Americans often confuse the terms “state” and “nation” and are among the world’s only people to use the terms interchangeably. States are sovereign political entities, official forums through which political power is exercised and expressed. Nations are groups of people who share -- or believe they share -- a common culture, ethnic origin, language, artifacts and symbols. Some nations have their own states -- “nation-states” -- which they usually name after themselves: France, Hungary or Japan. Other states are federations of disparate nations: Belgium, Switzerland or Canada. The U.S. belongs to the latter category.
The U.S. federation is composed of the whole or part of 11 regional nations (some of which stretch over the boundaries of Canada and Mexico), each with its own cultural ancestry, values and ideals. These are: Yankeedom, New Netherland, New France, the Midlands (discussed in Part 1), Tidewater, Deep South, Greater Appalachia (discussed below), First Nation, the Far West, the Left Coast, and El Norte (to be discussed in subsequent parts). Their histories are as divergent as their origins: Six of these nations joined together to liberate themselves from British rule. Four were conquered, but not vanquished, by English-speaking rivals. Two more were founded in the West by a mix of American frontiersmen in the second half of the 19th century.
Some are defined by cultural pluralism, others by reverence for their particular French, Spanish or “Anglo-Saxon” cultural heritages. Although their existence has been often overlooked, they have exerted a powerful influence on our history. And, as the differences between them grow more pronounced, they are becoming increasingly powerful and significant contributors to an atmosphere of disunion, political polarization and cultural clashes.
Any argument that claims to identify a series of discrete nations on the North American continent must address the obvious objection: Can nations that were created centuries ago, and generally deprived of formal statehood, really have maintained their distinct identities to the present day?
We are a continent of immigrants and internal migrants, after all, and the tens of millions of newcomers representing every possible culture, race and creed surely must have diluted and dissipated those old cultures. Is it not the height of fancy to suggest that the distinctive culture of New York City (situated in the nation of New Netherland) is still culturally tied to its founding by the Dutch, given that the people of such ancestry now account for merely 0.2 percent of its population? One might naturally assume, as goes the classic American myth, that the continent’s “nations” must have long melted into each other, creating a rich, pluralistic stew. But, as we will see, the expected course of events isn’t actually what happened.
Life in North America has been immeasurably enriched by the many cultures and people who settled there. I personally celebrate the continent’s diversity, but I also know that my great-grandfather’s people in western Iowa -- Lutheran farmers from the island of Funen in Denmark -- assimilated into the dominant culture of the Midlands (think, for now, “Midwest”), even as they contributed to its evolution.
My Irish-Catholic great-grandparents worked the iron and copper mines of the interior West, and their children grew up to be Far Westerners. My great-great-great grandmother’s family fled from the same part of Ireland as their future cousins-in-law, but the mines where they found work happened to be in Quebec, so their descendants grew up speaking French and traveling on aboriginal snowshoes.
All of them, undoubtedly, altered the places to which they emigrated -- for the better, I hope -- but did the culture in which they settled change them more than they changed the culture around them? Over the generations, they assimilated into the world around them, not the other way around. They may have embraced or enriched or detested the dominant culture, but they didn’t replace it. And it wasn’t “American” or “Canadian” culture they confronted and negotiated with or against: It was the culture of one of the North American nations listed above.
Becoming a member of a nation usually has nothing to do with genetics, and everything to do with culture. One doesn’t inherit a national identity, the way one gets hair, skin or eye color. One acquires it in childhood or, with great effort, through voluntary assimilation later in life. Even the “blood” nations of Europe support this assertion.
A member of the (very nationalistic) Hungarian nation might be descended from Austrian Germans, Russian Jews, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks or any combination thereof, but if he speaks Hungarian and embraces Hungarian ways, he is regarded as being Hungarian. Nobody would deny French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Frenchness, even though his father was a Hungarian noble and his maternal grandfather, a Greek-born Sephardic Jew. The same is true of North American nations: If you talk like a Midlander, you are probably a Midlander and act like a Midlander, regardless of whether your parents or grandparents came from the Deep South, Italy or Eritrea.
Cultural geographers came to similar conclusions decades ago. In 1973, Wilbur Zelinsky of Pennsylvania State University formulated a key theory that he called the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement.
“Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, 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,” he wrote.
The colonial Atlantic seaboard, he noted, was a prime example. The Dutch may have been all but extinct in the lower Hudson Valley -- and the landed aristocracy have lost control of the Chesapeake country -- but their influence carries on all the same. Note the lastingness of the attributes and character of the three American nations defined below:
Tidewater was the most powerful nation during the colonial period and the Early Republic. It has always been a fundamentally conservative region where a high value is placed on respect for authority and tradition and very little on equality or public participation in politics.
Such attitudes aren’t surprising, given that it was founded by the younger sons of southern English gentry, who aimed to reproduce the semi-feudal, manorial society of the English countryside, where economic, political and social affairs were run by and for landed aristocrats. These self-identified “Cavaliers” largely succeeded in their aims, turning the lowlands of Virginia, Maryland, southern Delaware and northeastern North Carolina into a country gentleman’s paradise with indentured servants and, later, slaves taking the part of the peasants.
Tidewater elites played a central role in the foundation of the U.S. and are responsible for many of the aristocratic inflections of the Constitution, including the Electoral College and Senate, whose members were to be appointed by legislators, not chosen by the electorate.
But the region’s power waned in the 1830s and 1840s, its elite generally following the lead of the planters of the ascendant Deep South in matters of national political importance. Today, it is a nation in decline, rapidly losing its influence, cultural cohesion and territory to its Midland neighbors. Its undoing was a matter of geography: It was blocked by rivals from expanding over the Appalachian Mountains.
Greater Appalachia was founded in the early 18th century by wave upon wave of rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of northern Ireland, northern England and the Scottish lowlands. Lampooned in popular culture as “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” “crackers” and “white trash,” these clannish Scots-Irish, Scots and northern English frontiersmen spread across the highland South and on into the southern tiers of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois; the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks; the eastern two-thirds of Oklahoma; and the Hill Country of Texas, clashing with Indians, Mexicans and Yankees as they migrated.
In the British Isles, this culture had formed in a state of near-constant war and upheaval, fostering a warrior ethic and a deep commitment to individual liberty and personal sovereignty. Intensely suspicious of aristocrats and social reformers alike, these American borderlanders despised Yankee teachers, Tidewater lords and Deep Southern aristocrats.
In the Civil War, much of the region fought for the Union, with secessionist movements in western Virginia (creating West Virginia), eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama. During Reconstruction, the region resisted the Yankee effort to liberate African slaves, driving it into a lasting alliance with its former enemies: the overlords of the Tidewater and Deep Southern lowlands of Dixie.
The borderlanders’ combative culture has provided a large proportion of the nation’s military, from officers such as Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett and Douglas MacArthur to the enlisted men fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. They also gave the continent bluegrass and country music, stock-car racing and evangelical fundamentalism.
The Deep South
The Deep South, by contrast, was founded by Barbados slave lords as a West Indies-style slave society, a system so despotic and cruel that it shocked even 17th-century English observers. For most of American history, the region has been a bastion of white supremacy and aristocratic privilege, while enslavement has been the natural lot of many. It remains the least democratic of the regions, a one-party entity where race remains the primary determinant of one’s political affiliations.
Beginning from its Charleston beachhead, the Deep South spread apartheid and authoritarianism across the Southern lowlands, eventually encompassing most of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana; western Tennessee; and the southeastern parts of North Carolina, Arkansas and Texas. With its territorial ambitions in Latin America frustrated, it dragged the U.S. into a horrific war in the 1860s in order to form its own nation state, backed by reluctant allies in Tidewater and some corners of Appalachia.
After successfully resisting a Yankee-led occupation, it became the center of the states-rights movement and racial segregation, as well as labor and environmental deregulation. It is also the wellspring of African-American culture in America and, 40 years after it was forced to allow blacks to vote, it remains politically polarized on racial grounds.
Tomorrow: New France, El Norte.
(Colin Woodard, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the author of “The Lobster Coast,” “The Republic of Pirates” and “Ocean’s End.” This is the second in a five-part series excerpted from his new book, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America,” published Sept. 29 by Viking. The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 1, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.)
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