When Nostalgia Overwhelms History

Photo Credit: Singapore Management University: https://www.smu.edu.sg/perspectives/2017/09/29/nostalgia-makes-us-more-patient

I am a member of a Facebook group called “St. Louis, Missouri: History, Landmarks and Photos.” As the title suggests, it’s a fun community where people can share pictures, thoughts, and reflections on the city’s history.

Or so I thought.

Someone recently shared a photo of a blackface performance from the 1920s in Webster Groves, a well-to-do area just outside the St. Louis city limits. After all, the photo is historic and it depicts something that is a part of St. Louis history, whether we like it or not. One would think the photo meets the standards of this group. But alas, the commenters had a firestorm. Why is this outrageous photo being shared?! Why do we have be exposed to this painful history? Why do we have to talk about the bad parts of St. Louis history? As one critical commenter later stated, “Sorry, I joined this group for history and vintage photos, architecture and STL neighborhoods – NOT for any ‘enlightened exchange’ [about the political aspects of history.]” The photo was quickly removed by administrators. 

Listen, I get it. We don’t always have to harp on the bad parts of history and for the most part this group is one of the few positives experiences I get from using Facebook these days. But when the controversial aspects of history are removed from the overall story, it is better to simply call the group “St. Louis, Missouri: Landmarks and Photos.” If you enjoy looking at old photos but not studying the people, culture, and context of the time in which the photos were taken, you are engaging in nostalgia, not history.

One might wonder why people interested in a Facebook group such as this one wouldn’t want to learn more about the larger context of the city’s history, but I would contend that many of the blackface photo’s critics were precisely not interested in learning about or having a discussion about history. They are there to practice nostalgia. They are there to talk about their personal childhood experiences and re-live the good old days before the neighborhood went into “decline.” They want to see fancy old homes and neighborhoods but don’t want to discuss the humans who built them or the humans who live in those areas today. To talk about the experiences of, say, an African American who endured the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial discrimination during the “good old days” is nothing but a distraction and an effort to make the past political. Anything outside of mainstream history is a controversy. Please leave out the enlightened exchanges!

(I also note that the some of the same critics who objected to one blackface photo on a social media page because it was “painful” were demanding a few years ago that the St. Louis Confederate Monument remain in Forest Park “because it’s history.”)

This experience reinforced the importance of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 2000 book The Presence of the Past. After surveying 1,500 people the authors concluded that the foundation for historical understanding starts with the personal. As they discuss in the introduction, “people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future.” The challenge for historians, therefore, lies in working with their many publics to demonstrate how fitting personal experiences into a larger context–using an entire body of evidence to make an informed interpretation about the past–is how history is created.

The advent of social media and the internet as a whole has been a double-edged sword for historical understanding. On the one hand, people now have an almost limitless access to information. The contents of the past–letters, diaries, newspaper articles, historical photos–can be found with great abundance in places like the above Facebook group. On the other hand, are we really learning anything new? What do people do with the knowledge they acquire at these places? Do they go to the local library to check out a book about St. Louis history, or does the information contained in a particular post evaporate as soon as the viewer logs off of Facebook? The internet can be a place of knowledge accumulation, but it can also be a place that is quite the opposite. I suppose this is all to say that I hope historians and public historians will someday collaborate to research and publish a new edition of The Presence of the Past for the digital era.



What is the Benefit of Having “Historical Perspective” When Analyzing Current Events?

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?


Is the United States a Deeply Divided Country?

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.


Why Historians Don’t Predict the Future

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.

And finally:

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.

"What in the world are you talking about?!!!"
Henry Rollins asks, “What in the world are you talking about?!!!”

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 SwanMuch 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.


Woodard’s Myths of Yankee Anti-Imperialism and Southern Hawkishness

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.

Change and Continuity in United States Cultural Geography

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.

Independent Variables in Historical Methodology

One of the unfortunate aspects of Colin Woodard’s American Nations is its constant focus on the “dominant culture” within each of his self-defined nations. Whether analyzing Yankeedom, Tidewater, the Midlands, or the Deep South, little room is left within Woodard’s analysis for inter-nation conflict, contradiction, or dissent. Since the book covers more than 400 years of North American history in less than 300 pages of text, Woodard forces himself to make sweeping generalizations about North American cultural history that leave out a great deal of people and their stories. African Americans, for example, are largely absent from Woodard’s story even though they constituted the majority of the population in several parts of the Deep South. Meanwhile, Southern Florida is completely removed from any of Woodard’s eleven nations for reasons unknown, to which an op-ed in the Miami New Times responded with a colorful adjective: mierda.

