book coverAmerican Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
Colin Woodard
Viking Penguin, 2011, 322 pp plus backmatter

In 1991 Joel Garreau, then national news editor for the Washington Post, wrote The Nine Nations of North America. He was attempting to create a system that would help organize the efforts of his reporters when he realized that the news could not be organized geographically along state lines. Instead he defined areas of common social values and trends, only one of which (Quebec) actually followed political boundaries. Colin Woodard saw the organization of North America through a very similar lens, but did not want to create only a snapshot of the current social reality as Garreau had done. Woodard describes the beginnings of each of his eleven “nations”, the personalities and politics that controlled their early days, and the migrations from each.

Woodard’s map has some surprises, he calls New England “Yankeedom” and shows it covering not only the states we normally describe with that term, but also Canada’s Maritime provinces as well as much of Minnesota, all of Wisconsin and Michigan, not to mention Chicago. The Hispanic-influenced region he calls “El Norte” includes Southern California and large parts of Texas but also all or most of several states in northern Mexico which he suggests would be eager to leave Mexico to join an independent nation based on his lines on the map. Like Garreau, Woodard considers Miami to be the capital of a nation that includes all of the Caribbean islands along with most of Central America and the northern coast of South America. Sadly, because this nation is mostly outside of the US he identifies it and then chooses not to cover it.

“Tidewater” is his name for coastal Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland, the original home of a number of America’s leading thinkers in the early days. In contrast to that, he asserts that those who formed the basis of the “Deep South” came not from Europe like the other settlers but from the plantations of the Caribbean, and that the social structure, most particularly relating to slavery, was entirely different from that of Tidewater. “Greater Appalachia” was formed later in the western parts of Tidewater states, largely by those who had come “from the war-torn borderlands of northern Britain” who sparsely settled an inland area with fiercely-loyal clans and no government.

Woodard speaks with great admiration for what he calls “New Netherlands”, the smallest of his defined areas comprising metropolitan New York City. He discusses the anti-feudal politics of the Netherlands that he says grew out of the reality of individual land owners recovering land from the sea, and that a small polity like the Netherlands had become an aggressive international trade center and the needs of serving an international market had cured it of all the religious and nationalist biases that were so strong in every other area he discusses. Last week we celebrated the 350th anniversary of New York City, starting with the point at which the British Navy occupied New Amsterdam. Rather than attempt a military resistance, the Dutch burghers quickly sought a peaceable surrender. The British recognized the economic value of the community and though they insisted on naming it after the Duke of York they allowed the unique freedoms of the city to be maintained. New York City clearly maintains much of this character to this day, despite the fact that descendents of those burghers no longer represent a significant part of the populace.

By contrast, the nation he calls “Yankeedom” was not oriented towards freedom of the individual, but was committed to communities of like-minded, and like-worshiping, persons. Woodard shows that much of this character is preserved in communities as far west as North Dakota, although the Western areas populated by Yankee migration do seem to have lost all of early Boston’s religious intolerance.

By a delightful fluke it happened that I was reading American Nations at the same time I read James MacGregor Burns’ Fire and Light, a history of the Enlightenment. As much of the political and social development of the original colonies was a reflection of intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment, some of the parallels enlightened me more than perhaps reading either alone would have. I’ll cover that title in a few days.

I greatly enjoyed reading The Nine Nations several years ago and was delighted to see the same concept developed further by Woodard. Although the boundaries defined in the two books are different in detail, that largely reflects the time frames dealt with. Garreau was focused on newsworthy activities during the ’80s and ’90s rather than the origins of regional differences, Woodard’s historical approach naturally led him to focus on the original areas of influence. I don’t think you need to have read The Nine Nations to appreciate the eleven nations, although I certainly commend both titles.

American politics is currently facing significant demographic changes, as old white people like me are dying off, the young continue to insist on thinking differently than their parents and grandparents, and immigrants from Asia and Latin America continue to bring different values along with their exciting culinary contributions. The immediate changes we are facing on this front, potentially delayed one or more presidential election cycles due to low participation on the part of some of the most rapidly growing cohorts, is largely unrelated to the sectional histories Woodard provides, but the processes of change that he limns here provide valuable background to anyone trying to make sense of America’s direction at the start of the third millennium.