A Colorful Map that Tells Us Almost Nothing

Colin Woodard's Map of "The American Nations Today" Photo Credit: Tufts Magazine http://www.tufts.edu/alumni/magazine/fall2013/features/up-in-arms.html

Colin Woodard’s Map of “The American Nations Today” Photo Credit: Tufts Magazine http://www.tufts.edu/alumni/magazine/fall2013/features/up-in-arms.html

Read this article before proceeding.

Colin Woodard’s recently created map of eleven “American Nations” in the United States today is of dubious scholarship, in my opinion. It is a decidedly white, British-Isles-centric rendering of American cultural values that purports to interpret the roots of gun violence throughout the country and explain why Americans can’t come to an agreement over gun control today. It fails on both accounts and does little to sharpen our perceptions of both the past and present.

Woodard’s description of each “nation” is extremely problematic for several reasons. For one, he gives us little in the way of a time frame in which to contextualize the cultural characteristics of each “nation.” He vaguely refers to the time period in which each “nation” was “established,” [by white Anglo-Saxons, of course] but fails to explain which “nations” emerged first or suggest the possibility that each of these “nations” was inhabited by Americans who emigrated multiple times during their life and who were influenced by cultural characteristics across regions of the country. In failing to provide a chronological context for his study, Woodard essentially uses each region’s cultural context during the period of “establishment” [the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries] to explain contemporary political problems without explaining changes in politics, economics, or demographics from roughly the antebellum period to the present. Plus, his descriptions and geographical placements for some of these “nations” are outright awful.

Take, for example, “The Midlands.”  Woodard says the following about this “nation”:

America’s great swing region was founded by English Quakers, who believed in humans’ inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies like Pennsylvania on the shores of Delaware Bay. Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate. An ethnic mosaic from the start—it had a German, rather than British, majority at the time of the Revolution—it shares the Yankee belief that society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, though it rejects top-down government intervention.

If you look at Missouri on the map above, you’ll notice that “The Midlands” covers most of the Northwestern part of state before making a stretch along the Missouri River to St. Louis. In making this distinction, Woodard purports to explain the founding of St. Louis and a good chunk of the Missouri Region as the creation of utopian-minded English Quakers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first white settlers to St. Louis were Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau, two men of French descent who named the city after King Louis IX in 1764. Shortly after French discovery, the area west of the Mississippi River was assumed by New Spain. This land was later transferred back to the French in 1800 before Napoleon Bonaparte sold it as a part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Long before these white men came, Mississippian culture thrived in the area thanks to maize-based agricultural production and a strong trading network.

From 1764 to roughly the Jacksonian Era (1828-1836), St. Louis was a pluralistic society largely composed of French, Spanish, and American Indian cultures. Emigrants from Woodard’s “Tidewater” and “Greater Appalachia” areas also came around the turn of the nineteenth century. Starting in the 1830s immigrants from Woodard’s “Yankeedom” region emigrated, as did Irish and German immigrants (the latter especially so after the failed revolutions of 1848). Therefore in no way was there any type of German “majority” at the time of American Revolution, nor were there many British people to speak of. In fact, St. Louis (and all of Missouri by extension) was such a melting pot during the antebellum years that debates still rage about Missouri’s identity. Is it Midwestern? Is it Southern? Northern? “Tidewater Appalachia New France Yankeedom”? Additionally, how do you account for Missouri and Kansas engaging in bloody conflict during the 1850s if these areas are largely composed of the same people? Some “nation,” eh? (If you want to read more about St. Louis’s cultural identity, read James Neal Primm and the beginning of Louis Gerteis‘ work on the Civil War in St. Louis).

Woodard is correct that “the original North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions.” He is also correct that America has developed several unique regional identities (and not just North, South, and West). But to suggest that these regions were actually autonomous “nations . . . developed in isolation from one another” through bland generalizations that have little chronological order and without acknowledging any cultural agency of non-white Americans–only to conclude that Americans can’t agree on gun regulations today–is silly. Even the whole argument about a contemporary “divided nation” with deep ideological divisions is a myth, with roughly 70-80% of the American population falling into a centrist/moderate camp politically, according to Morris P. Fiorina.

Woodard qualifies his “nation” descriptions by stating that “my observations refer to the dominant culture, not the individual inhabitants, of each region.” I can appreciate this distinction. Again, there are certainly cultural differences in various regions of the United States. But as my St. Louis example shows, Woodard can’t even get “the dominant culture” right. Rather than working to show historical change over time, Woodard bends the past suit his present day agenda.

Rant over.

What do you think of this map? I’ve stated my opinions, but I’m open to different perspectives.



7 responses

  1. This is why social scientists should never do history. Being originally from the old Dutch region of upstate NY (a region recognized as predominately Dutch until about 1800) I found his limited boundaries of the New Netherlands nation to be rather frustrating. Yes the upper and lower Hudson River regions are different, but that has more to do with proximity to NYC and very little in my experience with a Dutch cultural heritage.

    1. Thanks for the comment, James. I had a feeling St. Louis wasn’t the only area that was probably misrepresented in this map. Perhaps there are clearer explanations for these distinctions in his book. Based on the interviews I’ve listened to and this article, I question what historical methods were utilized in compiling research for such a wide ranging book. Even thought I’m critical of Woodard’s scholarship, I’ll be anxious to read his book in the future to try and understand his methodology a little better.

  2. It’s interesting… It smells like the ‘narrative fallacy,’ trying to fit complicated factors of reality into a tidy story. I would guess you can explain differences about things like gun control and violence better with boring factors like rural/urban, income, ethnicity, age, etc, than with a tidy story about who happened to live in part of the same area two hundred plus years ago.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Josh.

  3. […] In my last post I reflected on author and journalist Colin Woodard’s recent arguments that the United States is composed of eleven ostensibly autonomous “nations.” In explaining the origins of these “nations,” Woodard purports to assert that the cultural differences between these “nations” are so significant that our political disagreements over contemporary issues such as gun violence and gun control can be traced back to cultural differences between these “nations” hundreds of years ago. I listened to several audio interviews and closely read three articles (including a rather lengthy and descriptive one in Tufts Magazine) by Woodard explaining the premise of his arguments. In analyzing these resources, I concluded that Woodard’s scholarship on this matter was rather dubious. When I refer to the word “dubious,” I do not mean to argue that Woodard’s scholarship is fraudulent or illegitimate; rather, I believe there is a lot to be uncertain about in making such strong conclusions on a rather complex topic. He may be right in his conclusions, but my understanding of various historical cultures raises many questionable in my eyes. […]

  4. […] I wrote an essay on this blog outlining several questions I had about Woodard’s study and remarked that I found his scholarship rather dubious. Somehow Mr. Woodard came across this essay and felt compelled to contact me, saying that my essay would have been more “interesting/relevant” had I actually read the book. In all honesty, I understand where Woodard is coming from. To promote their hot new artists, music labels release singles to radio stations in an effort to showcase their clients’ talents. While these singles can say a lot about the creative talent of their respective creators, they only reflect a small part of a larger creative idea, usually in the form of an EP or LP album. Similarly, an article in Tufts Magazine can only say so much about a larger conceptual idea such as a book. To really understand Woodard’s arguments, I understood that I would need to go further with my analysis. Following a brief exchange of tweets, I proceeded to obtain a copy of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. […]

  5. […] culture and St. Louis: As mentioned before, Woodard argues that “Midlands” culture originated in Pennsylvania with the Quaker […]

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