Who is America and Why are they so Divided?: America’s Ethnocultural Mosaic Explained
These 3 Books Will Explain Why You Can’t Understand your Fellow Americans
Often it is gruesome to even attempt to understand our fellow Americans. The people of the United States are, without a doubt, one of the least homogenous in the entire world. Many of these differences originate from the vast size and geographical variations of the country and even more from the ever-growing urban-rural disconnect, but the most substantial reason for America’s divisiveness perhaps stems from the origin and development of several distinct ethnocultural groups which reside in the country.
The following three books I introduce in this article attempt to understand this divide. They all introduce various ethnocultural groups and then subsequently showcase strong correlations between these ethnocultural groups and their motivations, belief systems, ways of life, and unconscious actions. More important than these correlations though, is the explanation these works provide so that the reader can understand the divisiveness of America’s unique political-ethnocultural groups both in the past and present.
A significantly better comprehension of contemporary politics, regional psychology, and ongoing culture wars can be understood to a greater degree if one escapes their ignorance of history and recognizes the United States as a collection of individuals who are still affected by the culture and actions of their ancestors.
These books give us insight into many of the most influential ethnocultural groups that North America has ever seen.
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Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989) — David Hackett Fischer
Albion’s Seed, by far the most influential and famous book on this list, remains one of the top (if not the top) works on American Culture. David Hackett Fischer provides almost one thousand pages to explain what he perceived to be four rival American cultures that come directly from four corresponding rival regions of Britain. Although much has changed since the colonial period, on which most of the book focuses, Fischer still argues that modern American culture is largely a descendent of the cultures of British America’s earliest settlers.
Fischer reveals and emphasizes the lack of homogeneity in all periods of what would become the United States as well as early modern Britain by simply cataloging various types of folkways of the four dominant English cultures he addresses. A section is given to each culture where he identifies and details a list of 24 types of folkways.
The first substantial population center in mainland British America was in Massachusetts, and more broadly, what is now called New England. New England colonists predominately came from East Anglia and southeast England. This southeastern corner of Britain was the first homeland of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, and Danes who settled the island after the end of Roman Britain. This region, both during the early medieval period and more recently, shared many cultural elements with the parts of mainland Europe in which they left. In the early modern period, southeast England shared an industrial spirit similar to their commercially prosperous neighbors in the Netherlands. The early colonists that left southeast England behind (“the Puritans”) shared a culture that featured a strong protestant work ethic, a love of order, high rates of education, high literacy, democracy, social strictness, and egalitarianism among other things.
Next, a vast amount of southwest English men and women (although far more were men) crossed the Atlantic for their new home in Virginia and what is now the southeast of the United States. Many of these colonists traced their heritage to medieval Norman conquerors and aristocrats (who had significant influence in southwest Britain). They were primarily Anglican, sympathetic to the British Crown, understanding of aristocratic and other forms of hierarchy, accepting of slavery and indentured servitude, patriarchal, and vivacious.
Thirdly, Fischer covers Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley, which was primarily settled by those with heritage in northern and central England which saw more influence from the Vikings than the Normans. These Midlanders, at first, were primarily Quakers who were, much like the Puritans, Egalitarian, industrious, and well-educated but unlike their Yankee neighbors, they were more inclusive, pacifistic, and welcoming of diversity.
The last significant group to reach North America from Britain in the colonial period was the Scots-Irish. These settlers, primarily of the Presbyterian faith and of Celtic origin, came from the borderlands of England and Scotland as well as northeast Ireland. This group of Americans settled in the Appalachian Mountains in the borderlands of the colonies, both north and south. They, according to Fischer, were the most ruthless out of the four groups to Native Americans. They tended to be less wealthy than any other group and had a culture that promoted blood feuds, superstition, pride, ruggedness, militancy, and the wish for decentralized power.
Understanding America’s early and most fundamental cultures are not just for the sake of novelty. For one, it helps the reader understand just how connected North America is with Britain. Before these cultures split and developed into their own, they were transatlantic. It demolishes the myth of a homogenous W.A.S.P. culture. The transatlantic nature of the British people, both in the fatherland and New World, still exists to some extent although our cultural evolutionary paths have split since the period of colonization.
