Thinking About Things. On American Diversity and its Origins

By John DeQ. Briggs

Author’s note. This article turned out to be quite different from what I expected to write when I started. I intended to write a rumination about diversity in America and whether it has evolved from a good thing to an arguably bad thing. But in researching the topic, and at the behest of my sister, I read the book that is the subject of this article and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to bring to this readership a précis of the book, with minimal commentary so that all readers will at least have a common baseline understanding of the fascinating impacts of American diversity over the last 400 years.

With such a common understanding, any discussion of diversity should be much more knowledgeable, and certainly more interesting. The book is American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard. I am only going to summarize ten of these, putting to one side for now the purely Canadian “First Nation.” I should add that I am providing Woodard’s view of events, some controversial, not my own. His approach is original and insightful, but not always necessarily correct.

This is not a new book (it was published in 2011) but it was new to me. Along the way, I got more than I bargained for and came away surprised that so little of what I learned was part of any academic curriculum to which I had ever been exposed. One event in particular of considerable influence in America during the 17th century was the English Civil War, which I do not recall learning much about during my own education. Another aspect of the American experience, derived from the Dutch in New Amsterdam in the early 17th century, was the extraordinary tolerance for diversity, which gave at least commercial New York and parts of the new country such strengths. But that tolerance for diversity strikes me as having transmogrified grotesquely into a multiplicity of legal requirements for diversity in many dimensions, but not normally including thought or expression.

The book begins early on by bursting a bubble. Americans have been taught for centuries 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. Generations of frontiersmen pushed into the wilderness, wrestling nature and her savage children into submission to achieve their destiny as God’s chosen people: a unified Republic stretching from sea to shining sea inhabited by virtuous, freedom loving people. Like so much of our oversimplified American history, this is quite wrong. American Nations describes the development of separate North American “nations”, from southern Canada to much of Northern Mexico. See map above for the rough boundaries of the “nations,” which Woodard defines, in order of their emergence: El Norte, New France, Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland. the Deep South, the Midlands, Greater Appalachia, the Left Coast, and the Far West.

1. So, to look at the matter through a somewhat orderly chronological perspective, we will start with El Norte. The Americas were discovered by a Spanish expedition in 1492, and by the time the first Englishman stepped off the boat at Jamestown a little over a century later, Spanish explorers had already trekked through the plains of Kansas, beheld the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, and stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon. They had mapped the coast of Oregon and the Canadian Maritimes, not to mention Latin America and the Caribbean – and given names to everything from the Bay of Fundy to Tierra del Fuego. Indeed, in 1565, they founded Saint Augustine, Florida, the oldest European city in the United States.                          

El Norte comprises a large chunk of Northern Mexico (much of the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California) as well as a good-sized sliver running from north of San Diego, California, across Southern Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Spain’s King, Philip II used the massive riches pouring in from the Americas to build armies and an enormous naval Armada with which to conquer Protestant Europe. When he unleashed them, Europe was plunged into a series of religious wars that lasted for the better part of a century, undermined the solvency of the Spanish state, and left millions of dead.

His son, Philip III, was advised that the end of time was fast approaching, and that he must “conquer the Turks and then press on to Africa, Asia, Calcutta, China, Japan and all the islands adjacent, subduing all ‘ere they come’”. This turned out to be poor advice and by the end of the 30 Years’ War in 1648, the Protestant powers were stronger than ever and Spain was a weak, deeply indebted, and slowly decomposing influence. What, you might ask, does this have to do with El Norte? Well, as Woodard explains it, by spearheading the effort to snuff out the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish had earned the lasting hatred of the English, Scots, and Dutch, who regarded them as the decadent, unthinking tools of the Vatican’s conspiracy to enslave the world. So, the continent was divided against itself almost from the start.

Moreover, by the time the Spanish reached El Norte, the empire’s religious mission had become the key element of its colonial policy. The Spanish plan was to assimilate the Native Americans into Spanish culture by converting them to Catholicism and supervising their fate, work, dress, and conduct in special settlements governed by priests. While the Spanish world had a caste system, with pure whites dominating the highest offices, it broke down in the New World, where there were almost no female colonists and so almost everyone had one or more nonwhite ancestors. However, what started as a social reengineering project did not succeed, notwithstanding that between 1598 and 1794 the Spanish established at least 18 missions in what is now New Mexico, 26 and what is now Texas, eight in Arizona, and 21 in Alta California – in the process founding what have since become the cities of Tucson, San Antonio, San Diego, and San Francisco.

But the system had multiple flaws. Neophytes were cloistered away from the mainstream of Hispanic life; the friars made it difficult for them to assimilate; and the system was abusive, in fact not unlike the hierarchy of a plantation, with the neophytes being the slaves and kept often in chains.

In sum, El Norte had no self-government, no elections, and no possibility for local people to play any significant role in politics. Ordinary people, peons, were expected to give their loyalty to the local PatrÓn, who provided employment; looked after widows, orphans, and the infirm; and sponsored religious feasts. Still, the norteños, in fact the Franciscans, brought to Texas, California, and indeed North America most everything that today is thought of as the American cowboy culture. But by the early 17th century, El Norte had new Euro-American neighbors, rival cultures with advantages and manpower and resources. El Norte would be eclipsed for more than two centuries by these new forces.

2. New France. Sixteen years before the Mayflower’s landing in Plymouth, and more than a hundred years after the Spanish landed in South America. Seventy-nine Frenchmen in two ships brought with them prefabricated parts needed to assemble a chapel, a forge, a mill, barracks, and two coastal survey vessels. They reconnoitered the coasts of what would become Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and eastern Maine looking for an ideal location for France’s first American outpost. Their vision of a tolerant, utopian society in the wilds of North America would profoundly shape not only the culture, politics, and legal norms of New France but also those of the 21st-century Canada as well. They envisioned a perfected feudal society like that of rural France based on the medieval hierarchy of Counts, Viscounts, and Barons ruling over commoners and their servants. There would be no representative assemblies, no town governments, no freedom of speech or press.

