A Review of American Nations (Part 1)

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

A few months ago I caught wind of an author being interviewed on NPR promoting a relatively new book that argues that North America is composed of eleven distinct and rival “nations,” each reflecting their own particular cultural values that are often at odds with the other nations of North America. The author, Colin Woodard, presented a fascinating and highly original study into North American cultural history, and I proceeded to read several articles on NPR and Tufts Magazine while also listening to several audio interviews. As I studied Woodard’s interviews and articles, however, I found myself questioning several of Woodard’s conclusions.

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.

Since that time I’ve gone through and read the entire book, some parts several times. I saw things I liked, things I didn’t, and a bevy of questions emerged in my head about the differences between how social scientists and historians look at and use the past to boost their own arguments. To kick off 2014 I will write several essays over the next few weeks on my thoughts about American Nations while also musing about the historian’s craft and why I think Woodard sometimes uses historical imagination rather than historical thinking in his conclusions about North America’s cultural history. I’ve also created a new category to the right of this page titled “The Eleven Nations of North America: A Review” to keep all of these posts together.

For the time being, I think it’s important to take a brief look at Woodard’s introduction in American Nations to see what theories undergird his assumptions and conclusions about North American cultural history. Three arguments emerge as central to Woodard’s study:

North American is a culturally divided continent: Despite calls for national unity and the popular notion of a historical “American Creed” that kept the United States unified in times of peril, Woodard argues that the reality is in fact murkier. “Americans,” argues Woodard, “have been deeply divided since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth . . . Throughout the colonial period, they regarded one another as competitiors–for land, settlers, and capital–and occasionally as enemies, as was the case during the English Civil War, when Royalist Virginia stood against Puritan Massachusetts.” Woodard asserts that such divisions continue today, but not because of divisions between liberals and conservatives or red and blue states. Rather, these divisions stem from the fact that “the United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of eleven regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with each other.” The cultural divide between these regions have only worsened since the 1960s, “fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles, and ever more frequent calls for unity.”

“Nations” are not the same as “States”: Contemporary political discourse and scholarly analysis in the United States has frequently failed to make a distinction between “nations” and “states,” instead using the terms interchangeably. Apparently the United States is one of the only countries in the world to engage in this linguistic behavior. Nevertheless, Woodard takes pains to point out that a state is a sovereign political entity, a sort of identity that allows for inclusion in the United Nations and a special placement on a Rand McNally map. A nation, however, consists of a group of people who share a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and/or symbols. These “nations” do not always constitute a “state,” nor are they necessarily sovereign. Woodard points to the Kurdish in Iraq, Palestinians in Israel, and Quebecois in Canada as “nations” who do not constitute a state. Historians, I may add, will also note that modern day states such as Germany and Italy were at one time loosely organized federations composed of distinct nations up until the latter half of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately Woodard fails to provide a citation for this definition, so I do not know if he got this from a different scholar or if he made it up himself. Regardless, I very much like this definition and agree with it wholeheartedly.

The Doctrine of First Effective Settlement: Relying on the work of Wilbur Zelinsky–a fine cultural geographer and Penn State professor who passed away this past May–Woodard argues that the “dominant culture” of a given nation is defined by the settlers who first came to a given area. I would describe the term “settlers” as the first ones to come to a given area with their guns, germs, and bibles. Here is the key quote from Zelinsky that Woodard relies on as a basis for his entire thesis:

Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders [with guns, germs and bibles!], the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been. Thus, in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later.

Zelinsky’s theory of first effective settlement is intriguing, but does it hold when it comes to describing the cultural/geographic history of North America? I’ll address that question in future posts.

Cheers and happy new years

3 thoughts on “A Review of American Nations (Part 1)

  1. I’m taking Geography of Culture & Environment at university.

    Have you addressed this; & I quote “Zelinsky’s theory of first effective settlement is intriguing, but does it hold when it comes to describing the cultural/geographic history of North America? I’ll address that question in future posts.”

    If so, may I have the link. I’d like to read it. Thank you

    1. Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for your question. Just to be clear, I’m just a history guy who read Woodard’s “Eleven Nations” and shared some thoughts on the book here on this website. I make no claim to being an expert in Geography. That said, I wrote a number of posts about “Eleven Nations” that can be read here: https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/category/the-eleven-nations-of-north-america-a-review/

      And I tried to address Zelinsky’s theory here: https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/change-and-continuity-in-united-states-cultural-geography/

      Thanks and let me know if I can answer any other questions you may have.

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