An Opinion Written By Barry Dill
Are you worried that all the bickering in America is leading us to ruin? That Americans today are more at odds than ever over basic questions of God and government and taxes and sex? Do you long for the good ol’ days, when Americans were, well, Americans? Well, you can forget that. Americans have never agreed on much of anything, and that’s not about to change. That’s the lesson of American Nations by Colin Woodard, a book that basically rips up the familiar 50-state, red-blue map of the United States and replaces it with a far stranger — and, he argues, truer – political and cultural geography.
For hundreds of years, this nation has been known as the United States of America. But according to Woodard, the country is neither united, nor made up of 50 states. Woodward has studied American voting patterns, demographics and public opinion polls going back to the days of the first settlers, and says that his research shows America is really made up of 11 different nations.
Courtesy Tufts Magazine
Here’s how he breaks down the continent:
Yankeedom: Founded by Puritans, residents in Northeastern states and the industrial Midwest tend to be more comfortable with government regulation. They value education and the common good more than other regions.
New Netherland: The Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world when New York was founded, Woodard writes, so it’s no wonder that the region has been a hub of global commerce. It’s also the region most accepting of historically persecuted populations.
The Midlands: Stretching from Quaker territory west through Iowa and into more populated areas of the Midwest, the Midlands are “pluralistic and organized around the middle class.” Government intrusion is unwelcome, and ethnic and ideological purity isn’t a priority.
Tidewater: The coastal regions in the English colonies of Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware tend to respect authority and value tradition. Once the most powerful American nation, it began to decline during Westward expansion.
Greater Appalachia: Extending from West Virginia through the Great Smoky Mountains and into Northwest Texas, the descendants of Irish, English and Scottish settlers value individual liberty. Residents are “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers.”
Deep South: Dixie still traces its roots to the caste system established by masters who tried to duplicate West Indies-style slave society, Woodard writes. The Old South values states’ rights and local control and fights the expansion of federal powers.
El Norte: Southwest Texas and the border region is the oldest, and most linguistically different, nation in the Americas. Hard work and self-sufficiency are prized values.
The Left Coast: A hybrid, Woodard says, of Appalachian independence and Yankee utopianism loosely defined by the Pacific Ocean on one side and coastal mountain ranges like the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas on the other. The independence and innovation required of early explorers continues to manifest in places like Silicon Valley and the tech companies around Seattle.
The Far West: The Great Plains and the Mountain West were built by industry, made necessary by harsh, sometimes inhospitable climates. Far Westerners are intensely libertarian and deeply distrustful of big institutions, whether they are railroads and monopolies or the federal government.
New France: Former French colonies in and around New Orleans and Quebec tend toward consensus and egalitarian, “among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races and a ready acceptance of government involvement in the economy,” Woodard writes.
First Nation: The few First Nation peoples left — Native Americans who never gave up their land to white settlers — are mainly in the harshly Arctic north of Canada and Alaska. They have sovereignty over their lands, but their population is only around 300,000.
Under Woodward’s premise, with these cultural and attitudinal divides across not only national but also state boundaries, it’s no wonder that it has become almost impossible to find a national consensus on just about anything. Even state and local-level debates are no less contentious.
Four states were independent nations before joining the United States—Texas, California, Hawaii and Vermont. Vermont, for example, refused to join the Revolutionary states at first and even printed their own money and governed by their own constitution. Even after the war Vermont continued to negotiate an alliance with Great Britain. Vermont reluctantly agreed to become the 14th state in 1791 when the federal government intervened on several land claims held by hated New Yorkers.
Remember the State of Franklin? Me neither. According to Woodward, Franklin (parts of eastern Tennessee) unilaterally made itself a state from 1784 until being overrun by the North Carolina militia in 1788. Up until that time, Franklin attempted to negotiate an alliance with the Mississippi Valley Spanish; prohibited lawyers, clergy and doctors; and made apple brandy, animal skins and tobacco legal tender.
Secessionist movements have been a part of our history since before the founding of our Republic and continue to flourish today. Even Arizona has gotten into the act in recent history with northern Yuma County breaking away to form La Paz County, and some Tucsonans called for establishing their own state of Baja Arizona.
For those of us who reside in El Norte, it is refreshing to hear Woodward describe us as “the oldest, most linguistic nation of all 11, where hard work and self-sufficiency are prized values.” Conceivably, if the Spanish hadn’t gone bankrupt in the 16th and 17th centuries, we might be speaking Spanish today with English as a primary second language. Might that change in the future?
Whether or not you buy into the logic of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, at least you may come away with a lessened sense of anxiety that we are all of a sudden going to hell in a hand basket. According to Woodward, these divides have defined us since Jamestown, the landing of the Puritans and the Spanish push into the Caribbean, Latin America and the southwestern United States.
The book doesn’t offer any predictions as to what the political landscape of North American may look like in the next 75 years. Will it still be dominated by the three powerful federations or Balkanized like Europe? What role will China’s emergence as a dominant economic power play in shaping the continents political and cultural boundaries? What role will technology play in determining geopolitical alliances in the near future? I guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel.