It’s a profound analytical failure to scold people for not having “historical perspective.” We don’t live in history. We live in our lives.
— HR-Compliant Freddie (@freddiedeboer) July 8, 2016
The above tweet from linguist and writer Fredrik deBoer got me really thinking about the meaning and purpose of having a historical perspective when looking at contemporary events. deBoer was responding to a recent essay by Jonathan Chait entitled “It Is Not 1968.” Chait argues in that essay that the country is actually more unified in its views towards Black Lives Matter and police reform than social media may suggest. He argues that recent op-eds and commentaries from a number of conservative political leaders and thinkers indicate a shift in thinking that is more sympathetic to BLM’s grievances. “[Democrats and Republicans] may not agree with Black Lives Matter on the exact scope of the problem, but the two sides have a shared sense of its existence — no small achievement in a country where the two parties cannot even agree on such questions as climate science — and broad moral contours,” he explains. Chait sees these developments as a genuine victory for “reasoned, evidence-based progress.” We as a country are doing better than we were in 1968 and should ultimately proceed with caution before making any rash historical comparisons.
But deBoer pushes us to take a wider perspective and consider how the families of Philado Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many black victims of police violence might react to Chait’s declaration of forward social progress and “historical perspective” when the price of such progress has been paid in human life and the loss of their loved ones. What good is it to say “things are better now” when the threat of violence at the hands of police still remains for many people of color today? What good is it to tell someone that “it is not 1968” when the challenge at hand is living in 2016? Are there times when “keeping things in perspective” prevents us from taking steps to ensure a better world tomorrow?
I made a similar argument a couple years ago when I wrote about the events in Ferguson, events that occurred within a short drive to my own house here in the St. Louis area. I appreciated the historical perspective that numerous writers offered in attempting to explain the looting and violence that hit the area (including a long history of urban riots in places like Watts and Detroit and others led by white supremacists for different reasons that completely destroyed cities like Memphis, Wilmington, and Tulsa), but I simultaneously suggested that such historical perspective probably offered very little solace to the victims whose businesses were destroyed amid the chaos. Likewise, I imagine any claims suggesting that police practices are more humane today than fifty years ago are probably true but of little solace to the residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas whose local governments used their police force and municipal court system to raise funds through petty fines and fees for offenses that were not a threat to the community.
To be sure, I do think it’s a good thing to have historical perspective. There’s a song by Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith,” where he cautions that “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I always liked that line because it warns us to avoid being overly sentimental about the past while demonstrating that the potential for a better tomorrow is always there. But at the same time I see issues with that thinking when real problems in peoples’ lives today are minimized and dismissed, especially when those people are truly disadvantaged. At its most extreme we see the worst perversions of “things are much better today” when people say things like “slavery was a long time ago. Life is so much better today and everyone is treated equally, so get over it!” That viewpoint isn’t helpful for solving the problems of today and is ultimately another way of telling someone to shut up because their concerns aren’t valid.
What are the advantages of viewing contemporary problems with a historical perspective?
One of Colin Woodard’s main ideas in American Nations is that the United States is a deeply divided country. “Americans,” argues Woodard, “have been deeply divided since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth,” and that division continues today as “its citizenry is deeply divided along regional lines, with some in the ‘Tea Party’ movement adopting the rhetoric of the eighteenth-century Yankee minutemen, only with the British Parliament replaced by the federal Congress, and George III by their duly elected president.”
Woodard’s concerns are echoed on a daily basis by the media: Americans are deeply divided on foreign policy. Americans are deeply divided about the causes of poverty. Americans are deeply divided about same-sex marriage. And on and on. We’ve also allegedly become a nation suffering from confirmation bias: we listen to media outlets and pundits who confirm our preconceived beliefs, values, and ideas, and we don’t challenge ourselves to consider other perspectives and ways of looking at the world. Some people go to their Fox News silo, others go to the MSNBC silo. Some scholars have also lamented the state of America’s deep divide. For example, John Fea, in his fine publication on the importance of studying history, asserts that historical literacy may offer a possible avenue for healing the “wounds” caused by deep political divisions in society today.
To be sure, political divisions do exist in the United States, and Woodard is absolutely correct that political conflict has always been a staple of American history. Part one of American Nations is an entertaining and engaging read because Woodard deftly shows how colonial settlers from different parts of Europe did in fact have a wide range of ideas about governance, religion, and culture. The founding fathers of the United States were not a politically unified group of men who had a clear vision for the future of this new country, and all too often essays purporting to explain “what the founders believed” can go too far in painting a rosy picture of the past with some sort of “lesson of American history” that more accurately reflects a political agenda rather than a serious dialogue with history.