Fischer spends a great portion of his work focusing on the stark contrasts and tensions between these groups. It should be noted that these people and their cultures of three centuries ago were completely in charge of the fate of English-speaking America. Their cultures and the interaction of their cultures caused the creation of the United States and transformed North America into what it is today.
The way Americans live their lives today is a result of actions taken by individuals who were galvanized by their culture. The culture of the American southeast and British southwest perpetuated chattel slavery into the time of the founding of the United States. The culture of the Scots-Irish borderlands reinforced a decentralized United States. The culture of New England and the British southeast brought with it ideas of federal unity and fast-paced global-market industrialized capitalism. The culture of the Midlanders of Pennsylvania and central Britain brought with it tolerance, ethnic diversity, and religious acceptance.
The battles between these cultures are not confined to the early history of our nation. Fischer, and later authors featured in this article, argue that the culture of America’s most dominant ethnocultural groups are still battling in the political and cultural spheres to this day.
Overall, Albion's Seed is a fantastic start to one’s journey into the ethnocultural makeup of North America or historical anthropology. There is no explicit bridging of how these historical cultures connect to today but it seems as if there is an overall implicit purpose to show the reader how little these cultural groups have changed in the last few hundred years. An active reader will be sure to make connections on their own, most of which though, seem to be implied by Fischer.
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Ethnic America: A History (1981) — Thomas Sowell
While Albion's Seed focuses on America’s influential and earliest British settlers, Thomas Sowell’s Ethnic America focuses on non-British ethnic groups: both those with early origins in the British colonies and those who have migrated to the United States more recently. Some of the nine ethnic groups mentioned by Sowell straddle between these two time periods.
Sowell was partially inspired to write this because he realized that the United States no longer had an ethnic majority. Although the country used to be of overwhelming Anglo-Saxon genetic stock, only 15% of the nation claimed to be of English descent at the time of this book’s publication. He thought that there were key differences in the cultures of America’s modern inhabitants and wanted to study which cultural practices are most beneficial for modern Americans to practice.
Ethnic America uses not just the lens of history but also of economics and social science. Because this work, or at least portions of it, has a political aim, I would recommend thinking through Sowell’s conclusions yourself. Regardless of your own politics, This book is full of useful information and will certainly give you plenty to think about, regardless of your own politics or if you agree or disagree with Sowell’s more prescriptive takes.
Sowell starts the book by addressing diversity within each of the groups he mentions. Older immigrant groups always had tensions with newer immigrant groups of the same ethnicity. This book, however, focuses more on the differences between groups. He is forthright in his sociological approach to this work so tells the reader that he will be observing the differences through various data sets of different American ethnic groups both in the past and the present. He finds the likelihood of biological essentialism playing an important role in ethnic disparities as unlikely. The differences in instances of prejudice, education, cultural differences, health, time of immigration, and median age is instead the key reasons that ethnic groups have different outcomes.
The Germans and Irish were two groups that came with the English during the colonial era but these groups also continued to flow into the country for centuries to come. They are two of the most numerous ethnic groups in America outside of the English. These two groups faced severe discrimination from Anglo-Americans at different periods of time also struggled with issues such as poverty and high crime rates. These ethnic groups were successful in eventually reaching similar outcomes as their Anglo-American neighbors.
Sowell explains that they were able to do this because they had centuries and a great multitude of generations of natural and forced assimilation. It was also helpful that phenotypically, they were not much different from the English.
They had their individual reasons for success as well. The Germans institutionalized themselves in the colonial period by expanding into the wilderness and creating large swaths of successful farmland. German-Americans also made a name for themselves in the urban world with growing reputations for ingenuity, honest business, and craftsmanship. A large percentage of Americans still spoke the German language until they were pressured to abandon this cultural tie during World War I.
