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.    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”.

The full title is American nations : a history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America. Colin Woodard is a journalist and writer of explanatory nonfiction. American Nations presents a condensed introduction to a body of thought about of American history: tracking regional culture back to the European settlement of different parts of North America by distinctive groups. Woodard accepts that the cultures of different parts of America evolved from the cultures of the first European settlers.  This assumption forms the basis for some narratives of American history.  For instance, consider this review and summary (Scott Alexander) of Albion’s Seed by David Fischer.


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”.   Fischer used the historical term “Puritans”.

Virginia and Maryland (“Tidewater”) were settled by English gentry, who emulated the culture of the lower aristocracy and the rising English mercantile classes.  Fischer refers to the migration of the Cavaliers to Virginia after the triumph of the Roundheads and the rise of the Lord Protector. Fischer also refers to class differences between the Cavaliers and their indentured servants.

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”. Fischer refers to the Quakers

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 Appalachians were the Americans that most readily adopted Manifest Destiny as an excuse to dispossess other nations. Fischer refers to Borderers, from both sides of Hadrian’s Wall as distinct entity, and as part of the migration of lower class people to America as indentured labourers.

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

The apportionment of values and tendencies to “nations” within the modern American polity has some traction but has weaknesses. While the opponents of President Trump catagorize his appeal as an appeal to local pockets of white grievance, e.g. in Appalalachia, Appalachians are not measureably more belligererent and grasping than other Americans.



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