Book Review: American Nations

American Nations. Colin Woodard. Viking Adult. 2011. Softcover. $20.

After reading a couple chapters of American Nations, I was struck by two thoughts. First, U.S. citizens carry a lie of American History around in their heads, mistakenly believing they know the basic tenets of the founding principles upon which the United States was predicated. Second, the author’s perspective is pretty much my own, thus some Confirmation Bias is at work in my book review. I had no idea prior to reading Woodard’s book the contents, topics, or themes. I blindly bought a copy based solely on the back leaf synopsis.

I read non-fiction to improve my knowledge of some topic, economics, history, geography. Most of the time I try not to engage in reading non-fiction which falls within my zone of Confirmation Bias. I am often critical of others who read only authors or books which support their own bias, opinions, or knowledge. For instance, posting a review of any book penned by those employed by Fox News will not likely happen here. However, a guest of Fox News who has written a book might be reviewed here. In full disclosure, not only do I tend to be a reading snob but I am also no fan of Fox News. I will read books authored by credible people whose views do not match my own as long as those efforts are well-sourced.

Another reason why I read non-fiction is to overcome the horrible treatment of history I received in high school. How many of us really paid attention to history in high school? How many of us really paid attention to American History in high school? If your high school was like mine, you had a coach for a history teacher. My history teacher was the football coach. Coach E would sit behind his desk, his linesmen from our high school football team arrayed around him, and while they talked about last week’s game, this week’s game, and next week’s game, the rest of the class read through our textbook and completed a mimeographed worksheet. I don’t mean to disparage high school teachers who are also coaches. My algebra teacher was the boy’s basketball coach and he was very good at communicating Algebra I and II.

See, we don’t understand the nature of the current ugly discourse at work within our current political environment because we carry a myth of American ideology around with us. I once thought we study history so we don’t repeat the errors of the past. True, but this is but a fraction of what being a historian is about. Nor is the study of history about understanding the past in order to understand the present. That, too, is a mere fraction of why the study of history is important. According to The Grumpy Historian, historians may job is to act as “referees.” The historian

“is the ‘Internal Affairs guy’. This is a well-known figure in popular TV ‘cop shows’ and rarely a ‘good guy’. He or she is there to suppose that the hero has lied or done something wrong and that the villains might have been wronged or be telling the truth. The character rarely turns out to be as unsettling as that but it works as an analogy. For me, the historian is not there to provide comforting truths but to question them. The historian must always be prepared to wonder whether the ‘heroes’ of history are not, in fact, the villains.”

The Grumpy Historian

Colin Woodard (web site) develops a very robust, well-thought, and well-research argument of a not-so-United States. Our “United States” have never really been “united.” No, our “United States of America” is more a loose coalition of complimentary and competing interests based on the peculiar interests of immigrating ethnic groups. We read in high school people left Europe to escape religious persecution, yet when these same people arrive on the eastern shores of North America, they often resort to persecuting others of differing religions. Or, they resort to converting indigenous people or persecuting indigenous people.

We are talking about the days when new arrivals claimed land to perpetuate European feudal society. Maryland was established under the domain of a single person, the oligarch Cecilius Calvert, the 2nd Lord Baltimore. Girls were traded among families to form alliances, married off to the best prospective sons. Today, people make ridiculous claims about marriage and love, yet only about 8 generations ago a girl had little option about who she married. In the 20th century the marriage of a white person to a black person was illegal in southern U.S. states.

The wealthy have always had a grip on the politics, social welfare, and economy of the United States. In Virginia, members of the House of Burgess were required to be wealthy. The wealthy intermarried and transferred lands between families building a core of prestige to mirror the country gentry of their former home. In doing so, the seats and families of power would arise in the United States which would come close to rivaling those in England.

Religion-based skirmishes erupt across these nascent settlements. Catholics, by and large, were despised. Catholics encouraged people to “drab, drink, blasphemy, curse, and damn.” (75) Puritans were persecuted by the English Anglicans. Puritan meetinghouses were forced to hold hold Anglican services and tax collection to support Puritan ministers was outlawed. (75) In 1689, the Protestant Associators, a religious-based insurgent group, overthrew Maryland’s Catholic colonial capital of St. Mary’s. The colonial governors were forced to surrender when their troops failed to appear. (79)

However, persecution was not always the intent. Some of the early settlement regions were peopled with tolerant, accepting people, like those of Dutch ancestry. Quakers, for example, were pacifists and typically bore no ill will towards others. Catholics and Protestants not only hated each other but were not particularly tolerant of indigenous people. Even among Protestant groups considerable animosity existed.

The early settlers of the United States were not one big happy family, working towards the betterment of each other, sharing in the troubles of turmoils of rustic, bucolic farm life like some 18th century extended Huxtable family.

By a thorough examination of population settlement patterns, of ethnicity and cultural mores, Woodard constructs a new map of the United States. The United States does not have 50 states, not even 48. No, the United States has far fewer states if one were to examine social attitudes, customs, voting histories, and ethnicity. According to Woodard, the “United States” is composed of about 11 states.

