American Nations

Some writers – e.g. in a post in the Marginal Revolutions blog in 2017, the economist Tyler Cowen – mention American nations : a history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America as a partial explanation for support for the candidacy of Donald Trump among American working class and middle class voters in the midwest 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.  The children in Oak Bay must be precocious.  As 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”.

Colin Woodard is a journalist and writer of explanatory nonfiction. American Nations presents a condensed introduction to a theory of American history: tracking regional culture back to the European settlement of different parts of North America by distinctive groups. Woodard accepts that the modern view of modern American historians that cultures of different parts of America evolved from the cultures of the first European settlers. The idea is that America was a political movement to create a state, as that term was understood in political theory and international law, before there was an American nation. This idea resembles some early modern political theories, and can be seen as a revival of theories of blood and race, but is less interested in the origins and traditions of particular settler groups

For instance Alan Taylor in American Colonies and other works. Consider this review and summary (Scott Alexander) of Albion’s Seed by David Fischer. Woodard summarized American Nations in a 2013 article in Tufts Magazine. (Map in the Tufts Magazine piece). Several of the “nations”:

  • Yankeedom – New England was settled by English religious dissenters, who framed their activities as creating a new moral world in the wilderness.   Fischer used the term “Puritans”;
  • Tidewater- Virginia and Maryland 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;
  • Deep South – 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 Netherland – New York state surrounds New York City and Delaware. A trading centre – commercial and cosmopolitan;
  • Midland – Pennylvania started as a land grant to a utopian religious dissident;
  • Greater Appalachia, parts of the deep South, parts of the midwest Midland, and parts of the “Far West”(the prairies and Rocky Mountains). 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.  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’s ideas about the formation and persistence of political culture have some power to explain history. I don’t agree that this theory can account for current events.  The apportionment of values and tendencies to “nations” within the modern American polity has weaknesses. While the opponents of President Trump characterize his appeal as an appeal to local pockets of white grievance, e.g. in Appalalachia, Appalachians are not measureably more belligerent and grasping than other Americans – or for that matter anyone. Perhaps Richard Slotkin‘s cultural histories of the American willingness to use violence to acquire and hold property on a hostile frontier such as Gunfighter Nation have more traction in explaining American populism.


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