While as in France, Catholicism would be the official religion, New France would be open to French Protestants, and commoners would be allowed to hunt and fish -rights unheard of in France. Their leader, Samuel de Champlain, hoped to bring Christianity and other aspects of French civilization to the native populations, but he wished to accomplish this by persuasion and example, not military dominance. Unlike the English and other Europeans, he regarded the Indians as every bit as intelligent and human as his own countrymen and thought cross-cultural marriage between the Peoples was not only tolerable, but desirable.

The new settlement, Port Royal, would become the model for future settlements in New France, resembling a village in Northwestern France from where most of the settlers had come. Peasants cleared fields and planted wheat and orchards; skilled laborers constructed water powered mills and a comfortable lodge for the gentlemen, who staged plays, wrote poetry, developed epicurean delights from local resources, and journeyed into the fields only for picnics.

This was quite a contrast to the early settlers in Jamestown, who refused to sample unfamiliar foods and resorted to eating neighbors who had starved to death. And while commoners were not invited to New France’s gentlemanly feasts, the local Indian chiefs were. The French gentlemen learned the various Indian languages and sent some of their children to live among the Indians to learn their customs, technology, and speech. Some Frenchmen moved into the forest to live with the Indians, a move encouraged by the critical shortage of women in Québec for much of the 17th century. Especially in Acadia, French and Indian culture blended into one another. And while the French had hoped peaceably to assimilate the Indians into their culture, religion, and feudal way of life, they themselves ultimately became acculturated into the lifestyle, technology, and values of the Mi’kmaqs, Passamaquoddies, and Montagnais such that new France became as much an aboriginal society as a French one and would eventually pass some of this quality onto Canada itself.

The Indians’ influence would be the undoing of the French effort to transplant feudalism to North America. During the peak of immigration during the 1660s, most colonists came alone, were either very young or very old. Most of them found working for the seigniors’ land to be burdensome. Few accepted their assigned role as docile peasants once their indentures were concluded. And so the majority returned to France; those who stayed often fled to take up lives in the wilderness where they traded for furs with the Indians or simply “went native.” The seigniors themselves as a result eventually sank into poverty and the commoners began taking over their lands.

By the middle of the 18th century, New France had become almost entirely dependent on Native Americans to protect their shared society from invaders. Even a century and a half after the foundation of Port Royal, there were only 62,000 French people living in Québec and Acadia and only a few thousand in the vast Louisiana Territory, which encompassed much of the Continental interior. To the south, however, France’s longtime enemies were gaining strength and an astonishing rate, for in the Chesapeake Tidewater and New England two aggressive, vibrant, and avowedly Protestant societies had taken root, cultures with very different attitudes about race, religion, and the place of “savages.” Together they numbered over 750,000, and another 300,000 inhabited the other English -controlled colonies of the Atlantic seaboard. The leaders of New France must have hoped that New England and Tidewater would remain what they had been from the outset: avowed enemies of one another with little in common beyond having come from the same European island.

3. Tidewater was the first (1607) lasting English colony in the New World. It was “a hellhole of epic proportions, successful only in the sense that it survived at all. Founded by private investors, it was poorly planned, badly lead, and foolishly located.” These first Virginians had not come to the New World to farm and build a new society, but rather to conquer and rule, much as the Spanish had more than a century earlier. The Virginia Company’s plan assumed that the Indians would be intimidated by English technology and submit, Aztek-like, to their rule. But the local chief, Powhatan, saw the English outpost for what it was: weak and vulnerable but a potential source of useful European technology, especially metal tools and weapons. Powhatan ruled a Confederation that spanned the lower Chesapeake, comprising 30 tribes and 24,000 people. He lived in a large lodge on the York River, attended by 40 bodyguards, 100 wives, and a small army of servants.

While the gentlemen of New France were inviting Indian chiefs to their gastronomic indulgences, hungry Virginians were extorting corn from Powhatan’s Indians by force, triggering a cycle of violence that lasted for decades. But despite the incompetence of Jamestown’s leaders, the Indians were on the losing side of a war of attrition. The Virginia Company continued to send wave after wave of colonists to the Chesapeake, particularly after it was discovered that tobacco grew very well there. And while many colonists died, the Virginia company sent two more to take the place of each who died. Indian losses from warfare, disease, and war -induced hunger could not be replaced so easily. By 1669 Tidewater’s Indian population had been reduced to 2000, 8% of its original level, while the English population had grown to 40,000, spreading across Tidewater and clearing Indian lands to grow tobacco.

Two events changed the trajectory of Tidewater Society, setting cultural patterns that persist even to this century. The first came in 1617 when Pocahontas’s husband successfully transplanted West Indian strains of tobacco to Chesapeake soil, transforming Virginia into a booming export-oriented plantation society almost overnight. The second was the English civil war in the 1640s, the results of which prompted a mass exodus from England of the families who would come to form Tidewater’s aristocracy.

Tobacco was a labor-intensive business. Tidewater’s leaders recruited their workforce from the masses of desperate, malnourished laborers who were crowding London and other English cities. They offered prospective laborers transportation to Virginia or Maryland and a 50-acre plot of land free of charge in exchange for three years’ service as a “white slave” or indentured servant. Those who responded quickly came to represent 80-90% of the 150,000 Europeans who emigrated to Tidewater in the 17th century. Few survived their period of servitude but those who did had a reasonable chance of becoming independent farmers, and some became very rich.

