‘American Nations’ Explains Country’s Cultural, Ethnic Beginnings

American-NationsWhen I read Albion’s Seed, it sparked a paradigm shift — for the first time I finally understood why the definition of ‘real American’ is vastly different depending on where a person lives. Albion’s Seed also sparked my appreciation for the fact that the colonists and the Founding Fathers were not some coherent group that mirrored each other’s beliefs. (i.e. all were — fill in the blank)

So when I hear someone say — in the beginning America was (fill in the blank) — I know this person has chosen to view history in a way that is convenient for them. For example, some say America was founding on the ideals of religious freedom. If they are talking about the colony of Pennsylvania they are largely correct. However, if they mean New England, they are wrong since the Puritans persecuted, and even executed, Quakers, Baptists and Methodists.

Whereas Albion’s Seed concentrated on four British-American colonies, in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Colin Woodward looks at the whole of the United States.

One Nation Comprised Of Many

The basic premise of Woodward’s book is the country is really 11 nations — each with distinctive cultural, political and religous beliefs. Of course, I — like many — grew up learning the traditional story of American history. In this historical accounting, the eastern colonies fought for independence and then marched westward to conquer the land from ‘sea to shining sea.’

But, as Woodward points outs, this narrative overlooks historical data which really begins in the 16th century in the middle of the continent.

The 11 Nations

Instead of reviewing the book (which I highly recommend if you are interested in the country’s historical beginnings), I will list the 11 nations Woodward explores. These nations obviously cross state boundaries (he explains how/why in his book). Woodward successfully argues that these 11 nations are, in many ways still intact, and they continue to drive America’s politics. In chronological order the nations are:

  1. El Norte. It turns out the mid-section of the country was the first section settled by colonists — not the east coast. By 1595, twelve years before Jamestown, Spanish Americans were living and thriving in present-day north New Mexico and southern Colorado. Nation’s key traits: overwhelmingly Hispanic — a hybrid between Anglo- and Spanish America.
  2. New France. As Woodward point out, 16 years before the Mayflower’s voyage, it was a group of Frenchmen who were the first Europeans to face a New England winter. Nation’s key traits: multiculturalism and negotiated consensus among its inhabitants.
  3. Tidewater. This is the region where my paternal line — the Claywells — entered North America. It is basically Jamestown and the land owned and developed by the Virginia Company. To some this is ‘real America,’ where the ‘bold, scrappy individualist,’ was born. It was populated with ‘haughty gentlemen-adventurers, the rest beggars and vagrants,’ prompting the Virginia Company president to say, ..’a more damned crew, Hell never vomited.’
  4. Yankeedom. Founded on the eastern shores of the continent by the Massachusetts Bay Company, the colony was founded by educated, Puritan families. The colony was created as a effort of the Puritans to create a ‘city on a hill,’ and to give them the ability to pursue their mission of purifying the church. Core beliefs: emphasis on education, local political control and pursuit of the ‘greater good’ for the community.
  5. New Netherland. Founded by the Dutch in present-day New York City it was ‘from the start a global commercial trading society: multi-ethnic, multi-religious, speculative, materialistic, mercantile, and free trading, a raucous, not entirely democratic city-state where no ethnic or religious group has ever truly been in charge.’
  6. Deep South. Founded by Barbados slave lords as a West-Indies styled slave society, for most of American history this region has ‘been the bastion of white supremacy, aristocratic privilege, and a version of classical Republicanism modeled on the slave states of the ancient world, were democracy was a privilege of the few and enslavement was the natural lot of the many.’
  7. The Midlands. Founded by English Quakers, this region gave birth to the culture of Middle America and the Heartland. It was the only British American colony in 1775 that had a non-British majority. In this nation, ‘ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate, even apathetic.’
  8. Greater Appalachia. Woodward’s boundaries for this region comprises a significantly larger chunk of the country than traditional Appalachian maps. As a southwest Ohio resident, I live inside this nation. According to Woodward, this nation, while in the British Isles, ‘formed a state of near-constant war and upheaval, fostering a warrior ethic and a deep commitment to individual liberty and personal sovereignty.’ It is also the region my maternal line, the Beatys, settled in when they arrived in North America.
  9. Left Coast. This nation extends from a strip in Monterey, California to Juneau, Alaska and was founded by two other groups, Woodward says. Merchants, missionaries and woodmen from New England — who arrived by sea — and farmers, prospectors and fur traders from Greater Appalachia who arrived by wagon. The first group controlled the towns while the latter controlled the countryside.
  10. Far West. This region in the only place, Woodward contends, where environmental factors outweighed ethnic ones. It was colonized in large part through the efforts of large, private corporations and federal government programs (like railroads). It’s political class tends to ‘revile the federal government for interfering in its affairs…while demanding it continue to receive federal largesse.’
  11. First Nation. Comprised of indigenous people to the north, the inhabitants of this nation never surrendered their land through treaties and still ‘retain cultural practices and knowledge that allow them to survive in the region on their own terms.’

Final Thought

One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me, is it simplifies how politics work in America. I subscribe to the belief that the ‘apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,’ and now I can see the country based on its various  ‘segments’. This makes it easier to understand why certain national politicians fail or succeed in their marketing campaigns for the presidential office. Articles by Woodward | Podcast with author

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Categories: American History, Colonial Era, Colonial Period

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