The Irish, on the other hand, abandoned their rural Irish land because of their desperate position. They settled in urban centers in the Northeast. The Irish were concentrated at the bottom of the economic hierarchy of early America and had a worse economic position than free African-Americans. The Irish rose to similar outcomes to their neighbors slower than the Germans or any other European ethnic group in America. They eventually saw success in politics and union activism and sports.
Sowell also covers Italians and Jews, who flocked to North America in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Sowell also often groups Christian Eastern-European immigrants with the Jewish-Americans but makes clear distinctions between the two people. These groups entered America severely undereducated but thanks to the Jewish religious and cultural value of knowledge and the Italian virtue of helping family members, these groups eventually thrived in North America.
Chinese and Japanese immigrants came mostly in the early 20th century and beyond. East Asians faced an immense amount of discrimination. These groups had massive differences but Sowell argues that because of this large amount of discrimination and also because some of their own cultural values (for example, the Japanese highly valued education in a similar manner as the Jews), these two groups rose to economic and, eventually, social success. Their internal focus and family-oriented values brought them to outcomes that reach far above the national average.
African-Americans were the only group that was, on mass, brutally forced to come to the New World. They are one of the continent’s earliest ethnic groups to call North America their home after the era of colonization. They suffered tragedies unlike any other group in America, perhaps with the exception of Native Americans. After slavery ended, African-Americans saw a surprising rise to power despite their circumstances and persistence of unfair sharecropping. In the early 20th century and beyond, African Americans, on average, experienced economic and social stagnation and sometimes, even economic and social decline.
Many of these forces were out of this group's control, but Sowell argues that African-Americans adopted many southern white cultural elements that were frowned upon by northerners and this made their struggle to reach equal outcomes even more difficult. A large portion of negative stereotypes about black Americans were synonymous with negative stereotypes about white southerners (what Fischer referred to as the cultures derived from southwest England and the Scots-Irish). When blacks moved into the northern United States and Canada, they had trouble adapting because of some of the more incompatible elements of this southern culture. Northerners often discriminated against blacks for these reasons. African-Caribbean immigrants had less trouble reaching equal outcomes in America than legacy African Americans because their culture equipped them with skills that allowed them to adapt and prosper.
Latin Americans from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Central America, and South America are some of the United States’ most influential modern groups. According to Sowell, these groups often struggle to reach equal outcomes for various reasons. Latino cultures vary but many, according to Sowell, also have unproductive cultural elements as well. An example of this is the preservation of outward sexist attitudes within some Latin American communities. Gender roles are often severely reinforced and a machismo culture takes Latino men away from pursuing what is beneficial and instead forces them to comply with a toxic culture of showcasing brute masculinity. Many times, these particularly sexist Latino communities also hinder women from developing and reaching their own goals.
Overall, Ethnic America is great for the skeptical reader. Regardless of Sowell’s own conclusions, the book will show the reader a multitude of reasons for the differences between ethnic groups in America. The data in the book is, however, becoming increasingly dated, but the methodology still stands. The methodology will help the reader observe and make their own conclusions about the various reasons for disparities between ethnic groups that are not covered in the book.
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American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011) — Colin Woodard
Colin Woodard’s American Nations is the most assessable, modern, and entertaining of the three books covered in this article. This work is largely a continuation and addendum of Albion’s Seed but it also certainly stands on its own. This book is perhaps one of the most influential American history books of the 21st Century.
American Nations details the cultural lineage of eleven distinct American cultures and traces their evolution from the age of colonization to our own century. Woodard shows how these cultural nations interacted, formed cliques, and waged ideological wars against each other starting with the settling of our country, through the Civil War, into the progressive era, the World Wars, the Cold War, and beyond.
Woodard thinks that the current division that Americans face is nothing new. Americans have never been unified in the idealistic way many imagine. The differences between the eleven cultural regions detailed in this book are the primary reason for our disunity. Modern political election maps reinforce the existence and perpetuation of these American nations. The American “culture war” is not new.
According to Woodard, there was no single American revolution; there were six. Each American cultural region had its own distinct relationship with the British Empire. Each had its own reason to rebel against Britain, or in some cases, comply with Britain.