Most indentured servants in 17th century Tidewater were from the hinterlands of London, Bristol, and Liverpool, but a handful were of African descent, starting with twenty Africans bought from Dutch traders in 1619. Unlike the Deep South, however, Tidewater appears to have treated its African servants much as it did their white counterparts through the 1660s. White and black settlers were not segregated, some Africans enjoyed the few civil rights available to commoners. Some even became masters themselves like Anthony Johnson, who in the 1650s owned several African servants and 250 acres of land on Virginias Eastern Shore. Tidewater was inequitable, but it was not yet a racially based slave society.

Maryland, for its part, was an oligarchy from the outset, the vast feudal preserve of Cecilius Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, whose coat of arms still graces the Maryland flag. Calvert was given his 12-million-acre domain by a fellow Catholic, King Charles I, who liked the nobleman’s proposal to create a nominally Catholic colony where all religions would be tolerated. As that attracted settlers from across the Bay, Maryland would quickly come to resemble Tidewater Virginia: a Protestant-dominated tobacco colony, where indentured servants worked the land and the emergent aristocracy commanded most of the profits.

As Woodard explains, Tidewater and Yankee New England stood at the opposite poles of the mid-17th-century English-speaking world, with diametrically opposed values, politics, and social priorities. And when Civil War came to England in the 1640s, they backed opposing sides, inaugurating centuries of struggle between them over the future of America.

For the new elites in both Chesapeake colonies, the overriding goal was not to build a religious Utopia (as in early Yankeedom or, as we shall see, the Midlands) or a complex network of Indian alliances (as in New France). Whether high born or self-made, the Tidewater planters had an extremely conservative vision for the future of their new country: they wished to re-create the genteel manor life of rural England in the New World. And for a time, they succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations. Yet Tidewater’s gentry created a thoroughly rural society without towns or even villages. It had no need for commercial ports and thus for cities because the land was riven with navigable fingers of the Chesapeake, allowing each of the planters to build his own dock and hence engage directly in trade with London and Europe. In sharp contrast to New England, there were no public schools (the children of gentlemen had live-in tutors) or town governments. Power in Tidewater became hereditary. The leading families intermarried in both America and England creating a close-linked cousinage that dominated Tidewater in general and Virginia in particular.

Also, the Tidewater gentry embraced classical republicanism, meaning a republic modeled after those of ancient Greece and Rome. They emulated the learned, slaveholding elite of ancient Athens, basing their enlightened political philosophies around the ancient Latin concept of libertas, or liberty. This was a fundamentally different notion from the Germanic concept of Freiheit, or Freedom, which informed Yankeedom and the Midlands. For the Norse, Anglo-Saxons, Dutch, and other Germanic tribes of northern Europe, “Freedom” was a birthright of free peoples. Individuals might have differences in status and wealth, but all were literally “born free.” The Greek and Roman political philosophy embraced by Tidewater gentry assumed quite the opposite: most were born into bondage. Liberty was something that was granted and was thus a privilege, not a right.

Tidewater’s semi feudal model required a vast and permanent underclass to play the role of serfs, on whose toil the entire system depended. But from the 1670s onward, the gentry had an increasingly difficult time finding enough poor Englishman willing to take on this role. Slave traders provided a solution to the shortage, one developed on the English islands of the Caribbean and recently introduced in the settlements they had created in the Deep South. This slave caste grew from 10% of Tidewater’s population in 1700 to 40% in 1760.

4. Yankeedom began with the Puritans (Calvinist English settlers) in New England and spread across upper New York, the northern parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, into the Eastern Dakotas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Canadian maritime. They also had an immense influence in the founding and development of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver in the Pacific Northwest.

The dominant colonies of New England were founded by men who stood in total opposition to nearly every value that Tidewater gentry held dear. Hostile to landed aristocracy, noble privilege, the Anglican Church, and the royalist cause, the Pilgrims of Cape Cod and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay had an entirely different vision for their new society: a nation of churches and schoolhouses, where each community functioned as its own self-governing republic. Yankeedom left an indelible mark on a vast swath of the continent.

This was an area that believed it could create a better society through public spending on infrastructure and schools. From the beginning, New Englanders believed they could defend the public good from the selfish machinations of moneyed interest and could enforce morals through the prohibition or regulation of undesirable activities. Yankeedom gave birth to the kernels of the twin political ideologies of Americas Imperial age: American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. The Pilgrims and, to a greater extent, the Puritans came to the New World not to re-create rural English life but to build a completely new society: and applied religious Utopia, a Protestant theocracy based on the teachings of John Calvin. They would found a new Zion in the New England wilderness, a “city on a hill” to serve as a model for the rest of the world. They believed they would succeed because they believed they were God’s chosen people. And contrary to a central founding myth of American history, the Puritans were not fleeing religious persecution; they were more like an American Taliban — leaving England en masse because of their unwillingness to compromise on matters of religious policy and wishing to live apart and exclude non-adherents.

The Puritan exodus also had a demographic character and entirely unlike that of Tidewater, New France, and El Norte. The Yankee settlers came in families, were generally middle-class, well-educated, and roughly equal in material wealth. While Tidewater was settled by young, unskilled male servants, New England’s colonists were skilled craftsman, lawyers, doctors, and yeoman farmers; none was an indentured servant. Rather than having fled poverty in search of better lives, the early Yankees traded a comfortable existence at home for the uncertainties of the wilderness. This demographic advantage – and the fact that New England had relatively few epidemic diseases – enabled the population to expand rapidly from its initial settlement base. And although few immigrants entered the region for a century after 1640, colonial New England’s European population doubled every generation such that by 1660 it had reached 60,000 inhabitants, more than twice the population of Tidewater. And Yankeedom was the most cohesive area, since nearly everyone had arrived at the same time and for much the same reason.

