Nonfiction Reader: American Nations

What causes the United States of America to be so internally fractious and thoroughly disunited? The federal government is grinding to a halt, as opposing factions battle to wrest control of it for their own, deeply opposite agendas. Why is no one interested in getting along so that things can work better?

Well, now I don’t need to wonder: this is just the way it’s been from the beginning. In his sweeping overview of the course of European settlement of the area that became the United States, American Nations, Colin Woodard identifies eleven distinct cultural entities — crossing state and even official national borders — that played a part in shaping US history, and still persist to a remarkable extent. These remain and must be reckoned with, as becomes clear every time a US election hangs upon them.

The main rivals are the Yankees in the northeast and the Deep South in the southeast. Yankees are characterized as community-oriented, proselytizing fanatics who want to assimilate the different, creating a better world according to their own idea of what that means. The Deep Southerners are portrayed as individual-oriented elitists, who want to enslave the different and create a better world for themselves by keeping everyone else in their proper place, while exploiting the natural world. Buffering these extremes and sometimes acting as glue are the idealistic tolerance of the Midlands (seeded by Quakers), the materialistic tolerance of New Netherland (seeded by the Dutch), the opportunist, side-switching Greater Appalachia (seeded by fierce fighters from the Scots borders), and the feudal society of Tidewater (seeded by English aristocrats).

Along with the even earlier Spanish- and French-seeded settlements (given the names El Norte and New France), these have been the main players in political battles over the course of the last few hundred years. The Yankees and the Deep Southerners simply have irreconcilable philosophical differences about what it means to be a human being in society — demonstrated by their having supported different sides in the European religious wars, the English Civil War and even the Revolutionary War. Neither has enough power to rule the continent on their own, so there has been a constant struggle to conquer more territory as the country spread west, and to sway the “swing” regions to their influence.

This is broad-brush history, and although there are some fascinating and little-known details included that support Woodard’s thesis, other important events and issues are given short shrift or omitted. The regional characterizations may also be perceived as simplistic and unfair, as they certainly are to some inhabitants of the “nations”. While the Yankees’ moral crusading is not very palatable, when taken to its intolerant extreme, the Deep South elite really get the harshest treatment: they still consider slavery a positive good, certainly for people of color, but also, if it were possible, for low-caste white people. “Liberty” is meant for them, not for the lower orders of humanity. Their culture was imported from the deadly sugar plantations of Barbados, and they are still fighting to preserve it, at least in Woodard’s description.

Despite the drawback of oversimplification, the book helped me to see past the rah-rah myth of American origins taught in public schools, and to understand some of my own blind spots — my own tribe is certainly Yankee, and it’s the only one I really know well, though I lived in New England for only a few years of my life. (Instead, I’ve lived in the Yankee-influenced areas of the “Left Coast,” as well as the upper midwest and upstate New York.) Most illuminating for me was the distinction between seeking the good of the community, which developed into “Public Protestantism” (an increasingly secularized form of Puritanism), and seeking the good of the individual, which developed into “Private Protestantism” (the Bible-belt attitude that personal salvation is the thing and to hell with everyone else). Somehow, that made the nature of the differences clearer in a way I had not comprehended before.

It’s good to understand more, but increasingly it seems me that no reconciliation is possible between such sharply divided points of view, without a real catastrophe. It seems almost unbelievable that the ill-assorted federation has hung together for so long, and increasingly likely that it will fall apart. As demographics have shifted — including the steep increase of Hispanics in El Norte — and the Yankee-Deep South rift has only deepened into a left-right battle, what, if anything, can hold the country together? All too soon, we are set to find out.

Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Viking, 2011)

Read for the Nonfiction Reader Challenge — History category

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One thought on “Nonfiction Reader: American Nations

  1. I’d imagine that any broad brush view of a complex subject would inevitably involve some simplification, Lory,.but some of the category labels for the communities described here seem useful for trying to get a handle on the historical contexts for the country’s massive political divides.

    Certainly it makes sense to an outsider like me but one who holds fast to historical principles for understanding contemporary situations.

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