The Revolution that we typically think of, the one of radical opposition to the crown because of unequal representation came predominately from Yankeedom. New York City was interested in economic prosperity above anything else and became a stronghold of Loyalist refugees. The Midlanders, that is, the Pennsylvanians, because of their Quaker and German pacifist roots, attempted to keep the balance and avoid conflict. Those in the Deep South wanted to preserve their slave-based economy and, at first, thought that provoking Britain or becoming independent would only diminish their success in this regard. Those in the Tidewater region and the Appalachian borderlands had mixed feelings about breaking loyalty to Britain for their own reasons.
These cultural groups have similar divergences in thinking when it comes to any significant event in the United States. Cultural roots, geography, and economic status are the deciding factor of these divergences.
Unlike Albion’s Seed, American Nations traces English-speaking America’s earliest cultural regions into the American West. Woodard traced linguistic patterns, town and regional names, political views, and religion to pinpoint which of the North America’s east coast cultures laid the foundations of settlements beyond the Appalachian mountains. Yankeedom, The Midlands, Greater Appalachia, and the Deep South all spread to North America’s core. New Netherland, Tidewater, and New France had little room to grow because of the domination of the other cultural regions.
On the far western side of the continent, new nations formed out of the influence of the eastern nations. The “Far West” fits inside North America’s western interior while the “Left Coast” dominates the west coast, from southern California to the panhandle of Alaska. “El Norte” covers the vast and open borderlands between the United States and Mexico and has an influence that is growing more prominent with every year. The First Nations have been subjugated by every other nation. Its influence is most prominent in Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland.
These cultural groups are predominately defined by the early and influential ethnic groups that dominated the region. New Englanders may not be overwhelmingly of English genetic stock anymore, but the culture of this region was greatly crafted by the English settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Immigrants and migrants play their role in changing the overall culture of a region but ultimately, in the case of North America, they will adapt and assimilate (to varying extents) to the earlier and more influential settler culture. Irish-Americans and African-Americans, for example, live in places like Yankeedom and preserve some unique aspects of their own culture but they also participate in the larger culture of the region. Culture is not in our genes but in our history and environment.
Yankeedom is composed of New Englanders and their decedents. Woodard’s description of this culture matches Fischer’s description of the Puritans. The settlement of the Yankees are not, however, limited to what we now call New England. Yankeedom ethnic culture stretches into upstate New York, northern Pennsylvania, and even into the Canadian Maritimes. Yankees were, and according to Woodard, are still, one of the most moralistic nations.
Puritanical religion was originally the perpetrator of this sentiment. They can be described as community-oriented theocratic authoritarians. As mentioned earlier, the Revolutionary War was initiated by the Yankees. The Civil War, too, was primarily a Yankee endeavor. The famous and radical abolitionist, John Brown was a product of Connecticut and northwest Pennsylvania. The Yankees were not always interested in preserving the union though. Decades before the Civil War, there were multiple proposals for New England to secede. If the rest of the union did not comply with Yankee values, historically, they have either attempted to isolate themselves or export their ideas to the rest of the continent (and beyond) by either coercive peaceful means or force.
Woodard traced the expansion of the Yankees to northern Ohio, the entirety of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, as well as the northern portions of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and the eastern sections of the Dakotas. Place names in these areas are replicas of place names in the Yankee east coast and southeastern England. The “Mayflower of the West” literally sailed along the Ohio River to “civilize” the Midwest.
The Midlands have their origins in eastern Pennsylvania. They are the same culture that Albion’s Seed described with the same name. Northern Maryland and Delaware and southern New Jersey are also the home to this culture.
The Delaware Valley and eastern Pennsylvania was first settled by the Swedes and Finns as the colony of New Sweden, who had a tremendously peaceful relationship with the Lenape. By the time William Penn was granted this land, these native groups were not a threat. Many scholars today wrongly attribute early peaceful relationships with the Lenape to William Penn while in reality, eastern Pennsylvania’s culture of tolerance was kickstarted by the Swedes.
