Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: American Nations by Colin Woodard

Author: Colin Woodard
Publisher/Format: Viking Adult (Penguin Group), Hardcover, 384 pages
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: Cultural differences throughout North America
Genre: Historical narrative
Source:Public library ( but I'm buying my own copy).

Colin Woodard has given us a thought-provoking, deeply researched, easy to read look at the various ethno-cultural groups making up the North American continent from Canada to Mexico, from the Native Americans who were subjugated by the Spanish (or annihilated by the Anglos) to the Inuits of Canada who are enjoying a resurgence of their identity and culture.

He posits these 11 "nations" to be Yankeedom, New Netherlands, The Midlands, Tidewater, the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, New France, The First Nation, the Far West, El Norte, and the Left Coast.  For each, he introduces us to the earliest members, traces their original settlement and the subsequent expansions to other areas of the continent, their expectations, educational levels, governing style, religious and cultural influences from the "Old Country", and analyzes their influence on key historical events of the North American development  from elected officials, wars, and legislative achievements to looking at the current political gridlock occuring in the US.

His insights are exceptionally provacative and give the average reader pause to re-examine what we have been taught.  For example ....
In the end, The U.S. Constitution was the product of a messy compromise among the rival nations.  From the gentry of Tidewater and the Deep South, we received a strong president to be selected by an "electoral college" rather than elected by ordinary people.  From New Netherland we received the Bill of Rights, a set of very Dutch guarantees that individuals would have freedom of conscience, speech, religion, and assembly.  To the Midlands we owe the fact that we do not have a strong unitary state under a British-style national Parliament; they insisted on state sovereignty as insurance against Southern despots and Yankee meddling.  The Yankees ensured that small states would have an equal say in the Senate, with even the very populous state of Massachusetts frustrating Tidewater and the Deep South's desire for proportional representation in that chamber; Yankees also forced a compromise whereby slave lords would be able to count only three-fifths of their slave population when tabulating how many congressmen they would receive. pg.  148
 It's a profound book that is not a quick read; neither is it a plodding read.  He often offers us "What ifs?" that introduce stunning possibilities e.g., if South Carolina hadn't fired on Ft Sumter, the Union might have been able to negotiate a settlement, and eventually the many nations would have re-aligned themselves into several --up to four--separate confederations, or ended forming a collaboration somewhat akin to today's European Union.   To supplement several well-drawn and clearly notated maps, Woodard's style is enjoyable, clear and concise.  He gives us an especially thoughtful look at the role the Canadians and northern Mexicans have played (and continue to play) in the culture and politics of the US.  He poses questions, synthesizes the best of scholarship available at the moment to give us intelligent and interesting answers.  Never did I feel I was reading a text book, although I'd certainly hope that all US history and political science majors will be required to read this.  It is simply one of the most interesting and fascinating  books I have read this year.  It will certainly be on my Top Ten Non-Fiction list for 2011.


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