Nevertheless, I believe the term “deeply divided country” has become a loaded term devoid of meaning in contemporary political discourse. What do we mean when we say we are a “deeply divided country”? More specifically, what does it mean to be divided “deeply”? When we say we’re divided, shouldn’t we look back at past divisions to compare our current problems with past circumstances? It is easy to forget that newspapers in the nineteenth century made no bones about “objectivity” and often acted as mouthpieces for their preferred political parties. Here in Indianapolis there were two major newspapers during the Civil War–the Indianapolis Journal (Republican) and the Indiana State Sentinel (Democrat)–that provided radically different interpretations of events during the war. Additionally, when it came close to an upcoming election, these papers would provide a list of candidates to look for when voting. I have no doubt that Indianapolis readers at that time went to their respective “media silos” to hear what they wanted to hear and confirm their own views of the world, just like people today. The major difference, of course, was that the “deeply divided country” of the antebellum era engaged in a war in which upwards of 750,000 Americans died, something that our supposedly “deeply divided country” today hasn’t had to endure.
The political scientist Morris P. Fiorina offers what I believe to be a much needed corrective to this “deeply divided country” narrative. In Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized Nation Fiornia argues that most Americans are not politically radical or firmly in the camp of Republicans or Democrats. While acknowledging that divisions do exist in the U.S., Fiorina convincingly demonstrates that pollsters seeking to find an opinion on a hot-button topic like abortion often poll “political elites” and “activists” who are firmly entrenched in their own views and respective political parties. It is the parties themselves that have become more polarized, not necessarily the voters. In reality, roughly 10-15% of the population is strongly Republican, 10-15% is Democrat, and the rest probably falls under a “centrist” camp not strongly committed to either side. Is that reflective of a “deeply divided country,” or does it more accurately reflect just a “divided country” that will always need room for debate, discussion, and disagreement in order to preserve and enhance a democratic form of government? Perhaps it is time to start using the term “deeply divided country” with more care and precision than we’ve been using it in recent years.
With this essay I will end my review my Colin Woodard’s American Nations. As I’ve worked my way through the book, I’ve attempted to point out good arguments, criticize incorrect ones, and raise questions about the nature of the historian’s craft. In my opinion, I believe Woodard would have been much more successful in his arguments had he not taken his analysis all the way up to 2010. Part one of American Nations convinced me that there existed prior to the American Revolution a wide range of “nations” composed of people with a common culture, shared historical experiences, and distinct artifacts and symbols. As the narrative progresses closer to 2010, however, the arguments become less convincing, and it is an undeniable fact that a range of technologies–telephones, trains, radios, televisions, computers, the internet–have connected citizens of the United States in ways that would have been unimaginable in 1591 (although we certainly still have plenty of cultural differences). It’s also important to point out that while this book relies heavily on data obtained from political scientists, today’s political campaigning in the U.S. does not reflect a country composed of eleven(ish) nations. Political candidates don’t conceive of campaign strategies for recruiting interest in the “Midlands” or “New France” or “New Netherlands.” Politicians of course realize that differences exist in the country, but much of those differences still fall on a perceived “North-South-East-West” political axis.
Perhaps using this 288 page narrative to analyze the eleven nations from 1591-1787 rather than 400+ years of history would have been more convincing for me, but then again, the NPR interviews, press attention, and my own awareness of the book may not have existed had that sort of book been published. Nevertheless, anyone who tries to write 400+ years of history in less than 300 pages has a huge challenge on their hands, one I would not feel comfortable tackling.
Rather than making an explicit recommendation one way or the other on purchasing American Nations, I would encourage readers to consider the arguments I’ve proposed here (just click on the “Eleven Nations of North America” category to the right to see my other essays) and make their own conclusions as to whether American Nations is worth purchasing. While I had disagreements with some of Woodard’s arguments, I found the book thought-provoking, entertaining, and a great challenge for my critical thinking skills. That in itself made the book a worthwhile read for me.
As we near the end of Colin Woodard’s 2010 publication American Nations, we find ourselves at the book’s epilogue. I’ve read this epilogue several times and, quite honestly, I find myself struggling to put my thoughts into words. Let us start by reading a few select quotes from Woodard:
If the power struggles among the nations have profoundly shaped North America’s history over the past four centuries, what might they hold for us in the future? Will the political map [consist of] . . . a Balkanized collection of nation-states along the lines of twentieth-century Europe; a loose E.U.-style confederation of sovereign nation-states stretching from Monterrey, Mexico, to the Canadian Arctic; a unitary state run according to biblical law as interpreted by the spiritual heirs of Jerry Falwell; a postmodern utopian network of semisovereign, self-sustaining agricultural villages freed by technological innovations from the need to maintain larger governments at all? No one, if he or she is being both thoughtful and honest, has any idea.
