American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
One of the more prevalent myths about the US of A is that we are united. We all know that it isn’t true, and yet in every political speech we are reminded that we must “come together”, unite, work as one, etc. This presumes that the various states have a monolithic goal, and that our priorities can somehow find harmonic allignment.
Colin Woodard puts forward an excellent hypothesis that America is not a nation of red states or blue states, marked by conservatives versus liberals. Rather, we are a nation with eleven distinct nations, rooted in very distinct cultural values and aims. He shows how the various European migrations and settlements in the New World had wildly differing priorities and formed a smorgasbord of civilizations.
What is most interesting is his application of these “fault lines” to more modern elections/issues. The eleven nations he identifies can have their borders traced clearly after every election. His twitter feed is often full of maps of various issues or elections and, true to form, there are the several nations/blocs he identifies.
In short, the Puritans of New England shaped their modest, self-government, promised land culture, the Scots-Irish shaped a warlike ethos of individualism in Appalachia, the gentry of the Carolinas and Virginias aimed to recreate the traditions of the English countryside, the Spaniards left their legacy of communalism mixed with autocracy. After showing the formation of these and a few other cultures/nations, Woodard goes on to trace how they mingled (or not), and how they have set the landscape for current political and cultural battles.
Overall, this was a terrifically insightful book. At points Woodard whiffs, in my estimation, in fleshing out some aspects of the various nations. In particular, he falls victim to one of the classic caricatures of Puritans being folk who don’t like having any fun, and make it their business to make sure other don’t either. Also, as is common, he doesn’t present some of the better aspects of the Deep South before and during the Civil War (painting it largely in terms of their attachment to racism/slavery, with little “airtime” given to some of the other factors in play). The nature of his book necessitates plenty of generalizing, and on the whole, I think he generalizes with the best of ’em (for better or worse).
The main takeaway is that the US never has been a monolithic culture, and any attempt to do so will quickly discover the fault lines of our various “nations.” He notes that it is likely that by 2100 we will see a different border to the US than the present one, and he presciently mentions a global pandemic as an event which might result in a “redrawing” of the nation’s border through a break-up into smaller confederations.
Something that struck me (which Woodard doesn’t draw out as he is not writing this with a religious lens) is that while Yankeedom (i.e. Puritan Calvinists) set out to bring the Kingdom of God to earth (as we are called to do), this must never be divorced from the pure Gospel of Christ and Him crucified. Yankeedom went far astray when it thought it could shape a gloriously ordered culture merely by human will-power. It will never happen apart from evangelical faith in the Son of God.
This was a really terrific read. There are plenty of valuable insights to be gleaned, and where I differ with Woodard on certain things he would likely point out that it is because he is from Yankee-dom and I’m a mutt of Greater Appalachia and Midlands who was raised in the Far West who wants a return to the glory days of Puritan Yankeedom. If you don’t understand any of that…then read the book.