This Thanksgiving, we celebrate that one time when the Pilgrims got together with the Native Americans to have turkey, fill cornucopias, exchange handshakes and celebrate the American values of gratitude, cooperation and generosity upon which this country was founded.
We often look at other countries and break them down by their demographic, societal and cultural elements – India, China, the UK, Iraq, etc. But we rarely do so for the US, even though it spans across an entire continent and has over 320 million people. I think that’s because of the “melting pot” mythology. It’s true this is a nation of immigrants and most of the European settlers from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were able to fully assimilate. But they all became “American” in different ways and different places. The cultures, traditions and belief systems they brought with them never fully went away.
Enter American Nations, an argument by author and historian Colin Woodard. There have been other re-examinations of American history, and they differ on how to organize the cultures that came here from Europe and now make up the United States. But they all agree that it’s not one culture, one purpose, one big happy family. And they don’t teach you that in elementary school.
Woodard drives home the idea that the United States is just that – united states with a loose agreement to band together. American history is meaningless without understanding English history of the 1600s and 1700s that brought it about. The United State is one geopolitical entity, but it’s comprised of many nations, as Woodard argues, and they don’t always agree. Quite often, in fact, they inhabit very different worlds. Here’s how America really came to be, through the very shaky pact of 11 nations founded on competing values and identities:
- The First Nations – They were here first. The Native Americans initially were willing to work with the Eurpoeans that kept showing up, particularly the French in Northern areas. But too many broken promises and too many misguided English beliefs about their superiority soured that pretty quick. Now, they are relegated to autonomous areas in northern Canada and insultingly small areas of land across the United States.
- El Norte – Founded as the frontier outpost of the Spanish Empire. The oldest Nation, settled by Spanish frontiersman coming up from Mexico, it became mostly ranchers and and the descendants of the Spanish and natives. Distant from Southern Mexico, El Norte wanted to maintain their own way and not be beholden to central Empire. They prized not being beholden to Spanish rule and wealth.
- New France – Founded to expand the French empire, trade furs with Natives, and explore North America. The French in Canada and upper New England were exploratory people, not terribly ideological, and wanted to trade. They integrated peacefully with Native Americans and wanted to take care of the land. But their experiment wasn’t going to last with the English on their way. Later, some of them moved south to the Mississippi Delta, where a whole new subculture developed.
- Yankeedom – Founded to create a Puritanical fundamentalist Utopia, with government-mandated education, justice, God-given rights for all humans (unless you were a witch). They hated the English aristocracy and were sympathetic to Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. Famous citizens: John Adams, Samuel Adams.
- New Netherlands – Founded to make money from fur trade and shipping. A cosmopolitan meeting place of various cultures and merchants from the beginning. They were mostly Dutch, and didn’t care about English politics or slavery, per se, as long as they could keep trading with few restrictions.
- The Midlands – Founded by William Penn to be a tolerant Quaker religious society isolated from the rest of the world. Midlanders were peacemakers, wanted freedom to practice religions, wanted to be left alone, and didn’t want to get involved politically. They saw the slavery of the Deep South as an abomination. But they also loathed the religious theocracy of the Yankees. Famous citizens: Benjamin Franklin.
- Tidewater – Founded to be a society of English gentry in the New World. Think Downton Abbey in Virginia. Wealthy English nobles hoped to create English estates in Americas. They encouraged indentured servitude to get their servants. When this got unpopular and untenable, they needed another source of support staff. Thus, they considered slavery an unfortunate necessity. Some thought it should be phased out eventually. Thought they should be considered equals to English aristocracy, and when they weren’t, they got restless. Famous citizens: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson.
- Deep South – Founded to make money for English traders from Barbados, where land and resources were taken by violence and cruel slavery. They wanted more land, so they came to Charleston and set up shop growing cotton. All of this society existed for the benefit of the wealthy few on the back of slavery. Slaves were property and to be “used” to full capability (that is, worked to death). Aligned with English wealth, monarchy and empire.
- Greater Appalachia – Founded to be contrarian, apparently. Lowland peoples from Scotland and Ireland came to these areas to escape English domination. They were mostly poor, so they got the “undesirable” lands in the Appalachians. They hated the English aristocracy, to levels of paranoia, plus they hated whoever were their neighbors in America (Yankees, Midlands, Tidewater, Deep South), because of delusions that everyone was aligned against them. Mostly herders and ranchers, they became America’s frontier society, and were violent and honor-driven. They valued individual liberty more than almost anything. Famous citizens: Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson.
- The Left Coast – Founded to be what Yankeedom never was. Yankees who moved out West wanted to preserve natural beauty, and they inherited New England’s utopian planning and emphasis on education. Their distance from the rest of the country left them a bit out of touch, but their ingenuity was second to none.
- The Far West – Founded by East Coast capitalists to extract as much wealth from the American interior as possible. Business interests bought up land and built entire cities around mining, lumber, oil, etc. Railroads and transport were very important, because there was no other way to get there. Citizens hated central government interference with any profit-making ventures. Only later did the Far West very concerned with preservation of natural resources. Explorers, hunters, and adventures gravitated here, but so did the lawless, anarchists and fringe movements.
Today, the United States still contains 10 of these competing American Nations. So what if they did exist as their own sovereign countries? Below is a little thought experiment in which I try to stereotypically illustrate what those nations might be like:
|Yankeedom||Boston||dairy||microbrews||R&B or Motown||hockey||scarf||Cadillac||moose|
|New Netherlands||New York City||floppy pizza||champagne||hip-hop||baseball||sneakers||taxi||rat|
|Midlands||Pittsburgh||hot dogs & hamburgers||light beer||Blues Brothers||basketball||mom jeans||minivan||wild turkey|
|Tidewater||Baltimore||crab||martini||John Philip Sousa||golf||power suit||black SUV||terrapin|
|Deep South||Atlanta||barbecue||Budweiser||country||football||ten-gallon hat||an old pickup||feral hog|
|El Norte||Tucson||Tex-Mex||tequila||Latin pop||rodeo||cowboy boots||convertible||rattlesnake|
|Greater Appalachia||Louisville||fried chicken||whiskey||folk/bluegrass||hunting & fishing||trucker hat||1969 Dodge Charger||bald eagle|
|Left Coast||Portland||salmon||red wine||indie||running||plaid/flannel||Toyota Prius||blue whale|
|Far West||Salt Lake City||steak (beef/bison)||Coors Light||classic rock||X-Games||anything rawhide or leather||Ford F-150||grizzly bear|
|New France||New Orleans||jambalaya||bourbon||jazz||uhh… shrimpin'?||Mardi Gras beads||uhhh… an airboat?||alligator|
Before you leave angry comments, know this: I tried to identify the item in each category that was most representative of the nation. For example, LA is the biggest city in El Norte, but does it really represent its history and culutre? Tucson or El Paso might be a better fit. Same with the Midlands – Philadelphia is the biggest city and would be a shoe-in in the 18th or 19th century, but what about now? Pittsburgh seems to most fully exemplify the industrial, heartland, unassuming, live-and-let-live attitude of the Midlands. Feel free to disagree, though.
Happy Thanksgiving for whatever American Nation you are in!