According to award-winning journalist and historian Colin Woodard, North America is made up of eleven distinct nations, each with its own unique historical roots. In American Nations he takes readers on a journey through the history of our fractured continent, offering a revolutionary and revelatory take on American identity, and how the conflicts between them have shaped our past and continue to mold our future. From the Deep South to the Far West, to Yankeedom to El Norte, Woodard reveals how each region continues to uphold its distinguishing ideals and identities today, with results that can be seen in the composition of the U.S. Congress or on the county-by-county election maps of presidential elections.
He posits these 11 "nations" to be Yankeedom, New Netherlands, The Midlands, Tidewater, the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, New France, The First Nation, the Far West, El Norte, and the Left Coast. For each, he introduces us to the earliest members, traces their original settlement and the subsequent expansions to other areas of the continent, their expectations, educational levels, governing style, religious and cultural influences from the "Old Country", and analyzes their influence on key historical events of the North American development from elected officials, wars, and legislative achievements to looking at the current political gridlock occuring in the US.
His insights are exceptionally provacative and give the average reader pause to re-examine what we have been taught. For example ....
In the end, The U.S. Constitution was the product of a messy compromise among the rival nations. From the gentry of Tidewater and the Deep South, we received a strong president to be selected by an "electoral college" rather than elected by ordinary people. From New Netherland we received the Bill of Rights, a set of very Dutch guarantees that individuals would have freedom of conscience, speech, religion, and assembly. To the Midlands we owe the fact that we do not have a strong unitary state under a British-style national Parliament; they insisted on state sovereignty as insurance against Southern despots and Yankee meddling. The Yankees ensured that small states would have an equal say in the Senate, with even the very populous state of Massachusetts frustrating Tidewater and the Deep South's desire for proportional representation in that chamber; Yankees also forced a compromise whereby slave lords would be able to count only three-fifths of their slave population when tabulating how many congressmen they would receive. pg. 148
It's a profound book that is not a quick read; neither is it a plodding read. He often offers us "What ifs?" that introduce stunning possibilities e.g., if South Carolina hadn't fired on Ft Sumter, the Union might have been able to negotiate a settlement, and eventually the many nations would have re-aligned themselves into several --up to four--separate confederations, or ended forming a collaboration somewhat akin to today's European Union. To supplement several well-drawn and clearly notated maps, Woodard's style is enjoyable, clear and concise. He gives us an especially thoughtful look at the role the Canadians and northern Mexicans have played (and continue to play) in the culture and politics of the US. He poses questions, synthesizes the best of scholarship available at the moment to give us intelligent and interesting answers. Never did I feel I was reading a text book, although I'd certainly hope that all US history and political science majors will be required to read this. It is simply one of the most interesting and fascinating books I have read this year. It will certainly be on my Top Ten Non-Fiction list for 2011.
Woodward’s failure is not, as many students of history might sneer, that journalists shouldn’t write history. Woodward simply takes on too much, as is evident from the subtitle: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. That’s not what American Nations is really about, though. Woodward pays short shrift to Canada (although he does mention it, favorably, near the end of the book) and essentially ignores Mexico, with the exception of its northern states, which form the southern reaches of the culture dubbed “El Norte.” (Yes, Mexico is part of North America, even its south.) This book is not really about America the geographical entity, as in “the Americas,” but the USA.
Woodward is mainly concerned with the white cultures of the United States, which he terms Yankeedom, New Netherlands, Appalachia (or the Borderlands), the Midlands, the Tidewater, Deep South, the Far West, and the Left Coast. His history of these regions, at least through the Civil War and Reconstruction, seems sound, even if it is sparsely documented. There is something to be said for the arguments Woodward makes in the first half of the book. The Civil War, for instance, was obviously a regional conflict, but Woodward’s argument that it was also a cultural conflict between Yankeedom and the Deep South over control of the federal government sheds some light onto the hostilities and the subsequent political history of the country.
