Another cliché of the cowboy movies also had an element of historical truth. As more women moved west, they worked to end the lifestyle of brawling, boozing and whoring they found there, joining forces with the officials in charge of the rowdy settlements. They found a natural ally in the church, with its co-ed membership, norms of temperance and Sunday morning discipline. By the time the government consolidated its control over the West (and recall that the “closing of the frontier,” marking the end of American anarchy, took place just more than a century ago), the norms of self-defense through masculine honor, and the restraint of ruffianism by women and church, had taken root.

But then why, once stable government did arrive, did it not lay claim to the monopoly on violence that is the very definition of government? The historian Pieter Spierenburg has suggested that “democracy came too soon to America,” namely, before the government had disarmed its citizens. Since American governance was more or less democratic from the start, the people could choose not to cede to it the safeguarding of their personal safety but to keep it as their prerogative. The unhappy result of this vigilante justice is that American homicide rates are far higher than those of Europe, and those of the South higher than those of the North.

If this history is right, the American political divide may have arisen not so much from different conceptions of human nature as from differences in how best to tame it. The North and coasts are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that emerged in the anarchic territories of the growing country, tempered by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.