The New England settlement model differed from Tidewater not merely in the presence of towns but in the power vested in them. Puritans believed every community of the chosen should govern itself without interference from Bishops, Archbishops, or Kings. Every congregation considered itself completely self-governing. Every town was a little republic unto itself. Counties had almost no power at all. New Englanders believed from the very beginning that government could defend the public good from the selfish machinations of moneyed interests. It could create a better society through public spending on infrastructure and schools. More than any other group in America, Yankees conceived of government as being run by and for themselves. Everybody was supposed to participate, and there was no greater outrage than to manipulate the political process for private gain.

The Puritan belief that each individual had to encounter divine revelation through reading the scriptures had far-reaching implications. If everyone was expected to read the Bible, everyone had to be literate. While the other American Nations had no school systems of any kind in the mid-17th century, New England required all children to be sent to school under penalty of law. Few Englishmen could read or write in 1660, but two thirds of Massachusetts men and more than 1/3 of women were considered literate. And while basic education was universal, those with higher education were accorded the sort of respect and deference other societies reserved for the highborn.

If the Puritans had kept to themselves, their neighbors might have taken little notice of them. But what would cause Yankeedom eventually to be so loathed by the other nations was its desire – indeed its mission – to impose its ways on everyone else. The Puritans also feared the wilderness, a disorderly impulsive place at the edge of their fields where Satan lurked. Unlike the settlers in New France, the Puritans regarded the Indians as savages to whom normal moral obligations did not apply. When a group of dissatisfied Puritan settlers marched into the wilderness to found the squatters’ colony (Connecticut) in 1636, Massachusetts authorities engineered a genocidal war against the Pequot Indians to have a pretext to seize the region by conquest from under the squatters. In one incident they surrounded a poorly defended Pequot village and butchered every man, woman and child they found there, mostly by burning them alive. Plymouth Governor William Bradford conceded that it had been “a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire in the streams of blood quenching the same” but concluded that “the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice” which God “had wrought so wonderfully for them.”

The Puritans program of conquest was not limited to Indian peoples. During and immediately after the English Civil War, Massachusetts soldiers and preachers attempted Yankee coups in Maryland, annexed the Royalist colony of Maine, and reduced Connecticut, Plymouth, and New Hampshire to satellites of their Bible Commonwealth. For four decades, Boston ruled the region as the capital of the United Colonies of New England. Puritan courts enforced Calvinist morality against hard living Maine fishermen and drove Anglican priests from New Hampshire. It was almost like what we think of today as Sharia Law.

For Tidewater gentry, New England, complicit in the treasonous rebellion and the execution of the King, was a seditious land populated by radicals committed to destroying the foundations on which society stood. For Yankees, Tidewater was a bastion of reactionary forces, its lords committed to perpetuating the enslavement of the English people begun by their Norman ancestors. Yankee fears were given new urgency after Cromwell’s death in 1658 when the monarchy was restored and a “Cavalier Parliament” of Royalist sympathizers convened in Westminster. The gentlemen of Virginia and the Calverts of Maryland once again had the backing of London, and the Puritans faced a mortal threat to their young nation.

5. New York began its life as New Netherland in 1624, just four years after the Mayflower voyage and six years ahead of the Puritans’ arrival in Massachusetts Bay. Although New Amsterdam was conquered by the English in 1664, the Dutch influence has permanently defined New York City. It was established as a fur-trading post and was an unabashedly commercial settlement with little concern for either social cohesion or the creation of a model society. A global corporation, the Dutch West India Company, dominated the city’s affairs and formerly governed New Netherland for the first few decades. Standing between Yankeedom and Tidewater, the city emerged as a trading entrepôt for both.

Moreover, the population of New Amsterdam was as diverse as anywhere in the world. And while Jews were banned from setting foot in New France, Yankeedom, and Tidewater, dozens of Ashkenazim and Spanish-speaking Sephardim settled New Amsterdam in the 1650s, forming the nucleus of what would eventually become the largest Jewish community in the world. Indians roamed the streets, and Africans – slave, free, and half-free – already formed a fifth of the population. New Amsterdam’s core characteristics – diversity, tolerance, upward mobility, and an overwhelming emphasis on private enterprise – have come to be identified with the United States, but they were really the legacy of the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

Indeed, many of the historic achievements of the American Revolution were accomplished by the Dutch nearly two centuries before the Battle of Lexington: the successful war of independence against an enormous monarchical Empire (the Kingdom of Spain); the declaration of a human right to rebel against an oppressive government (the 1581 Act of Abjuration); and the creation of a king-free Republic. By the time the Dutch West India Company founded New Amsterdam, the Netherlands had assumed a role in the world economy equivalent to that of the United States in the late 20th Century, setting the standards for international business, finance, law, and education. The Netherlands tiny oasis of intellectual freedom, squeezed between the North Sea and the Catholic Inquisition, was the incubator for the modern world.

The Dutch had internalized the lessons of Europe’s horrific and ongoing religious wars. Insistence on conformity — cultural, religious, or otherwise– was self-defeating, causing strife and undermining trade and business. The Dutch trait of tolerance was just that. They did not celebrate diversity but tolerated it because they viewed the alternative as far worse. Yet New Netherland was no more moral than its English counterparts: if a commodity was profitable, it was pursued, including trade in captive humans. Indeed, according to Woodard, full-on slavery was introduced in what is now the United States not by the gentlemen Planters of Virginia or South Carolina, but by the merchants of Manhattan.

6. According to Woodard, the founding fathers of the Deep South arrived in what is now Charleston in 1670 and 1671. They were the Barbadian sons and grandsons of the founders of an older English colony: Barbados, “the richest and most horrifying society in the English-speaking world.” The society founded in Charleston did not seek to replicate rural English manor life or to create a religious Utopia in the American wilderness. Instead, it was designed as a near carbon copy of the West Indian slave state the Barbadian’s had left behind. This unadulterated slave society would spread rapidly across the lowlands of what is now South Carolina, overwhelming the utopian colony of Georgia and spawning the dominant culture of Mississippi, lowland Alabama, the Louisiana Delta country, Eastern Texas and Arkansas, Western Tennessee, North Florida, and the southeastern portion of North Carolina. “From the outset, the Deep South culture was based on radical disparities in wealth and power, with a tiny elite commanding total obedience and enforcing it with State-sponsored terror.” Its expansionist ambitions would put it on a collision course with its Yankee rivals, triggering military, social, and political conflicts that continue to plague the United States well into the 21st-century.

