American Nations

I started to follow Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolutions blog last year in my effort to understand modern economics.  Professor Cowen mentioned American Nations as a part explanation for support for the candidacy of Donald Trump among disenfranchised American working class and middle class voters in the 2016 American elections.

I found a copy in the Oak Bay Branch of Greater Victoria Public Library.  It was catalogued as children’s nonfiction.  If it is a children’s book, the children in Oak Bay must be precocious.  BC is the province which evolved its brand from the Supernatural tourism slogan to the current Best Place theme.  Garrison Keilor said in his NPR broadcasts and books. “Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”.  This book must have been acquired to help Oak Bay teens complete school papers – a short codicil to other histories of the United States.

The full title is American nations : a history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America. Colin Woodard is a serious journalist and writer of explanatory nonfiction. American Nations presents a usefully condensed view of American history, tracking the European settlement of different parts of North America by distinctive groups. It tracks and cites a body of ideas that reframes the themes of striving and triumph in American history as taught in civics classes and in popular writing.


New England was settled by English religious dissenters, who framed their activities as creating a new moral world in the wilderness, and the origin of “Yankeedom”.   The Virginia and Maryland (“Tidewater”) were settled by English gentry, who tried to emulate the culture of the lower aristocracy and the rising English mercantile classes.  The Deep South was settled by agricultural entrepreneurs who moved to the Carolinas, bringing the plantation system, slavery, and self-serving attachment to the supposed traditions of the English aristocracy – descended from the Norman barons who conquered England in 1066. New York state surrounds New York City and Delaware (“New Netherland”) was a trading centre – commercial and cosmopolitan. Pennylvania started as a land grant to a utopian religious dissident, and is the original home of the region Woodard calls the (American) “Midland”.

Northern English and lowland Scots came to America as indentured servants and immigrants and occupied the frontiers. After centuries of clan warfare in Europe, these belligerant borderlanders trusted their own kin and no others, and do what was necessary to secure the survival and advantage of the clan.  From that start, the culture of “Greater Appalachia”, extending into the deep South, parts of the midwest Midland, and parts of the “Far West”(the prairies and Rocky Mountains). Woodard implies the Appalanchians were the Americans that most readily adopted Manifest Destiny as an excuse to dispossess other nations.

Woodard summarized American Nations in a 2013 article in Tufts Magazine. (Map in the Tufts Magazine piece).

It is good read, but light.  Woodard’s ideas about the formation and persistence of political culture have some power to explain history and to account for current events.  Ideas about civic cultures and social history are necessarily theories or opinions.  American Nations may have been a foundation and transition too Woodard’s more recent American Character.

The apportionment of values and tendencies to nations seem false.  The Appalancians were not measureably more belligererent and grasping than other Americans.



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