Colin Woodard on America’s Many Nations
Yascha Mounk and Colin Woodard discuss how the attitudes of America’s founding groups inform today’s regional politics.
Colin Woodard is an American journalist. He is the author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Colin Woodard discuss the ideals of America’s settlers and why they remain influential many years later; the tension between individual freedom and concern for the public good and how it has shaped America’s regional divides; and how to unify our divided groups and ideals under a common national narrative.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Mounk: When I look at American politics at the moment, and American public discourse as well, it just feels very deeply divided and polarized. And one of the things that I would like you to help me think through is how abnormal that is. Is this just unusual relative to the decades after World War II, when the country felt relatively more cohesive, or is that itself an oversimplification? If you think of the 1960s, for example, or is it par for the course? Is there nothing that unique or unusual about this very fractious moment we're going through?
Colin Woodard: We're in a very difficult spot now. I mean, a crisis point where the federation and the republic could fall. It's entirely conceivable—hopefully not (I don't think it will). But we're in one of those spots, like the 1850s, where things are particularly bad. But broadly speaking, you're absolutely right, the divisions in the country and the fact that the divisions tend to be geographical in orientation is a long-standing essential property of the United States. It's our fundamental weakness and the great challenge that everyone from the people who gathered to create a commander during the American Revolution, to fight the American Revolution, to those who gathered to try to create a Constitution, to hold us together to all of the struggles of the antebellum period and the Civil War. It all comes down to the fact that we're actually this balkanized federation of separate nations, if you will, but separate regional cultures that don't really see eye to eye and never did.
Mounk: You were well known before as a foreign correspondent reporting on Central and Eastern Europe. But the idea that America really is a conglomerate of 11 distinct nations was the theory that made your name as a commentator on American politics. Walk us through that idea briefly.
Why is it helpful, first of all, to think of America as being constituted by these 11 different groups and tribes of origin rather than thinking of ourselves as a new kind of nation?
Woodard: For a long time in our history, Americans have recognized this. It was just a fundamental fact. If you asked people in the 1770s or the 1830s what country they were from, they would say Massachusetts or South Carolina. They would only say American in the sense that a German or French person would say that they're European in the context of the wider world. We lost that later on. But to know that, that they were rival colonial projects that performed on the eastern and southwestern rims of what's now the United States, those projects were set up at different times by very different groups of people. They had different religious and ethnographic and political characteristics, and through the colonial period and up really into the 1840s, four-fifths of our landmass was colonized by one or another of these separate streams, and they brought with them different fundamental ideas about institutions, society, and the good life—all the stuff that anthropologists would think of as culture. Now, once you realize that and you realize that those settlement streams didn't follow state boundaries, often it suddenly clicks that all these things about our history, Constitutional arrangements, and current county-level maps of elections, of COVID-19 vaccination rates, of per capita gun homicide rate—they follow these same tectonic plate curves. And it allows you to start understanding the nature of the problem.
Mounk: What is the nature of these constitutive nations? I think you enumerate 11 of them.
Woodard: The New England colonies were the outgrowth of the Puritan experiment in New England. You had this enormous group of Puritans who thought that they were in a covenant with God, like the Old Testament Hebrews; that they had been charged with doing certain things in the world, and they needed to do them as a group and they would be punished or rewarded as a group for that. And that's the dominant cultural framework of the people who came to Massachusetts Bay, and then essentially annexed the pilgrims in Cape Cod, the Royalist settlements that had been set up in Maine, then pulled New Hampshire and Connecticut into their orbit, and then extended their influence. When the Dutch were defeated in the 1670s, and New Netherland became New York, much of the upstate of New York was awarded to Massachusetts. By deed, that was New York territory, but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts owned the land and settled it. And Connecticuters organized the settlement of the Western Reserve of Ohio, the strip along the north around Cleveland, which has, even today, a very different political behavior. So that's all one Greater New England-ish cultural zone, with the ideals eventually tying back to the particular idiosyncrasies that the Puritan experiment of New England held forth; ideas about the role of government; about the relationship of church and state; about individual freedom versus the common good—but only in those areas.
