Tossed Salad, Not Melting Pot: Review of American Nations by Colin Woodard, Part 1

America is undeniably one country. You don’t need a passport to go from Maine to California and then to Hawaii. You can even go to Alaska from Hawaii, still without needing a passport. The federal government of the United States of America controls all of it. The country, of course, was not always as big as is now. The most important part of anything with people in it is, of course, the people, in this case the American nation. America is unquestionably one country, but is it so clearly one nation? I recently read American Nations by Colin Woodard, asserting that America is in fact eleven regionally specific cultural blocs, or nations, and I found that these blocs go a long way toward explaining a lot of the tectonic movements in American religion and politics.

Woodard goes from Canada all the way down to the northern parts of Mexico to provide context for what he says about the United States of America. The “nations” he talks about are cultural blocs that formed as the Spanish, French, and British colonized North America. There are two groups of nations that he establishes: those established before the War of Independence and those later formed by westward expansion. The nations formed before the War of Independence are as follows (map):

  • El Norte: Hispanic society formed in the American Southwest, dates back to Spanish colonization of the area in the 1500s and 1600s.
  • New France: Multiracial, pluralistic society formed through French settlement of Canada and intermarriage with Native Americans.
  • Tidewater: Aristocratic society formed on the eastern seaboard around the state of Virginia, composed of younger sons of the English aristocracy.
  • Yankeedom: A society centering in New England founded by Calvinistic Puritans leaving England so that they could establish a society based upon their religious, moral, and political values.
  • New Netherland: Originally ruled by the Dutch, the area around New York City and New Jersey was a commercial society where business interests maintained a pluralistic and multicultural society.
  • Deep South: Slave lords from the Caribbean settled the tropical areas of mainland North America to expand the slaveholding society they had in the Caribbean.
  • Midlands: Originating in the Quaker-established Pennsylvania, the Midlands are multiracial and pluralistic, with Quakers and immigrants from all over Europe settling in this region to plant the roots of moderate and “middle class” America.
  • Greater Appalachia: Founded by Scots-Irish who the British dumped on the shores of North America, this region’s original settlers looked to move to places where they could live in freedom from government interference.
  • First Nations: The Native American peoples and their influence on the development of European-American society. Woodard addresses them incidentally, but he includes them in America’s eleven “nations”.

Woodard lays out diverse reasons for settling North America: desire for space to set up a religiously based society (Yankeedom), desire to get rich through trade (New Netherland), desire to continue an aristocratic and hierarchical society based on slave labor (Deep South), and a desire to get away from oppression from above (Greater Appalachia).

When the War of Independence was starting, according to Woodard, all these different “nations” had to figure out what why were fighting and what they wanted to get from the war. People from Yankeedom wanted to protect the society they established, Tidewater aristocrats wanted to protect their status, and Deep South slave lords went in whatever direction kept them safe from slave revolt. Inhabitants of Greater Appalachia were rebel or Loyalist as they stood to gain or lose freedom depending upon what elites ruled the section of the Appalachian or Ozark mountains that they had settled. After the war, the framers of the Articles of Confederation (and later the Constitution) had to craft a governing document that both Yankees and Deep South slave lords could live with.

The hodgepodge of cultural blocs and conflicting agendas led to the Civil War, and continued to play out in the further settlement and exploitation of North America. Two more nations emerged from westward expansion:

  • Left Coast: A multiethnic society influenced by teachers from Yankeedom, taking Yankee idealism and desire to improve the world but leaving the religion, the Left Coast formed as people came for California’s 1849 Gold Rush and decided to stay.
  • Far West: Settled through and maintained by the influence of big government and big business, the people who settled here resent government interference in their lives but demand government aid to sustain them.

Woodard traces the development of each region over time, through the progress of the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, westward expansion, the Civil Rights movement, immigration patterns, and other factors and events advancing or hindering their relative power and influence. Regions made and changed alliances depending upon how events played out. In Greater Appalachia, for example, some parts allied with Yankeedom in the Civil War to fight against domination by Tidewater and Deep South aristocrats, but Appalachians allied with the South as Yankees came down for Reconstruction to remake the South in their own image. All along the way they resented interference from the outside, struggling for freedom from interference, governmental or cultural. Each cultural bloc is not assumed to be a permanent fixture in America’s demographic landscape, but Woodard makes a clear case for readers to add another dimension for their understanding of America’s heritage and history.

As an analysis of the big picture of American history, I had little trouble accepting what Woodard has to say in American Nations. Because America is as large as some empires in world history, this book presents a disciplined introduction to the intricacy of American history. The book compares some differing notions of freedom that went into the formation of the American government, and I will touch upon those in a second post. Woodard’s analysis pits Yankeedom and its “allies” against the Deep South and its “allies” down through history, raising an interesting possibility of a “culture war” based not on a conservative vs. liberal fight for control for one culture, rather a this culture bloc vs. that culture bloc fight over control of the country. While I might doubt some of his analysis of more recent American history, Woodard marks a critical set of fault lines to watch in American politics and religion. I highly recommend this book for anybody who wants to understand currents in American history.

This book provided me a some hooks to hang up some of my thoughts about politics and Christianity in America, so stay tuned for the next post.