‘American Nations’ by Colin Woodard, a study of our ‘rival regional cultures’

November 18, 2011

The day after the 2008 election, a remarkable map began making the rounds online. It showed the counties where John McCain had won more of the vote than George W. Bush had in his victory four years earlier. It was a nearly contiguous swath of the country, stretching from southwestern Pennsylvania through Appalachia, west across the upland South and into Oklahoma and north-central Texas.

Presumably, something other than a singular affection for the latest Republican presidential candidate had allowed McCain to outperform Bush in this neck of the woods. But still, why this exact outline of the anti-Obama vote? What was behind it?

These sorts of questions may be easier to answer after reading Colin Woodard’s “American Nations,” a compelling and informative attempt to make sense of the regional divides in North America in general and this country in particular. This may seem like well-marked territory — Joel Garreau’s “The Nine Nations of North America” (1981) is only one of many studies of what came to be simplified as the country’s red-blue split. But Woodard sets his political geography apart by delving deep into history, building on the insights of David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed,” a 1989 analysis of the four “British folkways” in America, to demonstrate that trends in contemporary political behavior can be traced back to well before the country’s founding. Woodard provides a bracing corrective to an accepted national narrative that too often overlooks regional variations to tell a simpler and more reassuring story.

As Woodard sees it, the continent has long been divided into 11 rival regional “nations” determined by centuries-old settlement patterns. Yankeedom stretches from the Puritans’ New England to the land settled by their descendants in Upstate New York and the upper Midwest. New Netherland is Greater New York City, more interested in making money than in Yankee moralizing.

The Midlands stretch from once-Quaker Philadelphia across the heart of the Midwest — German-dominated, open-minded and less inclined toward activist government than Yankeedom. Cavalier-founded Tidewater once ruled supreme but was hemmed in and saw its clout fade.


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

The Deep South stretches to East Texas, long in tension but less so now with the Borderlanders, the feisty, individualistic Scots-Irish who scorned both the community-minded Yankees and the aristocrats of the Tidewater and the Deep South. The Borderlanders’ domain spans Appalachia, the southern Midwest and the upland South — the McCain stronghold described above.

Predating all these are First Nation, Canada’s indigenous north; New France, based in what is now Quebec, whose liberalism traces to the first fur traders; and El Norte, the territory straddling the Mexican border that was once a region unto itself (of colonial Mexico). Settled last were the interior Far West and the Left Coast, the latter a mix of the idealism of the Yankees who tried to settle it and the individualism of gold-seeking Borderlanders.

These nations looked different from the start: Where Yankeedom had countless towns, Tidewater had barely any — planters simply delivered supplies to their estates up the Chesapeake’s tributaries. The nations mistrusted each other deeply. And they often resorted to arms — the book reminds us of long-forgotten conflicts such as the Paxton Boys’ Borderlander assault on Midlander Philadelphia in 1764 and the Yankee-Pennamite wars in northern Pennsylvania in the late 18th century.

In Woodard’s retelling, the country was unified in spite of itself. The Revolutionary War was a true insurgency only in Yankeedom; meanwhile, New Netherland became a Loyalist refuge, the pacifist-minded Midlanders lay low, the Deep Southern planters calculated how best to preserve (and expand) their slave economy, the Tidewater split into two camps, and the Borderlanders wrestled over whom they hated more — the British or the coastal elites oppressing them.

The new Constitution hardly sealed things tight. The Borderlanders waged the Whiskey Rebellion and made an aborted attempt to create their own state of Franklin, while Yankeedom grew so alarmed over the shift in power to the Tidewater that it nearly demanded a renegotiation of the Constitution in 1814.

The Civil War also started in Yankeedom, with its moralizing abolitionists. It was only thanks to a late shift by Midlander voters that Abraham Lincoln was elected. It was only after the secessionists fired on Fort Sumter that New Netherland, the Midlands and Borderlanders rallied to Yankeedom’s side. And the war that saved the union only exacerbated some divides — for one thing, Reconstruction broadened the Yankee-Borderlander split.

“Since 1877, the driving force in American politics hasn’t primarily been a class struggle or tension between agrarian and commercial interests, or even between competing partisan ideologies, although each has played a role,” Woodard writes. “Ultimately, the determinative political struggle has been a clash between shifting coalitions of ethnoregional nations, one invariably headed by the Deep South, the other by Yankeedom.”

Throughout, Woodard sprinkles nuggets that make the country’s current divides seem more explicable. Blue-staters unsettled by Rick Perry’s “day of prayer” should know that, in 1801, some 20,000 Borderlanders gathered in Cane Ridge, Ky., for a Christian revival where “hundreds fell prostrate under the mighty power of God, as men slain in battle.” Red-staters who suspect coastal Yankees of viewing the interior as a foreign country will be amused to know that one group of New Englanders sailing down the Ohio River to settle (and civilize) the Midwest called their ship “Mayflower of the West.” Anyone who thinks culture-war rhetoric is unique to our times should know that George Fitzhugh, a strongly pro-slavery Virginian, cast the Civil War as a clash between “Christians and infidels . . . the chaste and the libidinous; between marriage and free love.”

In any synthesis as sweeping as this, there are bound to be holes. Woodard skirts some inconvenient facts (for instance, New York became the commercial capital not only because of its Dutch roots, but because of the Erie Canal). He addresses the most obvious counterargument to his thesis, that regional cultures could hardly have held static in a land of immigrants and high mobility — arguing fairly persuasively that new arrivals adapted more to the cultures they found than vice versa — but he does not reckon with some major population shifts, such as the Great Migration of blacks to the North.

When his timeline reaches the late 20th century, the distinctions among his many nations blur into a more general blue-red divide. And while he is appealingly acerbic in characterizing the nations’ flaws, including Yankee priggishness, Woodard, a proud Mainer, comes down far hardest on the Deep South. Readers will differ on whether that’s merited.

Woodard concludes on a pessimistic note, wondering whether the bonds among his nations can hold. (He provocatively suggests that Canada has found the answer by accepting its binational, bilingual status.) I would have liked to see him wrestle with this question a bit more than he does. It’s easy to conclude from his tale that the country must resort to a more loosely federalist structure, devolving more power to the states, but is that really what Woodard wants?

Does the poor, uninsured family in East Texas have to accept its fate, just because it lives in “Deep South Nation”? Or is it part of what defines America to have Yankeedom meddling from beyond, despite the resentment of local elites? It is an age-old clash of values that “American Nations” captures well.

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at the New Republic.

AMERICAN NATIONS

A History of the Eleven Rival
Regional Cultures of North America

By Colin Woodard

Viking. 371 pp. $30

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