If there’s one thing Woodard gets right here, it’s that we have no idea what the future holds. Yet for some reason this fact doesn’t keep Woodard from . . . predicting the future. To wit:
One scenario that might preserve the status quo for the United States would be for its nations to follow the Canadian example and compromise on their respective cultural agendas for the sake of unity. Unfortunately, neither the Dixie Bloc nor the Northern alliance is likely to agree to major concessions to the other. The majority of Yankees, New Netherlanders, and Left Coasters [the “Northern Alliance”] simply aren’t going to accept living in an evangelical Christian theocracy with weak or nonexistent social labor, or environmental protections, public school systems, and checks on corporate power in politics. Most Deep Southerners will resist paying higher taxes to underwrite the creation of a public health insurance system; a universal network of well-resourced, unionized, and avowedly secular public schools; tuition-free public universities where science–not the King James Bible–guides inquiry.
Yes, Woodard just argued that most Deep Southerners would take issue with funding public universities that use science as form of inquiry. Continuing:
Another outside possibility is that, faced with a major crisis, the federation’s leaders will betray their oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, the primary adhesive holding the union together. In the midst of, say, a deadly pandemic outbreak or the destruction of several cities by terrorists, a fearful public might condone the suspension of civil rights, the dissolution of Congress, or the incarceration of Supreme Court Justices . . . with the constitution abandoned, the federation could well disintegrate, forming one or more confederations of like-minded regions . . . If this extreme scenario came to pass, North America would likely be a far more dangerous, volatile, and unstable place, inviting meddling from imperial powers overseas [wouldn’t THAT be ironic!]. If this scenario of crisis and breakup seems far-fetched, consider the fact that, forty-years ago, the leaders of the Soviet Union would have thought the same thing about their continent-spanning federation.
Perhaps the federation will simply reach accommodation over time as its component nations come to agree that the status quo isn’t serving anyone well. A time might come when the only issue on which the nations find common ground is the need to free themselves from one another’s veto power. Perhaps they’d join together on Capitol Hill to pass laws and constitutional amendments granting more powers to the states or liquidating many of the functions of the central government. The United States might continue to exist, but its powers might be limited to national defense, foreign policy, and the negotiation of interstate trade agreements. It would, in other words, resemble the European Union or the original Confederation of 1781.
But one thing is certain: if Americans seriously want the United States to continue to exist in something like its current form, they had best respect the fundamental tenets of our unlikely union. It cannot survive if we end the separation of church and state or institute the Baptist equivalent of Sharia law.
Here, in the epilogue of American Nations, we see most clearly that Colin Woodard isn’t really interested in understanding the past or thinking historically. Indeed, Woodard baldly indicates that he’s only interested in using the past to analyze present-day behavior and even predict the future. Whatever Woodard is trying to accomplish here, it certainly isn’t historical understanding. In fact, one crucial element of historical thinking is understanding that historians are not in the business of predicting the future. Once again turning to Gordon Wood, we see that:
To understand the past in all its complexity is to acquire historical wisdom and humility and indeed a tragic sense of life. A tragic sense does not mean a sad or pessimistic sense of life; it means a sense of the limitations of life. Unlike sociology, political science, psychology, and the other social sciences, which try to breed confidence in managing the future, history tends to inculcate skepticism about our ability to manipulate and control purposefully our destinies. [From The Purpose of the Past, 14]
When we turn on the television news at night, we often see special guest talking heads/pundits sharing their thoughts. Of all the pundits you’ve seen, there’s a good chance that many of them (if not most) come from the social sciences, especially if they’re economists or political scientists. The likelihood of seeing a historian, on the other hand, is slim. Why is this? Because social scientists are in the business of predicting the future. Whenever the economy lags, we see economists predicting future market trends. Whenever we have an upcoming election, we see political scientists predicting future electoral winners. Indeed, one of the reasons the news captivates so much of our attention is that we ourselves are obsessed with “managing the future.”
