The Real Map of the USA
The Real U.S. Map, a Country of Regions (Part 2):
Illustration by Original Champions of Design By Colin Woodard
Americans often confuse the terms “state” and “nation” and
are among the world’s only people to use the terms
interchangeably. States are sovereign political entities,
official forums through which political power is exercised and
expressed. Nations are groups of people who share — or believe
they share — a common culture, ethnic origin, language,
artifacts and symbols. Some nations have their own states —
“nation-states” — which they usually name after themselves:
France, Hungary or Japan. Other states are federations of
disparate nations: Belgium, Switzerland or Canada.
belongs to the latter category.
The U.S. federation is composed of the whole or part of 11
regional nations (some of which stretch over the boundaries of
Canada and Mexico),
each with its own cultural ancestry, values
and ideals. These are: Yankeedom, New Netherland, New France,
the Midlands (discussed in Part 1),
Tidewater, Deep South, Greater
Appalachia (discussed below), First Nation, the Far West, the
Left Coast, and El Norte (to be discussed in subsequent parts).
Their histories are as divergent as their origins: Six of these
nations joined together to liberate themselves from British
rule. Four were conquered, but not vanquished, by English-
speaking rivals. Two more were founded in the West by a mix of
American frontiersmen in the second half of the 19th century.
Some are defined by cultural pluralism, others by reverence
for their particular French, Spanish or “Anglo-Saxon” cultural
heritages. Although their existence has been often overlooked,
they have exerted a powerful influence on our history. And, as
the differences between them grow more pronounced, they are
becoming increasingly powerful and significant contributors to
an atmosphere of disunion, political polarization and cultural
Any argument that claims to identify a series of discrete
nations on the North American continent must address the obvious
objection: Can nations that were created centuries ago, and
generally deprived of formal statehood, really have maintained
their distinct identities to the present day?
We are a continent of immigrants and internal migrants,
after all, and the tens of millions of newcomers representing
every possible culture, race and creed surely must have diluted
and dissipated those old cultures. Is it not the height of fancy
to suggest that the distinctive culture of New
(situated in the nation of New Netherland) is still culturally
tied to its founding by the Dutch, given that the people of such
ancestry now account for merely 0.2 percent of its population?
One might naturally assume, as goes the classic American myth,
that the continent’s “nations” must have long melted into each
other, creating a rich, pluralistic stew. But, as we will see,
the expected course of events isn’t actually what happened.
Life in North America has been immeasurably enriched by the
many cultures and people who settled there. I personally
celebrate the continent’s diversity, but I also know that my
great-grandfather’s people in western Iowa —
from the island of Funen in Denmark
— assimilated into the
dominant culture of the Midlands (think, for now, “Midwest”),
even as they contributed to its evolution.
My Irish-Catholic great-grandparents worked the iron and copper
mines of the interior West, and their children grew up to be Far
Westerners. My great-great-great grandmother’s family fled from
the same part of Ireland as their future cousins-in-law, but the
mines where they found work happened to be in Quebec, so
descendants grew up speaking French and traveling on aboriginal
All of them, undoubtedly, altered the places to which they
emigrated — for the better, I hope — but did the culture in
which they settled change them more than they changed the
culture around them? Over the generations, they assimilated into
the world around them, not the other way around. They may have
embraced or enriched or detested the dominant culture, but they
didn’t replace it. And it wasn’t “American” or “Canadian”
culture they confronted and negotiated with or against: It was
the culture of one of the North American nations listed above.
Becoming a member of a nation usually has nothing to do
with genetics, and everything to do with culture. One doesn’t
inherit a national identity, the way one gets hair, skin or eye
color. One acquires it in childhood or, with great effort,
through voluntary assimilation later in life. Even the “blood”
nations of Europe support this assertion.
A member of the (very nationalistic) Hungarian nation might
be descended from Austrian Germans, Russian Jews, Serbs, Croats,
Slovaks or any combination thereof, but if he speaks Hungarian
and embraces Hungarian ways, he is regarded as being Hungarian.
Nobody would deny French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Frenchness, even
though his father was a Hungarian noble and his maternal
grandfather, a Greek-born Sephardic Jew. The same is true of
North American nations: If you talk like a Midlander, you are
probably a Midlander and act like a Midlander, regardless of
whether your parents or grandparents came from the Deep South,
Cultural geographers came to similar conclusions decades
ago. In 1973, Wilbur Zelinsky of Pennsylvania State University
formulated a key theory that he called the Doctrine of First
“Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an
earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific
characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable,
self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the
later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how
tiny the initial band of settlers may have been,” he wrote.
