the idioms of the backcountry culture he grew up in down in Midland, Texas," Fischer noted. "His subsequent education at Andover and Yale didn't seem to much effect his down-home manner."

This "Scotch-Irish" style of speech and behavior, brought to the Appalachian highlands by tough Protestant pioneers from the Scottish-English border region and Northern Ireland, spread westward across the mid-southern latitudes of the United States. It can now be found in country music hotbeds like Nashville, the Texas Panhandle, and Bakersfield, Calif. "There's something about that style that appeals well to other regions," noted Fischer.

In contrast to Dean's New England choosiness about war making, Bush's martial pugnacity is characteristic of what Fischer calls the "warrior culture" of the Southern Highlanders, from Andrew Jackson onward.

It could make for an interesting election in 2004.

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