American Nations and Union: Your Questions, Answered

I was delighted to participate in Trinity Church Wall Street’s online event on November 12 to talk with the Rev. Phillip Jackson, Trinity's Priest-in-charge, about the issues in Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhoodand American Nations: The History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. We had so much fun that we didn’t manage to get to all of your questions, so I wanted to address some of them. If you missed the discussion, you can watch it here:


What is your take on the 1619 Project?

I’ve actually only read the main essay which, as revised March 11 this year, I’d say is pretty much spot on. That slavery and white supremacy has been central to our story shouldn’t be controversial; the fact that it apparently is makes one despair for the state of historical education. That said, it won’t surprise anyone that I, as the author of American Nations, disagree that the Virginia Tidewater country’s origin stories– or the Deep South’s at its Charleston area beachhead– are synonymous with those of the United States. Likewise, the assertion– since amended– that the founders' primary goal in declaring independence was to protect slavery just isn’t true; it was the goal of some of them because they represented “nations” that were slaveocracies.


Black Americans reside in almost every one of the American nations. How has the cultural interaction between what Blacks brought into these areas out of the "South" played out?

You’re asking a middle aged White guy from the whitest state in the country, so I’m not an expert. But my impression, gleaned from those with the historical African-American experience in each of the “American nations,” has been distinct. There's the highly-developed and brutally enforced formal apartheid system of the Deep South; the tolerant, capitalistic environment of New Netherland (tolerant of slaveholders and abolitionists in the Antebellum period); and the assimilative demands of Yankeedom which were perversely coupled with structures and norms (like red-lining) to prevent assimilation. I’d expect cultural interaction and transfers have been attenuated by these regional differences.


American Nations has a very strong theory of continuity. What, if anything, has been most effective at bringing change, either to these cultures internally or to the relations of these cultures to each other?

The most dramatic change has been the disintegration of tidewater culture, brought about by not having been able to expand westward and later, by the incredible expansion of the federal government around D.C. and Hampton Roads. Trillions in federal spending have allowed millions of people to live economic, social, and cultural lives without reference to the legacy culture around them. Similar forces are at work in the Orlando region (sparked by Disney in the early 1950s): a massive influx of people in a short period of time to serve a new, permanent, externally deployed project has the highest chance of displacing or replacing the legacy culture. However, it doesn’t always succeed in doing so in the long haul, as I’d suggest is the case in Los Angeles.


What cultural resources do we have to fashion a new unifying story? That is, if we need one?

Oh, we definitely need one. The key ingredients are identified in Union, and draw on the Declaration. I touch on some of it in this Boston Globe interview and lay it out in some detail in a feature in the forthcoming issue of Washington Monthly.


We talk generally of "white nationalism" and "nativist populism." Are these over-simplistic notions? If so, what is manifesting in the different nations?

Union tells the story of a struggle, from the outset of the US national project, between civic- and ethno-nationalism. White nationalists, white supremacists, and true Trumpists are embracing the latter tradition, though strictly speaking the “nationalists” are seeking their own separate “white” state, while the others want a Herrenvolk democracy, where white Christians run the show. “Populism” is a much more ambiguous term here in the US that confuses as much as it clarifies. Iin the European context, Jan-Werner Muller defines it well here.)


Many writers point out the divergence between urban and rural areas in recent elections, including the one that just passed.  How does this square with the American Nations regional narrative?

I’ve long argued that the urban/rural split is greatly exaggerated. Start with my 2018 New York Times essay on that, and then go to this recent analysis of the 2020 election at the Portland Press Herald.


The last decade of elections have either been apocalyptic or utopian, depending on who you ask. How can the government reconcile the antipodal beliefs of Yankeedom and the Deep South? In your opinion, is reconciliation tenable?

No, you can’t reconcile those views. What’s happened throughout history is that one of these superpowers builds a large enough coalition of “nations” to isolate the other and run the federation for a time. The other book in the American Nations trilogy, American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good,  is about exactly this and what you’d need to do to build such a coalition now.


We've seen how religious affiliations play a huge role in politics.  How do religious divisions play out in the story you tell in American Nations?

Pretty massively.  For instance, during the Second Great Awakening, the new denominations that appeared on the Yankee frontier were the early Puritans, communitarian efforts to build Utopian societies here on Earth– the Mormons, Millerites, or Seventh Day Adventists– while those that appeared in Greater Appalachia were individual creeds, whereby each person might meet God personally and be guided without the mediation of institutions, a clerical hierarchy or literal interpretation– like the Disciples of Christ, the Churches of Christ, primitive Baptists, and a constellation of evangelical churches.


Colin Woodard is a New York Times bestselling author, historian, and journalist who has reported from more than fifty countries and seven continents. A longtime foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The San Francisco Chronicle, he is State and National Affairs Writer at the Portland Press Herald, where he received a 2012 George Polk Award and was a finalist a 2016 Pulitzer Prize. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, Smithsonian, Politico and dozens of other publications. He is the author of American Nations, American Character, The Lobster Coast, The Republic of Pirates, Ocean's End and Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. He lives in Maine.