“Prairie Repubic: The Political Cuture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889”
Author: Jon K. Lauck
Publisher: Norlights Press, Nasville, Ind.
Perhaps one of the most dangerous contributions brought to us by the information age is the increased adherence to conventional wisdom. Indeed, the overabundance of information on any given subject, and our pure inability to thoughtfully synthesize it all, has created this paradox—but from time to time, something comes along that’s worth slowing down for so that we may reframe our view and break through the conventional wisdom-supporting clutter. Jon Lauck’s new book, “Prairie Republic:
The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879–1889,” is one such artifact.
“Prairie Republic” takes us through lessons of emigration and immigration to the Dakota Territory, the resulting diversity of religion and the conflicts it presented, and the strong and abiding faith in the land held by the territory homesteaders. All of these factors, we learn, had a profound impact on the drive for statehood and the collective faith in civic republicanism.
Today’s elected officials and political chattering class would be well served to adopt the brand of civic republicanism described throughout this book. Lauck describes this philosophy as one that favored local political control and liberty over federally appointed governors, one that saw the potential for corruption in government and business alike, and one that celebrated public education and a strong work ethic amongst its citizens. Likewise, today’s body politic could learn a thing or two from the Dakota Territory residents who were engaged civically in their communities and shouldered the responsibility of building a healthy society.
As a current student at a graduate school of public affairs and a former congressional staffer and lobbyist, I couldn’t help but compare many of the themes found in “Prairie Republic” with our current state of political discourse. Americans today expect less out of our elected officials than ever before. At the same time they see more potential for corruption and excess out of corporations. What’s most disheartening, though, is the lack of action on the part of the populous. Dakota Territory settlers and homesteaders held many of the same reservations with regard to these institutions. Their solution was to grab hold of their American birthright and attain self-governance. Thanks to their work, we hold that power today—yet it’s incumbent upon each one of us to exercise it.
Lauck gives us a thoroughly scholarly and easy-to-grasp retelling of the story of the American West in which republican idealism and civic virtue won the day over gunplay and landgrabs. Each generation finds a new frontier to tame, and it’s up to them to decide which approach to take in accomplishing that feat. I sincerely hope more of my contemporaries pick up a copy of, and adopt the Dakota Territory’s civic republican ethos as presented in, Lauck’s “Prairie Republic.”