“American Nations” – Review

(review by Carl Proper)

 

“American Nations: A History Of The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures Of North America”

by Colin Woodward

Viking Penguin, New York, 2011

 

As the U.S. approaches another election, with a polity seemingly more divided than at any time in living memory, a re-read of a book analyzing our divisions, written shortly before our last Presidential election, seems in order.

Colin Woodard’s “American Nations: A History of The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” offers a thought-provoking analysis for political or union organizers, with an antidote for such overly broad characterizations as “Southern” or “American” culture. Woodard argues, instead, that several very different European cultures, brought centuries ago to the New World, are still with us in updated form. Spanish conquistadors, British Puritans, French explorers, Barbados planters, Dutch mercantilists, Scottish and Irish workers and farmers, German pacifists, or the second sons of British nobles created the molds into which their successors still fit.

A key question this analysis might suggest for organized Labor, including advocates for a Second “Operation Dixie”[1] is to what extent can a single strategy for organizing “the (entire) South” address differing regional issues? Should we not distinguish between border areas like Tennessee, Kentucky or West Virginia, which may be more open than the Deep South to appeals to individual liberty (against capitalist exploitation – but potentially for “right to work”?) Could we not appreciate that most residents of “Tidewater” regions (such as eastern Virginia or North Carolina) suspect that “all men are created (well, sort of) equal?” Should we not ask whether residents of states that waffled as to whether to secede from the Union in the 1860’s are more amenable to union rights today than the unrepentant former slave economies of the Deep South? And could a focus on building union power in border regions help tip the national balance in a more labor-friendly direction?

Woodard’s central argument is that the founding cultures of each “nation” are the heart of our regional cultures today. Generation after generation of global and internal migrants, he insists, have learned to fit in with their new neighbors by adapting the local culture, much as the families of New England Yankees or Deep Southerners (or their descendants) eventually do today.

 

Though the first, widely separatedAmerican Nations 4 elements of the American patchwork (in the 15-1600’s), had grown more physically close by the time of the American Revolution, Woodard notes, they still saw themselves as distinct nations. Even after two terms as President of the United States, for example, Thomas Jefferson still meant “Virginia” when he spoke of his “country.” Woodard sees somewhat larger regional nations today, sharing common founding myths, like Jamestown, Plymouth or The Alamo. We have not, he would persuade us, fully abandoned or blended our Western, Midlands or New Netherland value sets. We just agree to understand the same terms differently.

The vision Woodard presents of the U.S.A. is of a federation more akin to the European Union or the British Isles than to a unitary state. (Interestingly, a similar vision of the distinct “nations” now constituting today’s Spain is explicit in the program of Spain’s new left “Podemos” Party.)[2]

The history of “American Nations,” in brief, describes how:

  • New England’s communal, missionary Puritans, who relied on local government and universal (religious) education to enforce moral norms, became today’s secular, communal, pro-government and pro-education missionaries; successfully evangelizing their culture to Maritime Canada and the west coast – and sticking to their commitment to build a more perfect society here on Earth.
  • “Tidewater” Virginia, Maryland and eastern North Carolina, where “gentlemen” like Washington, Jefferson and their descendants defended their personal liberty to rule over both poor whites and blacks — whom they recognized, at least, as fellow humans, akin to the British rural and working classes.
  • Deep South “slave lords,” after relocating to the mainland from brutal Caribbean plantations, also understood – and still understand — “liberty” as the right of the few, but further perceived abject servitude as natural for an inherently inferior majority. In slavery days, the punishment of “being sold down the river” from Tidewater to the Deep South, was understood as a probable death sentence.
  • The “Borderland / Greater Appalachian” descendants of hardscrabble Scots-Irish “hands” who escaped subjugation in the Deep South by pioneering in vast and lawless forests to the West – now running from Western North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee to East Texas. Woodard argues that Borderlanders tend to value individual (non-communal) liberty for all. They remain undecided as to whom they resent more, Deep South slave lords or self-righteous Yankees.
  • “New Netherlands” (New York City and areas of expansion to the west), founded by mercantile investors from the European nation most tolerant of immigrants and outsiders, remains the U.S.’ polyglot financial capital today.
  • “Midland” Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and their German-led westward expansion, are our most egalitarian (sometimes pacifist) region, but distrustful of government power and government solutions.
  • The “Far West,” (Idaho to Kansas) a region of prairie heat, drought, storms and depleted land, the last settled and least naturally hospitable region, remains internally colonized by giant corporations – first the railroads, and then extraction industries – based outside their “nation.”
  • The “Left Coast,” originally colonized by prospectors and pioneers, and then by New England cultural “missionaries” who founded universities wherever they went, retains its (more laid-back) alliance with northeastern liberals today, but adding a greater environmental appreciation.
  • “El Norte,” a socially unified region on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, with relationships and bodies continuously crossing that line in the sand, has more in common internally than with Southern Mexico or the rest of the U.S. – and may, one day, delete that border altogether.
  • Our most liberal nation, “New France,” divided between French eastern Canada, northeastern New England and the Louisiana destination of exiled Arcadians. New France is more open than the rest of us to reconciliation with the civilization that preceded white, black and yellow Americans to our hemisphere.
  • First Nation – some in internal southwestern exile, but also a large, self-governing, region of Canada, defending their sustainable traditions locally and advocating for them globally. In alliance with New France, a potentially dominant force above the U.S. border.

What might this vision imply for future efforts to organize? The UAW may have found a better opening for southward expansion in “Greater Appalachian” Chattanooga, Tennessee than is likely to be found in most Deep South areas, where anti-Labor and anti-Yankee sentiment is more deep-rooted. The VW (and UAW?) location, once divided in its Civil War sympathies, still harbors mixed attitudes today. Possibly, a labor-management, “Works Council,” (and — unavoidably) “right to work” approach to organizing will succeed more readily here than universal unionization. If Woodard has anything to teach us, it is that a “one size fits all” approach risks stimulating unnecessary obstacles in libertarian land.

Another question for consideration: do we risk uniting our opposition by working from an ahistorical label like “Dixie” when we know that Kentucky, West Virginia and parts of Tennessee fought for the union, some “Southern” states seceded only reluctantly, and many there hated the slave lords and resent today’s corporate lords as much as the people of New Hampshire? Recognizing more subtle regional distinctions, why not pursue a Border State and Tidewater alliance, pursue only targets of real opportunity in the Deep South, and seek to isolate the hard core?

 

As for Woodard, he sees a political struggle between long-term alliances over the last century, led by New England and the Deep South. His vision of unchanging cultures, however, is fundamentally pessimistic, and leaves him with little reform to recommend at the end of his history. He offers no suggestion as to what might break libertarian Borderlanders away from the Deep South, tie a growing El Norte more closely to the Left Coast, or New France to New England – other than possible secessions from Mexico or Canada.

Woodard is certainly open to charges of stereotyping rich regional cultures – but his stereotypes have history and extensive analysis behind them, avoid monolithic characterizations like “the South,” and culture-free assumptions that state political borders define attitudes. He also avoids the largest stereotype — “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

 


 

[1] See, for example, Douglas Williams and Cato Unicensis, “A Call for a Second Operation Dixie?” in Democratic Left (Labor Day 2014) and on this blog.

[2] “Spain is a nation of nations. The Right does not understand this. For us, therefore, the only way to reinvent Spain is through a form of federalism. And from that federalist basis, from a new form of regional integration, we can begin rebuilding Europe.” – Sebastiaan Faber, September 9, 2014, The Volunteer