by Colin Woodard
We Americans carry a bunch of different identities: ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, race, political affiliation, and so on. Depending on your values, some of these identities may be important to you, or not at all. Colin Woodard argues, however, that there is another identity that is both impossible to ignore and virtually unknown: that of our respective “nations.”
These unseen nations strongly influence our values and help to sort our other identities. Some nations are individualistic, others communitarian; some diverse, others intolerant; some authoritarian, others egalitarian. The values of each nation derive from those of the original European settlers of the territory, as indicated in the names of New France, New Netherland, and El Norte. Other nations are founded by religious minorities, Caribbean slavers, or Scots-Irish immigrants, and others derive their values from settlement patterns in the western half of the continent.
This paradigm seems refreshing to me. I know the concept of regional differences isn’t new, but Woodard backs up most of his claims with historical evidence, and he explains historical events in ways that seem to fit his interpretation. For example, his account of the Civil War demonstrates how the so-called “border states” came into being, and why “conservative” Appalachian areas such as western Virginia and eastern Tennessee largely opposed the breakup of the Union. Going further back, Woodard views the Revolutionary War not as a unified continental effort, but more akin to a series of “national” wars of liberation. Instead of, “The war in the north meets the war in the south at the decisive Battle of Yorktown,” Woodard describes each nation’s reaction to the war, and puts regional opinions and activities into greater context to explain why the war happened the way it did.
An obvious criticism of this model struck me pretty early on. How can the most important identity in American culture be something that 99% of people have never heard of? We know about regional differences, but Woodard defines these differences in very specific, distinct ways. Would most Americans understand how a Bostonian was different from a New Yorker or a Philadelphian? Do eastern Marylanders understand themselves to be part of a culture that’s centered in Virginia? Do Montanans align with Georgians politically because they consider themselves to have the same values, or is it a looser, “lesser of two evils” coalition? Woodard has well-defined nations, and I think that’s a plus, but culture isn’t always clearcut. Every state and locality in America has a slightly different feel, which makes me wonder when it’s appropriate to identify one nation, and not another.
There are other questions I have as well. Woodard calls southern elites “slave-lords,” and that works for most of his historical account; I’ll forgive him the use of that term for the hundred years after the Civil War, for even though slavery had been defeated, southern blacks were not full citizens in any sense. After the civil rights era, though, I question Woodard’s assessment of Deep Southern culture. For one thing, it seems like he excludes black Americans from his monolithic “Deep South.” They’re an identifiable ethnic minority with a different set of values, so I question why this never becomes one of Woodard’s nations.
Secondly, Woodard seems to believe that while southern culture has changed with the times, it’s still a culture based on traditional values including racial inequality, just as it was at the time of the Civil War. Is he really trying to say that the federal government hasn’t, at the very least, dragged the Deep South, kicking and screaming, into a modern, tolerant America? The Deep South described in American Nations would abhor, even in 2015, a nation that allows minorities of all types the same political rights as anyone else. The lack of an ideological alignment between Woodard’s Deep South and modern American society and politics, and the lack of a real neo-secessionist moviement, present a problem to Woodard’s thesis. Perhaps Americans are loyal to the idea of the United States, or they’re just afraid of the federal government; whichever it is, Woodard doesn’t address this dilemma.
If I can get in one more challenge to American Nations, it’s to Woodard’s prognostications about our future. Throughout our history, Woodard says, we’ve held our federation together, sometimes by a bare thread, often through sheer luck. The inference that one might draw from this is obvious: the United States of America is an unstable coalition that will fall way easier than we’d like to think. He reminds us that only a couple of decades before the fall of the USSR, a prediction of that collapse would seem equally outlandish. In comparing the longevity of the US to that of the USSR, Woodard’s implying that we might only have decades left as a single country before we splinter. While he doesn’t actually predict a timeframe for this dissolution, he quotes academics who believe that El Norte (stretches of the southwest that had been colonized by Spain) will cease to be part of the US within a hundred years.
Obviously, I don’t believe that. I think there’s more to being an American than living in a region with a defined cultural history. Americans clearly have different values in different places, values that often conflict with one another. We fight for our values tooth and nail. But values can change. Woodard’s assessment of Yankeedom (New England and large swaths of the midwest) changes over time, from intolerant utopianism to a more inclusive communitarianism. Woodard traces these cultural changes among the nations, and then bafflingly concludes that our nations are perpetually incapable of finding common cultural ground; in his view, we’re just a collection of nations with diametrically opposed views, similar to Huntingon’s Clash of Civilizations, but on a smaller scale. I disagree with this assessment; I think there’s more that brings us together than pulls us apart. But only time will tell who’s right.
Anyways, I thought American Nations was really great. Woodard assembles our shared cultural history into a completely new model, and backs it up with solid evidence. I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, but Woodard’s created a fascinating account and a concise, readable narrative. I’d recommend this book to any student of American history.