The biggest reason Woodard is willing to make sweeping generalizations about the “dominant culture” in each of his eleven nations, I would argue, is that Woodard isn’t as interested in understanding the past as much as he wants to develop theories for explaining the behaviors of North Americans in contemporary society, even going to the point of predicting future outcomes (a topic to which I’ll return to in a future post). To develop theories about North America in the present, Woodard attempts to uncover independent variables for explaining past behaviors, variables that somehow transcend time and have an explainable relevance to us today. Hence, as I pointed out in my last post, Woodard argues that an independent variable (New Netherland culture) was responsible for the establishment of a Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution, reflecting the influence of Dutch cultural values such as freedom of the press and the right to assemble on the entire country.

Generalizations, theories, commentaries on contemporary society, and independent variables: each tool is used frequently by social scientists in their scholarship (including Woodard), but are they used by historians? My answer would be yes to the first two, rarely to the third, and never to the fourth. In mapping out the differences between social science and historical methodology, Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis distinguishes between reductionist and ecological views of reality. To wit:

I take reductionism to be the belief that you can best understand reality by breaking it up into its various parts. In mathematical terms, you seek the variable within an equation that determines the value of all the others. Or, more broadly, you search for the element whose removal from a causal chain would alter the outcome. It’s critical to reductionism that causes be ranked hierarchically. To invoke a democracy of causes—to suggest that an event may have had many antecedents [as historians frequently conclude]—is considered to be, well, mushy.

Reductionism implies, therefore, that there are indeed independent variables, and that we can know what they are. But when you’re accounting for the evolution of life forms, or the drifting of continents, or the formation of galaxies, you can hardly break things up into their component parts, because so much depends upon so much else. [An ecological view of reality] considers how components interact to become systems whose nature can’t be defined merely by calculating the sum of their parts. It allows for fundamental particles, but it seeks to place them within an equally fundamental universe. The ecological viewpoint is inclusive, even as the reductionist perspective is exclusive (54-55).

While historians use generalizations and theories for establishing their arguments in a cogent manner, they do not embrace the social scientist’s desire to find predictive models and independent variables in explaining past behaviors. Historians acknowledge that past events occurred in messy systems with interacting parts, systems that consist of interdependent—not independent—variables. The Bill of Rights was shaped by many interdependent variables—the American Revolution, the failed Articles of Confederation, Shay’s Rebellion, tensions between Federalists and Antifederalists, and concerns about the economy and foreign policy—and it’s nearly impossible to isolate one independent variable greater than the sum of its parts.

In my opinion, scholars put themselves in a good position to address the problems of history through generalization and theory when they look for context, complexity, and a sense of the “foreignness” of the past compared to our circumstances today. This inclusive ecological approach is better than taking a reductionist perspective that aims to explain past human behaviors through describable “rules” that allegedly explain contemporary behaviors and, oftentimes, attempt to forecast future outcomes.

In 2000, the historian Gordon Wood reviewed a book on Abraham Lincoln by the late John Patrick Diggins for The New Republic. In On Hallowed Ground, Diggins argues that “to study history is to study events in order to understand how similar conditions lead to similar effects.” Wood attacked this approach, arguing that Diggins “does not have a historian’s feel for the complexity, the nuances, the contexts, and the differentness of the past. He thinks of history as a social scientist might think of it: as a source for generalizations about human behavior that transcend time and place . . . But in reality, historians seek to study past events not to make transhistorical generalizations about human behavior but to understand those events as they actually were, in all their peculiar contexts and circumstances.” Later, in The Purpose of the Past, Wood remarked that “Diggins is one of many scholars who are deeply involved in the past without being devoted to an accurate reconstruction of it. Instead, Diggins is primarily interested in using history to criticize our present-day culture . . . [and] change the present” (276).

As I’ve attempted to demonstrate with my recent posts (and will continue to do so for the near future), I believe Woodard’s focus on finding independent variables and connections to present day culture supersedes his interest in understanding the particularities of the past. So it goes.