English Quakers, though, perpetuated this spirit of tolerance. Philadelphia quickly became the most diverse and tolerant city to ever exist. Pennsylvania became a refuge for those who would otherwise feel unwelcomed in New England or the South. Germans of various faiths came, free African-Americans could make a decent living for themselves, and Dutchmen and Swedes settled here after their countries lost colonial control over North America.
The Midlanders, like the Yankees, also spread west. Midlanders spread their culture to western Pennsylvania and from there, into the breadbasket of America. Midlanders founded cities and farms in central and northern Ohio, parts of Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and a small foothold in the most northern counties of Texas. Midlander culture also greatly inspired the culture of southern Ontario. They are the buffer culture between that of the Yankees and that of the Greater Appalachians. Many of the predominately Midlander states are, even to this day, “swing states” in elections.
New Netherland, named for the Dutch colony of the 17th Century, is situated in New York City, its suburbs, and nearby urban areas in western Connecticut and northern New Jersey. New Amsterdam, at first, seems like it has little connection to the modern biggest city of Anglo-America. Woodard still manages to make a compelling connection.
The Netherlands, in the Early Modern Era, was famous for its explosive economic growth due to international commerce. In the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam was the trading post of the world. During the same period, New Netherland was the trading post of the northern New World. Even in the 1600s, New Amsterdam was highly diverse. These diverse groups of people avoided conflict because they did, after all, share a common value: capital.
This economic spirit persisted even after the British annexation of the land. Colonial New Yorkers grew content with the vast amount of trade opportunity it had under Britain and its empire. For this reason, it was hesitant to cut ties with Britain and the monarchy during the early period of the Revolution. Like the Midlands, New Amsterdam is in favor of liberal values and multiculturalism, even if only for economic profit.
The Deep South stretches from southern North Carolina, the majority of South Carolina, Georgia, northern Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, far western Tennessee, southern and eastern Arkansas, northern Louisiana, and eastern Texas.
This cultural area was as pro-confederacy as Yankeedom was pro-union. The Deep Southern economy was, until 1865, largely dependent on slaves and therefore a culture that tolerated slavery. This area adopted a rigid social structure but at the same time, opposed higher authorities that could attempt to put an end to the ownership of slaves.
Woodard points out that the economy in the Deep South was so contrasted with the economy of the rest of mainland British America that outsiders and Deep Southerners alike viewed their society as more akin to those of the slave-driven economies of the British Caribbean than anywhere else. It was in fact, largely founded by English slave lords from Barbados.
Tidewater, on the other hand, composes of eastern Virginia, southeastern Maryland, the southern two-thirds of Delaware, and northeast North Carolina. The Tidewater culture was founded by English gentry who traced their ancestry to the Norman conquerors of 1066. For this reason, they sided with Charles I and the Cavaliers during the English Civil War and looked down upon other American nations for being merely lowborn and plebian “Anglo-Saxons”.
Tidewater also had slaves but the economy was not as dependent upon them as in the Deep South. In a way, they preferred the indentured servitude system better than the Deep South and Caribbean system of chattel-slavery. During the American Revolution, Tidewaterites were less likely to side with the British in fear of a new order taking away their right to own slaves.
Tidewater never had the chance to spread west and is, today, a shrinking cultural region. The Appalachian mountains halted their advances and more recently, the culture of Washington D.C. and its surrounding area have altered the culture immensely.
Greater Appalachia is a landlocked nation that reaches from central Texas to the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. In between is West Virginia, Western Virginia, the western Carolinas, northern Georgia, northern Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, southern Missouri, northwestern Arkansas, southeastern Oklahoma, and most of central and north Texas.
Albion’s Seed called these people the borderlanders. American Nations points out their influence on creating American populism. Events like the rise of the Paxton boys, the Whiskey Rebellion or the election of fellow Scots-Irishman Andrew Jackson demonstrate the Appalachian opposition to strong federal power. Centralized power, since the colonization of the Appalachian Mountains (and perhaps even before this), has been the eternal antagonist of this American nation. They tended to prefer leaders resembling clan-oligarchs.
