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American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

On a hot late-August day in 2010, television personality Glenn Beck held a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the forty-seventh anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Mr. Beck stood where Rev. King had stood and addressed the white, mostly middle-aged crowd encircling the National Mall’s Reflecting Pool. “We are a nation, quite honestly, that is in about as good a shape as I am, and this is not very good,” he joked. “We are dividing ourselves,” he said, “but our values and our principles can unite us. We must discover them again.”

It’s a theme heard again and again in times of crisis: Americans have become divided on account of having strayed from the core principles on which their country was founded—a “firm reliance on divine providence” and “the idea that man can rule himself,” in Mr. Beck’s analysis—and must return to those shared values if unity is to be restored. When society was turned upside down by mass immigration at the turn of both the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, intellectuals counseled that America was in danger of losing the “Anglo-Protestant” culture and associated “American creed” that had supposedly kept the nation unified. In the aftermath of the tumultuous 1960s, conservatives like Irving Kristol denounced liberal intellectuals, philanthropists, and social workers for abandoning America’s traditional capitalist values in favor of utopian social engineering; the liberals fervently defended these projects as promoting shared national principles of equality, justice, and freedom from oppression. With the United States allegedly divided between red states and blue ones in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to “beat back the politics of fear, doubt, and cynicism” in favor of hope, a sentiment that had allegedly rallied Americans to rebel against Britain, fight and defeat Nazism, and face down segregation in the South. “We are choosing hope over fear,” he said before the Iowa caucus. “We’re choosing unity over division.”

Such calls for unity overlook a glaring historical fact: Americans have been deeply divided since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth. The original North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions of the British Islands, and from France, the Netherlands, and Spain, each with their own religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics. Throughout the colonial period, they regarded one another as competitors for land, settlers, and capital and occasionally as enemies, as was the case during the English Civil War, when Royalist Virginia stood against Puritan Massachusetts, or when New Netherland and New France were invaded and occupied by English-speaking soldiers, statesmen, and merchants.

Only when London began treating its colonies as a single unit—and enacted policies threatening to nearly all—did some of these distinct societies briefly come together to win a revolution and create a joint government. Nearly all of them would seriously consider leaving the Union in the eighty-year period after Yorktown; several went to war to do so in the 1860s. All of these centuries-old cultures are still with us today, and have spread their people, ideas, and influence across mutually exclusive bands of the continent. There isn’t and never has been one America, but rather several Americas
.


Any effort to “restore” fundamental American values runs into an even greater obstacle: Each of our founding cultures had its own set of cherished principles, and they often contradicted one another. By the middle of the eighteenth century, eight discrete Euro-American cultures had been established on the southern and eastern rims of North America. For generations these distinct cultural hearths developed in remarkable isolation from one another, consolidating characteristic values, practices, dialects, and ideals. Some championed individualism, others utopian social reform. Some believed themselves guided by divine purpose, others championed freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deference to a traditional aristocratic order. All of them continue to champion some version of their founding ideals in the present day. The United States had Founding Fathers, to be sure, but they were the grandfathers, great-grandfathers, or great-great-grandfathers of the men who met to sign the Declaration of Independence and to draft our first two constitutions. Our true Founders didn’t have an “original intent” we can refer back to in challenging times; they had original intents.

America’s most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, capital and labor, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular. Rather, our divisions stem from this fact: the United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of eleven regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another. These nations respect neither state nor international boundaries, bleeding over the U. S. frontiers with Canada and Mexico as readily as they divide California, Texas, Illinois, or Pennsylvania. Six joined together to liberate themselves from British rule. Four were conquered but not vanquished by English-speaking rivals. Two more were founded in the West by a mix of American frontiersmen in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some are defined by cultural pluralism, others by their French, Spanish, or “Anglo-Saxon” heritage. Few have shown any indication that they are melting into some sort of unified American culture. On the contrary, since 1960 the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles, and ever more frequent pleas for unity.
[end of Rolling Stone excerpt]

More from the Introduction:

I have very consciously used the term nations to describe these regional cultures, for by the time they agreed to share a federated state, each had long exhibited the characteristics of nationhood. Americans--because of this particular historical circumstance--often confuse the term state and nation and are among the only people in the world to use statehood and nationhood interchangeably. A state is a sovereign political entity like the United Kingdom, Kenya, Panama, or New Zealand, eligible for membership in the United Nations and inclusion on the maps produced by Rand McNally and the National Geographic Society. A nation is a group of people who share--or believe they share--a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols. Some nations are presently stateless--the Kurdish, Palestinians, or Québécois nations, for instance. Some control and dominate their own nation-state, which they typically name for themselves, as in France, Germany, Japan, or Turkey. Conversely, there are plenty of states--some of them federated--that aren't dominated by a single nation, like Belgium, Switzerland, Malaysia, Canada and, indeed, the United States. North America's eleven nations are all stateless, though, at least two currently aspire to change that, and most of the others have tried to at one time or another.
[vital part of the introduction IMO, courtesy of Google Books and my library copy]

ColinWoodard_AmericanNations_map

map source

The Nations (other than El Norte, Tidewater, and First Nation):

Far from being a melting pot, North America's nations still show the accidents of early settlement and policy. New France, for example, began as an alliance of equals between the natives and a handful of French settlers. Britain imposed ethnic cleansing on the Acadians, who transplanted their nation to Louisiana. But Quebec itself had too many people to deport. So New France's national culture survived British conquest, American invasion, and endless cultural pressure from both the U.S. and anglophone Canada.

Similarly, says Woodard, the Dutch colony of New Netherland was a multicultural trading hub, wedged between the conformist, communitarian Puritans of Yankeedom and the aristocratic planters of Tidewater. It remains a nation of its own, tolerant of diversity and dedicated to making as much money as humanly possible.

Furthermore, most of these nations expanded west to pursue their own needs, not those of the United States. Once they established their own colonies in the west, like-minded people tended to settle there, strengthening the national culture.

The Midlands, for example, started with William Penn's Utopian Quaker colony of Pennsylvania, which offered religious tolerance to all. It attracted middle-class farmers (including sects like the Amish), who then moved due west through northern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois before spreading out into the Great Plains and then north into Ontario and Manitoba. Midlanders tend to be multicultural, middle class, and politically moderate.

The Deep South, Woodard tells us, was actually a colony of the the Caribbean sugar island of Barbados. It was the richest, most horrible English-speaking culture in history, built not only on slavery but on deliberately working slaves to death. The Barbadians expanded north, founded Charleston, South Carolina, and pushed west wherever slave labour could enrich them. By the 1850s, the Deep South was seriously thinking about a "Golden Circle" -- a slave empire that would include all of Mexico, Cuba, and the Caribbean.

In this the Deep South's ally was Greater Appalachia. In the early 18th century, the British Isles' "borderlands" -- Ulster, northern England and lowland Scotland -- were economic disaster zones. With an individualist culture cherishing personal honour and violence in its defence, the "Borderlanders" migrated to the colonies and headed west to get away from law and order.

Once in the Appalachians, these Scots-Irish provoked wars with the natives and with the established authorities alike. Their violence shocked the Quakers of Philadelphia, not to mention the Cherokee
--who were deported to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears by Andrew Jackson, the first Appalachian president. Appalachians, Woodard says, have supported (and fought in) most American wars.

Two new nations emerged in the second half of the 19th century. The Left Coast was founded by New England merchants and missionaries plus Appalachian miners and farmers. It now extends through B.C. to Alaska, a nation blending "New England intellectualism" plus the Appalachian "culture of individual fulfilment."

The Far West, with little rainfall, didn't appeal to farmers. Instead, it fell under the control of railroads, mining companies, and other resource-extraction cartels. Far Westerners' only use for government was to provide subsidies for resource extraction and ranching. Alberta's oil patch descends directly from the Nevada silver companies and Montana's copper barons.

Woodard's insight shows American (and Canadian) history as the struggle of these nations to control their federal governments. Since the U.S. Civil War, he argues, Americans have been part of either the "Dixie bloc" or the "Northern Coalition." Each gains power in Congress and the White House by winning the support of "swing nations" like The Midlands. For the last 30 or 40 years, the Dixie bloc has usually been in control, cutting taxes and launching wars.
from a review of the book at The Tyee


I'm reading American Nations and much of it rings true to me. I grew up in the Far West but have lived on the Left Coast for the past 20 years. I'd love to hear what ONTD_P thinks.
EDIT: I didn't post this summary of the book by the author because it was so long (5 parts!) but it is a better explanation that what I cobbled together here: The Real U.S. Map, a Country of Regions
Tags: canada, culture, history, politics, usa
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