Mounk: It's not a coincidence, I think, that you started off with the Puritans because they are one of the original settler groups and, in many ways, the one that has proven the most influential. I'm currently in Germany. And I'm always struck that Europeans think of America as deeply Puritan. It's a sort of cultural cliche that you hear all the time. But I wonder whether they are misidentifying which aspects of American culture are Puritan, or even where Puritanism prevails, and so I wonder where you would situate this Puritan inheritance today.
It seems to me that where the New England-ish American elite has continuity with its Puritan inheritance is not in the specific views which constitute the moral boundaries of the community, but with the kind of rigidity with which every good person lives up to those moral guidelines, and a shared sense that those who don't should really be expelled from it.
Woodard: Get all those Quakers out and send them to Rhode Island, right? Yes, you raise a good point. There are three things I would say. One is that the reason that people think of America as Puritan, especially from a distance, is because, for cultural reasons, the Yankee New Englanders dominated the conversation and the intellectual world of the United States up until at least the mid-20th century. Here's a society that for theological reasons believed that people had to be literate and read the Bible themselves. And so the moment they got to the frontier, they were creating taxpayer-financed public schools that people had to go to, creating in the 17th and early 18th centuries probably the most literate society on the entire planet. And because you had a literate population, you ended up having printing presses, libraries, universities, schools and all of the instruments of cultural production, whereas the other regions didn't have any of these things. That meant that, into the early American period, all of the effort to create a national story for ourselves was completely dominated by Harvard and Yale intellectuals who were, of course, aggrandizing their ancestors and pretty much airbrushing all the other regional cultures out of the picture. The initial story about who we are was all tied to that.
Where Puritanism comes in was the notion that you can create a better society here on earth. Calvinism regarded individuals as, again, being inherently flawed, kind of wicked; and that we all, in the community, because we're going to be rewarded or punished collectively, need to keep an eye on each other to keep us on the good path. The danger to the project we're all involved in is individual avarice, an individual rising up and messing things up or becoming a tyrant over us, right? So the whole conversation about individual liberty versus the common good is way over on the common good side compared to anywhere else in America. And the faith in shared institutions and shared self-government, that government is thought of as us, not as an oppressor, is strongest in New England. That has all sorts of ramifications for everything about society and politics. And it ties back to a Puritan heritage.
Now you go to the evangelical zone, where you're talking about those moral qualities. It's almost the opposite of that, right? Greater Appalachia is the center of that, and was all settled by the same group of Scots-Irish dominated settlers, a group of people who prized individual autonomy and personal liberty and saw government (from their own historical experiences back in Ulster and the lowlands of Scotland) as being a tyrannical force, so they’re all about individual freedom. Anytime you give government any powers, they're gonna tyrannize you. That carried over into the religious realm where the thrust is all about your personal relationship with the divine, with God—often unmediated. You don't have a Harvard-educated clergy telling you how to lead a moral life and how the universe is organized, you have some charismatic neighbor (who, like you, doesn't have any education) who had a religious experience and is going to bring you all, as equals, to that experience. “This world is corrupt, pay no attention to it, it's all about the hereafter and the next life”—the opposite of the orientation of the Puritan experience.
Yes, there is a Puritan function in a large stretch of what's now the United States, and that group had an oversized influence in the creation of the national myths of the United States and its ideologies. But it is not at all the origins of the evangelical culture of the South. The moralism and sort of intolerance that you're describing, and that many people in the outside world see, comes from a completely different and very un-Puritan tradition.
Mounk: It sounds like the sort of second nation that you're talking about was the sort of third-and fourth-born sons of the English aristocracy, where the first son inherits the estate, and the second child might go off to the church, and another might go off to the military. But if all of that fails, and there's nothing left for you to do, you might move to New York or something like that?
