Is the American South a nation?

What is a nation?  In my opinion, a nation is a group of people who wish to live under an independent sovereign government and whose primary loyalty is to each other.

By that definition, are any of the regional cultures in Colin Woodard’s American Nations nations?

Some North American Indian nations fit that definition.   The French-speaking people of Quebec are a nation; they have achieved virtual sovereignty within the Canadian state.   A certain number of African-Americans and of Mexican-Americans think of themselves as a separate nation.

Woodard described early secessionist attempts in the trans-Appalachian West and talk of secession of New England during the War of 1812, but none of them every came to anything.   There is talk today of secession in California, Texas and other states, but also highly unlikely to come to anything.

The only region within the United States that ever made a sustained struggle to be an independent nation is the American South.

Originally the South, according to Woodard, was not one unified region, nor even two (the mountain and lowland South), but three (which he calls Tidewater, the Deep South and Greater Appalachia).

Click to enlarge.

The difference between Tidewater and the Deep South is that the first is that the Chesapeake Bay region was settled by Cavaliers from southern England, who hoped to reproduce British aristocratic rule as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries, and South Carolina was settled by planters from the British colony of Barbados, who intended to establish the slave society of the West Indian sugar islands.

Slavery in the two regions was very different.   The first Africans imported by the Tidewater plantation owners were indentured servants, who had a legal right to freedom after they served their indenture.   Race slavery was introduced only later.

This explains something that puzzled me.   I learned in a biography of Harriet Tubman, who was enslaved in my home state of Maryland, that Maryland in those days had the highest proportion of free black people of any American state.

Click to enlarge.

Later a fellow Marylander, who visited Liberia in his youth as a merchant seaman, said he was astonished at the number of Maryland place names and family names he saw there.

Where did those free Maryland black people come from?

The free black people in Maryland, and the African-American colonists of Virginia, were the descendants of the indentured servants.   Their presence in Maryland and Virginia meant that, even though free black people lacked virtually any legal rights, they still were not quite reduced to the status of livestock.

In contrast, the slave culture of the Spanish, French and British colonies in the West Indies was more like the Soviet Gulag or the Nazi forced labor camps than it was like serfdom in 16th and 17th century Europe.

The West Indian sugar plantations were strictly commercial operations, controlled by a tiny minority of white people, who used terror, torture and the threat of death and mutilation to try to keep slaves under control.   Slaves died at such a rate that the planters needed a continual supply of new slaves to keep operating.

Slavery in South Carolina and the rest of the Deep South was not quite as bad as that, but it was bad enough.   Slaves in Virginia and Kentucky feared being sold down the river to South Carolina and the Gulf states.   But slave owners in the Deep South threatened slaves with being sent to Cuba, which was even worse.

I don’t, of course, intend to justify slavery in any form.  Any time one group of people has absolute power over another, you will reproduce the Stanford prison experiment.

Neither to I intend to imply that Southern white people were all demons or that Northern white people were angels.

Woodard pointed out that there was a time when there were more African slaves in Dutch New Amsterdam than in the region from Maryland to Georgia.   Much of the African slave  trade operated out of Newport, Rhode Island, from which Yankee skippers took trade goods to west Africa, then slaves to the West Indies and then rum back to New England.    The whole newly independent USA  was involved in slavery, not just the South.

If tidewater Maryland and Virginia were different from the deep South, the Appalachian region was different from both.

Woodard said that, in any political conflict, the Appalachian mountaineers, with their small farms and lack of slave labor, were aligned against the lowland slave-owners during and after the American revolution.

The Republican Party was formed in opposition to the spread of slavery, which slave-owning planters in the Deep South correctly believed was necessary to maintain the balance of political power in the United States and for the expansion of their economic model.

Having reached the limits of viability of plantation agriculture in the United States—it wouldn’t have been feasible to operate cattle ranches with slave labor—they looked to conquest in the Caribbean and central America.

During the election of 1860, the southern Democrats advocated secession, the Republicans advocated limits on the spread of slavery and the northern Democrats and Constitutional Union parties sought to save the Union through compromise.   Here’s the vote.

