Actually, the book’s REAL title is American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard (Penguin Books, 2011).This review demonstrates that I’ve been doing most of my writing for Top Comments recently, since it was motivated by a comment thread started by cuphalffull‘s recommendation of the book in DrJohnB‘s diary on the roots of the polarization we see in today’s politics. No, I’m nowhere in the thread, because I remembered that I had read the book and there was something I found hinky about it, but I figured that the people recommending the book meant that maybe I should reconsider it. I’ve reread it, and it IS an interesting read, but it’s more solid in some parts than it is in others, and it sort of loses its way between the Revolution and today, although the conclusion is provocative. The problem is akin to the Greek myth about Procrustes’ bed.
So what this is is a case study of how a professional historian looks at a history book written by a, well, journalist. It’s the stuff you have to look out for when you’re reading material by the Walter Isaacsons and the John Mechems of the world.
The premise of the book is that the roots of partisanship in American politics — in fact, the origins of American political culture — lie in the patterns of settlement of North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the movement west by the descendents of the original settlers and by immigrants during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s a good premise and Woodard provides it with a good explanatory matrix. The sociologists who study immigration have observed that people tend to move west along latitudinal lines, thus migrants west from Massachusetts would end up in Michigan and Wisconsin while migrants from Georgia would end up in Arkansas or Texas. Here are the eleven regions in order of settlement:
1. First Nations (now the Canadian province of Nunavut)
2. El Norte (the Spanish settlement of Northern Mexico and what’s now New Mexico starting in the 1560s)
3. New France (the watershed of the St. Lawrence River, 1612)
4. Tidewater (Jamestown, 1607)
5. Yankeedom (Plymouth, 1620)
6. New Netherland (1626)
7. The Deep South (The Carolinas, colonies of the sugar planters of Barbados, c 1670)
8. The Midlands (William Penn, 1681)
9. Greater Appalachia (starting in 1718)
10. The Left Coast (starting in the 1830s, accelerating after 1848)
11. The Far West (after the Civil War)
Here they are mapped out:
In the first part of the book, Woodard maps out the early settlement of North America by European colonizers in pretty much chronological order before 1769. He sets out the nine nations well, with their cultural traits and their contributions to what would become three new nations (his discussion of how the northern provinces of Mexico are not very much like Mexico further south is very good), and he does an excellent job in explaining what the
bloodless coup Glorious Revolution of 1688 meant to the British colonies, which is something our textbooks don’t do a good job with. Naturally, there are no Indians (except, of course, Pocahontas and Squanto) in this section but that has stopped surprising me. You wouldn’t think that there was a problem with his discussion of these colonies until you go to the end of the book, to his “Acknowledgement and Suggested Reading” section. He begins that section with a fairly long tribute to another wonderful book, David Hackett Fischer’s magisterial treatment of English settlement in North America, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989). That’s well and good, because Fischer really details the folkways of the four major settlements of British North America extensively. These four major settlements were:
Puritans from the East of England to Massachusetts, 1629-1640 (Yankeedom)
“Royalists” from the south of England to Virginia and the Lower South 1642 –1675 (Tidewater, Deep South [although oversimplified])
Quakers from North Midlands/Wales to Delaware Valley 1675-1725 (Midlands)
Borderlands of Britain (Scotland, Northern Ireland) to the backcountry (Greater Appalachia) 1718-1775
No New France, No El Norte, no New Netherlands. Fischer doesn’t take settlers from any place but Great Britain into consideration for the great bulk of the book; he doesn’t mention any other settlers until he discusses the cultural hegemony of the four regions and finally, on page 839, he admits that Martin Van Buren was descended from Dutch Calvinists and New York wasn’t founded by the British. So that’s not really where he got the material for the section from.You see, there IS a book that discusses all the European colonizers of North America, and it’s a very good one: Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). This book covers all the nations Woodard discusses in part I of his book. Woodard refers to Taylor extensively in his footnotes, but not in the Suggested Reading section. I know this because I found something in American Nations that looked very much like my lecture notes, which I’ve cribbed extensively from Taylor’s book, and the footnote led me to Taylor. This makes me wonder what’s going on: how much is the first sections going to resemble an abridgment of Taylor’s book?
Part II is essential to the book because it explains how Yankeedom and Tidewater understood that they had enough common interests to form a new nation even though the two cultures seemed to have nothing in common, and, yes, Woodard credits an extraordinary book, Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (1982), for his explanation (because the revolution in Yankeedom really didn’t have to be explained). He also takes a stab at how the various regional cultures collaborated in writing the Constitution, although, as we’ll see later, he leaves out the one precipitating event that historians believe necessitated the call for a Constitutional Convention and without which we might not have had the Constitution we have.
It’s when we come to the ratifying conventions and the Bill of Rights that we hit choppy water. Woodard provides this explanation for the Bill of Rights:
New Netherlands refused to vote on [the Constitution] at all until Congress agreed to add thirteen amendments modeled on the civil liberties enumerated in the Articles of Capitulation on the Reduction of New Netherland, which the Dutch had brokered before turning the colony over to England in 1664.
