Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Place in Time (Part V)

The following post is part of series on the role of regionalism in American history. Previous posts are below.

In recent decades, some scholars have been paying attention to regionalism again. The actual number they name ranges from as few as four to as many as eleven, but a few regions, and a few dynamics, are always apparent. Take New England, which always features prominently in these accounts. Most of the Puritan and Pilgrim settlers of the region hailed from the same part of (southeastern) England. This part of English North America was distinctive in any number of ways, among them the migration of whole families, their relative lack of racial and ethnic diversity and, especially, their dedication to their (dissident) religion. New Englanders were the most communitarian people on the eastern seaboard, and the most committed to their belief that people could govern themselves in the name of a greater good – which also meant they were more inclined to regulate the behavior of themselves and others. New Englanders were an expansive people; settlers to that part of the world pushed westward and occupied a series of future states across the continent, from Ohio to California. To this day, the people of this northern tier tend to share many attitudes, and evince a moralistic streak in their politics.

On the other side of the seaboard was the South – first Virginia, more specifically the Tidewater, in a culture that spread west and south to the Carolinas. (Some observers distinguish between Virginia and the Deep South, with the latter having more of a Caribbean orientation. Like New England, this region was marked by a shared religion, but it was the mainstream Church of England, about which settlers were generally less serious than their Northern counterparts. Here too the settlers tended to come from the same part of England (this time the southern and western coasts), but there was more racial diversity because the region relied much more on slavery than New England ever did. Both southerners and New Englanders prized their freedom, a goal that played an important role in their migration. But the former tended to think about it in positive terms – freedom to, as in freedom to worship as they pleased (with more of an emphasis on the collective pronoun). The latter tended to think about freedom in negative terms – freedom from, which among other things meant not having to conform to rules of the kind New Englanders were apt to make. Many New Englanders came to see slavery as the opposite of freedom, and took active steps to end it; many Southerners came to view slavery as the very essence of what freedom was: the right to acquire property, including human property, without interference.

In between these people – actually, more like behind these people, in terms of when they came, where they settled, and their relative status in American life – is a regional segment known by a variety of names, among them the Scotch-Irish, Borderlanders, or Appalachians, each of which that provides some indication of their identities. These people tended to come from the northern periphery of Great Britain and Ireland, but these Irish were Protestant (mostly Presbyterian) colonists from England’s conquests of Ireland during the age of Queen Elizabeth. They were, on the whole, poorer than other British migrants, one reason they tended to settle on the western periphery of the colonies, in hilly or mountainous terrain. They were also fiercely clannish in their family organization, devoted to their religion (especially the Baptist and Methodist sects that flowered in the early 19th century) and hostile to outsiders. Depending on the circumstances, this hostility was focused on Yankee-minded social reformers, who they regarded as control freaks, or Southern aristocrats, who they regarded as tyrants. Borderlands people, who became a large presence in a series of states from Pennsylvania to Texas, never managed to politically dominate any one of them for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though they formed a powerful presence in national politics. (They put Andrew Jackson in the White House much to the horror of old-line Yankees and Tidewater aristocrats.) They split during the Civil War, some joining the Confederacy, others choosing to secede from the secessionists, as West Virginia did in breaking from Virginia in 1863. But these days such people tend to cast their lots with Southern bloc, whether they happen to live in northern Georgia, eastern Tennessee or most of Oklahoma.

The other major piece of the puzzle between New England and the South is the region that includes New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, known collectively as the Mid-Atlantic region. Sometimes this is parsed as New York/northern Jersey and Pennsylvania/southern Jersey, with Delaware as an annex to Pennsylvania, reflecting the fact that metropolitan New York (originally New Amsterdam) was originally Dutch and Pennsylvania was English. The key point for our purposes is that this whole stretch of territory has always been highly diverse in just about every way we’ve been talking about – religious, racial, ethnic and political. When the English seized New Amsterdam without a shot in 1664 they kept its basic institutions intact, which is to say they respected its diversity Pennsylvania began as a haven for the far-out religious English Quakers, but the colony was quickly overrun with borderland settlers and immigrants from Central Europe. Pluralistic, commercial, and with a strong pacifist streak in Quaker Pennsylvania in particular that translated to skepticism about any kind of crusade, a Midlander ethos spread west from central Ohio into southeastern Colorado. Many of the states where such people are dominant, among them Missouri, are fiercely contested by their state political parties and are often up for grabs during presidential elections.

As is its wont, North American regionalism spills beyond U.S. national borders. The cultural remnants of New France are alive and well in Quebec, which features a French-speaking majority and a cultural sensibility at marked contrast with the rest of Canada (whose maritime provinces, like Nova Scotia, have a strong Yankee accent). The southwestern states of the United States – among them California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – retain strong elements of their Spanish and Mexican heritage. Indeed, some observers believe the residents of “El Norte” on either side of the Rio Grande have more in common with each other than their respective national citizenship; in this regard the fence the U.S. has been building is more like a Berlin Wall dividing a country rather wall dividing two nations.

I realize it’s possible to make too much of all of this. Besides, some of the nationalizing forces I’ve already mentioned, like the mass media, there are factors at work in U.S. life that are shaping the nation’s life and future at least as much as regionalism is. Immigration, for instance. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the center of gravity for immigration has generally been centered in the Mid-Atlantic and its Borderland successors extending into the Midwest. There are two important exceptions to this rule. The first is New England, which first lost its ethnic uniformity almost 200 years ago when the Irish started swarming in, followed by Italians, Jews, and now Asians and Latinos. But New England has also shown a tremendous capacity for assimilating new arrivals to their ways, not so much in terms of things like language or expression as much as a belief in personal and collective self-improvement, something immigrants are likely to believe in anyway as a factor in their original decision to migrate.

The other exception is El Norte, where Latinos are becoming an ever-greater proportion of the population (Mexicans today are about the same proportion of the population that the Irish were in the late 19th century.) But this is less a new development than a reversion to the ethnic mean. Latino immigrants like to say that they didn’t cross the border; the border crossed them. Now it’s crossing back. What may be a more advanced stage of this process is underway in the northern Canadian province of Nunavut, where indigenous peoples broke away from the province of the Northwest Territories and are reasserting their control over the land for the first time in 500 years.

Next: Concluding remarks