The colonial Atlantic seaboard, he noted, was a prime
example. The Dutch may have been all but extinct in the lower
Hudson Valley — and the landed aristocracy have lost control of
the Chesapeake country — but their influence carries on all the
same. Note the lastingness of the attributes and character of
the three American nations defined below:
Tidewater was the most powerful nation during the colonial
period and the Early Republic. It has always been a fundamentally
conservative region where a high value is placed on respect for
authority and tradition and very little on equality or public
participation in politics.
Such attitudes aren’t surprising, given that it was founded
by the younger sons of southern English gentry, who aimed to
reproduce the semi-feudal, manorial society of the English
countryside, where economic, political and social affairs were
run by and for landed aristocrats. These self-identified
“Cavaliers” largely succeeded in their aims, turning the
lowlands of Virginia, Maryland, southern Delaware and
northeastern North Carolina into a country gentleman’s paradise
with indentured servants and, later, slaves taking the part of
Tidewater elites played a central role in the foundation of
the U.S. and are responsible for many of the aristocratic
inflections of the Constitution, including the Electoral College
and Senate, whose members were to be appointed by legislators,
not chosen by the electorate.
But the region’s power waned in the 1830s and 1840s, its
elite generally following the lead of the planters of the
ascendant Deep South in matters of national political
importance. Today, it is a nation in decline, rapidly losing its
influence, cultural cohesion and territory to its Midland
neighbors. Its undoing was a matter of geography: It was blocked
by rivals from expanding over the Appalachian Mountains.
Greater Appalachia was founded in the early 18th century by
wave upon wave of rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged
borderlands of northern Ireland, northern England
Scottish lowlands. Lampooned in popular culture as “rednecks,”
“hillbillies,” “crackers” and “white trash,” these clannish
Scots-Irish, Scots and northern English frontiersmen spread
across the highland South and on into the southern tiers of
Ohio, Indiana and Illinois; the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks;
the eastern two-thirds of Oklahoma; and the Hill Country of Texas,
clashing with Indians, Mexicans and Yankees as they migrated.
In the British Isles, this culture had formed in a state of
near-constant war and upheaval, fostering a warrior ethic and a
deep commitment to individual liberty and personal sovereignty.
Intensely suspicious of aristocrats and social reformers alike,
these American borderlanders despised Yankee teachers, Tidewater
lords and Deep Southern aristocrats.
In the Civil War, much of the region fought for the Union,
with secessionist movements in western Virginia (creating West
Virginia), eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama.
Reconstruction, the region resisted the Yankee effort to
liberate African slaves, driving it into a lasting alliance with
its former enemies: the overlords of the Tidewater and Deep
Southern lowlands of Dixie.
The borderlanders’ combative culture has provided a large
proportion of the nation’s military, from officers such as Andrew
Jackson, Davy Crockett and Douglas MacArthur to the enlisted men
in Afghanistan and Iraq. They also gave the continent bluegrass
and country music, stock-car racing and evangelical
The Deep South
The Deep South, by contrast, was founded by Barbados slave
lords as a West Indies-style slave society, a system so despotic
and cruel that it shocked even 17th-century English observers.
For most of American history, the region has been a bastion of
white supremacy and aristocratic privilege, while enslavement
has been the natural lot of many. It remains the least
democratic of the regions, a one-party entity where race remains
the primary determinant of one’s political affiliations.
Beginning from its Charleston beachhead, the Deep South
spread apartheid and authoritarianism across the Southern
lowlands, eventually encompassing most of South Carolina,
Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida
and Louisiana; western
Tennessee; and the southeastern parts of North Carolina,
Arkansas and Texas. With its territorial ambitions in Latin
America frustrated, it dragged the U.S. into a horrific war in
the 1860s in order to form its own nation state, backed by
reluctant allies in Tidewater and some corners of Appalachia.
After successfully resisting a Yankee-led occupation, it
became the center of the states-rights movement and racial
segregation, as well as labor and environmental deregulation. It
is also the wellspring of African-American culture in America
and, 40 years after it was forced to allow blacks to vote, it
remains politically polarized on racial grounds.
Tomorrow: New France, El Norte.
(Colin Woodard, a correspondent for the Christian Science
Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the author of
“The Lobster Coast,” “The Republic of Pirates” and “Ocean’s
End.” This is the second in a five-part series excerpted from
his new book, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival
Regional Cultures of North
America,” published Sept. 29 by
Viking. Read Part 1 and Part 3.)
To contact the writer of this article:
Colin Woodard at colin@colinwo
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