No matter how educated your prediction may be, however, at the end of the day it’s just a guess. Whether predicting future market trends, political developments, or the winner of the Super Bowl, the television pundits get it wrong a lot of the time. When they get it right, oftentimes the biggest contributing factor is luck, a fact Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues in The Black Swan. Much of this discussion goes back to John Lewis Gaddis’ theories of reductionist and ecological views of reality. The reductionist view (one often embraced by social scientists, including Woodard) focuses on understanding parts of a whole. This focus is distinctly exclusive, removing perceived “anomalies” from a scholarly analysis in the interest of finding trends and building predictive models that purport to tell us what the future will bring. Applying the reductionist view to American Nations, we can see that various historical “anomalies”–cultural conflict in Kansas, cultural developments in south-central Florida, Alaska, and Hawaii, and instances in which regional leaders such as Yankee Franklin Pierce or Southerner Jimmy Carter held “unconventional” political views for their region–are removed from the narrative in the interest of building a predictive model.
The ecological view (one embraced by historians), on the other hand, aims to understand the fundamental whole. This focus is distinctly inclusive and aims to account for the messiness, complexity, and context for explaining historical causality. In sum, historians don’t predict the future because they’re cognizant of the fact that history itself is unpredictable. Nothing is inevitable, nothing occurred “just because.” Likewise, historians understand that past trends don’t necessarily translate to future outcomes and that the observation of one event does not mean it will occur again in the future. Who, for example, would predict that the New York Yankees will win next year’s World Series simply because they’ve won the most World Series titles in the past? Going back to Woodard, what good is it to predict the possibility of future crisis and breakup in the United States because leaders in the Soviet Union at one time couldn’t perceive future crisis and breakup in their own nation? That’s as bad a case of apples and oranges as I’ve ever seen in a scholarly study.
Colin Woodard’s predictions may or may not occur in the future. Nobody can prove those theories one way or the other, and I believe that’s a huge problem for assessing quality scholarship. At the end of the day, these predictions tell us more about Colin Woodard than they tell us about what may or may not happen in the future of North America.
In part four American Nations, Colin Woodard analyzes what he calls the “culture wars” of 1878-2010. This section includes discussions on post-Civil War immigration, westward migration, industrialization, urbanization, and political tensions between Yankeedom, the Deep South, and their respective “allies” (New Netherland and the Midlands for Yankeedom; Tidewater, Southern New France, and at least a part of Greater Appalachia [most of the time] for the Deep South, and the Far West and Left Coast as “wild cards”). Amid these discussions, Woodard makes a rather questionable assertion about U.S. foreign policy initiatives. To wit:
U.S. foreign policy has shown a clear national pattern for the past two centuries. Since 1812, the anti-interventionist, anti-imperial Yankees have squared off against the bellicose, unilateralist hawks in the Deep South and Tidewater.
This assertion may be true . . .
- Except for that time in 1893 when a party of businessmen in Hawaii (led by Sanford Dole, the banana guy) overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani and imposed their own provisional government in its place. Rather than condemning these interventionist attacks and violations against Hawaiian sovereignty, native Ohioan and longtime Hoosier Benjamin Harrison rushed a proposal to annex Hawaii to the United States Senate, fearing the “disorganization of business interests” he believed would occur if the Queen remained in power. After Harrison left office later that year, President Grover Cleveland commissioned James Henderson Blount (a Deep Southerner from Georgia) to investigate conditions in Hawaii. Blount’s Report concluded that the coup was unlawful and that a majority of native Hawaiians opposed annexation. Blount himself also opposed annexation because his white supremacists views led him to fear the incorporation of more non-white citizens into the country.
- Except for that time in 1898 when an Ohioan President, William McKinley, led the United States into the interventionist Spanish-American War, a war in which McKinley’s future Vice President, the New Netherlander Theodore Roosevelt, battled to the top of San Juan Hill.
- Except for that time when Woodrow Wilson–a Tidewater native but also a New Netherland college president and governor–was elected to the Presidency in 1912, leading the United States to war with Germany in World War I after winning reelection in 1916 on the campaign slogan “he kept us out of war.”
- Except for that time when a New Netherlander President (Franklin D. Roosevelt) guided the United States through World War II, and his successor from the Midlands (Harry Truman) ended the conflict by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
- Except for that time when a Midlander (Dwight D. Eisenhower) and a Yankee (John F. Kennedy) oversaw the U.S. military’s increasing intervention in Vietnamese affairs, only to have a Greater Appalachian (Lyndon B. Johnson) and an El Norte native (Richard M. Nixon) escalate the war even more.
- Except for that time when a Yankee (George H.W. Bush) advocated for armed intervention in Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Justifying intervention in the region, Bush argued that “out of these troubled times . . . a new world order – can emerge: a new era – freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony…. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”
Since Woodard’s book stops in 2010, one must rely on their own views and opinions in considering the applicability of Woodard’s foreign policy theory to the administration of Barack Obama, an administration that had no qualms about intervening in Libya in 2011 and nearly did the same in Syria not too long ago.
I, for one, am not convinced.
