J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Visiting American Nations

Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America reads like a cross between Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America (1981), and David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (1989) and related books.

Like Garreau, Woodard divides all of the U.S. of A., Canada, and northern Mexico along cultural and economic lines rather than the borders of states and traditional regions. Like Fischer, Woodard sees the roots of these differences in the first European settlements of each area, and the values those settlers carried to new regions.

Thus in this model the Tidewater, settled by English aristocrats in the early 1600s, is significantly different from the larger Deep South, first settled by Englishmen from the Caribbean several decades later. Woodard laid out his basic ideas and how he developed them in a podcast conversation with Marshall Poe.

After The Nine Nations of North America, I’ve joked that I came out of two nations: Midwestern and Academic. Even though I’ve never been formally part of either tribe, they’ve largely defined my values.

Under Woodard’s model, however, there’s no single Midwest. He splits that part of the country into extensions of Yankeedom (settled by New Englanders), the Midlands (spread west from Philadelphia), and Greater Appalachia (folks from the Revolutionary-era backcountry). And the part of California where I was born is in El Norte, its culture shaped by Spanish settlers seeking autonomy from Mexico City.

One of the smallest nations geographically on Woodard’s map is New Netherland—basically the part of North America that the Dutch colonized before the English took over. However, since that area includes New York City, its population and influence are much bigger than its physical footprint.

American Nations presents the Revolution first as “A Common Struggle” that first pulled disparate, competing regions together and then as “Six Wars of Liberation” in six different regions. Yankeedom was basically independent after March 1776 while New Netherland was pulled back into the British Empire until 1783.

Woodard overstates his case at times. In his introduction he writes:
New Netherland also nurtured two Dutch innovations considered subversive by most other European states at the time: a profound tolerance for diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry. Forced on other nations at the Constitutional Convention, these ideals have been passed down to us as the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights wasn’t a product of the Constitutional Convention; it was a pushback against the new federal government which that meeting proposed.

So let’s read Woodard’s statement to refer not to the convention itself but to the overall ratifying process. In a later chapter, Woodard writes of the Constitution:
New Netherlanders refused to vote on it at all until Congress agreed to add thirteen amendments modeled on the civil liberties enumerated in the Articles of Capitulation on the Reduction of New Netherland. . . . The vote in New York State was a cliffhanger, prompting New Netherlanders to threaten to secede and join the new union on their own if delegates from the Yankee interior counties did not ratify the new constitution.
Together these statements appear to present New Netherland as both standing firm against ratification and demanding it. This analysis also glosses over the many other sources for the Constitution’s first ten amendments, including the British Bill of Rights passed by Parliament in 1689. The Pennsylvania minority that had opposed ratification in 1788 proposed amendments guaranteeing individual rights. The Massachusetts convention reached compromise by proposing similar amendments, and other states followed that course.

In fact, by the time New York ratified the Constitution, nine other states had already done so, meaning that it had legal force. Of course, the nation needed to include New York as a large, central state. But I don’t see how New Netherland “forced” individual rights onto the rest of the U.S.

What’s more, two of the three Federalist Papers authors who argued to approve the Constitution as originally written were from New York. Woodard makes a point of calling Alexander Hamilton “Barbados-born,” suggesting he brought foreign values to New Netherland rather than fitting right in. And the book doesn’t even mention John Jay, whose mother was from an old Dutch family.

Though I think that at times like those American Nations’s thesis is stretched too far, it definitely provokes new thinking about North America and its past.

1 comment:

Daud said...

Not to mention the fact that MA constitution includes a very similar bill of rights.