French power used to dominate a vast portion of the North American continent. The French mapped the interior continent and much of the east coast. If one looks closely, they will realize just how many towns, cities, and other place names have a French origin.
Today, it struggles to survive in two pockets of the mainland. Quebec has had far more success than Louisiana thanks to language and cultural-protectionism reforms of the last half of the 20th Century and early 21st Century. Louisiana-French culture is very different from the Quebecois culture but still offers a place of refuge in a continent full of English-speaking cultures. The French were, perhaps next to the Midlanders, the least harmful to Native American groups.
El Norte is North America’s other Latin culture. It has significantly more influence than New France. It spans from the northern border states of Mexico to southern Texas, most of New Mexico, southern Colorado, southern Arizona, and southern California.
El Norte is not simply the region of Mexican culture, but a specific region of a specific Mexican culture. It is seen by other Mexicans as a region influenced by the English-speaking cultures of the United States. On average northern Mexico is significantly more wealthy than other parts of the country because of its economic and familial ties to the southern United States. Sometimes people from the El Norte cultural region are disdained by other Mexican cultures because they perceive them as people who have grown soft due to American economic influences.
The United States is the country with the second largest amount of Spanish speakers. They have more Spanish speakers than any South American or Central American country (other than Mexico) and even has more Spanish speakers than Spain itself. There is currently more than 11 million Mexican first-generation documented immigrants in the United States. Hispanics make up 60.5 million of the US’s 330 million people so nearly 20% of the population is Hispanic. Much of this, of course, comes from immigration from other Latin American cultures but Mexico’s El Norte culture dominates the Hispanic world in the United States.
The Far West includes the states and territories in the western North American Interior. Western New Mexico, northern Arizona, the Californian interior, Nevada, Utah, most of Colorado, western Kansas, western Nebraska, the western Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, the interiors of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, most of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and parts of Yukon and Alaska.
This American nation is a synthesis of the Midlands, Yankeedom, Greater Appalachia, and the Deep South. When explorers and adventurers began to settle into the Far West, they did so with the help of large corporations or the federal government in order to establish economic profit. They, therefore were often acted upon rather than acting for themselves. The land itself was mostly seen as merely a route to the west coast. Today many still refer to most of this area as “fly-over states”.
Perhaps because of its corporate foundation, the people in the Far West still have a strong pro-capitalist intuition. For this reason, they are often in opposition of extensive government oversight or dictation. Many states and territories in this American Nation are “swing-states”. If the Far West had a capital city, it would be Salt Lake City. Mormonism is a quickly growing cultural influence in this region.
The Left Coast ranges from the coast of California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and southern Alaska. Communities and cities in these territories were initially far more planned than those in the Far West.
It was initially settled by many of those of the eastern American Nations but it was primarily settled by Yankees. The Pacific Ocean was viewed as a thing of mythic beauty and wonder during the foundation of the Left Coast. They valued a strong federal government who would assist them in building a Utopia on the Pacific, similarly as the Yankees have built one of the Atlantic.
They, like the Yankees, value policy aimed at the community and authentically believe that the government is capable of making positive change in this way.
As I’m sure you have picked up by yourself, this book is extremely relevant to not just current issues, but every step of American history. Woodard admits that his classifications of cultural groups are not scripture. The 11 American Nations are elastic and often overlap and Woodard is even open to the idea of the existence of many other American cultural regions which he just did not have the time to classify.
Overall, American Nations deserves a read and a re-read or two by every American.
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Hopefully, after immersing yourself in some of the main points in these three works, this essay inspired you to think about American history, culture, and politics from a different perspective. Americans are not a monolithic group and do not live in a complete melting pot. Instead, hopefully, these summaries allowed you to see that North America is a cultural mosaic, above anything else.
We differ from our neighbors and from those from different areas of our country because we are different people. This is not to say that we should not try to build solidarity, but if we are to do so, we must realize the different worlds we are trying to unify.