American Nations – A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America – by Colin Woodard – A Book Review – Part 2

(The first part of this review is found here)

 

In the second and third parts of the review I’ll go in depth about how the characteristics of the more important “nations” influenced how the political and social divisions in the later history of the United States would align.

Although the Spanish, French and even the English at Jamestown colonized earlier than the New England colonists, the Pilgrims and the Puritans were the biggest influence on early American life.  The Puritans left England, en masse, from mostly East Anglia to found a populous religiously intolerant Calvinist “heaven on Earth’ that they could run their own way.  They despised the aristocratic Norman noblemen and believed that a tightly knit town life run by selectmen who all agreed with the Puritan values would give them the social cohesion and resources needed to flourish and spread their way of life to the surrounding communities and eventually the other nations.

The abiding characteristic that marks the Yankee is his desire to interfere with anyone else who does not live life the way the Puritan thinks it should be lived.  They are inveterate busybodies who cannot abide anyone enjoying life except on their terms.  This was notable in the 1600s and is equally true today.  Even with the demise of their belief in God they have turned their social justice proclivities into a cult that invests much of their time and energy in policing everybody else’s business.

As a practical consequence of their numbers and their organized approach to life they quickly spread in all available directions.  They spread north and east into New Hampshire, Maine and even the Canadian Maritime Provinces.  They went west and south into Connecticut, Long Island and eventually most of New York State.  Later when the western areas of the continent became accessible, they migrated to the Great Lakes region essentially colonizing all of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and parts of Ohio and even northwestern Pennsylvania.  And much later, in the mid to late 1800s, they even colonized the Pacific Northwest forming the core of Oregon and Washington and even areas of northern California.

One very exceptional branch that emerged late from Yankeedom (as Woodard names the New England founding) was the Mormons.  They were a radical sect founded by a Yankee from New York state named Joseph Smith.  Their extremely unorthodox beliefs and community couldn’t hope to be accepted in the confines of orthodox New England so they eventually fled the United States for Utah.  But it is interesting that their New England heritage of religious communalism is probably the only way that they were able to survive the high desert of the Far West.  Their cooperative lifestyle allowed farming in an area where all other small farmers eventually failed and left.

Diametrically opposed to the culture and the approach of the Puritans of Yankeedom were the landed gentry who colonized Virginia and later the Carolinas.  These men were landed gentry who utilized indentured farmers and later on, black slaves to become wealthy from tobacco, rice and sugar estates that they were given by their aristocratic connections in England.  In Virginia, the Carolinas and later in Georgia, the local government was a closely held enterprise of the wealthy few who did not even permit the common men to vote and certainly not hold office.  And once the system of farming was worked out, these men accumulated great wealth and lived more sumptuously than their patrons back in England ever dreamed of.  The colony of Virginia never expanded much beyond its original borders but the deep south plantations of the Carolinas moved steadily west through the gulf state areas of Alabama, Mississippi, and eventually into Florida.  Later when cotton became the great cash crop, areas of Tennessee, Arkansas and even Texas were also included in this plantation society.  These aristocrats were the spiritual descendants of the landed nobility of England and felt that they were owed obedience by the common people and should answer only to themselves in the way they transacted business and lived their lives.  Woodard compares the rivalry between the Puritans of New England and the Cavaliers of the Deep South as an analogue to the sides of the English Civil War where the puritan roundheads under Cromwell fought to the death against the cavalier gentlemen of King Charles.  And indeed, the documents of the time show that both sides saw it in the same terms.

At all times and even during the American Revolution when these opponents were allies and even countrymen a rivalry and a bitter hatred existed between these two “nations.”

In the next installment I’ll talk about how the other nations and especially the Appalachians figured into this wrestling match for control of North America.

American Nations – A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America – by Colin Woodard – A Book Review – Part 1

This book has several faults.  One is that the author is an enormous progressive bigot.  He allows his sympathies with the progressive areas of the country to shade almost every aspect of the descriptive and critical content of the book.  Another fault is that he has subsumed the work of earlier authors and glossed over any ideas that don’t fit his world view.  But despite these ugly qualities the book provides a lot of very important information that can be valuable if carefully interpreted.

The thesis of the book is that the foundational cultures that colonized North America along with the remaining older cultures (Native American and Hispanic) account for the regional differences that still determine how people think, live and vote.  And that I think is a remarkable fact and taken along with an understanding of the motivations and psychology of these regional groups provides us with a better understanding of why things are happening the way they are and what best to do to influence the outcome of political and social struggles.

The clearest way to start thinking of what this book can tell us is to look at a map that divides most of North America by how it was colonized.  https://www.twincities.com/2013/11/16/which-of-this-writers-11-american-nations-do-you-live-in/

As a list, the Nations of the title are

  • Yankeedom
  • New Netherland
  • The Midlands
  • Tidewater
  • Deep South
  • New France
  • Greater Appalachia
  • El Norte
  • The Far West
  • The Left Coast
  • First Nation

What you’ll see is that the original Massachusetts colony has spread into an area that encompasses New England, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, parts of the surrounding states like Illinois (Yankeedom).  And to a slightly smaller degree Washington, Oregon and Northern California were its result (The Left Coast).  And the founding of Pennsylvania produced a discernible legacy that extends from the Atlantic in a relatively narrow band through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, then spreads into a larger area that includes virtually all of Iowa, northern Missouri, and large parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and both Dakotas.  And in fact, the strip then hooks around to include the majority of non-French eastern Canada.  All of this is denoted as the Midlands.

And in a similar way we can also see the results of the Virginia colonies (Tidewater) and the Deep South spread.  Because of the intervention of outside factors Virginia was prevented from spreading west, whereas the Carolinas went on to extend their way of life all the way down the Gulf coast to eastern Texas.

New Netherland is the Dutch founding in what is now New York City.  It is hemmed in by its neighbors to the North and South but is an extremely densely populated area with enormous commercial and financial clout.

A little less familiar is the origins of the Appalachian region.  This area was settled by lowland Scots, northern Britons and the Scots-Irish who fled poverty, oppression and civil strife in their homelands and spread out mostly from the Pennsylvanian, Virginian and Carolinian colonies to find freedom and autonomy in the mountains and forests of Appalachia and later go on to populate a wide band from western Virginia and the Carolinas to Northern Texas.  The states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and most of Illinois, Indiana and half of Oklahoma Missouri and Arkansas are the area called on this map Greater Appalachia.  More or less directly, the Appalachians, by cutting off access to the west, were responsible for the fact that the Virginia colonies never gained as much widespread power as its neighbors.

In a similar way the book goes to describe the founding and spread of the other “nations.”  New France and “El Norte” (the Mexican colonies in the southwest) are the most unfamiliar to most American readers but the information is easily digested and the way that these areas developed is relatively clear.

The Far West is the mountainous and high plains areas between the mid-west and the Left Coast that were populated in the wake of the railroads.  This area is defined by its relation to the federal government and its improvement programs.

First Nation describes the area in the north of Canada and Alaska and Greenland that are inhabited by the Inuit and other aboriginal peoples of the region.

In the next installment of this review I’ll discuss how the characteristics and ways of life of these different foundations set them in motion and how they collided with the outside world and each other over the course of several hundred years.

 

(The second part of this review is found here.)