Woodard: Even better—suddenly, you could move to Virginia and carve out a thousand-acre estate and start building your own manor modeled on the manor seats at home. This particular South and the slaveholding South are two different cultures, really. And the first is the area around the Chesapeake. In the colonial period, in the early republic, this was by far the most powerful region of all, especially Virginia, which was the core of it; it had more people and more wealth and more everything than any other area. And the Tidewater Virginians controlled everything in Virginia politics. They even designed representation and districting in the House of Burgesses to ensure that those “dirty and uncivilized” Scots-Irish people in the backcountry wouldn't have any power in Virginia. It was a society run by these aristocrats trying to reproduce what they left behind—inherently a conservative and aristocratic society. Which is why when you fast forward to the Revolutionary period, you have people like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison, these grand, enlightened gentlemen on their grand estates.
But the problem there in that Tidewater zone is that, throughout the 17th century, there was no one, in the American context, who really wanted to stand in for the role of the peasantry and the serfs. They tried indentured servants. But when the indentures finished, they wanted their own land and would run off. Eventually they turned to a model that had been perfected to their south, of a full-on, race-based slave system; around 1700 is when the real pivot happened. But the society they were trying to create was a monarchical society where people had these obligations to one another. Naturally, the nobility, the gentry, the aristocracy were the people in charge, but they had some kind of moral duties to the people beneath them—at least in their own heads.
And then there's a totally separate society in the Deep South that has none of those origins. Its hearth or beachhead was around Charleston, South Carolina, and then it spread out. You could think of it as the cotton South versus the tobacco south (the Chesapeake counties). The tobacco south was all settled from a settlement movement that started in the Charleston area and spread through all those areas where you could practice plantation agriculture with slaves. And the first people setting up the society were English slave planters from the West Indies, from the island of Barbados, where they had, during the course of the 17th century, perfected a most horrifying slave system: chain gangs; work your labor supply until they're dead because the calculus of the value of sugar and replenishing the dead had all been perfected. They made themselves staggeringly wealthy, so wealthy that these upstarts who made their fortunes in Barbados were going back to England and buying country manors and offending everyone there. But they also had run out of land on Barbados. And they just transplanted their West Indies-style, full-on slave plantation society right into those subtropical lowlands of Carolina, and it spread. And the notion was not that they had any obligation to those beneath them. They weren't from those gentry families originally; they were oligarchy. Essentially, they believed that they had won a libertarian struggle of the fittest on Barbados, and to the winner goes the spoils. There'll be no representation, we have the slave system, we’ll control everything, and anyone who stands in our way, we’ll get rid of—this oligarchic society, which from the beginning was without these pretenses of being enlightened gentlemen, with all of those supposed niceties of the manorial system in England.
It was two very different Souths from the very beginning. And it's to that model, the beachhead started in the 1670s in the Deep South, that the Tidewater aristocracy turns when it's clear that they can't find any other way to have a peasant supply. They started modeling the Deep South circa 1700.
Mounk: We've gone through five or six nations, I believe, and we're still pretty much on the East Coast. What does that look like as we move further west?
Woodard: There's a Dutch-settled zone right around what's now New York City that has its own qualities. There's an area that was settled by the Quakers under William Penn, initially around Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, all on the East Coast. And that's a society that was multicultural from the beginning. Many people can have their culture side by side. That's fine with the Quakers. So they had these several models happening, and they all were moving east to west in settlement bands, with the Scots-Irish, which spread over much of the continent.