You’ve probably noticed “thirteen.” First off, there were twelve amendments sent out to the states, ten of which constitute the Bill of Rights. One of the two that was NOT ratified became the twenty-seventh amendment in 1992, and, since it deals with the timing of salary increases for Congress, I doubt it had anything to do with the civil liberties of the residents of New Netherland. Second, Congress knew it had to come up with a bill of rights because the ratifying convention in Massachusetts refused to act on the Constitution until it was promised that one of the first acts of Congress would BE the Bill of Rights. Third, by the time New York voted on the constitution it had already been ratified by the requisite nine states to constitute a new nation. Where did Woodard get his information from? A book by Russell Shorto that he cites as “Shorto (1983)” only according to the Library of Congress, Shorto didn’t publish anything in 1983. If I accept that he means “Shorto (2004),”what I find is confirmation that the document Woodard refers to existed and an acknowledgment that New York was not enthusiastic about the Constitution. Nothing about the document contributing to the Bill of Rights, which was actually based on a document George Mason wrote in early 1776 for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Um, this constitutes making stuff up. Not something a journalist or a historian is supposed to do.In Part III, Woodard explains how FOUR of the nations (Yankeedom, the Midlands, Greater Appalachia and the Deep South) expanded west (New Netherlands and Tidewater were landlocked.) It’s a good explanation: Yankeedom used the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes, while the Midlands and Greater Appalachia used the Ohio River, and this can explain why Cleveland and Cincinnati are politically different and Southeastern Ohio is different from both. But here, the water is even choppier as Woodard explains how the Sedition Act was aimed at Democratic publishers, especially those from Greater Appalachia, and Matthew Lyon, who Woodard describes as D-KY, serves as his poster boy for that. Matthew Lyon may have represented Kentucky in Congress during the Jefferson Administration, but he was arrested for violating the Sedition Act while he represented Vermont. Woodard probably left that out because it didn’t work with this statement about New England and the Alien and Sedition Acts:
Yankeedom [by which he means the Federalist Party] defended the acts . . . All citizens had the right to elect their own representatives, the thinking went, but once they did, they owed them their absolute deference — not just to the laws they passed but to everything they said or did.
Thus, Matthew Lyon, who was reelected while he was in his jail cell in 1798, had to have been reelected by Borderlanders, because if (as actually happened) he was reelected by Yankeedom, there’s a problem. We don’t find Shays’ Rebellion in this book either, as I noted above.Then there’s this. Woodard examines the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Supreme Court decision in Worcester v Georgia, and explains what happened to the Cherokees, but then produces this sentence:
The Creek and Chicksaw [sic] followed the Cherokees’ Trail of Tears a few years later, when Alabama and Mississippi annexed their territories.
Um, REALLY no, as I discussed in my diary about the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Admittedly, the Chickasaw, a prosperous slave-owning nation, left in 1837, when the Cherokees did, only not at bayonet-point, and their migration continued until 1850. The Creeks had it even worse, as their forced migration took place in 1836 and it’s estimated that 45% of the Creek Nation died in the process. There’s even a citation, and I happen to have THAT book too: Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007).Howe is much too careful a historian to mess up the order. He discusses the departure of the Cherokees, but then he doubles back to write
By this time the Creek and Chickasaw tribes had undergone their own coerced Removals, accompanied by similar hardships, from Alabama and Mississippi, respectively.
I suppose Woodard didn’t see “By this time” but really. If you’re going to write something that’s supposed to be a history, you have to pay attention to details. If you’re making stuff up, however . . .But then we get to Part IV, which Woodard calls “Culture Wars.” Here he covers the libertarianism of the Far West (the Left Coast is really a fairly narrow strip of land on the Pacific Ocean, rather like Chile) and immigration (which didn’t affect the dominant cultures and didn’t affect Tidewater, Deep South, Greater Appalachia or El Norte at ALL). Some interesting points here. “Nation of immigrants,” he says, only applies to New Netherlands and the Midlands, which have always been at least polyglot. Never mind the great Scandinavian and Eastern European migration to the Great Lakes portion of Yankeedom. In this section, Yankeedom reverts to New England and Henry Ford’s Americanization ceremony in Michigan, and the Yankee historians went to work
crafting a mythic “national” history [he should know] for students to celebrate, which emphasized the centrality of the (previously neglected) Pilgrim voyage, the Boston Tea Party, and Yankee figures such as the minutemen, Paul Revere, and Johnny Appleseed. In the Yankee paradigm, immigrants were to assimilate into the dominant culture Cultural pluralism,individualism, or the acceptance of an Anglo-British class system was not on the Yankees’ agenda.
Well, okay, but that work was being done by Yankee historians as early as 1830, when Daniel Webster claimed on the floor of the Senate that New England had never had slaves. That’s probably a quibble on my part. Woodard has fun abusing Samuel Huntington and his disciples too.So where we STILL are is in the arrangement of the nations after the Civil War:
an angry humiliated and salvation-minded Dixie bloc [Tidewater, Deep South and much of Greater Appalachia] against a triumphant social-reform-minded alliance of Yankeedom, New Netherlands, [the Midlands,] and the Left Coast.
This simmered until the late 1950s when the civil rights movement and the counter-cultural revolution brought everything to the surface. If I liked country music, I’d embed the video of Merle Haggard, a Greater Appalachian singer working in the Far West, performing “Okie from Muskogee,” but I don’t, and you get the picture anyway. Woodard notes that the culture clash may be even stronger on the issues of foreign policy and war and I tend to agree although he’d have trouble explaining J. William Fulbright in his nation schematic.How does this play out in politics? It explains why the moderate wing of the Republican party, especially the Republicans in Yankeedom and the Left Coast, has withered away:
In short, by the early twenty-first century, Northern alliance Democrats and Republicans had far more in common with each other than with their counterparts in the Dixie bloc.
It establishes the Midlands, El Norte and the Far West as “swing” nations. This is followed by a paean to Canada and a claim that New France, whose capital is Montreal, is the most postmodern nation in North America, more progressive even than the Left Coast.Okay. This is a good book that should be better than it is. I’m fine with where he ends up, but I wish he had been more careful about his history.