November 7, 2016 by Jean
I recently finished reading Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Penguin Books, 2012), a provocative reinterpretation of American history in terms of disparate regional cultures. Woodard’s thesis is that our current political divisions are nothing new, that the United States has been divided since its founding.
Woodard is a journalist who draws on the work of professional historians in support of his thesis. I grew up in Massachusetts, and the narrative of American history that I learned as a child began with the Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, proceeded through the Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre, on to Paul Revere and the battles at Concord and Lexington, and then to the Declaration of Independence, the successful conclusion of the American Revolution, and the Constitution.
Woodard’s narrative of the nation’s founding proceeds very differently. His chronological account begins with the spread of the Spanish north from Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean into what would become northern Mexico and is now part of the American southwest. The first settlements in what is now the United States brought Spanish language and a distinctly Spanish culture and values. Woodard calls this regional culture El Norte.
From El Norte, Woodard proceeds to the founding of what he calls New France, which included the French colonies in Quebec and Acadia (later the Maritimes), a French settlement on an island in the St. Croix river in my very own state of Maine, and the large French territory of Louisiana. The French, according to Woodard, brought a cultural attitude toward the indigenous native peoples very different from that of the Spanish and also of the English settlements that would follow.
I knew that parts of the North American continent had been colonized first by the Spanish and the French, but I assumed that their cultural influences had been swamped by the culture of the dominant English settlers. Woodard argues, to the contrary, that the Spanish and French influences have persisted in distinct regional cultures. Most surprising to me was his assertion that the English colonists did not all share a common culture. He contrasts the culture of the English who settled at Jamestown and around the Chesapeake Bay (what he calls Tidewater) with those who settled in Massachusetts and the rest of New England (what he refers to as Yankeedom); not only did these settlers come from different parts of England, they were on opposite sides of the English Civil War. They had different values, different assumptions about government, and meant very different things when they talked about “freedom” and “liberty.” He further differentiates the English slaveholders of Tidewater from those who settled the Deep South by way of Barbados, noting particularly their different versions of slavery. Also prominent in Woodard’s account are the cosmopolitan Dutch merchants who founded the colony and culture of New Netherlands and the pacifist English Quakers and Germans who settled Pennsylvania and what Woodard calls the Midlands. Moreover, all these groups were dismayed by the Scots-Irish from England’s northern Borderlands who settled Appalachia. I was intrigued by Woodard’s account of how the other groups managed to keep the Appalachians from having any representation in the writing of the Constitution. He also conveys the horror felt by these groups at the election of America’s first Appalachian President, the populist Andrew Jackson (a horror that was reinforced when, in his first act as President, Jackson hosted a White House reception open to the public and the hoi polloi swarmed in and trashed the place).
After introducing these various founding regional cultures, Woodard looks at how and where each culture spread as part of the westward expansion. Established migration routes meant that those going west ended up in different places depending on which part of the country that migrated from. In some parts of the frontier (notably what Woodard calls the Far West and along the Pacific coast), two or more cultures blended to create a new regional culture.
In the last part of American Nations, Colin Woodard looks at the effects of America’s various regional cultures on current politics. He uses these cultural differences to make sense of current deep divides between “red states” and “blue states.” Although his analysis ends with the 2010 election, it helped give me a better understanding of how other citizens might see the world so differently than I do.
I have suggested before that our dominant national historical narrative of American exceptionalism does us a disservice. (See, for example, Deja Vu.) Instead of understanding just how messy American politics have always been, we look backwards through a rosy nostalgic glow at an imagined past of fictional unity. I recently saw an interview on local television with former Maine senator, Senate Majority Leader, and peace negotiator George Mitchell in which he pointed out that, even by this year’s standards, the Presidential election of 1800 was exceptionally nasty. I find it comforting to be reminded that our politics have always been divisive and that this will hardly be the first election in which many Americans will regard the choices of their fellow citizens with horror and incomprehension.
I was clearly not the only one looking for a historical perspective on this election. I had to wait for months on a waiting list for the Portland Public Library’s one copy of Woodard’s book, and there were still others waiting for it after me. This is not unusual when the book being requested is a new bestseller, but it is unusual for a book that was first published five years ago. It was well worth the wait.