Review (Guest): American Nations – A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

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Colin Woodard

Phi Beta Iota:  Elevated to four stars on recommendation of Chuck Spinney.  Synopsis of book in article for:  A Geography Lesson for the Tea Party

3.0 out of 5 stars How many sub-nations compose the USA?,October 10, 2011

Many people think of the United States as a nation with two regional or sub-national entities — the North and the South. The two sub-nations have identifiable differences in outlook. The South, a traditionally rural and agricultural region, has always been perceived to have a relatively conservative and individualistic outlook, oriented toward small government and states rights. The North, dominated by urbanized commercial centers, has always been relatively more aligned with big government agendas, a natural characteristic of densely populated areas where most people's livelihoods are derived from industry and commerce.

The geographical, political, and cultural divides between the North and South have been fairly well defined by the “Mason-Dixon Line” — approximately the line of the Ohio and Potomac Rivers . Indeed states like Kentucky and Maryland are called “Border States” as if they were on an international frontier. And of course a military frontier DID materialize between the North and South when the Southern sub-nation attempted to assert its sovereignty during the Civil War.

This great divide between the Northern and Southern sub-nations continues to this day. I've read commentaries from foreigners who explain the politics of the United States as consisting of a struggle for dominance between the Northern and Southern sub-nations. We Americans refer to this as the “Red State / Blue State” divide. So the idea of the USA consisting of two sub-nations is well established.

The question this book addresses is whether it makes sense to subdivide the United States into MORE THAN TWO subnational entities. Others have asked this question before. Joel Garreau wrote about it in 1981 in his book THE NINE NATIONS OF NORTH AMERICA. I read NINE NATIONS then and concluded that it was partially valid in an economic sense, i.e. relatively more Westerners earn their livelihoods from mining, relatively more people on the Great Plains earn their living from growing wheat and corn and livestock, and relatively more Northerners earn their living from Industry. So from that perspective there are arguably nine economic nations in North America. But Garreau did not convince me that there are more than two political sub-nations inside the USA.

I have to say that this book doesn't convince me either. The historical context presented in the book seems to me to be stretched a bit, for example in portraying the Civil War as alliances between federations of many submerged “nations” instead of just being a war between the USA and CSA. Woodard writes:

While Midlanders [people living in the “Lower North” States of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois] voted with their Yankee neighbors, they had no desire to be governed by them. Faced with the possibility of a national dissolution, most Midland political and opinion leaders hoped to join the Appalachian-controlled states to create a Central Confederacy stretching from New Jersey to Arkansas. The proposed nation would serve as a neutral buffer area between Yankeedom and the Deep South, preventing the antagonists from going to war with each other.

I think it's safe to say that the author's assertion that “most” Midland political and opinion leaders favored forming a Central Confederacy is an overstatement. I've studied this subject intensively and don't know of ANY “Midland political and opinion leaders” of any substance who hoped to form a Central Confederacy. SOME small-town newspaper editors talked about it, and A FEW small-time “Copperhead” conspirators may have favored the concept as a means of dividing and weakening the Union's war effort against the Confederacy. But the idea was not promoted by any Governors, Congressmen, or Senators that I know of. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the two most prominent “Midlanders” of the Civil War era, never discussed it. Nor did anybody of substance in the “Upper South” states on the southern bank of the Ohio River. The question came down to, “Who do we fight for, the Union or Confederacy?” There wasn't any realistic prospect of carving out alternative third-party nations.

There are MANY other gross over-simplifications that lead me to believe that the author's arguments postulating more than two sub-nations inside the USA are forced. The central premise of the book does NOT ring true:

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.

Were that premise true, political campaigns would be tailored along subnational lines with candidates appealing to quasi-nationalistic “(Yankee, Southern, Midwestern, Western) Pride.” In truth political campaigns ARE tailored along conservative/liberal, labor/capital, black/white (not so much anymore, fortunately), and faithful/secular. These traditional demographic categories trump subnational issues within the United States. For example, a political party will appeal to the ECONOMIC interests of factory workers the same in Michigan, Alabama, and California, but will not appeal to their interests as separate nationalities. The ONLY political campaign that was ever organized along subnationalistic lines was that of 1860 that led directly to Civil War when the South attempted to formally assert a separate nationality. All modern political discussions in the United States have been about economics and foreign policy, and nothing to do with nationalistic ambitions of our regions. On that basis I would say the fundamental premise of the book is overstated.

Also, in response to some of the comments that came after my review, let me add that the “nations” that the author postulates have highly unconventional boundaries.

