Author Takes Fresh Look at Shaping of U.S. Cultural, Political Landscape

November 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his new book, author and historian Colin Woodard explores how America was shaped by settlement patterns dating back to the time of the first Thanksgiving. Margaret Warner talks with Woodard about "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America."

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, tonight, a book conversation on how the U.S. was shaped by settlement patterns as old as the time of the first Thanksgiving. The author is historian Colin Woodard. The book is “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.”

We met recently in the old town district of Alexandria, Va., founded as a seaport in 1749.

Presidents from George Washington to James Monroe frequented its landmark Gadsby Tavern.

MARGARET WARNER: Colin Woodard, thanks for joining us.

COLIN WOODARD, “American Nations”: Thank you for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: You write in this book that the map of the United States that we hold in our heads and the regions that we refer to, to describe our differences — north, east, or Midwest — are really, you say, not only meaningless but really misleading. How so?

COLIN WOODARD: It’s because the regions we usually use. We think of those regions, they all follow state boundaries. And the state boundaries, in understanding the real cultural fissures and fractures in our country, are almost irrelevant. The fractures don’t follow state boundaries. Origins of these cultures go way back to the early colonial period and spread out without regard to the boundaries.

If you want to understand the real power that regionalism has over our politics or our history, you have to have a new map, because the current one is insufficient to understand it and be a basis for us to analyze.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying the countries — our colonial era, which this room certainly exudes, is really absolutely still key in understanding the nation we became and the nation we are?

COLIN WOODARD: It is, because the real Founding Fathers weren’t the generation that came together in 1775, and 1789 to put together our federation. They were the early colonial clusters’ Founding Fathers in the early 1600s or the late 1600s or the early 1700s. And each of these colonial clusters and each of these founders, these founding groups, came — founding very different countries, in essence.

MARGARET WARNER: We can’t do all 11, but compare for us two regions that, in their history and sort of their essence, that you say were so opposite, one being Yankeedom, which you have a huge area from Nova Scotia, all the way to the eastern edge of the Dakotas, not just New England, and then the Deep South, really, the old slave-holding states of the Deep South.

COLIN WOODARD: These ended up being the two superpowers of our continent that a lot of our national divisions and conflicts have been between two coalitions of one sort or another led by one group — one — either Yankeedom or the Deep South. And Yankeedom was founded by radical Calvinists trying to create a religious utopia.

And this is important for understanding the culture today because the idea was to try to make the world more godly, and actually do social engineering and create a more perfect place on Earth. And this was done through public institutions and governments. And Yankeedom has been on the side of efforts to reform and improve society, be it from prohibition through women’s rights, to the abolition of slavery, to the environmental movement and beyond.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s take a complete opposite, the Deep South. Give us the essence of the Deep South and how different was it?

COLIN WOODARD: Completely different origins. The Deep South was founded several generations later by English planters from Barbados and created it as a West Indian slave society modeled on the republics of ancient antiquity, the slave states of ancient Greece and Rome. And the Deep South has been committed to a more traditional order with respect to hierarchy and authority, which has often been opposed to those same reforms. They found themselves constantly at the opposite sides of the great flashpoints of our history.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when the North and South came to blows, literally, over the Civil War, we always think of this as a division along the Mason-Dixon Line. But you write there are four regions in between that wanted no part of this originally.

COLIN WOODARD: Absolutely. I mean, when the Deep South seceded in February 1861, only the states controlled by the Deep South seceded, and only Yankeedom wanted to take up arms and go to war to stop them. Everyone else in between was deeply ambivalent and deeply concerned about either option.

MARGARET WARNER: So let’s bring it forward to today. How do these rival regional cultures demonstrate themselves in themselves in politics today — particularly the debate over what are American values or American principles?

COLIN WOODARD: Each one of these regional cultures has its own answers as to what our fundamental values and principles ought to be. And in the terms of American identity, say, our immigrants, should they come and assimilate to a dominant Anglo-Protestant nation that ties back to Yankeedom, all the way to Henry Ford’s great melting pot in his plant where immigrants came in in their national costumes and exited a large melting pot on the stage wearing identical American uniforms.

This is a very different idea than in the midlands and netherlands, which were multi-ethnic and multi-religious and multilingual from the very beginning. And that was their idea — the idea that no –

MARGARET WARNER: So, they would consider that was the American ideal.

COLIN WOODARD: Absolutely. That it should be a mosaic of peoples with their own cultures and preferences living side by side. That’s very much tied to those particular nations.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we have spent the better part of our 200 years, though, welcoming immigrants to our shores and also great internal migration. Why hasn’t that blended or homogenized these differences?

COLIN WOODARD: These original regional cultures lay down the cultural DNA for these particular pieces of geography. They left the dominant culture, the institutions and norms and practices and expectations that all of the rest of us encountered when we arrived in those places.

And when our children or grandchildren started assimilating to those — to dominant culture around them, what I’m saying is it wasn’t an American culture that they assimilated into, it’s one of these regional cultures. So, it works very much in the same way.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do you think the government dysfunction that we’re all talking about now, particularly here at the national level in Washington, is that rooted, too, in these, kind of, regional differences or these culturally opposite views about the role of government?

COLIN WOODARD: Absolutely. I mean, the stalemate we see the and the polarization is created very much by these strong regional differences and opinion over key issues like the role of the federal government and the balance of individual freedom versus social collective good and taxation and regulation.

All of those things are classically polarizing on these regional terms. The midlands, it’s ambivalent over many of these questions.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning, in modern terms, sort of from Pennsylvania all the way through the Midwest?

COLIN WOODARD: Right. The reason that that particular area, which includes many swaths of many of the great swing states in presidential politics, that region is still ambivalent about some of these great questions — which leaves the math almost stalemated. Our elections are decided by very thin margins in particular locations because of this underlining regional geography.

MARGARET WARNER: So, should someone come away from reading your book saying it’s just preordained? I mean, we are just doomed to keep talking past each other?

COLIN WOODARD: Well, that’s what I’m hoping the book can contribute is, we’ve been having this argument but we don’t know what we’re arguing over. We don’t understand what the underlying background is to the disagreements that we’re having and the regional nature of those disagreements. 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.

MARGARET WARNER: Colin Woodard, thank you for this conversation.

COLIN WOODARD: Thank you very much.