American Folkways


NOTE:  I wrote this post (on another blog I maintain) over a year ago: March, 2019.  I am repeating the blog post here in this more public area:

One of the explanations of the differences among us in this country is due to the ancestry each of us possesses, and how the cultural and societal differences among our ancestors set initial familiar or geographic/territorial attitudes we each possess.  Its a cultural norms answer to the question, who am I. Here is the first of two overarching books on the topic:

1. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America

I’ve read two books that help explain where our country’s regional differences in values and societal norms came from, with the first of the two books mentioned to me coming from an old OU colleague of mine, a professor of American history, Warren Metcalf.

Warren had mentioned a book title to me in response to one of my blog posts in which I was ranting about dim Whites raising hell about anything done by the Obama during his presidency. The book mentioned by Warren was an explanation of four different regional views of the world and how each traced back to four different groups that had migrated from Great Britain to what is now the United States, settling in four different geographic regions of this country.  The content of that book, Albion’s Seed, is today some 30 years old (it was first published in 1989). It was written by the historian of American history, David Hackett Fischer, who was at Brandeis University, where he was the Earl Warren Professor of History.

–Albion: Just another way of saying Great Britain

I didn’t know it at the time, but the word Albion

. . . is the oldest known name of the island of Great Britain. Today, it is still sometimes used poetically to refer to the island. (Ancient Greek: Ἀλβίων) (source)

American Folkways According to Albion’s Seed

As is pointed out in a short Wikipedia piece about Fischer’s book, Fisher’s argument is that fundamental aspects of our contemporary cultural differences flow from four distinct and different “ways” of doing things that characterized the families from four separate cultural groups in Great Britain that migrated to the New World and populating it before the American Revolution. The book’s message is about the English, and the Southern lowland Scottish, and the Northern Irish migrations to America–and the different, inherent “folkways” these groups lived in and brought with them to the New World.

–Folkways, Societal Norms and Laws:

What are folkways? Well, specifically, in sociological terms, they are . . .

“customs.” They are standards of behavior that are socially approved but not morally significant. They are norms for everyday behavior that people follow for the sake of tradition or convenience. Breaking a folkway does not usually have serious consequences.

Cultural forms of dress or food habits are examples of folkways. In America, if someone belched loudly while eating at the dinner table with other people, he or she would be breaking a folkway. It is culturally appropriate to not belch at the dinner table, however if this folkway is broken, there are no moral or legal consequences. (source)

From the same source as above, the term norms is defined as . . .

the specific cultural expectations for how to behave in a given situation. They are the agreed-upon expectations and rules by which the members of a culture behave. Norms vary from culture to culture, so some things that are considered norms in one culture may not be in another culture. For example, in America it is a norm to maintain direct eye contact when talking with others and it is often considered rude if you do not look at the person you are speaking with. In Asian, on the other hand, averting your eyes when conversing with others is a sign of politeness and respect while direct eye contact is considered rude.

There are four basic types of norms that sociologists commonly refer to: folkways, mores, taboos, and laws. (source)

What is fascinating is that Fischer, in Albion’s Seed, documents, quite specifically, how each of the four different groups of migrants from the British Isles was dramatically different from the others in its ways of behaving–what its cultural practices and its “folkways” are.

According to Fischer, today we live geographically in the outgrowth of the politics and the commerce practiced in separate regions of the east coast of the United States as they were inhabited by four different groups of families and communities from Great Britain:

1. East Angliafischer's four areas to Massachusetts: The Exodus of the English Puritans (Pilgrims influenced the Northeastern United States’ corporate and educational culture)

2. North Midlands to the Delaware: The Friends’ Migration (Quakers influenced the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern United States’ industrial culture)

3. Borderlands to the Backcountry : The Flight from North Britain (Scotch-Irish, or border English, influenced the Western United States’ ranch culture and the Southern United States’ common agrarian culture)

4. The South of England to Virginia: Distressed Cavaliers and Indentured Servants (Gentry influenced the Southern United States’ plantation culture)

Interestingly, Fischer’s analysis of what he saw as our country’s four regional cultures became the impetus for several later books that painted more and more complex mosaics of different “nations” (regional, geographic “norms”) in the United States, some written for other purposes (say, political analysis). The one that stands out to reviewers at least, though, is one by the journalist, Colin Woodard, which was written only a few years ago:

2. Woodard: American Nations
“Make That ELEVEN Folkways in America”

american nations picColin Woodard is the journalist and popular historian who wrote American Nations:

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Cultures of North America,  2011.

It is Woodard’s American Nations that I will focus on here instead of Fischer’s earlier Albion’s Seed, because I think Woodard, coming to the task after Fischer, has been able to offer a fuller explanation as the broader range of the political behavior and regional sensibilities that do such a good, initial job of explaining why we are what we are today . . . and how we make judgements morally about the world around us.

First of all, Woodard pulls the microscope lens back a few turns to focus on an area larger than just the geographical boundaries of the United States, showing now the common influences from a partially French Canada to our north, and the Hispanic Mexican culture to our south.

