American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
by Colin Woodard
I reviewed this book 4-5 years ago, but in this unusual and contentious 2016 election cycle, I thought it warranted revisiting.
Why is the United States of America such a fractious and divided nation? Woodard claims it is because we are not one nation, one culture, but a federation of ten different regional cultures. (The eleventh nation is the relatively new First Nation in Canada. While he occasional references Canada, the book is primarily about the US.)
The problem goes back to the early European settlements in North America, which were begun by several different countries – Spain, France, Holland and Britain – in widely separated areas and at different times in history. He bases his sociological ideas on the doctrine of “first viable settlement” which posits that the culture of a region takes on the characteristics of the first group to establish a self-perpetuating society, no matter how small the original group had been.
His regional American cultures are, in order of settlement:
El Norte (on both sides of the present American-Mexican border)
New France (Quebec and Southern Louisiana)
Tidewater (Virginia, Maryland and part of Delaware)
Yankeedom (New England plus areas later settled by Yankees)
New Netherland (NYC and northern New Jersey
The Deep South (North Carolina to east Texas)
The Midlands (Pennsylvania and parts of the Midwest)
Greater Appalachia (the “Borderlanders” from the Blue Ridge on westward into Texas)
The Left Coast (Washington, Oregon and Northern California)
The Far West
On his map* Canada is also shown having regional cultures from The Left Coast of BC to the Yankee-influenced Maritimes, though Woodard talks most about Quebec (New France) and First Nation.
There is a lot of information in this book, more than I can explain in a review, but it’s quite readable, and I found it interesting and persuasive. For one thing, his regional culture theory explains why parts of the country are the way they are and why they cause so much amusement and/or consternation in the rest of the country. Most importantly, he goes into what each culture values in terms of the balance of freedom and order, individual rights versus communal needs. And it explains why it is so hard for us to find a compromise position on much of anything. If there is one overriding theme, it is the historical struggle between Yankeedom and the Deep South, both aided by shifting alliances with the other regions, for control of the nation, which culminated in the Civil War but still goes on today.
Some of this was familiar territory, as Woodard builds on earlier works like David Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, which I read and enjoyed years ago. But I learned some new things as well, for instance, the reasons for the (to me) odd combination of Libertarianism and Corporatism found in the Far West. (Basically, the climate and geography of the region were too rugged for individuals to truly succeed on their own. Corporate and government intervention was required to make the land livable.)
As a history nut, I found the book both fascinating and insightful. The one time the nation really came together as one was during World War II, but even there, reasons for supporting the war varied. I think this passage is very telling:
Borderlanders fought for the traditional Scots-Irish reason: to avenge an attack by defeating their enemies on the field of battle. The Tidewater and Deep Southern elite… wished to uphold U.S. “national” honor and to defend their Anglo-Norman brethren across the sea. Pacifist Midlanders backed the war as a struggle against military despotism, while Yankees, New Netherlanders, and Left Coasters emphasized the anti-authoritarian aspect of the struggle. Residents of El Norte and the Far West embraced a war that showered their long-neglected regions with federal largesse.
What a war, something for everyone!
I had wondered if our present culture wars were mostly a generational problem that would go away once the Baby Boomers died off. After all, we are a generation of Happy Warriors. But it appears the problem is of much longer standing. Woodard offers no solution to the problem, for there is no easy answer here, even acknowledging that the breakup of the country is not unthinkable. A greater understanding of our differences could help, especially if we can recognize that those who don’t agree with us are not necessarily idiots or scoundrels, only people with differing values and beliefs. The trick is finding ways to compromise on policy without compromising principles.
In any case, Woodard urges an open and honest political debate, concluding with: “The United States needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently because it’s one of the few things binding us together.” Unfortunately, that is not working optimally, as we’ve seen in the argument over whether or not the president should nominate someone to fill Justice Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. Our federal government is currently as dysfunctional as I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve been around for a while!
Woodard has a new book released yesterday: American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good, which apparently continues the discussion. I’ll probably break down and buy it, despite the $14.99 price tag for the e-book.
* Map Photo by Sean Wilkinson, Sean Wilkinson Design, can be better viewed on the Washington Monthly website where Woodard wrote an article or at the author’s website.