Much like Africa, the United States of America do not really represent the “cultures” of the United States of America. Political boundaries were imposed upon the cultural landscape through a mostly systematic process of surveying and measurement. Thomas Jefferson created the Public Land Survey System in 1785 to help move lands into the public domain and assist with the documentation of public lands. State boundaries were laid to align with the geographic grid, or to the Royal Colonial Boundary of 1665, order by England’s King Charles II. The modern borders of southern states, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky bear out the work established nearly 350 years ago. The process of border determination becomes even more pronounced west of the Mississippi River. The states, however, do not represent any consistent acknowledgement or containment of culture.

If the United States were to be “remapped” according to culture, according to politics, voting behavior, to social issues and religion, we would see a much different map, a much different United States of America.

American Nation Map


Two of these Woodard-defined “states” should be of immense interest to Americans today, and the history one of these “states” essentially confirms my Confirmation Bias. “El Norte” will be a force to be reckoned with into the future. While the United States Army may have captured Mexican territory or helped Texans maintain claims upon their settled territory, the population of the territory has done little to acculturate themselves, to adopt “American” culture. The northern portion of Mexico has more in common with the Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California than to the federal district around Mexico City or the southern states of Mexico. As the Hispanic population becomes more politically active, more savvy, and more influential, the realm of “El Norte” will have significant impact on the future of American politics.

The second “state” with a bright future is the “First Nation” realm. The “First Nation” realm consists of the smallest population of all Americans, probably less than 500,000 people. The Inuit, Innu, Cree, and nearly 700 other tribes constitute a population whose lands were removed from their possession by force, without treaty and under duress. In Canada, indigenous people are reclaiming ancestral lands and becoming increasingly active in politics. The Canadian province of Nunavut was ceded back to Inuit peoples in April 1999. Now, and into the future, indigenous peoples are taking possession of lands which 50 years ago seemed cold and worthless. Today, these are the regions of oil and tar sands, of natural gas, and energy potential.

“What if the Cherokee Nation were to stake claim to their ancestral lands in the American Southeast? Just a thought.

The Deep South is the third “state” of 11 set forth by Woodard, and where he and I probably agree, and where his writing supports my Confirmation Bias. I see the Deep South as an example of American ‘apartheid,’ and the roots of Nazism in Germany.  Such is my “bias.” These views are not unique to me, or to the author.  The Deep South was created as an attempt to build Utopian society based upon the subjugation a race of people based on the presumed racial and religious superiority of Europeans. What industry there was, plantation-style agriculture, was organized around a strict hierarchy with rich, white landowners supported by a population of uneducated black slaves. Religious diatribe supported the contention of white racial superiority, the benefits of slavery, and the alleged sanctioning of such a society by God. The argument the Deep South and the Confederacy was not about “slavery” but about fighting back against the over-reach of a federal government is an empty argument. The Civil War was precisely about  extinguishing the ideology behind a society based purely on the subjugation of people. There is simply no honor in a culture or society which sanctioned the kidnapping of children, the mutilating of men, women, and children, the raping of girls of women, treating people as cattle, simply to support the needs and desires of white populations.

Woodard does an eloquent job of detailing what I call the “moral failings” of the Deep South. These failings did not stop with the end of the Civil War; these failing continue today. Even as I write my review, southern states continue to balk at properly educating people, continue to balk at adopting health care reforms, and continue to impose religious doctrine in public schools, even in courthouses. Fortunately, racist politicians of the likes of Jesse Helms (NC), Robert Byrd (WV), Trent Lott (MS), and Lester Maddox (GA) are finding less of an audience.

American citizens have lost track of their history. We cling to myths about our country, the “freedoms” supposedly championed by “founding fathers” who seem to have attained almost demi-god status in today’s heated political climate. Many of our “founding fathers” paid little attention to “freedom,” some would have preferred a Christian theocracy, while others would have found a country so rooted anathema. Some founders would have greatly appreciated attention to the natural environment, the creation of havens, e.g. National Parks, wildlife preserves, and National Forests, courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt. Other “founders” would have been happy to exploit as much land and as many people as needed to accumulate personal wealth.

Education, informing ourselves about our “real” history, is fundamental to understanding the changes in the cultural landscape before us. By education, I don’t mean listening to Fox News, or reading Bill O’Reilly’s book on Lincoln. I mean paying attention to the geography around us, the people we live with, the ethnicities in our neighborhoods, in our cities, in our regions, in our states (to a degree). I mean paying attention to our politicians, but not as educators – they have no interest in providing factual information – but as purveyors of propaganda, leveraging their status to re-write history, to promulgate a revision of events to support their cohort against their enemy cohort.

The burden of keeping our Bureacrats honest falls upon you and I, but we can only do so if we set aside our personal biases, our feelings and sentiments about what we think is ‘true’ and honestly challenge ourselves with open and receptive minds.

I encourage everyone to read Colin Woodard’s book. If his research generates uncomfortable sensations, that is good. Much of what Colin writes exposes our warm and fuzzy high school memories in all of their raw grotesqueness. Woodard brings us face-to-face with the history we may remember in those kinder, gentler days when we were buffered from learning how Africans were disfigured based on the number of escape attempts, or the treatment of indigenous peoples, the rapes, murders, and examples made of people of color to discourage others from acting likewise.

We need frequent reminders of our history. We need people who are willing to stand up and cry, “shenanigans,” against anyone who seeks to take advantage of our soft addled memories, shoddy teachers, community leaders who twist U.S. history towards their own ends, and the propaganda of regional identities.

Read the book. You’ll see what I mean.

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