The second half of the book is less convincing. The tone is rushed. I imagine Woodward realized at this point the scope of his project and was eager to complete it. There are inconsistencies in Woodward’s arguments. If, for instance, New Netherlands (i.e., New York City) valued economic expediency even more than it did multiculturalism, why did its people consistently align themselves with Yankee policies over those of the Deep South? Yankees favored the progressive “perfection” of society, while the Southern oligarchs sought deregulation in order to enrich themselves and their brethren. One answer might be the presence of so many immigrants in NYC, but Woodward earlier dismisses immigrants as a cultural force: they were everywhere rapidly assimilated into the majority cultures in which they found themselves. (The descendants of certain immigrants might object to this statement!)
African-Americans, the minority that most shaped American history, are portrayed as victims of slavery and segregation. The cultural influence of blacks is limited, apparently, to barbecue and rock and roll. Not bad, but certainly African-Americans provided more to America than labor, foodways and music? Woodward mostly ignores the political influence of blacks, noting that they sided with Yankeedom in the wake of the Civil War. Blacks sided with the “Northern Alliance” (Yankeedom, the Midlands, New Netherlands and the Left Coast) when they regained voting rights beginning in the 1950s and ‘60s, but what about more recently? Presumably African-Americans mindlessly follow the lead of whatever culture is opposing the Deep South. Woodward, stressing the racist sentiments of the Deep South, Tidewater and the Borderlands, wholly ignores the extreme racism present throughout even the “tolerant” cultures of the North. (See James Loewen’s Sundown Towns for a horrifying description of Northern racism from the mid-nineteenth century through 2000.) It goes without saying that the indigenous peoples of the United States are wholly ignored, and Canada’s First People nearly so.
I don’t list all of these faults to pick on Woodward or to harp on how his thesis fails. I think there is something there. The first half of the book, in which Woodward discusses the histories of the cultures through the Civil War is especially strong, if one takes into account that Woodward is really limiting his attention to the white cultures that made up the United States. The second half of the book is rushed and overall less convincing. Woodward lists politicians and the cultures from which they originated, making slim connections between their platforms and their supposed cultural values. Cultures are, in the second half of the book, reduced to stereotypes. I’d certainly like to read a Southerner’s take on Woodward’s portrayal of the Deep South; I suspect it would be enlightening.
An interesting effort that falls short of its lofty goals.
The mysteries embedded in this book can be fun reading for hapless Americans with a lot of family history they never really knew. In the wrong hands it can be the playbook for divide-and-rule and the dismantling of the Republic, never a moment too late! The market for natural resources still buried under public and private lands here is just now hotting up for the century to come!
These details can also explain the very explicit efforts to engineer culture war in this country since the 1970s. Ralph Reed admits his goals of divide-and-rule using conservative Christianity in the Appalachia/Midlander/Deep South/Far West nations. He details the techniques he used for his bosses to get Roman Catholic blue collar workers throughout the Midlander region to vote with the Plutocrats as if they suddenly shared some profound common interests.
These efforts are explicit. They are no accident. They are real tools of war. Scholars write about these things including how NATO uses them on enemy populations to topple enemy Plutocrats. Mr. Woodard doesn't mention any of this at all, but instead seems to suggest a foregone conclusion that culture war would naturally arise here simply because the people were different. If there weren't economic shortages of work and inadequate resources for decent life and retirement caused by legalized hoarding in the first instance, there would be no reason for culture war to erupt between these nations. The Robert Morris tricks with money are great. But, the remaining tricks over the last century with money to trigger all this stuff like what is going on here today remain hardly mentioned, and certainly not as root causes of simmering tensions.
Mr. Woodard clearly shows that the Aristocratic Authoritarian South has spread its influence over the rest of the country. Plutos everywhere beyond the South must recognize the usefulness of these methods, once they too got hands on astronomical fortunes to protect from the "mob". It is clear some Michigan, Ohio, Omaha, Southwestern PA, CT, TX, etc., along with Wall Street (New Netherland) Plutocrats of course, now all recognize the usefulness of these Deep South strategies. The Courts went along with it too approving such game changing legislation as FEC 1974, and rulings like Buckley vs Valeo and now Citizens United.
This knowledge in the wrong hands can also perhaps explain the combination of international and local home grown (made here) capital backing media enterprises operating in the central regions like News Corporation, Clearchannel, or Community First Newspapers Holdings, Inc. who purvey dubious media and news products for certain ends. Culture war is right up there with disinformation and misdirection in the list of NATO approved and used information warfare practices. It looks like these techniques have been waged right here on us to exploit long understood from the very beginning differences Mr. Woodard so carefully now elucidates for us.
