Thursday, November 30, 2017

Book Review: Eleven Nations of North America

This post's heading is often how Colin Woodard's book is referred to, but the real title is American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, published in 2011. As someone interested in geography and politics I found it a fascinating and engaging read. I had originally resisted reading it thinking it was a rehash of Joel Garreau's 1982 book The Nine Nations of North America. It's not, and indeed it is much better--more scholarly, much more historical, and a lot more than Mr. Garreau's entertaining, anecdotal journalism.

For all that, I think Mr. Woodard's thesis is at least incomplete, if not outright wrong.

It begins promisingly enough, expanding on David Hackett Fisher's magisterial Albion's Seed, which describes four of the nations. For example, Yankeedom was founded by Puritan immigrants from East Anglia. They were the victors in England's Civil War, and came not as refugees, but rather as pilgrims. Their goal was to build "a city on a hill," i.e., a place closer to God, and where His chosen people can lead a more saintly life. The Yankees had no use for aristocrats or royalty, nor did they believe in freedom of religion. They despised the Anglican church, "popery", and the heretical Quakers. They passionately supported the American Revolution, providing the largest number of soldiers for that effort.

Yankeedom, according to Woodard, started in New England, but has since expanded to include the Canadian Maritimes, Upstate New York, and west to encompass Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota (along with bits of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois). Yankees believed in good government guided by religious truth.

They also colonized the Left Coast, that skinny stretch along our Pacific rim to the west of the Sierra/Cascade mountains, including San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. (Los Angeles is part of El Norte.)

By contrast, the Midlands was settled originally by Quakers, a heretical Christian sect who emigrated from the West Midlands--places like Lancashire and Cheshire. Unique among American colonists, they championed religious liberty and tolerance generally. Accordingly, they welcomed immigration from "friendly" people, e.g. German pietists such as the Amish, Mennonites, Anabaptists, etc. Because their ancestral home in England was strongly affected by Viking invasions, the Quakers share much with Scandinavians, both in heritage and culture, including gender equality, and indeed equality generally. Northern Delaware was settled by Swedes, who arrived upon Quaker invitation.

The Quakers themselves are not important today, but the immigrants they attracted still thrive and preserve most of their values. Among those are pacifism, which led them to tend Loyalist during the American Revolution, and not eager to join the Union cause during the Civil War. (The New Netherlanders, who lived in New York City and immediate environs, were stauncher Loyalists and Confederate sympathizers, albeit for different reasons.)

From Mr. Woodard's map, the Midlands today looks like a ridiculously gerrymandered congressional district, including most of Pennsylvania and South Jersey, central portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, much of Missouri and Iowa, and the eastern parts of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Their Loyalist sympathies caused them to emigrate to Southern Ontario and Manitoba, where they still dominate the culture. Toronto, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis are Midlander cities.

Greater Appalachia was settled by people from the Scottish Borders, who Woodard dubs Borderlanders, but are more commonly known as Scots-Irish. They are the only colonists who truly supported democracy and individual rights, along with the ideal of rugged individualism. Tidewater (Chesapeake Bay) was settled by the aristocratic losers in the English civil war, who sought to recreate their lost British homeland. They produced men of great character and erudition, notably George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, without whom the Revolution should never have succeeded. The Deep South began in Charleston, SC, by immigrants from Barbados who wanted to expand their profitable slaveocracy beyond that small island. Unlike in Tidewater, for these people slavery was precisely the point of their existence.

And so on. Mr. Woodard recounts American history as a struggle between these and other nations for dominance in the federal government. While Virginia was the most populous state, Yankeedom was the most populous nation. They both hated the Quakers. The Borderlanders hated everybody, fighting against Southern aristocrats and Yankee "good government" meddlers alike. In the end it became a battle to prevent the Deep South from expanding too far, and then dominating the federal government. That, along with the Yankee's strong moral objections to slavery, led eventually to the Civil War.

And indeed, through the Civil War I find Mr. Woodard's story convincing. After that it becomes much less credible. I'll highlight three reasons why.

1.  African-Americans. Through most of the book Black people are slaves and have no further influence. Then they briefly become equally neutered sharecroppers. Only near the end do they acquire any agency at all in the form of the Civil Rights movement. During which Malcolm X is described as a "Yankee," in comparison to Martin Luther King, who is a "Deep Southerner." Really?

Within Mr. Woodard's framework African-Americans are probably deserving of their own nation, overlayed on top of the others such as what they do with area codes. Certainly their influence on American politics and culture grants them at least that importance. For example, American music is substantially of African-American heritage, and owes nothing to the Barbadian immigrants who founded the Deep South.

Indeed, I will go further and argue that most residual influence of the antebellum South is due to African-Americans.

2.  Technology. In 1840 it may have been reasonable for Southern plantation owners to think their slaveocracy might survive (though Tidewater's Thomas Jefferson doubted that even before the Revolution). But by 1860 surely the handwriting was on the wall--technology in the form of railroads and mechanization would eventually render slavery economically impossible.

The problems with slavery are twofold: it is a fundamentally unproductive use of labor, and it depends crucially on export markets for income, as slaves cannot become consumers. Both of those conditions made slavery uncompetitive on the world market.

After the war it turned into sharecropping, which at least incentivized the workforce a little better. By 1900 mechanization was in full force, the Southern farms became much more productive, and their former slaves migrated north to factories where their skills could be better used.

Exceptions notwithstanding, today's Southern Blacks--who populate shopping malls and live in middle class suburbs--are not desperately poor people under the thumb of some hopelessly cruel oligarchy. Yet oligarchy is precisely how Mr. Woodard describes the South, as if  Barbadian descendants still ran the show. Please, Mr. Woodard, name ten such oligarchs that control the South. You can't because they don't exist anymore. The South has an economy as modern as any other part of the country. And the proof is that Blacks have gone from being slaves to being consumers, just like the rest of us.

This process would have happened anyway, Civil War or no. So I disagree with Mr. Woodard's statement that the war was primarily about slavery. It was much more about culture, which included slavery but which didn't depend on it, especially in Virginia.

3. Morality Tale. The last two chapters of the book are the least satisfying, for that is where Mr. Woodard reveals his Yankee roots and moralizing tendencies. The Borderlanders are no longer just different, but they've morphed into something evil. Either that or they're stupid victims of some (non-existent) oligarchy. He claims, for example, that lessening regulations on clean air standards is a sop to corporations, apparently unaware that the United Mine Workers are as much against those regulations as their bosses. Of course, because their jobs and livelihoods are on the line.

Borderlanders have spent the last three centuries fighting against aristocracy and Yankee government  in defense of democracy and individual freedom. Why should they now surrender to the regulatory state? What is it about Yankee technocrats that makes them so fit to rule?

Some regulation is necessary. Too much regulation is bad. One can argue the distinction. But Mr. Woodard seems to think that every squiggle from a government bureaucrat is divinely inspired, and that Borderlanders should just suck it up and obey their Yankee superiors.


Though I enjoyed and recommend Mr. Woodard's book. Just don't believe all of it.

Further Reading:

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