Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Penguin, 2011) was late to get on my radar. The 300-plus page historical synthesis has suffered no loss of vitality almost a decade after publication – like any good work of history, it helps readers better understand the current day. If you still scratch your head trying to figure out how the same electorate elevated both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, in consecutive cycles, no less – I recommend that you add American Nations to your reading list.
Having grown up in the Chicago area, with family ties in rural Minnesota, I was intrigued to discover to which “nation” my family heritage best aligned. With a quick glance at the book’s cover map, I eliminated “Deep South” and “Greater Appalachia.” Standing out to me was “The Midlands,” a swath of land in the Upper-Midwest stretching from Pennsylvania to Nebraska. I was surprised to discover, as I began to read Woodard’s descriptions, that “Yankeedom” best fit my family heritage. “From the outset, [Yankeedom] was a culture that put great emphasis on education . . . and the pursuit of the ‘greater good’ of the community . . . Yankees have the greatest faith in the potential of the government to improve people’s lives, tending to see it as an extension of the citizenry, and a vital bulwark against the schemes of grasping aristocrats, corporations, or outside powers” (p. 5, paperback). A few other descriptors used by Woodard to describe “Yankees” touch on values I hold dear: “egalitarian,” vocation as “divine calling,” and opposition to “inherited privilege” and “conspicuous displays of wealth.” Yup, I’m Yankee to the core.
With support from The Midlands, Yankeedom was the main combatant against the Deep South and its cousin nation “Tidewater” (coastal Carolinas) in the Civil War. The fundamental disagreements that fueled that war have remnants that yet hold sway in American society. Woodard explains these on pages 55-56, by his careful contrast of liberty with freedom. Liberty, as understood by nineteenth-century Deep South culture, was a privilege – not a right – that few were granted. Virginian John Randolph (1773-1833) summed it up best: “I’m an aristocrat. I love liberty. I hate equality.”
Freedom, on the other hand, was understood by Yankeedom as a birthright of all peoples – no exceptions. Differences may have existed in status and wealth, but all were “born free” and equal before the law.
These differing understandings led to a bloody war in 1861. Today, the current strains of these understandings brace the battles about voting rights and restrictions, labor laws and worker rights, support of public school systems, taxation of the wealthy, and the expansion of health care. Consider the near fifty-year-old issue of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment: not one state of the Deep South nation bloc (excluding Texas) has voted for its approval.
Texas is a thoroughly hybrid state, as Woodard writes, with its southeastern and cotton-growing region part of the Deep South nation, its northern half part of the Appalachian nation, and its southwestern expanse paralleling the Mexican border part of “El Norte.”
I’ve lived most of my adult life in El Norte, arriving (and staying) because of my facility in the Spanish language. Woodard describes El Norte, which includes parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Southern California, as historically independent, adaptable, and work-centered. Woodard predicts that the bloc that wins the allegiance of El Norte will move forward in political gains in the first part of the twenty-first century. Perhaps a Yankee-El Norte ticket in 2020 – Joe Biden and Michelle Lujan Grisham (governor of New Mexico) or Catherine Cortez Masto (US Senator from Nevada) – has a chance to defeat the incumbent “New Amsterdam”-Greater Appalachia ticket, with Deep South allegiance – Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
I’ll close with a Woodard observation (page 318) that pits, like 160 years ago, Yankeedom versus Deep South. Unlike many other countries that have religion or ethnicity holding them together as a commonality, the United States is held together by its central government and its institutions: Congress, federal courts, military branches, national agencies. Woodard warns that this one nation won’t survive if the separation of church and state is weakened or abolished, if political ideologues overwhelm the Justice Department or the Supreme Court, or if open debate is squelched by hyperpartisan divides that erode congressional rules designed to uphold ideas to public scrutiny.
Our “oneness” as a nation is tenuous. Compromise, a disparaged word in this hyperpartisan age, is shown by American Nations to be a unifying force. Our differences will remain. Our nation’s future will be determined by our willingness to either fight about them or live with them.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019).