1. The “nation” the author calls “Greater Appalachia” is stretched to include such unlikely places such as Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; and Dallas, Texas. Do any of these places really have a “nationality” bond with a real Appalachian town, like Charleston, West Virginia? I know the author's argument is that the FIRST WHITE settlers into these places MAY have been mountain men. But a LOT has happened in Columbus and Indy and Dallas since the first hillbilly walked into town 200 years ago, if indeed any did. In truth the first white settlers in the American Midwest were not Appalachian hillbillies but French Canadians. And before that these places were Indian villages. So why aren't the French or Indians considered to be the dominant “nation” if the author's thesis of “first settlement” priority is valid? This is one example of many where the author's assumptions of “nationality” are arbitrary.

2. The author also postulates that the southern parts of the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba are part of the same nation as the American Midlands. This is highly contrary to conventional wisdom that Canada is a distinct nationality from the USA in regards to government, politics, dialect, ethnicity, and settlement. The author gives a rationale for why his concept is correct, but his logic is unconventional.

3. Also, based on the map of the “nations” the author doesn't appear to know that French Canada extends several hundred miles across Northern Ontario (Franco Ontario) and does not stop at the Ontario border as the author's “nationality” map shows. Perhaps even many Canadians aren't aware of the dominance of French in the northern belt across Ontario, but still if you're going to write as an authority on North American nationalities you should know where the boundaries are. In the author's map French-Canadian towns like Kapuskasing, Ontario are lumped into the same Midlands “nation” as Philadelphia, PA.

Also, in response to comments I feel compelled to point out just one of MANY specific instances in which the author attempts to correlate political action with what he thinks are “nationality” characteristics of America's regions. The author tells us that:

U.S. foreign policy has shown a clear national pattern for the past two centuries. Since 1812, the anti-interventionist, anti-imperial Yankees have squared off against the bellicose, unilateralist hawks in the Deep South and Tidewater.

An objective historian would have known that:

Alfred Thayer Mahan, the father of the modern American Navy (1880s and 1890s) as an instrument of maintaining an American Empire and waging offensive war against other nations in Europe and Asia, was a New Yorker. Mahan persuaded Congresses and Presidents to build the “blue ocean navy” as the specific instrument of overseas expansion that led us into ALL overseas conflicts.

President Grover Cleveland of New York under advice of Secretary of State Richard Olney of Massachusetts pushed us to the very brink of another war with Great Britain in the 1890s over a “Monroe Doctrine” issue regarding British encroachment in Venezuela.

President William McKinley of Ohio took us into the Spanish-American War in 1898.

President Teddy Roosevelt of New York ordered the U.S. Navy to blockade Panama when he wanted to separate it from Colombia in order to build the Panama Canal.

The author tells us that President Woodrow Wilson, whom he thinks was a “Southern” President (despite Wilson making his first political mark as Governor Of New Jersey), took us to war with Germany in 1917 because Southerners allegedly thought that “God had endorsed the war.” He doesn't mention the fact that we went to war because the Germans killed American passengers in sinking the Lusitania and asked Mexico to invade the USA as their ally.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York orchestrated our entry into WWII by ordering the U.S. Navy to “sink on sight” German submarines before war was declared, which went far in persuading Hitler to declare war on the USA.

President John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts ordered the first American combat troops into South Vietnam.

After Vietnam it was primarily Ronald Reagan who orchestrated the brinkmanship that won the Cold War. According the author's “nationality” map Reagan was born and raised an “Illinois Yankee.” Reagan's prominent military advisors were people like Al Haig from the Northeast

None of these Presidents who took us to every major war between 1890 and the Cold War were “bellicose, unilateralist hawks in the Deep South and Tidewater.” In truth it was primarily the group that the author calls “Yankees” that have argued throughout our history that the United States must go to war rather than to allow hostile nations to threaten our global interests. More to the point, the entire nation was involved in these wars. They were not orchestrated by belligerent “subnations” in the South and West for self-serving purposes as the author wants us to believe.

There are many other unconventional assumptions in the author's definition of “nations” both in terms of boundaries and historical interpretations. To list them all would take almost as much space as the book itself. The readers best be their own judge of whether the author's unconventional assumptions trump the conventional wisdom.

However, the book is definitely thought-provoking. I'd encourage readers to enjoy it and form their own opinions, while understanding that the author is liberally interpreting American history in order to align it with his thesis. With that caveat in mind, I believe everyone with a professional or casual interest in American history will enjoy the read. I certainly did.

The value the book really had for me was in reminding me of what a stupendous accomplishment our ancestors achieved of creating ONE nation across the heart of North America. When we finally did fight the Civil War, the nationalism of the original Union had been matured sufficiently to maintain the nation as one. Many of our leaders from Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, to Lincoln, and on down to modern times have worked relentlessly to insure that we will remain one nation. Reading Woodard's book made me appreciate that effort. And, although Woodard arguably overstates the impact of regional differences in our history, he does open a window on an interesting topic that is worthy of a fresh discussion.

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