One of Colin Woodard’s central theories in American Nations predicates that the first social group with guns, germs, and bibles to successfully settle in a given area holds a significant and enduring degree of “cultural capital” in that area. So much so, in fact, that future waves of immigrants who attempt to shape their new homelands in their own image fail to make as a strong an impact as the land’s original settlers. Hence, the “dominant” cultural values of “Yankeedom” and the “Deep South” today, for example, are largely reflective of the Puritan and white Barbadian settlers who first emigrated to these areas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In making these claims Woodard relies on cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky, who mapped out these ideas in a theory he described as the “Doctrine of First Effective Settlement.”
While I believe Zelinsky’s theory is strong and mostly accurate, Woodard’s study cast doubts about the applicability of the “Doctrine of First Effective Settlement” to Woodard’s self-defined nations. In this post I will provide three case studies that I believe complicate the usefulness of this theory.
Kansas: Woodard largely ignores settlement patterns in antebellum Kansas in his study, perhaps because the history of this area defies easy explanation. In a recent essay titled “Before the Border War: Slavery and the Settlement of the Western Frontier, 1825-1845,” Kristen K. Epps demonstrates how Kansas was originally settled by Southern slaveholding emigrants from Missouri, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and various states in the Deep South. Many of these emigrants settled around Fort Leavenworth and along the present-day border between Missouri and Kansas. If we used Woodard’s self-defined nations to describe Kansas during most of the antebellum period, it would be safe to say that the area combined “Deep South” and “Greater Appalachian” cultural values.
With the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, however, Kansas became a U.S. territory eligible for statehood. The act stipulated that the question of slavery in the area would be determined by the voters of the territory, and many settlers believed Kansas would become a slave state. Kansas-Nebraska, however, set off a second wave of immigration to Kansas by New England abolitionists and Free-Staters like Indiana native James Lane who feared the admittance of another slave state to the Union. The tension between pro and anti-slavery forces in Kansas set off several years of nasty crime and violence, presaging the horrors of the American Civil War in the 1860s. For our purposes it should be pointed out that Kansas was admitted as a free state in 1861 and, equally important, today one would be hard-pressed to argue that Kansas reflects Southern values. In this case, the values of the region’s first white settlers have not sustained the cultural geography of Kansas today.
Midlands culture and St. Louis: As mentioned before, Woodard argues that “Midlands” culture originated in Pennsylvania with the Quaker values of William Penn and spread itself West into Ohio, Northern Indiana, Illinois, and, curiously, St. Louis, Missouri. Penn’s vision for religious tolerance, equality, and pluralism, argues Woodard, transferred itself into the “Heartland,” where “a collection of mutually tolerant enclaves . . . [developed] as a center for moderation and tolerance, where people of many faiths and ethnicities lived side by side, largely minding their own business.”
With regards to St. Louis, Woodard states that:
Northern Missouri became a Midland stronghold . . . with St. Louis supporting two German-language daily newspapers by 1845. Bavarian immigrant George Schneider founded the Bavarian Brewery there in 1852, selling it to Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch a few years later. Continued immigration from Germany enabled Midland civilization to dominate the American Heartland despite competition from aggressive Yankees and Borderlanders. By midcentury, German immigrants were arriving by riverboats in St. Louis and from there fanning out across northern Missouri and the eastern prairies.
While these facts are all true, Woodard conveniently leaves out that St. Louis was not originally settled by Germans and that the city was already approaching 100 years old by the time of the Civil War. Woodard makes no mention of the French settlers who first arrived in 1764, the Spanish settlers who emigrated after the territory was transferred to Spain shortly thereafter, the Irish immigrants who moved starting in the early 1800s, or the emigrants from both the South and New England who began to settle in the 1820s and 1830s. If Zelinsky’s Doctrine of First Effective Settlement rings true, St. Louis should reflect Woodard’s nation of “New France,” not the Midlands. While St. Louis certainly maintains parts of its French heritage (look no further than the naming of neighborhoods and streets throughout the city for tangible examples), it’s evident that the pluralism of the city makes any endeavor into defining the region’s cultural history frustrating.
Indeed, if St. Louis should be considered a part of the Midlands because of its pluralism, then Woodard’s very definition of the Midland “nation” reflects the lack of a regional identity in America’s Heartland rather than something reflective of an easily definable “dominant culture.” And let’s do away with this notion of St. Louis as reflective of a “mutually tolerant enclave.” French, Germans, Southerners, and Yankees did live side by side, but these groups lived in uneasy harmony and often expressed outright hostility towards one another due in large part to disagreements about slavery. Recent German immigrants who were particularly vocal about their hatred for slavery and support for the Republican party were often derisively referred to as “Black Dutch.” During the Camp Jackson Affair of 1861 nativist and pro-secession whites took to the streets to hurl stones, rocks, and racial epitaphs at the mostly German Missouri Volunteer units marching through the city. So much for “tolerance.”