He cites the Southern Planters using religion and denial of schools to control poor whites throughout the region, but doesn't take it a step further to the current times. I wonder why this is. Aristocrats in Europe always used religion, denying education, and even degrading economic and social life to pit against each other, control and manipulate their subject peoples. Bismarck waged "kulturkampf" against Catholic small holding village based farm communities to drive them off the land and into city slums for factory work in the "industrial miracle". This is the same thing happening to villagers in Africa today driving them off ancestral lands into new Chinese and Western financed mining enterprises. The same things are happening here now, and they are not happening simply because cultural differences exist. They are actively exploited. Woodard mentions the front of camera preachers Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jimmy Bakker et al, but not Lewis Powell, nor the money funds that made those TV networks and continue to do so in other incarnations.
It is clear Aristocratic methods emanating from the Authoritarian South are achieving similar social engineering against us today. Richmond VA lawyer Lewis Powell's famous memo reflects this insidious plot to take control over many institutions including education and publishing. The Supreme Court enabled it all of course agreeing every step of the way. The scary thing is that British money has always been a big player in natural resources in this country, along with Saudi money. While BP is clearly an international Anglo-American owned affair, the impunity they've enjoyed from their Gulf Spill shows what they've together achieved in the US over the last 30 years exploiting regional differences here just like their great-grandfathers did everywhere else in the world their money once dominated.
Perhaps Mr Woodard's most revealing remark was the one about the Southern Authoritarians accepting universal suffrage when it finally happened to them. "They didn't mind poor whites voting as long as they voted for who they were supposed to." This kind of explains the two-party system we have here today where private business interests fund both party committees more or less equally. It is funny though that Mr. Woodard suggests that one day "the nation's leaders will betray their oath to uphold the US Constitution". Most critics of the US today at home and around the world contend that the constitution has not been upheld for quite some time! That is if representative government as a basic right really is part of the constitution. FEC 1974 certainly seemed like the beginning of a long slide into this Authoritarian abyss. And, "the incarceration of the Supreme Court justices" hardly seems necessary when they have complied with the needs of Authoritarian Aristocrats from home and abroad throughout this long slide.
The part about "inviting meddling from imperial powers overseas" also seems funny considering the capital structure of News Corporation, and now SuperPACs flooding our elections with legal foreign corporate money for attack ads carefully constructed to play off these regional cultural differences, that goes without saying, that is what Machiavellianism is, but also even deeper psychological patterns in individuals.
I do recommend the book. It is very insightful about our culture and full of useful history for any of us with deep roots in this country. However, US history writers had better change their norms and report what manipulation is really going on behind the symptoms. Machiavelli wrote the textbook to exploit cultural differences. The Southern Aristocrats already knew that with their Jim Crow culture they maintained for so long. The British Aristocrats knew how to play it for 300 years around the world to their advantage. The little border disputes between CT and PA, and VA and PA, and VA and MD are also evidence they knew what they were doing with their latitude based land grants. That the rest of them now know it and remain free to practice it on us is the real story here.
This book and most others like it have a long way to go in explaining cause and effect. I agree that the place could fall into violence between all these peoples described in this book. But, that will get funded to be a coverup for what really happened here!
I haven't taken an American History class in a very long time, so this was a good review in addition to being very thought provoking. I grew up in Yankee nation and I can see how that colors my approach to many things-- one of the things I am most sure about in life is that education is the key to a better life. This book helped me clarify that a bit-- education when it causes thinking and true assessment is what I mean, not necessarily social indoctrination, although I can see how those would be hard to separate.
I had not previously thought much about how the United States would progress into the future-- this book shows you that there might be several possible tomorrows. What I need to do next is figure out how to apply this type of thinking to decisions I need to make now (elections, volunteer causes, etc.) so that the future is one I'd like to see happen.
But Woodard takes the concept to an entirely new level. "American Nations" is an interpretive history of the country from the perspective not of individual men, or states, or events, but of competing cultures. And while there is merit to the idea that "Yankee" (New England) culture is different from "Borderlander" (Appalachia) or "Tidewater" or "El Norte" (Northern Mexico, South West), or "New Netherlander" (New York City), or "New France" (New Orleans), Woodard's approach presumes a kind of inevitability of character. Just as people say we are what we eat, Woodard thinks we are where we grew up. Nurture trumps nature.