The Barbadian planters’ wealth was built was built on a brutal slave system. Unable to man their plantations with indentured servants for long, they took to kidnapping children, and before long, to importing shipload after shipload of enslaved Africans. Often, the slaves were literally worked to death, and so there was no replenishment of the supply through natural increase, as in the Tidewater, according to Woodard. Thus, a constant slave trade was required. This was the culture that spawned Charleston and, by extension, the Deep South. The planters built themselves a city where they could enjoy the finer things of life and so Charleston quickly became the wealthiest town on the eastern seaboard. The planters spent as much time there as possible, filling the city with distractions: theaters; taverns; brothels; cockfighting rings; private clubs for smoking, dining, drinking and horseracing; and shops stocked with fashionable imports from London.

While not particularly religious, the planters embraced the Anglican Church as a symbol of belonging to the establishment, and which also gave them access to London high Society and the great English universities and boarding schools — societies denied to Puritans, Quakers, and other dissenters. The low country’s wealth depended entirely on a massive army of enslaved blacks, who outnumbered whites 9 to 1 in some areas. It was to keep this supermajority under control, the planters imported Barbados’s brutal slave code. Of course, the Deep South was not the only part of North America practicing full-blown slavery after 1670. Every colony tolerated the practice. But most of the other nations were societies with slaves, not slave societies. Only in Tidewater and the Deep South did slavery become the central organizing principle of the economy and culture. Yet there were differences.

Tidewater slaves made up a much smaller proportion of the population (roughly one third vs four fifths); lived longer; and had somewhat stable families. After 1740, Tidewater’s slave population naturally increased, doing away with the need to import slaves from abroad. In those circumstances, Afro-Tidewater culture became relatively homogenous and strongly influenced by the English culture within which it was embedded. Many blacks whose ancestors had come to the Chesapeake region prior to 1670 had grown up in freedom, owning land, keeping servants, holding office, and taking white husbands or wives. Having African blood did not necessarily make one a slave in Tidewater. Until the end of the 17th century, one’s position in Tidewater was defined largely by class, not race.

The Deep South, by contrast, had an enormous slave mortality rate. Blacks there were more likely to live in concentrated numbers in relative isolation from whites. With newcomers arriving with every ship, the slave quarters were cosmopolitan, featuring a wide variety of languages and different African cultural practices. Within this melting pot, slaves formed a new culture, complete with its own languages, Afro-Caribbean culinary practices, and musical traditions. “From the hell of the slave quarters would come some of the Deep South’s great gifts to the continent: blues, jazz, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll, as well as the Caribbean-inspired food ways today enshrined in Southern-style barbecue joints.”

Deep Southern society was militarized, caste-structured, deferential to authority, and also aggressively expansionist. From their cultural hearth in the South Carolina low country, the planters expanded to similar terrain up and down the coast, finding resistance only in Georgia, which had been a Utopian dream area “free of liquor and lawyers.” Savannah was turned into a little Charleston and low country Georgia would not be the yeoman farmers Utopia intended, but an extension of the West Indian slaveocracy.

7. So, we come to one of the last American Nations, the Midlands. Over the past three centuries, Midland culture has pushed westward from its hearth in and around Philadelphia, jumped over the Appalachians and spread across a vast swath of the American heartland, all the while retaining its qualities of tolerance, multiculturalism, multilingual civilization populated by families of modest means – many of them religious – who desired mostly that their government and leaders leave them in peace. Like Yankeedom, the Midlands were intended to be a model society, a Utopia guided by the tenets of an unorthodox religion: Quakers. Woodard (unfairly I believe) describes Quakers as “the late 17th century equivalent of crossing the hippy movement with the Church of Scientology.” Quakers spurned the social conventions of the day and rejected the authority of church hierarchies. Overcome with rapture, they would fall into violent fits, or “quakes,” that Woodard says, “frightened nonbelievers.” By the 1690s, Quakers had developed an intense aversion to violence and war, a commitment to pacifism that was so total it would eventually doom the Quakers’ control of the Midlands.

How this unpopular cult got permission from Catholic, authority-loving King Charles II to establish its own colony is a tale not taught in most schools. Admiral William Penn was a self-made man who trimmed his sails to the political winds, first fighting for parliament in the English Civil War but then championing the restoration of the monarchy. Cromwell made him rich by giving him confiscated Irish Estates, but Penn later loaned £16,000 to Cavalier King Charles. He groomed his son William to be a respectable gentleman and sent him to Oxford. But young William was expelled for criticizing Oxford’s Anglican church services and in 1667, at age 26, he horrified everyone by joining the Quakers. His father tried everything to get his son on the right track that nothing worked.

But then the father died in 1670, leaving son William Penn as one of the most famous Quakers in England, and very, very rich. Quakers, he decided, needed their own country, a place where they could conduct a “holy experiment” that would serve as “an example to all nations.” So, in 1680 he settled King Charles debt to his late father in exchange for a grant of 45,000 square miles of real estate located between Lord Baltimore’s Maryland and the Duke of York’s New York. The province, as large as England itself, would be named Pennsylvania. William Penn would have authority to do pretty much whatever he wished there, and he did.

