Is the notion of American values a delusion?

· Logos/Ethos

Dec. 2018

I’ve been focusing my reading lately on the issue of American character and trying to understand why our people seem so divided. Political candidates make much of “restoring fundamental American values”, but what exactly are they? Do Mainers, Alabamans, and Oregonians actually value the same things?

            Colin Woodard, author of American Nations, is the latest historian to claim that they never did, right from the beginning. In fact, our social /political segregation is getting worse. In The Big Sort, author Robert Cushing points out that since 1976 Americans have been intentionally relocating to communities where people share their values and worldview.

            Woodard claims that “America’s most essential divisions are not between red and blue states, conservatives and liberals, capital and labor, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular.” Instead, think of America as a wary federation of 11 distinct nations, each growing from its original unique settlement into strangely shaped areas formed by the movements of the original settlers. Abolish state borders in your mind’s eye and think gerrymandering on steroids, 11 distinct “nations” covering the entirety of North America.

            El Norte, the first European settlement, came from the south, running from north-central Mexico to Colorado and along the Pacific coast to San Francisco. Yankeedom runs from Nova Scotia to Minnesota. The Midlands run west from Delaware in a narrow band to what is now Illinois and then opens wide to include Nebraska and Iowa before looping north and back east to surround the Great Lakes. Greater Appalachia runs from western Virginia to north Texas. The smallest nation is New Netherland, comprising what is now metropolitan New York and New Jersey. New France is divided in two. One half comprises the St. Lawrence River valley; the other half surrounds New Orleans.

            New Netherland was, from the start, “a global trading commercial society: multi-ethnic, multi-religious, speculative, materialistic, mercantile, and free-trading, a raucous, not-entirely democratic city-state where no one ethnic or religious group has ever truly been in charge”. Sounds a lot like the New York we know today, doesn’t it?

            Each nation, Woodward posits, has its original values intact today. Tidewater’s oligarchic society, dependent on indentured servitude, sought to recreate the genteel manor life of rural England whereas Yankees were hostile to the aristocratic prerogative and valued self-government with every town becoming a republic unto itself.  Literacy and education for all, the keys to personal independence, was the goal in Yankeedom, still the home of America’s greatest schools and universities; Tidewater’s leaders were not motivated by a desire to see their commoners flourish. They recruited their workforce from the masses of desperate, malnourished laborers crowding into London to work the Virginia fields while the emerging aristocracy commanded the profits.

Both nations valued republicanism but each in its own way. Yankeedom and the Midlands’ political thought reflected the Dutch-German concept of freiheit which holds that freedom and rights are a natural birthright, whereas Tidewater gentry embraced classical republicanism modeled after libertas, the idea of freedom popular in the slave-holding Greek and Roman states. Classical republicanism held that most humans were born into bondage. Liberty was something that was granted and was therefore a privilege. Fortunately for us, Jefferson and Madison had enough freiheit to outdistance their libertas.

Add to Tidewater’s elitist ethic, the authoritarian values of the Deep South, founded by Barbados slave-lords who held that “democracy is a privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many”. Woodard quotes one resident in 1773: “We are a country of gentry; we have no such thing as Common People among us.” One wonders how could there not have been a Civil War?

Is the notion of e pluribus unum a pipe dream? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest it, particularly when politicians consciously exploit our differences to advance their own ambitions. The answer, as always, lies in earnest conversation and compromise, two virtues seldom practiced in this century.