So, for the last couple of months we’ve been together in staying apart. How American is that?
Colin Woodard believes it’s standard — that our continent and country has been a loose collection of fractious tribes or nations for centuries now. The Maine-based journalist explained it in his 2011 best-seller “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.”
Woodard’s dive into the post-Columbian settlement of the contiguous U.S. shows how different colonists in various areas brought their own sensibilities about the roles of individuals, government and religion in their lives. The patterns they established have not only endured but strengthened.
“To a degree that surprised even me in my process of researching the book, how long and deep those initial influences have played out,” Woodard said on a recent podcast.
The author succinctly crystallized this writer’s own observations. My recommendations to others stirred raves.
So when the Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF) asked if I would facilitate a five-week virtual book club, I thought of our splintered responses to COVID-19. “American Nations” was the obvious choice.
Starting June 1, at 4 p.m., we’ll meet via Zoom for five Mondays and run through the book’s ideas. If you’re intrigued by history, sociology, cultural anthropology or politics, then there’s something there for you. I’ve heard through AHF they have received inquiries from as far away as Oregon.
The registration address is long — 50-plus characters, many random — so email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you the link. Or check out AHF’s website, Facebook page or Instagram account. If you need a copy of the book, AHF can help.
We’ll be discussing Woodard’s regions, which he tags Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, El Norte, the Left Coast, New France, First Nation and the Far West. He describes how their settlers — Quakers to Calvinists, Spanish Catholics to English Anglicans, Dutch merchants to British refugees — brought their values to bear in the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement. In short, if you establish an ongoing society then your initial culture shapes what follows.
A trio of these have bearing on Alabamians:
Greater Appalachia: Settlers from war-torn Northern Ireland, Northern England and the Scottish Lowlands instilled Appalachia with values of personal sovereignty and individual liberty. They harbored intense suspicion of aristocrats and social engineers. Northern Alabama is part of this region.
Deep South: Influenced by English slave lords from Barbados, the Deep South was patterned as a West Indies-style slave society, per Woodard. It has a rigid social structure and prizes individual liberty over government regulation. From roughly Birmingham southward, Alabama is also in this region.
New France: Its people are consensus-driven and tolerant. Represented mainly in Canada, there’s a Gulf Coast offshoot centered around New Orleans. They stressed alliance with natives, unlike the brutal tactics of the Spanish and British. The Mobile Bay area, too, was founded by New France pioneers.
Woodard describes New England-originated Yankeedom as valuing communal empowerment, citizen governmental participation, education and intellectual achievement. Founded by religious hardliners, they’re comfortable with state regulation and hold a Utopian streak.
Yankeedom and capitalistic New Netherland formed early coalitions. Same with the gentrified Tidewater and Deep South. Their friction long preceded the Revolutionary War.
When the Civil War exploded, the Midlands went to war with the U.S. forces. Greater Appalachia’s mistrust of outside agencies thrust them into a tenuous alliance with Confederate forces.
Woodard describes how these cultures pushed westward, chasing Manifest Destiny. The Left Coast became a synthesis of Yankeedom’s “Yankee utopianism and Appalachian self-expression and exploration.” The Far West emerged as its libertarian counter, just across the Cascade and Sierra ranges.
Growing American mobility in the last century has deepened divides as citizens relocated to areas with similar values and worldviews. Migration patterns and voting returns show us self-sorting.
Utterly fascinating, the book’s survey exceeds this meager description.
Mobile, the Old South’s Cotton City, is firmly in the story’s central struggle. Woodard feels Yankeedom and the Deep South’s brinksmanship influences other regions.
“There is not a lot of wiggle room between Yankee and Deep South culture. Those two nations would never see eye to eye on anything besides an external threat,” Woodard said.
The author’s aim is reconciliation of ongoing arguments. Insight opens that door.
“We don’t understand what the underlying background is to the disagreements we’ve been having and the regional nature of those disagreements,” Woodard told an interviewer. “So, I’m hoping that by identifying what the actual questions on the table are, that we can actually start moving the conversation forward from there.”
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