Penn’s colonization effort was well organized. He offered political and religious liberty and land on cheap terms. He advertised Pennsylvania aggressively in Ireland, the Netherlands, and wide portions of what is now Germany. He presold 750,000 acres of farm lots to hundreds of investors, raising the money needed to underwrite the initial wave of colonists, establish Philadelphia, and provide the colonial government enough money for several years to avoid the need for collecting taxes. Within four years, 8000 people were living in and around Philadelphia, a population level that took Tidewater 25 years to achieve and New France 70 years. Most were skilled artisans and farmers of modest means who had come as families, instantly giving the Midlands a settled and civilized tone. It was so successful it soon brought an even larger wave of settlers that would give the Midlands its pluralistic and decidedly un-British character.

The second immigration wave consisted of German-speaking farmers and craftsman from the Palatinate. They were people “traumatized by generations of horrific Imperial and religious conflicts that have made their south German homeland a killing field.” Almost without exception, they were Protestants who arrived in large extended family groups. Some were from sects that wished to order their lives in a particular way, like the Amish, the Mennonites, or the Brethren of Christ. Thousands more were mainstream Lutherans and German Calvinists, wanting to build prosperous family farms in a peaceful setting. By the mid-18th century Pennsylvania was the only English-founded colony without an English majority.

The Germans’ small-scale farming skills became legendary; they knew how to select farmland with top-quality soil; conserve it through crop rotation; and improve livestock through selective breeding. For the next two centuries, visitors invariably remarked on their tidy and prosperous farms. And they were renowned for their skills as craftsmen, having perfected log cabins and invented the Conestoga wagon, which carried generations of settlers over the Appalachians and beyond. Most of them belong to disciplined religious sects that prized thrift and sobriety, thus solidifying their affinity with their Quaker neighbors.

The Germans and Quakers also shared a strong aversion to slavery, a stance that would set the Midlands apart from New Netherland, Tidewater, and the Deep South. The first formal protest against slavery in North America was articulated by German Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania. And while many wealthy Quakers, including William Penn, had come to Pennsylvania with slaves, within a decade Quakers were advising one another that slaveholding violated their “Golden Rule.”

Early Pennsylvania was an economic success in numerous proportions, but its Quaker-run government was a “complete disaster” inasmuch as the Quakers’ ideals proved to be at odds with successful governance. The Quakers assumed citizens could govern themselves through self-discipline and the application of the Golden Rule. But not so, since Quakers were also by nature inclined to challenge authority and convention at every juncture. The Dutch, Swedes, and Finns of the “lower counties” became so desperate for proper governance that they broke away to form their own tiny colony of Delaware in 1704.

The Quakers expectation that immigrants from other cultures would embrace the worldview of the Society of Friends also proved unfounded. Beginning in about 1717, a new group of colonists began arriving on Philadelphia’s docks, one whose values were in stark opposition to all the Quakers held dear. They were a warrior people from the bloody borderlands of Britain, contemptuous of the Indians, quick to turn to violence to solve problems, and committed to a Calvinist faith that held that humans were inherently wicked. These Borderlanders were fleeing their blighted homelands in Scotland and Ulster and pouring into Pennsylvania in enormous numbers: over 100,000 by 1775.They undermined Quaker governance, such as it was, and when the French began to move against villages and towns near Philadelphia, all semblance of Quaker governance collapsed.

By the eve of the American Revolution, the Midlands was a civilization unsure of itself, its leaders, and the cause of independence. By then, large swaths of what was to have been part of William Penn’s Utopia were being incorporated into other nations. Connecticut Yankees were pouring across the North country. In the West a new power had taken hold and was spreading southward across the Highlands. This borderlands civilization didn’t control the single colonial government, but it would radically shape the future of all of the American Nations and the strange federation in which they found themselves.

8. This new power was Appalachia, the last of the “Nations” to be founded in the colonial period and also the most immediately disruptive. As Woodard tells the story, Appalachia was a clan-based warrior culture that arrived in the back country frontier of the Midlands, Tidewater, and Deep South and shattered those nations monopoly control over colonial governments, the use of force, and relations with the Native Americans. “Proud, independent, and disturbingly violent, the Borderlanders of Greater Appalachia have remained of volatile insurgent force within North American Society to the present day.” Having no desire to give up their ways, the Borderlanders rushed to the isolation of the 18th century frontier to found a society that was, for a time, literally beyond the reach of the law, and modeled on the anarchical world they had left behind. They came from the war-torn borderlands of Northern Britain: lowland Scotland and the Scots-Irish-controlled north of Ireland. Their ancestors had weathered 800 years of nearly constant warfare, fighting in (or against) the armies of William “Braveheart” Wallace or Robert the Bruce.

The Borderlanders arrived in five massive immigration waves between 1717 and 1776, each a response to some disaster back in the British Isles. Midlanders were alarmed by the newcomer’s rough manners and clannish loyalties. The officials did their best to get them out of town and onto the frontier, where they could serve as a buffer against French or Native American attack. Rather than trying to produce cash crops for export, the Borderlanders embraced a woodland subsistence economy, hunting, fishing, practicing slash and burn agriculture, and moving every few years as the soil became depleted. Life and Britain had taught them not to invest much time and wealth in fixed property, which was easily destroyed in time of war. So, they stored their wealth in mobile forms: herds of pigs, cattle, and sheep. When they did need cash, they distilled corn into a more portable, storable, and valuable product: whiskey, which would remain the de facto currency of Appalachia for the next two centuries.

Their communities began in considerable isolation from the outside world, to which they owed no loyalty. With no roads, trade was almost entirely by barter. The nearest courthouses were far away and so justice was meted out by the aggrieved individuals and their clan by personal retaliation. From their initial stronghold in south central Pennsylvania, the Borderlanders spread south down the mountains on an ancient 800-mile-long Indian trail that came to be known as the “Great Wagon Road”. This led out of Lancaster and New York, through Hagerstown, down the length of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, through the Highlands of North Carolina, to terminate in what is now Augusta, Georgia. The Borderlanders moved into colonies controlled by the Tidewater gentry and the great planters of the Deep South, but in cultural terms their Appalachian nation effectively cut Tidewater off from the interior and blocking somewhat the western movement of the slave trade. .