New Orleans: I don’t have much to say about New Orleans because it’s an area I don’t have much knowledge about. Nevertheless, I believe Woodard to be slightly incorrect in his interpretation of the city’s history. Woodard argues that during the nineteenth century, Deep Southerners moved westward, with many moving to New Orleans. Woodard argues that “Deep Southerners were disgusted with New Orleans, where a more lenient French and Spanish form of slavery and race relations had produced a far less rigid slave society . . . Tension between the white Franco-Spanish residents of New Orleans—the ‘Creoles’—and the ‘new population’ continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.”
These statements are true, but several important components are ignored. For one, no distinction is made between “Cajuns” (the original white French Acadians who emigrated from Quebec to the area in the seventeenth century) and “Creoles” (Franco-Spanish and Franco-African residents today). Second, Ned Sublette demonstrates that Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte meant that “New Orleans was on its way to becoming the largest slave market in the United States.” Yes, there was a large free black population, but New Orleans was built on slavery, an institution embraced by many whites in the area, regardless of ethnic heritage. For example, one of the most prominent Southern magazines in the nation, DeBow’s Review, was published out of New Orleans and frequently published articles defending slavery, advocating secession, and calling for the return of the African slave trade to America. Finally, the agency of black New Orleans residents is not acknowledged by Woodard besides a protest they held for being excluded from a Congressional election in 1812. In sum, strong tensions existed between a wide range of groups in a pluralist society. The Acadian culture first established by Cajuns remains, but to suggest that this culture remains “dominant” in the area seems to be a stretch to me.
I’ve attempted to outline three case studies that challenge Wilbur Zelinsky’s Doctrine of First Settlement. How useful is this doctrine for understanding cultural geography? I’m not totally sure, but I question how effective these ideas are in explaining the significant cultural transformations that took place in several prominent areas of the United States during the antebellum era.
In chapter twelve of American Nations, Colin Woodard provides a brief synopsis of the creation of the United States Constitution. He incorrectly states that the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia in 1789 (it took place in 1787), but otherwise does a decent job of explaining why many prominent politicians (most of them Federalists) believed the Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced with a document that provided for a stronger government.
Woodard argues that the Constitution was a compromise document (few would disagree) and points out how each of his self-defined “nations” contributed a part of their political culture to the process. Regarding New Netherland, Woodard asserts that “we received the Bill of Rights, a set of very Dutch guarantees that individuals would have freedom of conscience, speech, religion, and assembly . . . the people of New Netherland had lived under the arbitrary rule of distant powers for a very long time and wanted assurances their tolerant approach to religion and freedom of inquiry would not be trampled on by a new empire.” “Had the Bill of Rights not been passed,” argues Woodard, “the state of New York would not have agreed to adopt the Constitution” and “the United States would probably not have lived to see its tenth birthday.”
It is true that many New Netherland politicians distrusted the Federalist party and were wary of adopting the Constitution. In fact, the only New York member of the Constitutional Convention to sign the Constitution was the Federalist Alexander Hamilton. But framing the creation of the Bill of Rights as an invention of New Netherlanders exclusively is mistaken, in my opinion, and it raises larger questions about the nature of Woodard’s “nations.” I will try my best to explain succinctly and I welcome any comments from readers.
The question of including a Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution emerged towards the end of the Constitutional Convention on Wednesday, September 12. According to James Madison’s notes (see pages 149-150), a debate occurred over Article III, Section 2 of the proposed constitution, which allowed for jury trials in federal criminal cases, but not for civil cases. George Mason of Virginia (Woodard’s nation of “Tidewater”)—himself the author of Virginia’s 1776 Declaration of Rights—called for a Bill of Rights that would enumerate certain inalienable rights that the federal government could not violate, including the right to a fair trial with a jury. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (“Yankedom”) seconded Mason’s call and a motion was put to the rest of the convention. Ten states voted “no” to the proposed Bill of Rights, however, with Massachusetts absent. James Wilson of Pennsylvania remarked that an enumeration of rights would imply that rights not explicitly mentioned did not exist, while Roger Sherman remarked that “the state declarations of rights . . . being in force, are sufficient.”
Citing their fears of a constitution without a bill of rights, both Mason and Gerry refused to sign the Constitution. Enough delegates signed the document, however, to move it to the state ratification process. If nine states approved the Constitution, the document would go into effect.
