American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America
By Colin Woodard
Read May 2022
May 2022 is when this reader finished reading this enlightening and sobering book. This reader has been working on reading this book for about a year. Why so long? The book is very approachable but simultaneously packed with historical information that takes time to digest.
Woodard starts with an Introduction that is very valuable to the reader. Woodard explains his use of the term “nation”: “a group of people who share—or believe they share—a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols”. This differs from a “state” which he describes as “a sovereign political entity”. He introduces the eleven nations with a brief summary of their characteristics and founding. Having this initial snippet of each nation prepares the reader for what follows.
Part 1: Origins 1590 to 1769 gives details of the founding of each of the following nations in order of their founding: El Norte, New France, Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland, The Deep South, the Midlands, and Greater Appalachia. It’s sobering to note that between Jamestown and the Declaration of Independence there were about 160 years of waves of people arriving and settling in the New World with very different intentions for coming to the New World and with very different sets of values. Those different intentions and values and intentions continue to permeate the values and aspirations of the people that live in those different areas—nations– of the country today.
Part 2: Unlikely Allies 1770 to 1815 is extremely interesting and helps dispute a concept we tend to have that the thirteen colonies were well unified in fighting for independence from King George. It seems that is very far from the truth. This account shows the waves of fighting for independence by the various nations, sometimes even their initial reluctance to do so, and sometimes actually warring against each other. This section also covers the writing of the Constitution which is considered an amazing achievement. It was amazing considering the very divergent views of the various nations. In fact, some of the nations considered seceding from the union because of essentially anti-democratic aspects pushed by many we consider the Founding Fathers (who were from Tidewater). In fact, these Founding Fathers did have an intention to suppress democracy and retain power for those like them—the elite. It’s becoming more common knowledge that the Constitution not only allowed for slavery but prevented its abolishment for twenty years. This was clearly a period of substantial conflict between the nations.
Part 3: Wars for the West 1816-1877 covers yet the continuing turbulent time, this section lasting over fifty years. Yankeedom, the Midlands, The Deep South all spread westward with different intentions consistent with the values held by each of the nations. Yankeedom needed more land for farming so communities of families headed west, just as communities of families had first come to the New World. They established new towns, taxed themselves to build needed infrastructure, especially schools. Overtime the religious orthodoxy of Yankeedom was eroded but the values of serving community remained well entrenched. The Midlands moved west as well and recreated the towns and communities from which they migrated. They were accompanied by a large immigration from Germany. Although they shared the community-focused trait of Yankeedom, The Midlands were more heterogeneous in religious practices and were untroubled by diversity although “skeptical of slave labor, warfare, and the cult of the individual”. The Borderlanders of Appalachia travelled west largely to live beyond the effective reach of government. They left not in communities but rather as individuals or very small groups. An interesting comparison of Yankeedom and the Borderlanders is given. Only a small part of it is recited here: Yankeedom Midwesterners put their homes on the road, used written contracts, and buried their dead in town graveyards. Appalachian Midwesterners built their homes in the middle of their plots, negotiated verbal, honor-bound agreements, and put their relatives to rest in family plots or isolated graves. The Borderlanders also preferred candidates who advocated for ordinary people and perceived Yankee neighbors as meddlesome and threatening to their individual freedom. The slave culture of Tidewater was mainly hemmed in by Appalachia and lost some of its power over time. It and the second/third-born sons of English gentry that founded it had been a dominant force when the Constitution was written. The slave culture of The Deep South spread westward expanding its cotton economy which required a substantial slave population and which fed the demands of textile mills in both New England and Old England. “What others regard as an authoritarian society built on an immoral institution that concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, Deep Southern oligarchs viewed as the pinnacle of human achievement. Theirs was a democracy modeled on the slave states of ancient Greece and Rome, whose elites had been free to pursue the finer things in life after delegating all drudgery to slaves and a disenfranchised underclass.”
An extremely interesting chapter in this section “War for the West” details the build up to the Civil War and describes it not as a struggle between “the North” and “the South” but rather a conflict between two coalitions. One side was the Deep South and Tidewater. The other side was Yankeedom. The other nations considered breaking off and forming their own confederations “freed from slave lords and Yankees alike.” The United States nearly broke into four pieces. But for the attack on Fort Sumter which coalesced the coalitions, history might be very different.
Part four: Culture Wars: 1878 to 2010 covers the topics of the Founding of the Far West, Immigration and Identity, Gods and Missions, Culture Clash, War/Empire/Military, and two chapters on the Struggle for Power—the Blue, Red, and Purple Nations. Viewing these topics through the lens of American Nations gave this reader a new perspective on this part of our (always turbulent!) history as well.
The Epilogue chastens us to recognize that the United States is actually fairly fragile. “A time might come that the only issue on which the nations find common ground is the need to free themselves from one another’s veto power. Perhaps they’d join together on Capitol Hill to pass laws and constitutional amendments granting more powers to the states or liquidating may of the functions of the central government.” (The author doesn’t suggest the Supreme Court might expedite this but over the last few days it seems that’s its intention.) The author indicates a few paths that might be followed as the country splits into parts, consistent with the “respective national heritages”. To remain the United States, “The United States needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently because it’s one of the few things binding us together.”
While we may think the current state of our government is unusual and that we’ve had stability for two hundred plus years, this book actually highlights how turbulent the history of the United States of American has actually always been and continues to be. The path forward is not easy to predict but the author’s call to “respect the fundamental tents of our unlikely union” is very relevant.
This reader is recommending this book to friends and family—it should be read by all those wishing to understand the current state of the USA.