Borderlanders lived among the Native Americans on whose lands they were usually trespassing. As in New France, a number essentially “went native,” abandoning farming and husbandry for an aboriginal life, adopting Indian customs, taking Indian wives, and having mixed race children. The mainstream of Appalachian Society, however, regarded the Shawnee, Cherokee, Creek, and other Indians as opponents in a struggle for control of the back country. It was an attitude often reciprocated, especially as the Borderlanders increasingly hunted, cleared, and squatted on Indian land. The result was a series of brutal wars that left staggering numbers of dead on both sides. Indian wars and other violence in Appalachia had profound effects on the other nations, none of whom were able to bring the lawless Borderlanders under effective governmental control. Revolutionary uprisings against authorities were common, especially in North Carolina, but also in Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia as well as Pennsylvania.

As the British-controlled nations careened toward a series of conflicts with the mother country, the Borderlanders of Appalachia would play a decisive role. In some cases, they would fight in support of Britain and in others, against, but they all did so for the same reason: to resist the threats to their clansmen’s’ freedom, be it from Midland merchants, Tidewater gentlemen, Deep Southern planters, or the British Crown itself.


9. Before getting back to the narrative of the American Nations (we still have a couple to go), it is important to pause momentarily for a high-level glance at the American Revolution. Few Americans learned of this in school, but the military struggle of 1775-82 was not fought by an “American people” seeking to create a united, continent-spanning republic where all men would be created equal and guaranteed freedom of speech, religion, and the press. Rather, it was fought by a loose military alliance of nations, each of which was most concerned with preserving or reasserting control over its respective culture, character, and power structure. The rebelling nations did not wish to be bonded together into a single republic. They were joined in a temporary partnership against a common threat: the British establishment’s attempt to assimilate them into a homogenous Empire centrally controlled from London. Some nations – the Midlands, New Netherland, and New France – didn’t rebel at all. Those who did were not fighting a revolution; they were fighting separate wars of colonial liberation. And the four nations that did “rebel” – Yankeedom, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, and the Deep South — had little in common with, and strongly distrusted, one another. They were not always fighting on the same side either: Appalachia was engaged in a struggle of liberation against the Midlands, Tidewater, and the Deep South as much as against Britain. Georgia even rejoined the Empire during the conflict. The warring colonies allied themselves with the enemies of their enemy but had little intention of merging with one another.

This somewhat extended précis passes over theconflict among the colonies during the first Continental Congress; the divisions permeating the colonies during and after the Revolutionary war; and the many compromises that went into the drafting of the Constitution. Most of this is well known, at least at a high level. For thematic consistency this writing, already too long, will skip over the Western spread of: Yankeedom (all the way to the Pacific Northwest); the Midlands (across North Central Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Central and Southern Iowa, Northern Missouri, eastern Nebraska, Kansas, and even northernmost Texas); Greater Appalachia (by 1830, Borderlanders had colonized much of what is now Kentucky, North Central Tennessee, southwestern Illinois, Northern Alabama, much of Tennessee, the Ozarks of Arkansas, and the Mississippi Valley of southern Illinois and Missouri); the Deep South (riding the back of the valuable cotton trade to expand across much of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Northern Florida, Louisiana, Western Tennessee, Eastern Arkansas, and Texas – in the process of expanding its share of world cotton production from 9% in 1801 to 68% in 1850 even as global production tripled).

This cotton boom produced a massive increase in the demand for slaves, but their importation had been outlawed in 1808 and so planters in the new Gulf states and territories began purchasing them from counterparts in Tidewater and Appalachia – marching them through the countryside chained to one another in what one historian has called the “Second Middle Passage.” Indeed, being “sold down the river” originally referred to slaves being sold by Appalachian people in Kentucky and Tennessee to downriver plantation owners in the Deep South.

Among other things, this précis also skips over the important details of the Mexican-American war and the reshaping of the borders of the United States after 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase. Suffice it to say that the citizens in the U.S, portion of El Norte would suffer discrimination, disenfranchisement, and cultural challenges from their new Governors, but would survive a century of occupation and substantially overcome their subjugation in the 20th century.


10. The Left Coast – the coastal zone of northern California, Oregon, and Washington was founded by Yankees who arrived by sea in the hope of founding a second New England on the shores of the Pacific. The mission was not altogether successful, but it left the stamp of utopian idealism that put the Left Coast on a collision course with its neighbors in El Norte and the libertarian Far West. Yet until deep into the 19th century, there was not much government in the Pacific Northwest other than the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose local staff interestingly was dominated by the New French. Until the early 20th century, the Chinook Indians called all British people “King George Men,” and referred to Americans simply as “Bostons.” While the Yankees dominated the political and intellectual sphere, they were not to form a majority of the population. Within a few months of the creation of a provisional government, hundreds of newcomers arrived, mainly farmers from the Appalachian Midwest. These Borderlanders tended to settle on farms in the countryside, leaving the Towns and government to the Yankees. The settlement pattern continued throughout the 1840s and 1850s, leaving New England born Yankees outnumbered 15 to 1 but still in control of most civic institutions.

In Oregon, which split from what became British Columbia in 1846, and from Washington in 1853, the Yankees dominated the scene almost completely. Salem and Portland were founded by the New Englanders, who ran most of the public schools, colleges, and seminaries and dominated debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1857, which produced a document shaping communities of independent family farmers and the very Yankee notion that individual interests must be subsumed for the common good.