I found the premise both compelling and troubling. Compelling, because the cultural values he associates with "Yankeedom" -- my own nation of birth -- are unquestionably my own, and I have held them as foundational principles for all my life without ever feeling the need to challenge them or put them seriously to the test. Values like the importance of education, of personal responsibility and self-determination, of the idea that governments are an instrument to implement the common good. Of the importance of public service. These are all straight out of the Puritan play book, so to speak, and it was a little sobering to realize just how ingrained they are, even at this far remove from the days when people wanted to live in their "city on a hill," that a lefty radical feminist atheist like myself can still be so directed by them. "American Nations" has made me consider more deeply how my values differ in profound ways from those of my neighbors here in the nation of "Deep South" where I happen to live at the moment. How the importance of education in my value system weighs against the importance of family ties in theirs, as an example.
If nothing else Woodard gives the reader an appreciate for the depth and strength of the cultural prejudices we all carry. And it was not comfortable reading his account of how ruthless we are in defense of our own cultural values and priorities. His birds-eye-view of the history of American colonization is a description of unapologetic invasion, exploitation, and even rationalized genocide of nations that were not in accord with our own-- most obviously, the one nation that gets short shrift in Woodard's account--the "First Nation" -- meaning entirety of the native peoples on the continent.
That last statement provides a clue into one of the more serious flaws in the book -- he glosses over a couple nations. Native American tribes are mentioned only in so far as they are conquered, and the entire population of Africans slaves and their descendants is nowhere to be found on Woodard's map of American nations -- presumably because they have mostly been assimilated into the culture that brought them over in the the first place. (One of the characteristics of the "Deep South" nation is not just family loyalty, but the importance of social conformity, of caste). This has the odd effect of implying that the "First Nation" and the African-Americans are somehow culturally irrelevant.
Of course, Woodard does not want to imply any such thing, so it would be better to think of his book not as a history of how eleven different cultures shaped and continue to shape this country, but how eleven different cultures--ten of them European--did and continue to do so. And while the book is classified as "E98" by the Library of Congress (History -- United States), it might be better approached as sociology or political science by the reader, because one of the clear priorities of the author is to explain how and why Americans become polarized on current issues, and how we have a hope of coming to some kind of compromise if we cease thinking in terms of left/right, conservative/liberal, red/blue, win/lose...and choose to think instead in terms of alliances between cultures, between "nations," with similar values around whatever subject is in contention. Woodard, who does not strike me as especially afflicted with a rosy outlook, sees some hope of making headway against the epidemic of gun violence if we tackle this problem like UN trying to get every country represented at the table to sign an arms treaty.
Unfortunately there are two "super powers" among the American nations -- the Yankeedom and Deep South nations -- and it is pretty clear from Woodard's tone which one he thinks is on the side of the angels. And this brings up the other major flaw I saw in the book-- Woodard's own unacknowledged loyalty to his own nation. Like me, he's a member of Yankeedom. Like me, his natural affinity is for the cultural values he grew up with and absorbed as "ideal." This is not much of a hindrance when he is describing the founding of his various American nations in the distant pass, but his personal prejudices become more evident the closer he comes to contemporary times, until by the end of the book he is reduced to reciting a litany of political figures and initiatives, labeling them according to their "nation" like a baseball fan checking off a score card. Naturally the figures from the Deep South are pinned with every resistance to progress and progressivism, and figures from his own nation and the tiny but culturally vibrant nation of New Netherlands get the credit for every social advance. Woodard's list of politicians begins to sound less like evidence and more like an indictment.
The lack of objectivity that permeates the latter half of the book made me re-assess the author's over all premise, and I came to the conclusion that his approach to viewing history as a story of competing cultures was useful -- in the way any historical filter can be useful-- but ultimately not as radical as it first appeared. The book's great strength is in the way it will make the thoughtful reader assess his own cultural assumptions, and possibly even allow him to understand and empathize with the cultural values of other "nations." It may be a tool for change for some current social issues. But it is a little too in love with its own ideas, and there is a tendency to make the facts fit the theory, rather than the other way around. Whenever Woodard comes across a political figure who acts at odds with his (or her) "nation" he calls them "an anomaly." American Nations was published in 2011, so it would be interesting to see what the author had to say about the momentum of the movement towards same-sex marriage equality that has occurred since the book came out -- since that is an issue that received wide-spread popular support and was not among any of the founding values of the eleven American Nations.