Then you have from south to north in what's now the southwest of the United States, you had the far extensions of Spain's colonial project in the Americas, which was extending from what's now Mexico into the American Southwest, and spread over parts of Texas and a lot of New Mexico, the lower part of Arizona, and parts of California. But those were the only areas that the Spanish actually colonized before annexation. And those areas have an entirely different settlement history from the rest of Mexico; the North, including the northern states of Mexico, and this part of the United States, in Mexican history, have always been more entrepreneurial, with more pressure to democratize, with less hierarchical societies, because they were frontier places. It was so remote when they were settling these places in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. With the technology available then, it was like they were lunar bases. They were so far from Mexico City, Madrid, and Cádiz that the societies took on their own characteristics. They were much more fluid; in racial terms, too. if you were indigenous or not, did that matter? And it didn't, because everyone had indigenous blood there. There weren't those kinds of arguments. So it was just a very different society, and was the place that, in Mexican history, was always trying to break off from Mexico and become a third federation between the United States and Mexico. And in many respects, that's still true today. It's just one society that's divided, kind of like Germany during the Cold War—one society, basically, with a wall running within it.
Mounk: That's what I think you call “El Norte,” which is a nice way of describing the southernmost parts of the United States.
What about the places you call the Midlands and the far west and when eventually once we get to California and Northern California, in particular, the Left Coast?
Woodard: The Midlands is that Quaker zone that started in Philadelphia and cuts through the middle of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and much of the northern parts of Missouri and then spreads out, fanlike, into Iowa and much of the Midwest. And that's like the Heartland—a middle American culture that’s politically moderate (even apathetic, often), where there's not supposed to be one ethnocultural group in charge, where community matters a lot. But there's also great skepticism of government intervention. The people who initially founded this culture were Quakers and people fleeing and taking advantage of the Quakers’ open immigration policies. So you had Anabaptist, Mennonites, and Amish and then Germans from the 1848 revolutions—all sorts of people whose experience in the old country had been of the despotic governments they were fleeing, so they didn't trust that the government was a good force, but they trusted in community.
The Interior West and the West Coast are what I call the second generation cultures. They were colonized by outsiders much later than the ones we just described, after 1850. And unlike all the cultures we've described before, which are the product of some idiosyncratic group from outside North America coming and setting out a society, these last two second generation cultures were colonized by the others; it's secondhand. The first one to be colonized, effectively, is the coastal strip on the Pacific starting at around Monterey, California and running north on the coast side of the mountains all the way up to Juneau, Alaska. We’re talking San Francisco Bay region and up through the coastal side of the mountains—Portland, Seattle and up through Vancouver and Victoria Island and eventually up into the Juneau area. And that was colonized essentially by two groups. There were Yankee New Englanders arriving by sea and trying to continue their Puritan mission, so to speak, of creating a more perfect society—a “Massachusetts on the Pacific,” they described it as—and they founded Stanford and Berkeley and all these institutions to be units of cultural production and to win over the Pacific for this New England ideal.
However, there was a second settlement stream just as big that was arriving the hard way at the same time, which was overland by wagon from the Greater Appalachian settled parts of the lower Midwest. And that group of people were the fur traders, miners, and woodsmen who were coming in and dominating the countryside. And it created this hybrid society, right? It's not exactly as if it's been the ally of Yankeedom. It's the bluest of the regions in a sense, but it's not the same as the Yankee space, because it took that utopian idea that we can create a better society, and should, but merged it with this Greater Appalachian emphasis on individual self-actualization. So it's a fecund combination. That region's probably got a population of maybe 25 million—the size of Romania. And yet, think of all of the globe-spanning companies that dominate the entire planet's life today that are based in it: Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so on and so forth. It's a very fecund combination.
Mounk: I think of your work as a very powerful prism through which to look at the United States and its history and the way in which history influences current politics. But because your focus is on the original founders of these different parts of the country, I wonder whether there is a tendency to downplay the influence of late arrivals. One obvious group to make this point about is African Americans, one of the first groups to arrive in the United States. The average African American today could probably trace, if the documents existed, their ancestors as far back or further than the average white American. But there isn't a black nation in your account, and there isn't a sort of clear geographical area for you to acknowledge that influence because they’re not the founding group or numerically dominant anywhere.
How do you deal with these groups, that from the perspective of the original settlers of various parts of the United States, appear to be late arrivals?
