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  • Ken Ilgunas

Book Review: American Nations

Colin Woodard’s, American Nations, is one of the best books on American history I’ve ever read. It urges you to think of America less as Democrat vs. Republican, urban vs. rural, or liberal vs. conservative. Rather, America, he argues, is made up of eleven distinct nations, including “Yankeedom,” the “Deep South,” “New France,” and “El Norte.”

Some stray thoughts…

-It is amazing how the early cultural settlements have dictated how history has unfolded. NYC is what it is today because of the Dutch empire’s emphasis on commerce and religious tolerance. The Deep South still contends with the legacy of enslavers, who brought to the American South their notions of white supremacy and their cruel practices from Barbados plantations. The Northeast, despite being exposed to waves of ethnically diverse immigrants, has retained many of the best norms of the Puritans, such as its communitarian focus on the common good. It amazes me that 20th and 21st Century homogenizing forces (radio, TV, the Internet) have not homogenized us into one obvious nation; rather, these old cultural legacies continue to reverberate through time.

-El Norte may be the key to the near-future of American politics. It’s an increasingly powerful American nation, which has historically had progressive leanings that could help turn red parts of the US blue.

-There’s a fascinating section toward the end about how America might break up. El Norte could break off from the US and add chunks of northern Mexico to become it’s own republic. Yankeedom, the Midlands, and New Netherlands could form an alliance. The US might Balkanize or shred apart like the USSR. We see this sort of thing happening peacefully in Spain (over Catalonia) or in the UK, where they’re presently leaving the EU, and where Scotland may someday indeed sever ties with the UK. Quebec got pretty close to moving away from Canada 25 years ago. We have had some states for less than 100 years, and we only fought a Civil War 150 years ago. A separation of some sort is not impossible to imagine, especially when our differences persist. Still, I don’t think any of these possibilities will come to pass, anytime soon at least. There are indeed huge differences between Yankedom and the Deep South, and it’s clear that old legacies live on. But they also fade. Look at Christianity in Europe, for example. A thousand years ago, everyone in Europe was a believer. But Europe is becoming increasingly secular. Just look at how Catholicism has retreated in Ireland, which saw a whopping 6% drop in just 6 years within the 2010s. Change is possible. Big change is possible. And I’d like to think that the big things that divide us: outsized notions of individual liberty, white supremacy, xenophobia, etc. will wane with time.

-Woodard says the South, as a unified political entity, wasn’t really formed until *after* the Civil War, when the Deep South became more unified with Greater Appalachia and Tidewater. This has me wondering what the US might look like if the Confederate forces won. Woodard says the Northern US would, today, look a lot more like Canada.

-In my opinion, if America will continue to lead the world, we will only do so if Yankeedom, and it’s sister nation, the Left Coast, lead the way. Huge challenges like climate change will require a common good-oriented approach. It will require taxation and trust in government. It will require an environment-minded citizenry and government. The theocratic leanings and notions of racial supremacy of the Deep South are of little use to us in the 21st Century and beyond, and the fixations on individual liberty in Greater Appalachia and the Far West will also be of little help, even if this quality, when expressed judiciously, has had its uses and charms. The 21st Century calls for the more progressive nations to lead the way. Interesting, Woodard ends with the Native American “First Nation,” which, though the smallest of the nations in population, may have one of the biggest roles to play:

“First Nation is a highly communalistic society. Most tribal land in the far north is owned in common under a form of title that prevents it from ever being sold to an individual or exploited in such a way that diminishes its value to future generations. In Greenland there is no private property at all: everyone is allowed to responsibly use the people’s shared land, but it is thought the height of absurdity that any one person should “own” it, which would be comparable to someone’s asserting ownership of the wind. Inuit—whether dwelling in Labrador, Nunavut, Greenland, or Alaska—still hunt, fish, and gather a substantial amount of their food, and all of those “home foods” and the implements associated with them are generally regarded as common property as well. If a hunter kills a seal, it’s handed over to whoever needs it. Villages have communal freezers that anyone can access—free of charge or accounting—because food cannot belong to one person. If the tribe engages in an industrial enterprise, the proceeds belong to everyone… Communalistic, environmentally minded, and female-dominated, the people of First Nation will have a very different approach to the global challenges of the twenty-first century from that of the other nations of the continent and the world. And starting in Greenland, First Nation is building a series of nation-states of its own, giving North America’s indigenous peoples a chance to show the rest of the world how they would blend postmodern life with premodern folkways.”


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