The Yankee Mission in California was complicated by the fact that parts of the region had already been colonized. El Norte’s culture was deeply rooted south of Monterey, and Yankee traders and travelers who decided to move to Southern California prior to the US annexation generally assimilated to Californio ways: they learned Spanish, converted to Catholicism, took Mexican citizenship and spouses; adopted Spanish versions of their names, and respected and participated in local politics. This El Norte influence vanished when one moved away from the coast or north of Monterey.

While California’s north-south split was already apparent by the mid-19th century, the 1848 discovery of gold in the American River Valley amplified the decision between the Left Coast and the until-then unpopulated interior. This division was largely due to the Yankee presence around San Francisco Bay and adjacent sections of the Pacific Seaboard. Even more than their counterparts in Oregon, these Yankees were compelled by a particular Mission: to save California from the barbarians, in this case the Forty-Niners, whose Gold Rush mentality was completely at odds with the Yankee Puritan ethos. Massive Yankee effort in establishing schools, educational curricula, religious training largely failed inland. The churches were empty on Sundays, while the saloons, brothels, gambling houses, and other such places were bursting at the seams. But while the Yankees failed in their broad mission, they had a permanent and lasting effect on coastal California from Monterey North. According to Woodward, the Left Coast blended the moral, intellectual, and utopian impulses of the Yankee elite with the self-sufficient individualism of its Appalachian and immigrant majority. The culture that formed–idealistic but individualistic–was unlike that of the gold digging lands in the interior but similar to those in western Oregon and Washington.

11. The Far West was the last region of North America to be colonized.It was inhospitable for Euro-Atlantic civilizations with their emphasis on cropland agriculture, water-dependent plants and animals, and fixed settlements. The altitude was also so high that familiar crops would not grow at all. And most of the vast area’s rivers were too shallow for navigation, isolating settlers from potential markets for anything they might be able to grow. Indeed, Native American tribes of the area had had two centuries to perfect mounted warfare (after the introduction of horses from El Norte), which enabled them better to keep interlopers in check. Transcontinental trails were littered with the bodies of livestock and people whose water ran out or who were overwhelmed by outlaws or Indian patrols.

According to Woodard the Far West was uniquely a nation defined not by regional cultural forces but by the demands of external institutions. The challenges of productivity required the deployment of capital-intensive technologies: hard rock mines, railroads, telegraphs, Gatling guns, and hydroelectric dams. Yet the first settlers to the Far West were the exception to this pattern. Arriving in two geographically separate waves during 1847-50, the earliest Euro-American colonists arrived just ahead of industrial capital. One group — the Yankee Mormons of Utah — would form a distinct subculture of independent farmers in Utah and southern Idaho. The other — the gold-hungry Forty-Niners — were highly individualistic frontiersmen in the Appalachian mold. Neither would achieve cultural dominance over the western interior.

The Mormons were followers of the Yankee-led utopian movement with its origins in Vermont and New York. They began arriving on the shores of Utah’s great Salt Lake in the late 1840s. Their leader was Vermont-born Brigham Young, the first governor of the Utah territory from 1850. Two years later 20,000 Mormons were living there. Almost all were from Yankeedom, which explains why in 2000, Utah had the highest percentage of English Americans of any State in the Union, edging out Vermont and Maine. With a communal mindset and intense group cohesion, the Mormons were able to build and maintain irrigation projects that enabled small farmers to survive in Far Western conditions. And while at odds with Yankeedom in various respects, the Far West’s Mormon enclave betrays its Yankee origins in its communitarianism, its emphasis on morality and good works, and its desire to assimilate others. Today, the area’s influence can be felt across Utah, Southern Idaho, and eastern Nevada; it is the most politically influential homegrown force in the Far West.

Far Westerners long agitated for greater local control of their economic future. And despite the considerable influence of railroads, banks, and mining companies, they managed to create state constitutions that protected laborers, banned private militias (frequently used to break strikes); and prohibited employers from including clauses in employment contracts that absolve them of responsibility for accidents. The region was a hot bed of economic populism, labor unionism, and even socialism right up until World War II. Franklin Roosevelt swept the Far West in 1932, propelled by the region’s hostility to the Wall Street financiers they believed had caused the Great Depression. But the cultural revolution of the 1960s drove a wedge between the far westerners and the left-wing forces in Yankeedom, New Netherland, and the Left Coast


Woodard’s book, and the many portions I have not sought to summarize or address, contain more of interest, including the various secession efforts of the past wholly apart from the effort that led to the Civil War. But most generally, one sees in his book a never-ending tension between the American Nations he describes, a tension kept in political check by alliances that shifted in subtle and not-so-subtle ways through the complex machinery of our Constitution. And while there was much assimilation, it seems clear that the country as a whole was never a “melting pot” in the ways we were taught.

As political tensions seemingly unique to the 21st century bear down, as group rights chew away at the national fabric, and as the aspirational ideals of the founders are increasingly under attack as the hypocritical vestiges of white supremacy and therefore unworthy of respect, it is not clear what the future has in store for a nation turning increasingly inward in ways that are hostile to nearly half of the nation’s population while at the same time our country is on the edge of political and economic eclipse by the stunning success of autocratic and illiberal societies in Asia and elsewhere (viz. China).

We will in future editions refer back to parts of this view of history from time to time in different contexts. In the meantime, we hope readers will find Woodward’s view of American history eye-opening in ways that permit some rethinking about things. One curiosity is how and why Yankeedom seems to have transformed itself from its commitment to local control of all things into a Champion of Federal Government control of so much of society, while so many of the other “nations” he describes have maintained much of their initial character.

2 Comments

Add a Comment

The editors welcome thoughtful commentary on articles published in this journal. These will be reviewed for relevance and cogency, and those accepted will be published. Rejoinders and follow-on comments are also welcome, as long as they add to and extend an enlightening discussion of the original topic. Comments containing personal attacks, ad hominem arguments or inappropriate language will be rejected out of hand.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *