Yankee ingenuity is a stereotype of inventiveness, technical solutions to practical problems, "know-how," self-reliance and individual enterprise associated with the Yankees who originated in New England and developed much of the industrial revolution in the United States after 1800. The stereotype first appeared in the 19th century. As Mitchell Wilson notes, "Yankee ingenuity and Yankee git-up-and-go did not exist in colonial days."
Yankee ingenuity characterizes an attitude of make-do with materials on hand. It is inventive improvisation, adaptation and overcoming of shortages of materials.
The term was common worldwide in the wake of World War II, as American forces employed engineering solutions to military problems. Doug Stewart notes of the jeep: "the spartan, cramped, and unstintingly functional jeep became the ubiquitous World War II four-wheeled personification of Yankee ingenuity and cocky, can-do determination." Today it refers broadly to a typically American pragmatic approach to problem solving instead of traditional methods.
In the original plan for cutting the canal, owners of the land to be crossed were required to be involved in a complicated process involving cooperation with individuals who didn't know the lay of the land and who were often not present. In this wild, undeveloped place, legal responsibilities for construction were imposed upon involved property owners. Citified strangers enforced the contract. Fines were frequently levied. There was a timetable that seemed unbelievably inadequate. In the first year of construction came the realization: The contractors had a total mess on their hands. Very little had been accomplished. The land was far more rugged than had been realized. Work stopped for the winter.
As soon as work could begin in the spring the property owners took matters into their own hands. Funding had been appropriated. Instead of waiting for the engineers and work crews to arrive from Albany, the farmers put their animals and sons to work. If there was an unmovable object, they plowed around it. They went around, not through, hills and precipices, always returning to the general routing. Changing the course of the canal was a good idea to the pragmatists who knew the land. The work was done with zeal, for all citizens realized the canal would bring great prosperity to the area. Neighbors whose land was not crossed came to help. Hardscrabble land would become valuable. Opportunities to make money would be unlimited.
It was not unusual for a government work crew to arrive, tired from the journey, to find a completed section filling with water from the spring runoff. Of course, as work progressed many reports were filed by many people. In one report one individual described the work of the maverick farmers as "Yankee ingenuity". The coinage went into immediate, widespread use as it captured so well the reality of life in the rural areas. The farmers were admired; elevated as fine examples of how Americans would cooperate with each other but brook no interference from each other either.
- Eugene S. Ferguson, "On the Origin and Development of American Mechanical 'know-how'", American Studies 3.2 (1962): 3-16. online
- quoted in Reynold M. Wik, "Some interpretations of the mechanization of agriculture in the Far West." Agricultural History (1975): 73-83. in JSTOR
- Doug Stewart, "Hail to the jeep! Could we have won without it?" Smithsonian (1992) 23#8 pp 60-69