Here is a two paragraph piece of writing from the introduction to Colin Woodard’s 2011 book that pays homage to Fischer, as well as other sources similar to his own:

Going through the authors Woodard mentioned in his introduction, I didn’t know about Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority (1969) at all, but having read some other later work by Kevin Phillips, I do view him as a trustworthy and scholarly enough writer, even though he was analyzing the new conditions of the late 60’s country for his political preference at the time, the Republican Party.  And I found his much later book, American Theocracy (2006), to be a decent current history of what was going on in the country “in the name of God” (actually, “radicalized religion” in both the US and in the Middle East), and impinging of the shady oil-driven foreign policy of the United States–politics, money and religion, probably the unholiest brew of all. Garreau and his less politically-oriented view of what he called the The Nine Nations of America (1981) gave me at least a background to the reading I was doing by Woodard, as did Dante Chinni’s Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about the “Real” America (2010), and lastly the work of Bill Bishop in his The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (2008).

Back to Woodard’s book, though: he had the evidence to suggest an expansion of Fischer: the approximately hundred miles area in the southern border with Mexico he calls El Norte, which is inhabited by a population that is viewed suspiciously by most other Mexicans living south of that area, and is viewed even more suspiciously by White Americans living north of that area in the southwest of our country.

Woodard does the same with what he sees as the socially and culturally meaningless “official” border between Canada and the United States in the area he labels as New France, to which he has to add the separate reason for the different cultural norms and folkways in parts of Louisiana:

woodard american nations

I delight at Woodard’s folkways reformulation of who we Americans are in showing the overlap in the social group norms across what is only a political, physical border on both our north and our south sides.

Personal Example of Nations Colliding: My Home State, Indiana

After reading American Nations, I gained a new awareness of the state I grew up in, Indiana, understanding that it contained more than one folkway area.  Indiana, in fact, spans THREE ancestral folkways: Yankeedom, The Midlands, and Greater Appalachia.

Those who have lived in or visited the rolling, forested hills of southern Indiana know that the native inhabitants there are rather like the “hill” people of West Virginia or Kentucky or southern Missouri or Arkansas. In fact, Woodard’s mapping of Indiana shows most of central and southern Indiana are in the Greater Appalachia area of the country–what I derisively refer to as the Hicks n Sticks “hill people” area of the country.

And even today, the residents of Greater Appalachia southern Indiana know from a person’s speech pattern and word choice when they have meet a person who was brought up around Lake Michigan in northern Indiana by their speech pattern, if nothing else.

 To cite an extreme, imagine someone speaking like the participants in the famous Saturday Night Live skit, “Bill Swerski’s Super Fans” (YouTube video), when four Bears fans meet in a bar to converse about their favorite team.

NOTE: For those interested in midwestern speech patterns, and especially the Chicago area’s participation in what is called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, (Wikipedia article) see this article: Eric Gunderson, “Dese, Dose and Dibs: the Midwest’s Weird Word World,” WTTW News, Jan 23, 2017.
The book that is being referenced here is Edward McClelland, How to Speak Midwestern, 2016.

Below is a population density map of Indiana with the Woodard areas from American Nations superimposed over it.  As you can see a small part of Indiana is the cultural area Woodard labels as Yankeedom.  And as you know from the Gunderson article above, that area is identified by the Northern City Vowel Shift phenomenon, among other “tells.”

The Midlands area of Indiana has a German ancestry, and represents the crop farming and domestic livestock/feeder economy of the state in the main, although domestic pigs and hogs are spread over the Greater Appalachian area of the state as well.  Indeed, my sister and I were born and brought up at the pre-school leven in the Midlands, actually just left of the capital M in the label Midlands in the map below.  Our maternal grandfather ran a cattle feeder lot operation, and grew crops to feed his cattle.  He had no hogs in his agricultural operation, but the Midlands was filled with those who raised hogs for slaughter.

–Pork Tenderloin Sandwich: Midlands, Indiana

In fact, the combination of German ancestry and the business of raising hogs clarifies why a small community in the east central area of the Indiana Midlands holds the restaurant that is credited as serving the first port tenderloin sandwich: Huntington, Indiana.

I now know why the north through south experiences I had in Indiana was filled with interactions of people who thought very differently from one another.  I was raised, before public schooling, in the  The Midlands of Indiana, an area of farming, cattle and pigs. I was born and raised in The Midlands (Medaryville, north of Lafayette) , grew up in Yankeedom (Valparaiso and Gary), lived with my wife and new son in Greater Appalachia (Bloomington), all before we moved over to Iowa City, returning again to The Midlands. And in 1979, we made the trip down to Greater Appalachia again in Norman, Oklahoma.

Here are short summaries of each of Woodard’s 11 nations, from a Washington Post article by Reid Wilson in November of 2013, “Which of the 11 American nations to you live in?