Several states—Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut—ratified the constitution by the end of January 1788. A total of eight approved by May 1788, but three states remained on the fence: Virginia, New Hampshire, and New York. Virginia and New Hampshire’s delegations at their state ratification conventions were split between Federalists and Antifederalists 52-52 and 84-84 respectively. The New York delegation (which was dominated by antifederalists, including Governor George Clinton) was strongly opposed, however. Much of the concern from these ratification conventions revolved around the lack of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
When Massachusetts ratified the Constitution by a narrow margin in February 1788, it attached a number of constitutional amendments and a proposal for a Bill of Rights to its ratification message. Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire all approved by Mid-June, but they also attached recommendations for constitutional amendments to be added to the document. Seeing that the required number of states had already ratified the constitution, Virginia Federalists were able to lead its delegates to an eventual ratification of the Constitution in a 89-79 vote on June 25. By this point ten states ratified the constitution, but New York remained in limbo.
To mobilize support for the Constitution in New York, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay penned the now-famous Federalist papers. Interestingly enough, the New Netherlander Hamilton echoed James Wilson’s concerns about the enumeration of freedoms in a Bill of Rights in Federalist no. 84. Nevertheless, New York finally ratified the United States Constitution on July 26, 1788, but not without providing a long of list of recommended amendments that New York demanded before fully participating in this new government.
Why are all of these details important? For one, I believe they clearly demonstrate that the Bill of Rights was not something we “received” from New Netherland. It is true that most political leaders from New Netherland were skeptical of the new constitution. But the ratification conventions of Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Virginia also raised concerns about the lack of a Bill of Rights, and it was a Tidewater aristocrat that first raised concerns about a Bill of Rights at the Constitutional Convention.
Equally important, these details raise questions about Woodard’s definition of New Netherland culture. If the Bill of Rights is truly a reflection of Dutch guarantees of freedom, then why were Tidewater and Yankee aristocrats the first ones to raise concerns about fair jury trials, freedom of speech, and a Bill of Rights at the Constitutional Convention? Why did ratification conventions in other parts of the country raise the same sorts of questions at their meetings? Why did a Tidewater aristocrat (James Madison) introduce a motion to include a Bill of Rights into the U.S. Constitution at the 1789 congressional session and not a New Netherlander?
While acknowledging that Dutch notions of freedom most likely played some sort of role in the creation of a Bill of Rights, the final document reflected the concerns of politicians all over the country. Rather than viewing the debate over a Bill of Rights as a New Netherlander vs. “X nation” dichotomy, the actual documents show that the debate reflected a national Antifederalist vs. Federalist political discourse over the nature of United States federalism, republicanism, and the enumeration of rights in the Constitution. We did not receive the Bill of Rights from New Netherland exclusively, and to isolate the New Netherland “nation” as some sort of independent variable in the creation of the Bill of Rights seems mistaken to me.
In the introduction to American Nations, Colin Woodard embraces Wilbur Zelinsky’s “Doctrine of First Effective Settlement” as a central theory to his belief that North America has been and continues to be composed of eleven different nations of people with unique and sometimes divergent cultural values. Part one of American Nations convinced me that at least nine of these nations (with two not established yet) existed as unique cultural entities prior to the American Revolution. Do these nations continue to exist separately from each other during and after the Revolution?
Woodard spends chapters ten and eleven going through the usual explanations for why the colonists decided to rebel against the British monarchy (The Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party, the Intolerable Acts, etc.). The British, according to Woodard, had displayed a sense of “arrogant triumphalism” towards their colonial subjects following the French and Indian War of 1756-1763. An “aggressive new elite” had emerged in England, hell-bent on subjugating “the American colonies to their will, institutions, bureaucracy, and religion.” Woodard argues that the various nations of America—rather than fighting one unified battle against the British—engaged in six separate wars of liberation, sometimes for and sometimes against the British. To quote Woodard:
1. “Yankees fought not for the universal rights of man, freedom of religion, or the liberties of their ruling class, but in defense of the way they’d always lived their lives and regulated their affairs.”
2. “New Netherlanders were generally suspicious of the rebel cause . . . Unlike the nations around them, they didn’t feel the need to defend their sovereignty because they never truly had it, given that the Dutch West India Company, the Duke of York, and crown governors had all ruled the place without reference to local opinion.”
3. “The pacifist midlands did its best to remain neutral in a conflict which most of its inhabitants had wanted no part in. Even after Lexington and Concord, leading figures such as James Wilson and John Dickinson opposed independence . . . the result, in mid-1776, was the assumption of power in Pennsylvania by a vocal patriot minority.”