Woodard: An excellent question. Academically, this is based on the work of cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky, who asked, when a new culture forms either in a place where there weren't any people before, or where somebody has pushed out conquered or destroyed the people who were there, how does a new culture get underway and self-perpetuate over time? And his answer is that first settler effects matter; the first group of people who settle an area successfully and create a self-perpetuating society—the characteristics of that group of people will have an outsized influence on the future direction of that society, even if their numbers were very small compared to those who came later. And I think that that is basically true worldwide, right? The immigrants come and have changed Germany and have changed England and France, but there's still something underlying that is French and German and English.
The Italians and Irish coming to Massachusetts—if you look at Yankeedom, when the Census Bureau asks “What religion are you?”, it's all Catholic, every single county on almost the entire Yankee map. Because Yankeedom, during the great 19th century immigration waves, welcomed immigrants to work at their factories and insisted they assimilate: you had to become like us and work hard to do so. That was where many of the immigrants went. But you fast forward to now and look at the political attitudes of those groups: if you were to take some segment, whatever you want to look at, Irish or Greek Americans, five, six, seven generations along—you'll find that statistically, their political and cultural preferences and polling will match Yankeedom if they moved to Yankeedom; it'll match the Deep South if they moved to Deep South. In other words, the culture wins over time, which is how JFK can be your quintessential New England Yankee politician when he was from the once despised and derided Irish Catholic minority. It's just how things work over time with humans everywhere.
The other point you raise is African American influence. When we're talking about dominant regional cultures, the tragedy of the African American experience writ large is that they weren't allowed to participate in the dominant culture as equals; in the Tidewater, in the Deep South, where almost all of the initial settlement waves were brought in chains, these were societies organized where they were enslaved in a race-based slave system, followed by the formal caste system and backed by law and vigilante bands until living memory—right until the 1960s. That is not a dominant culture that was designed with African Americans in mind. If they'd been able to, as a group, design the culture, it would have none of those features. That's a tragedy, not a value statement. But you better believe that Deep Southern culture in all kinds of ways outside of the societal model of power is highly influenced by African Americans having been there—everything from language and food and music to ways of being and everything else. I mean, it's an enormous force. But the characteristics that were placed down—the top-down society with minimizing government, regulation, and taxes that affect the wealthy—that's all still centered in the Deep South, and you have a divide in the Deep South: political behavior and race correspond very tightly, especially because of the legacy of the racial caste system. But the tragedy is that they didn't have a dominant regional culture by the design of the slave lords.
Mounk: You have another sort of way of thinking through American history which still retains its relevance today as well, and that's to really think about conflict between the pursuit of individual liberty and the collective good.
Help me think through why you think this particular conflict of values is so central to understanding American history and the delineations of our political conflict to the present moment.
Woodard: The book I wrote after American Nations was called American Character, and it was essentially asking the question, “What have we been fighting over and how could we resolve it?” And in essence, my argument is that that we've been fighting over how do you pursue this liberal democratic experiment that some of us set out on in the Declaration of Independence, and the idea that we're going to try to create a society where individuals can be as free as they can be and still maintain a free society at the same time. Do you do that through maximizing individual liberty and personal autonomy and freedom from government and taxation and obligation? Is it not true that the more free an individual is, and the weaker the government, the stronger the freedoms of the individual? Is that not an axiom? Or is it that you're trying to build and maintain a free society? That argument goes: “No, the only way you could even contemplate individual freedom is because of 5000 years of human civilization slowly building up infrastructure and possibilities; that the gossamer-like construction that allows people to even dream of the idea of individuals being free and not living in tyranny, like we have throughout history, is an incredible creation, a cultural artifact, a garden that you have to carefully maintain and fertilize over time. You have to cultivate a republican citizenry and make and remake the investments in the cultural and social and physical infrastructure that make it possible for individuals, regardless of the matter of their birth, to have a shot at being meaningfully free. Otherwise, you're gonna sink into an aristocracy very quickly, right? Everything accrues to the big dog. And pretty soon, there's nothing left for anyone else, and you're back to despotism.”
