PORTLAND, Maine — In U.S. presidential campaigns, you can expect to hear a lot about the Founding Fathers, and how their ideals, intents and spiritual beliefs are allegedly in sync with those of whichever candidate is speaking of them at the time. In contentious times like ours, the Founders are regularly summoned from their graves to provide direction. If we could only recognize and embrace their instructions, the candidates argue, then we could find our lost sense of common purpose, restore our civic virtue, and finally return the Union to unity.
But these arguments are frustrated by the simple fact that the men who came together to confront a common enemy in 1775 and to craft an enduring alliance in 1789 were not our country’s founders, but rather the founders’ great- or great-great-, or great-great-great-great-grandchildren.
The real founders — early-17th-century Puritans and Dutch West India Company officials, mid-17th-century English aristocrats, late-17th-century West Indian slave lords and English Quakers, early-18th-century frontiersmen from Ulster and the lowlands of Scotland, and so on — didn’t create an America; they created several Americas.
Some of these American societies championed individualism, others utopian social reform. Some believed themselves guided by divine purpose, others by freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo–Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deference to a traditional aristocratic order modeled on the slave states of classical antiquity.
As I show in my new book, “American Nations,” throughout the Colonial period these separate regional cultures regarded one another as competitors, and occasionally as enemies, as was the case during the English Civil War, when Royalist Virginia stood against Puritan Massachusetts, or when New Netherland and New France were invaded and occupied by English-speaking soldiers, statesmen, and merchants.
Only when London began treating its colonies as a single unit — and enacted policies threatening to nearly all — did some of these distinct societies briefly come together to win a war of liberation and create a joint government. Nearly all of them would seriously consider leaving this new union in the 80-year period after the Battle of Yorktown; two went to war to do so in the 1860s: the Deep South and Tidewater.
All of these centuries-old cultures are still with us today and have spread their people, ideas, and influence across mutually exclusive bands of the continent.
America’s most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, capital and labor, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular. Rather, our divisions stem from this fact: The United States is a federation composed of the whole or part of 11 regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another. These nations respect neither state nor international boundaries, bleeding over the U.S. frontiers with Canada and Mexico as readily as they divide California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.
Despite the rise of Walmart, Starbucks, and the Internet, there is little indication that they are melting into some sort of unified American culture. On the contrary, since 1960 the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles, and ever more frequent pleas for unity.
Recognizing the presence and fundamental characteristics of these rival regional cultures makes our history a lot easier to understand. It illustrates why certain parts of British North America remained Loyalist in the Revolution — or tried to remain neutral — and often had different interpretations of what the struggle was actually about. It offers a much clearer explanation for the geographical alignments on the eve of the attack on Fort Sumter, when only one part of the future Confederacy had seceded and only one slice of the Union was willing to take up arms to stop them, and almost everyone expected the U.S. to break into three or four parts.
The same fault lines appear on county-level maps of most closely contested presidential elections in our history, and in recent congressional debates over health care reform, financial industry regulation, and the debt ceiling. You can see it in the contrasting policy records of (Yankeedom native) Mitt Romney and (Deep Southern-raised) Newt Gingrich and, indeed, the geography of their support in the early primary contests.
It clarifies our debates over immigration and the American identity, in which proponents of contradictory arguments each believe they are articulating longstanding American ideals. But what’s rarely understood is that each of these is rooted in a different regional cultural tradition. The Quaker-founded Midlands — a narrow tier of our heartland stretching from Philadelphia to Iowa — always saw itself as an ethnic mosaic, with peoples of many cultures and languages living side by side.
Puritan-founded Yankeedom — stretching from New England to the Upper Great Lakes states — argued instead that we were a melting pot into which immigrants were to be assimilated into Anglo–Protestant cultural norms, Calvinist work ethic and all. The Yankee idea looked perfectly insane from the vantage of El Norte, the Spanish borderlands in northern Mexico and parts of what is now the southwestern U.S., where the “Anglos” were the 19th-century immigrants.
For the past two centuries, federal politics has largely been a struggle between two shifting coalitions, one led by Yankeedom, the other by the Deep South. In recent decades, neither has been able to build a bloc large enough to control the levers of federal power on its own, which has made the great “swing nation” of the Midlands the kingmaker in our presidential contests. Midlander culture shares the Yankee emphasis on the common good, but is also deeply skeptical of government, wishing it to leave their communities in peace.
This has made its people ambivalent — and, thus, up for grabs — in the epic battles between the superpowers to their north and south. It’s no accident that most of the great battleground states have a great swath of Midland territory, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Missouri. Win over Midlanders and you’re likely to win a presidential contest; scare them with extreme positions to the left or right, and you most certainly will not.
Despite all this, our Balkanized federation has survived and, yes, thrived. But it has not done so because of shared fealty to a single American creed or a set of common principles held by our Founders, be they the 17th-century or 18th-century variety. Rather, it is because our leaders have brokered — and sometimes enforced — compromises between our disparate founding cultures. If we’re to succeed going forward, our representatives in the federal capital — from the president on down — will need to re-learn this dying art.
• Woodard’s most recent book is “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” (Viking.) Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.).