4. “Until the Battle of Lexington, the Deep South’s all-powerful ruling class was ambivalent about fighting a war of liberation. This was not surprising, given that the region’s identity was based on hierarchy, deference, inherited privilege, and aristocratic rule—all in perfect accord with the aims of the British ruling class . . . in reality, the planters had been forced into independence in order to preserve slavery.”
5. “Greater Appalachia—poor, isolated, and not in control of a single colonial government—had the most complicated involvement in the wars of liberation. The Borderlanders seized on the pretext of the “revolution” to assert their independence from outside control, but . . . this took different forms in each region, sometimes in each community.”
6. “Tidewater was largely spared from the fighting until the final phases of the war, but it committed large numbers of officers and troops to fight on other fronts. The gentry, accustomed to giving orders and having them followed, assumed they would dominate the Continental Army’s officer class . . . [In June 1775, Virginia Royal Governor John Murray] called on loyalists everywhere to rally to him [in the Chesapeake] and issued a proclamation offering slaves their freedom if they took up arms for the king, a proposition that turned Tidewater against him.”
What does Woodard conclude about the nature of the American Revolution?
The event we call the American Revolution wasn’t really revolutionary, at least while it was underway. The military struggle of 1775-1782 wasn’t fought by an “American people” seeking to create a united, continent-spanning republic where all men were created equal and guaranteed freedom of speech, religion, and the press. On the contrary, it was a profoundly conservative action fought by a loose military alliance of nations, each of which was most concerned with preserving or reasserting control of its respective culture, character, and power structure.
Not revolutionary. Conservative. Not fought for the principle that all men were created equal (damn the Declaration of Independence!). Six different wars of liberation, six different sets of goals and objectives for fighting, six different nations looking out for themselves first and foremost.
The problem with this conservative, non-revolutionary thesis is that many recent scholars of the American Revolution would most likely disagree or at least raise questions about it. Gordon Wood, one of the most preeminent Revolutionary-era historians—perhaps the preeminent historian of that era—would take issue with it. I know this because he wrote a book in 1991 titled The Radicalism of the American Revolution (a book never mentioned in Woodard’s footnotes). Let us look at Wood’s introduction on pages 3-8:
We Americans like to think of our revolution as not being radical; indeed, most of the time we consider it downright conservative . . . The American Revolution does not seem to have the same kinds of causes—the social wrongs, the class conflict, the impoverishment, the grossly inequitable distribution of wealth—that presumably lie behind other revolutions . . . in fact, the colonists knew they were freer, more equal, more prosperous, and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and monarchial restraints than any other part of mankind in the eighteenth century.
We have tended to think of the American Revolution as having no social character, as having virtually nothing to do with the society, as having no social causes and no social consequences. It has therefore often been considered to be essentially an intellectual event, a constitutional defense of American rights against British encroachment (“no taxation without representation”), undertaken not to change the existing structure of society but to preserve it . . . consequently, we have generally described the Revolution as an unusually conservative affair, concerned almost exclusively with politics and constitutional rights, and, in comparison with the social radicalism of the other great revolutions of history, hardly a revolution at all.
Few scholars would disagree with the notion of different colonial regions fighting in the Revolutionary war for different reasons. But Gordon Wood demonstrates that the very structure of colonial society changed. America was no longer a land of disparate colonies but a land represented by the Second Continental Congress, which was composed of more than 300 members throughout the duration of the war and filled with representatives from each of the thirteen colonies. People in different regions connected to each other in new ways and worked together to govern a new society based on republicanism and free of monarchial reign (yes, even those in Tidewater and the Deep South). In sum, each of Woodard’s nations begin to inch closer militarily, politically, socially, and culturally.
If Woodard’s arguments about the conservative, selfish nature of the Revolution are true, why didn’t six independent and sovereign states emerge in the war’s aftermath? Why did Yankees agree to let Tidewater aristocrats like George Washington command their forces, and why did they agree to fight with troops from other regions within the colonies? If “Yankeedom [effectively] won its independence in 1776,” as Woodard asserts in chapter eleven, then why did Yankeedom continue to fight and have its soldiers die for another nation’s war? Why continue to send delegates to the Second Continental Congress? Was Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence written for the Tidewater gentry, or was it written for all of Woodard’s nations in at least a partially unified conflict?
Woodard fails to address these questions, leaving me largely unsatisfied with his interpretation of the American Revolution. While acknowledging that the Revolutionary War is not my research specialty, I believe there are too many holes in these arguments and, ultimately, I believe the Revolution to be a pretty radical movement in the history of American society.
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.
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