How do you do that? And that argument is that when individual liberty and the common good come into conflict, you're erring on the common good side of things. And the different regional cultures identified in American Nations have very different stances on where the proper spot should be in individual liberty versus the common good. And I make the argument in American Character that both of those forces are really important. Those are the two big factors of freedom. And where a liberal democracy is functioning and is optimized is when you've got those two things, individual liberty and the common good, in equilibrium. Because both extremes are tyranny, right? You go down the individual liberty extreme and remove all taxes and government regulation, and pretty soon you create a society where the big dog kills everybody else and you're living in an oligarchy like the 14 families in Guatemala or Honduras that control everything (land, police, and government) and kill anyone who gets in their way. Or you create a state so weak that then the narco lords knock it off and control the state. But in the other direction, you go down that common good direction too far with no reference to individual liberty, and pretty soon you wind up with Stalin and Hitler—the party are going to wipe out idiosyncratic thinking opposed to their interpretation of the common good, and pretty soon you end up with slaughter, genocides, and all the rest. Logically, each society has an equilibrium point somewhere in the middle. The problem for us is that our regional cultures do not at all agree on that spot.
Mounk: I want to make sure that we end the conversation on a more forward thinking note, which is that you've also been thinking through how America has had a national narrative that has historically allowed it to hold together despite all of those historical divides you've been talking about.
What is that national narrative and why does it feel particularly powerless at the moment? How much do you hope that we can rejuvenate this narrative?
Woodard: Right now, we don't really have a good story of the United States. Why should the red states and blue states stay together? Because the alternatives are scary and potentially disastrous. But to do that, we need to really get our act together as to what we stand for, and what the answers to those questions are. And that's complicated by the fact that we started this country without a story, right? A group of rival colonies got together and fought a war to protect their own individual societies from imperial intrusion. Lo and behold, they won, and they were together in something called the United States, and no one knew what that was. They had to come up with a story of what America is about, because the forces that were breaking the country up were starting to become obvious: the tension between the words in the Declaration and the existence of the slave system wasn't going away. Part of the country subscribed to the classical republicanism of ancient Greece and Rome, where a small group of people had the privilege of practicing democracy and most people were in servitude or slavery. Those tensions couldn't be tolerated anymore. So starting in the 1830s, it became a battle between America defined as being committed to a shared set of ideals in the Declaration, or America defined in ethnocultural terms: “Originally, we’re the ethnostates of the superior Anglo-Saxon race, full stop, and everyone else is here provisionally. That's the battle of the antebellum period, of the Civil War where 750,000 people died, of Reconstruction.
At what point did one of those forces finally win consensus across the federation? The answer, frighteningly enough, is that ethnonational white supremacist version in the 1910s and 1920s. That's when we first had a consensus point, and it wasn't a good one. It wasn't until the 1960s that that civic national narrative won a grand consensus across the regions; that's in living memory. So the problem is that we've had a contested narrative from the beginning, and the forces that Trump is tapping into—the footings of that go back as far as our good narrative. That's why it's so dangerous and destabilizing, and why we really have to get our act together in knowing, again, how to talk about the ideals the country is supposed to be about, and to be able to talk about them in terms that people can understand. What do those words in the Declaration mean? It wasn't communicated very well in the 18th century. It's never been communicated very well. After the Cold War, we stopped talking about it at all.
How do you talk about those ideals now in the 21st century? How do you talk about them to real people, low information voters in real contexts, in a way that is inspiring and true, is an existentially important question. In the Nationhood Lab, we're doing exactly that, message testing and doing all of the work to figure out how you talk about it. And it may be you talk about it differently in Greater Appalachia than you do in Yankeedom—same story, but you may frame that and go about it slightly differently. An essential task for those of us who don't want to live in Trump's envisioned Great America is to tell the story of what our society looks like, and how the policies that we might be backing can lead us there.
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