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