Ununited States

Did the Founding Fathers bring forth on this continent “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Abraham Lincoln put it in 1863? No, says Colin Woodard in American Nations. Rather, the founding fathers managed an alliance of several nations in 1776, nations that never agreed on the meaning of liberty or even the proposition of equality. Reviving and extending the theory that citizens of the United States are, to this day, divided into cultures that date back to the Europeans who first colonized their regions, Woodard describes eleven distinct “nations” covering most of North America. These nations shape how we vote, where we prefer to live, what kind of work we do, and what precisely we think liberty and equality mean.

Most of the nations Woodard names were founded in the colonial period of North American history. The first, El Norte, was an isolated and brutal place that developed a strong work ethic and would eventually include regions on both sides of the U.S.–Mexico border. Tidewater and Yankeedom, centered in Virginia and Massachusetts respectively, were rivals from the beginning in Woodard’s telling. Borrowing heavily from the historian David Hackett Fischer, Woodard describes Tidewater as a hierarchical region in which liberty is a privilege of the elites. By contrast, Yankeedom, founded by the Pilgrims and Puritans, is more egalitarian, religious (at first), educated, and community-oriented, with a belief in government’s ability to solve problems. Yankeedom, despite its defects, emerges as a hero-nation of the book, as do New France, founded in present-day Quebec, and New Netherland, founded in present-day New York City. They are described as unusually tolerant of other cultures—New France by design and New Netherland by necessity.

The Deep South nation is the arch-villain in Woodard’s scheme. Founded by West Indian plantation masters who spread to South Carolina and beyond, it was committed to brutal slavery, hierarchy, and expansion. The Midlands and Appalachian nations are treated with more nuance: Midlanders sprang from Quaker Pennsylvania and tend toward tolerance, caution, and moderation. Appalachians, the violence-hardened descendants of Scots-Irish borderlanders, are clannish, independence-minded, and almost absurdly bellicose. Midlanders and Appalachians serve as “swing” nations throughout American history up to the present, sometimes siding with Yankeedom, sometimes with the Tidewater or the Deep South.

Having founded eight nations, Woodard begins to reinterpret American history through the lens of national difference. He convincingly recasts the American Revolution and much of the politics of the early American republic as a series of inter-national disputes. He shows evidence that Yankeedom and Tidewater rebelled against Britain for different reasons, while Midlanders and New Netherlanders hung back or fought for the King. Appalachians fought, of course, but on different sides depending on local circumstances.

Following the Revolution, the various nations spread north to Canada or west to newly conquered native lands and imprinted their “cultural DNA” on these regions, so that northern Ohio became a Yankee region, while Louisiana was a mixture of Deep South and New France. Two new nations were founded in the nineteenth century: The Left Coast, from San Francisco north to Vancouver, is a Yankee colony gone awry. Meanwhile, the Far West is “the one place where environment really did trump the cultural heritage of settlers.” Stretching from eastern California to western Kansas, it is defined by its love-hate relationship with the federal government and corporate overlords.

Woodard also explains the Civil War and Reconstruction through this lens of nations, arguing that the Deep South’s strident defense of slavery came to represent “the South,” and eventually pushed the moderate Midlanders into backing Yankees in a confrontation over slavery and who would get to imprint their culture on the West. Appalachians, as in the Revolution, could be found on both sides of the conflict.

After the 1870s, Woodard’s narrative speeds up and feels spottier. By the late twentieth century, Woodard talks more and more about a “Northern alliance” opposed to a “Dixie bloc,” thus mushing together the nations he had worked so hard to differentiate in earlier chapters. He also refrains from analyzing certain issues. He notes, for example, that Yankeedom, the Left Coast, and New Netherland tend to favor abortion while the Deep South opposes it, but he does not explain what that might have to do with their national characteristics. This could be a sign that Woodard’s “nation” framework goes only so far. The argument starts breaking down in other ways too. Native Americans are given very brief treatment, and African Americans are folded into whatever European-founded nation they inhabit. Likewise, Woodard argues that immigrants and their children “did not displace their preexisting regional nations. These remained the ‘dominant cultures.’” Thus, without any irony, Martin Luther King Jr. is counted as a Deep Southerner. Similarly, the Irish-American Catholics John and Robert Kennedy are called “icons of Yankeedom.” Woodard strains credibility in arguing that the various nations absorbed immigrants without being reshaped themselves.

Woodard has a talent for shining light on rarely seen corners of American history, which helps him forward his intriguing perspective. Even scholars might learn something new here. Unfortunately, scholars will also occasionally cringe at basic errors. King Charles I, a high-church Anglican, is twice called a Catholic, for example, while the Ku Klux Klan is said to have disbanded in 1869 instead of being repressed by the federal government in 1871. The book’s version of American history is sometimes selective, as when Woodard calls the Bill of Rights “a set of very Dutch guarantees,” but neglects to note that some of the amendments are essentially copies of the 1689 English bill of rights. Nevertheless, the overarching interpretation is well supported.

Retrieving little-known facts and recasting well-known ones, Woodard offers a fresh, fun, and persuasive brief for the persistence of “national” divisions in the United States, and a provocative theory of why we Americans are the way we are.

Published in the 2012-07-13 issue: 

Gabriel J. Loiacono is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh.

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