  • Yankeedom: Founded by Puritans, residents in Northeastern states and the industrial Midwest tend to be more comfortable with government regulation. They value education and the common good more than other regions.
  • New Netherland: The Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world when New York was founded, Woodard writes, so it’s no wonder that the region has been a hub of global commerce. It’s also the region most accepting of historically persecuted populations.
  • The Midlands: Stretching from Quaker territory west through Iowa and into more populated areas of the Midwest, the Midlands are “pluralistic and organized around the middle class.” Government intrusion is unwelcome, and ethnic and ideological purity isn’t a priority.
  • Tidewater: The coastal regions in the English colonies of Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware tend to respect authority and value tradition. Once the most powerful American nation, it began to decline during Westward expansion.
  • Greater Appalachia: Extending from West Virginia through the Great Smoky Mountains and into Northwest Texas, the descendants of Irish, English and Scottish settlers value individual liberty. Residents are “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers.”
  • Deep South: Dixie still traces its roots to the caste system established by masters who tried to duplicate West Indies-style slave society, Woodard writes. The Old South values states’ rights and local control and fights the expansion of federal powers.
  • El Norte: Southwest Texas and the border region is the oldest, and most linguistically different, nation in the Americas. Hard work and self-sufficiency are prized values.
  • The Left Coast: A hybrid, Woodard says, of Appalachian independence and Yankee utopianism loosely defined by the Pacific Ocean on one side and coastal mountain ranges like the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas on the other. The independence and innovation required of early explorers continues to manifest in places like Silicon Valley and the tech companies around Seattle.
  • The Far West: The Great Plains and the Mountain West were built by industry, made necessary by harsh, sometimes inhospitable climates. Far Westerners are intensely libertarian and deeply distrustful of big institutions, whether they are railroads and monopolies or the federal government.
  • New France: Former French colonies in and around New Orleans and Quebec tend toward consensus and egalitarian, “among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races and a ready acceptance of government involvement in the economy,” Woodard writes.
  • First Nation: The few First Nation peoples left — Native Americans who never gave up their land to white settlers — are mainly in the harshly Arctic north of Canada and Alaska. They have sovereignty over their lands, but their population is only around 300,000.

The clashes between the 11 nations play out in every way, from politics to social values. Woodard notes that states with the highest rates of violent deaths are in the Deep South, Tidewater and Greater Appalachia, regions that value independence and self-sufficiency. States with lower rates of violent deaths are in Yankeedom, New Netherland and the Midlands, where government intervention is viewed with less skepticism. (source)

Another Example: The Wild West Explained Politically

As a final example of how Woodard’s book assists us in understanding our national and regional politics today, let me show you how Woodard suggests where you were born and brought up influences how your family and clansmen are likely to feel about the world around you.  Below are descriptions of the far west, quoting Woodard from a summarizing article he wrote for the Tufts University alumni magazine, “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 American’s Early Settlers.”

THE LEFT COAST. A Chile-shaped nation wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade and Coast mountains, the Left Coast was originally colonized by two groups: New Englanders (merchants, missionaries, and woodsmen who arrived by sea and dominated the towns) and Appalachian midwesterners (farmers, prospectors, and fur traders who generally arrived by wagon and controlled the countryside). Yankee missionaries tried to make it a “New England on the Pacific,” but were only partially successful. Left Coast culture is a hybrid of Yankee utopianism and Appalachian self-expression and exploration—traits recognizable in its cultural production, from the Summer of Love to the iPad. The staunchest ally of Yankeedom, it clashes with Far Western sections in the interior of its home states.
THE FAR WEST. The other “second-generation” nation, the Far West occupies the one part of the continent shaped more by environmental factors than ethnographic ones. High, dry, and remote, the Far West stopped migrating easterners in their tracks, and most of it could be made habitable only with the deployment of vast industrial resources: railroads, heavy mining equipment, ore smelters, dams, and irrigation systems. As a result, settlement was largely directed by corporations headquartered in distant New York, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco, or by the federal government, which controlled much of the land. The Far West’s people are often resentful of their dependent status, feeling that they have been exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard nations. Their senators led the fight against trusts in the mid-twentieth century. Of late, Far Westerners have focused their anger on the federal government, rather than their corporate masters. (source)

Do yourself a real favor: get and read a copy of Woodard’s book,

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Cultures of North America, 2011.

But, as Woodard always paid homage to Albion’s Seed, don’t forget the original (though narrower) focus of David Hackett Fischer.  It was his idea that struck gold. And we can always argue about how much the developmental influence of different Anglo-American settlers actually had in regional, geographic terms prior to the founding of our country, but we can’t argue that there was SOME influence.

Post Script

Here is a full sized (1262×820) map of American Nations, but shown as a much, much smaller graphic.  Simply click on it to have it brought up in a separate tab on your browser in its full size.

Also, for another explanation of the mapping done by Fischer and Woodard, see this blog post: “Maps of the American Nations,” Unz Review, August 14, 2013.

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