Perhaps there is yet another "nation" out there, steadily pursuing change while the superpowers of Yankeedom and Deep South bicker at each other and bang their metaphorical shoes on their metaphorical desks. "Youth land" maybe?
The answer to a frustrated electorate’s “Why can’t our politicians (and voters) ever agree on anything?” is partly that they never did. Of course, aggregate data hide a lot of individual differences, and none of the characterizations Woodward has developed for his eleven regions describe every individual living there, just the region’s general cultural tendencies. Some of his regions cross over into Canada and Mexico too.
The regions, which he says “have been hiding in plain sight throughout our history,” are:
• Yankeedom began as a “religious utopia in the New England wilderness.” Those early colonies emphasized education, local political control, and efforts aimed at the greater good of the community.
• New Netherland laid down the cultural underpinnings of greater New York City; a trading society that was multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and committed to freedom of inquiry. Its precepts were memorialized in the Bill of Rights.
• The Midlands, founded by English Quakers and organized around the middle class people predominantly of German background and moderate political opinions who don’t welcome government intrusion.
• Tidewater catered to conservative aristocratic elites who were gentleman farmers, strong on respect for authority and dependent on slave labor. It was dominant during the colonial period, but lost its standing by dint of its culture’s inability to expand beyond coastal areas.
• Greater Appalachia was founded by “wave upon wave of rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands” who in their native lands formed a strong independent spirit, suspicious of aristocratic overlords and social reformers alike (think Mel Gibson in Braveheart).
• The Deep South, founded by Barbados slave lords, became the bastion of white supremacy and aristocratic privilege. It is the least democratic of the 11 regions while being “the wellspring of African American culture.”
• New France is an amalgam of the Canadian Province of Québec and some other areas of far eastern Canada as well as the Acadian (“Cajun”) territories of southern Louisiana.
• El Norte dates to the late 16th century, when the Spanish empire founded missions north into California. It includes Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Texas, as well as northern Mexican states that, Woodard says, are more oriented toward the United States than Mexico City.
• The Left Coast is a narrow strip from Monterey, California, to Juneau, Alaska, and includes San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. The cities were originally developed by Yankee traders who came by ship and the countryside by overland arrivals from the Appalachian region and the culture today is an amalgam of Yankee idealism and Appalachian independence.
• The Far West is the only area “where environmental factors truly trumped ethnic ones.” The region is unsuited for traditional farming, but its resources have been exploited by companies headquartered in distant cities and they and the federal government own vast tracts of land. Locals largely oppose federal interference (just in the news again lately), even as they depend on federal dollars.
• First Nation he defines as a large region in the far north, where the indigenous population has never given up its lands and still employs traditional cultural practices.
Like any analysis intended to look at history through a single lens, Woodard may tailor his arguments to support his approach. Nevertheless, he presents an intriguing hypothesis that carries the ring of truth. In this political season, many of the old antagonisms and patterns he describes are newly visible and, frankly, any cogent explanation of why Americans do some of the things we do is welcome!
*Note: the first is The Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe)
While reading the book, I began to realize the author was probably not a Southerner as he seemed to regard the various Southern cultures (Tideater, Deep South, and Greater Appalachia) as very much 'other.' This does not detract from his analysis, which I found quite illuminating. For instance, he describes the Midlands as starting in the Philadelphia area and pushes through north Central Ohio and Indiana, and all of Iowa, with branches down to the Oklahoma panhandle (not sure about this) and up the Missouri River Valley into Canada. Certainly the Philadelpia accent (slightly modified) carries all the way west, unlike other east coast dialects wnich got changed quite a bit: Michigan and Wisconsin in Yankeedom do not have New England accents; the Tidewater accent got changed as both the Deep South , Appalachia, and Texas all have distinctive acccents to my ear; nad the New York accent of New Netherlands is not heard beyond 60-70 miles of New York City.
This book is insightful on the wars fought on American soil, as well as the various textures of race relations. I do recommend this book.