Click to enlarge. Source: Vox.

The green counties on the map above supported the secessionist southern Democrats, the red counties supported Republicans and the blue and yellow counties supported northern Democrats and the Constitutional Union party, who sought compromise.  As the map shows, support for secession was concentrated in the Deep South.

The map below shows the actual secessionist vote in the South.

Click to enlarge.  Source: Bryan Frydenborg

As the map shows, the Southern states were not unanimous about secession.   Opposition was predominantly, although not entirely, in Appalachia.

During the war, several Southern communities were Union strongholds. Some of the best Union generals, such as George H. Thomas, were Southerners, and there were considerable Southern volunteers in the Union army.   There also were considerable pro-Confederate sympathy in the North.

Woodard said it was only after the war that the South became a unified entity.   Appalachian mountaineers objected to being ruled by slave-owners, but, in Woodard’s account, they hated being ruled by Northern white people and African-Americans even more strongly.

The experience of Reconstruction bound Southern white people together, as they had not been united before the Civil War.  They came think of themselves as an oppressed nation, like the Irish under British rule.

The Southern white leaders, in fact, did win independence in practical terms by terrorizing African Americans, enacting Jim Crow laws and negotiating the withdrawal of federal occupation troops.  Many of the statues of Confederate generals, which are now so controversial, were erected in celebration of this triumph, which was a continuation of the Civil War by other means.

When I was young, I encountered Southern people who spoke of themselves as “unreconstructed rebels”—which literally meant that they considered themselves in a state of rebellion against the government of the United States.

At the same time, there was considerable anti-Southern sentiment in the North.   There was a saying that there were five categories of Americans who couldn’t be elected president—black people, women, Jews, Catholics and Southerners.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s was, in a sense, the final phase of the Civil War.   Woodard, for his part, saw it as a continuation of the struggle between Yankeedom and the Deep South.

It was more than that.  It also was a struggle for liberation by African-Americans themselves.   Woodard consistently underestimates their role in U.S. political struggles because they do not dominate any geographic region.

John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson no doubt embraced civil rights out of moral principles, but they also were aware that African-American voters held the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans in the Northern states.

African-Americans switched their allegiance from Republicans to Democrats between 1928 and 1936, but they would not have continued to support Democrats if the Democratic leaders had supported the Southern segregationists.

As a result, in the 1948-1968 period, the Democrats became the civil rights party and the Republicans became the party of the South.    But there no longer is a one-party Solid South as there was prior to 1948.   African-Americans enable the Democrats to carry certain Southern counties even in years of Republican landslides.

Nor is there a barrier to Southerners in national office.   Since 1960, five Presidents have been elected from the old Confederacy—Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  And four have been elected from the historic Union states—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump.

The symbols of American patriotism—the Pledge of Allegiance, Memorial Day ceremonies, the flying of the American flag—find as great or greater acceptance in the South as anywhere else in the USA.   Hard as it may be to remember, there was a time when this was not true.

White supremacy is no longer an official ideology.   Hard as it may be to remember, there was a time when this was not true.   Racism, racial discrimination and racial prejudice still exist, but that is true of the whole USA, not just the South.

So the answer to the question is: No, the American South is not a nation.   Once it was, but it isn’t any longer.


American Nations: the official homepage of Colin Woodard.

Up in Arms: the battle lines of today’s debates over gun control, stand-your-ground laws and other violence-related issues were drawn centuries ago by America’s early settlers by Colin Woodard for Tufts magazine (2013)

A Geography Lesson for the Tea Party by Colin Woodard for the Washington Monthly (2011)

How Colin Woodard’s ‘American Nations’ explains the 2016 elections by Colin Woodard for the Portland (Maine) Press-Herald.

American Nations Series by JayMan on his blog.   JayMan has collected maps and charts to illustrate his contention that the differences among Woodard’s American nations have a genetic basis.  I do not think this is a fruitful hypothesis, but he has collected an enormous amount of information worth knowing.


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