A Review of American Nations: Pre-Revolution North America

Colin Woodard’s study on North American cultural history, American Nations, is spread over twenty-eight chapters and split into four distinct parts: The period of colonial “origins” from 1590-1769, the Revolutionary/Early Republic period from 1770-1815, the “Wars for the West” from 1816-1877, and the “culture wars” from 1878-2010. This task of writing the history of an entire continent over 420 years in less than 300 pages is rather ambitious, but I’ll address the feasibility of this task in a later post.

Part one on the colonial origins of North America is the longest part of the book, encompassing the first nine chapter’s of Woodard’s study. It also contains the strongest and most convincing arguments out of any part of the book, with Woodard clearly demonstrating how a wide range of nations encompassed North American lands prior to the American Revolution of 1775-1783. I enjoyed reading this section of the book and believe it to be a solid introductory text for someone looking to learn about this period in North American history.

Woodard starts by correctly pointing out that “Americans have been taught to think of the European settlement of the continent as having progressed from east to west, expanding from the English beachheads of Massachusetts and Virginia to the shores of the Pacific.” Indeed, history students learn about Christopher Columbus and his voyage to the Americas in 1492, but from there the emphasis in many classrooms focuses almost solely on British and French colonialism. Woodard provides a corrective to this narrative by arguing in chapter one that European culture first arrived in America through the south via Spanish soldiers and missionaries during the sixteenth century. He points out that Spanish military might combined with official sanction from Pope Alexander VI led to efforts by the Spaniards to Christianize the American Indians already living on the continent. Although he acknowledges that the nature of his study prevents him from analyzing Native American culture in depth, Woodard does argue that American Indians enjoyed a better standard of living than their eventual Spanish counterparts at the point of first contact and that many Indian cultures practiced agriculture, inter-continent trading, and urban networks of commerce and communication. Epidemics and warfare, however, would plunge the native population in parts of “El Norte” down 80 or 90 percent of their peak size by 1630.

Woodard continues part one by analyzing six additional “nations” in North America in chronological order of their creation. The area of “New France” in the Quebec and Acadia regions of Canada is first formed in 1604, with Woodard pointing out that French settlers in this area believed in tolerance and religious freedom while at the same time disavowing democracy and political equality among the area’s inhabitants. Residents of “Tidewater” in the Virginia/Mid-Atlantic region, according to Woodard, settled in this region because “they wished to re-create the genteel manor life of rural England in the New World.” Throughout the early seventeenth century Tidewater enjoyed a profusion of wealth and growth thanks to the incorporation of the tobacco trade into the Tidewater economy and the migration of English aristocratic families to the region following the start of the English Civil War in the 1640s. At first Tidewater elites relied on indentured servants to work the land and serve their interests, but by the start of the eighteenth century the region’s leaders increasingly relied on African slavery as a source of labor.

Moving on to the awkwardly titled nation of “Yankeedom,” Woodard points out that “a central myth of American history” incorrectly attributes this New England region’s founding to the need to flee religious persecution in the Old World and promote religious toleration in America. The reality was that the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay were actually dogmatic when it came to religious matters, taking steps to keep out settlers who did not conform to their religious doctrines. Even though Yankees promoted self-government, direct democracy, and local control of government, Woodard argues that over time “Yankeedom” would be loathed by other nations in North America because of their desire and mission “to impose its ways on everyone else.” Conversely, the nation of “New Netherland” in New York City and its surrounding region was developed by the Dutch West India Company as a commercial settlement with little need for social cohesion. People of all types settled in colonial New York City, where freedom of the press was accepted and religious pluralism flourished.

Woodard then details the origins of the “Deep South,” a land composed of planters from Barbados who brought chattel slavery and gang labor systems to North America. Slavery, according to Woodard, created a highly militarized society in the Deep South whose leaders opposed political equality and democracy. The “Midlands,” however, are almost completely different than the Deep South, with Quakers like William Penn “[envisioning] a country where people of different creeds and ethnic backgrounds could live together in harmony.” A marketing campaign to bring settlers to the Midlands brought many Germans to the region, where religious pluralism flourished, just like it did in New Netherland. Finally, Woodard describes the founding of “Greater Appalachia,” a nation composed of settlers originally from the borderlands of Northern Britain, where war and famine inspired several waves of migration to North America from 1717 to 1776. Woodard describes these people as “clan-based” warriors who turned to violence to exterminate American Indians from their lands and who often lived a nomadic lifestyle of hunting, fishing, and “slash-and-burn” agriculture.

——

 This summary provides a brief outline of several nations that Woodard defines in the first part of American Nations. As mentioned, I don’t really have many complaints about this part of the book and few scholars who study pre-Revolution North America for a living would take serious issue with most of these generalizations. My criticisms of part one are only minor:

Virginia colonial law in Tidewater: Woodard’s interpretation of this topic is too general and slightly inaccurate. He states that cases appearing before Virginia’s local courts “were resolved by gentlemen judges who believed that issues should be decided by their own sense of justice rather than precedents written in law books, even in matters of life and death. Court records show a clear pattern: leniency for masters and males, harsh sentences for servants and women.” The reality is actually more complex. Virginia judges were indeed aristocratic gentlemen, but they deferred to English common law in most instances and when at all possible. John Rustin Pagan points out that concerns over social order, property rights, and the nature of indentured servitude in the region led to a gradual evolution in which Virginia colonists began to modify British laws to fit the needs of an economically growing colony in the mid 1600s. Additionally, Pagan’s research of Virginia court records shows that harsh sentences against women and servants did not become commonplace until this same period.

Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism: Woodard asserts that these two concepts originated in “Yankeedom,” arguing that Yankees exterminated Indians and sought to spread their culture to Maryland and even the Bahamas immediately after the English Civil War. While certainly true in the sense that Yankees believed they were exceptional people blessed by God, neither Manifest Destiny or American exceptionalism were conceived as ideas until the nineteenth century, and not necessarily by Yankees. If we acknowledge Woodard’s theory of competing “nations” in North America prior to the American Revolution, then the notion of a distinctly “American” exceptionalism—one that argues that all people living in the United States are uniquely exceptional—then it is hard to imagine how a group of Yankees ostensibly focused on their own interests could have developed such an inclusive notion of American-ness. With regards to Manifest Destiny, the concept was developed by a “New Netherland” Democrat in the 1830s interested in promoting Jacksonian Democracy and westward expansion by white Americans. In fact, most Yankees (especially those in the Whig party) at that time opposed Manifest Destiny because Democrats were using this idea to justify war with Mexico and the expansion of slavery into Texas. Manifest Destiny was not a Yankee idea; it was an idea of the Democrat party.

Slavery in New York: Woodard states that slavery “would continue to be present in Greater New York right into the 1860s.” I’ve never heard this claim before and believe it to be false. The 1860 census reports no slaveholders in New York. Here’s a one minute video from the New York Historical Society on the topic.

Huh? In describing Quakerism in the Midlands of North America, Woodard describes this “radical” religion as “the late seventeenth-century equivalent of crossing the hippie movement with the Church of Scientology.” This is an awkward analogy and I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.

While part one of Woodard’s study is largely effective and convincing, I believe the study starts running into serious issues in part two. I’ll outline my criticisms in the next post.

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