Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

9.07.2012

America, Know Thyself (Part 2 of 3)

Did you know there was once an attempted American State named Transylvania that employed Daniel Boone to clear the frontier and that sent a fourteenth delegate to the Continental Congress (who was rejected by the other members)?

That in the early 1800s, New England contacted the British crown about leaving the U.S. and becoming part of Canada?

That in the lead up to the Civil War, New York City was making plans to leave the U.S. and become an independent city-state?

I'm afraid my knowledge of some of the finer details of U.S. history has always been a bit spotty.  As Woody Allen so effectively conveys in the movie Midnight in Paris, many of us romanticize bygone eras in history as better, more magical times.  For the movie's protagonist it was 1920s Paris, until he discovers those from that era feel the allure of nostalgia for earlier times and ever on, so that no one feels their present moment is as special as sometime from the past.  For younger, D&D-playing me, it was pre-industry and pre-technology ages of swords and conquest, so I didn't find "modern" history classes that covered the U.S. period as interesting.

That's a big part of the reason I decided to read American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodward, so I could fill in the gaps in my knowledge and learn some of the things I glossed over in school.  Of course, the book's sociological approach with its implications on today's political landscape was the initial hook, but I wanted to understand how all of that was shaped by historical events.  Even knowing the book's premise going in, I've been surprised to learn of the lack of unity throughout the entire existence of the "United" States.  It seems we've always largely hated and opposed each other as much as we've worked together.

If you missed it, head back to Part 1 and read the premise, what Woodward means by American Nations and the introduction to the eleven regions that have vied for influence and power.  Each colony was started with a different intent by a different set of people with a different set of ideals and values, and those identities have continued to define our different regions to this day.

While everyone knows that the English-controlled colonies rebelled against the tyrannical rule of their distant king, few realize they first did so not in the 1770s, but in the 1680s.  And they did so not as a united force of Americans eager to create a new nation, but in a series of separate rebellions, each seeking to preserve a distinct regional culture, political system, and religious tradition threatened by the distant seat of empire.

At the same time that England was conspiring against James II back home, so were the colonies rebelling against his dictates in America.  Only a few generations into their existence, they were already established enough that they didn't want to be unified and homogenized but instead wanted to each preserve their independent identities.  First the New Englanders seized Boston, then the New Netherlanders followed suit.  Tidewater fought its own battles against the imposed Catholicism, and the new rule of William and Mary helped pacify them all.

The other coastal nations, the Deep South, the Midlands, and Appalachia weren't founded until after that initial rebellion, though before the Revolutionary War.  It was during the lead-up to that war that Transylvania was attempted.  The Borderlanders who populated the region kept moving further and further inland in search of free territory to claim, but that trend isolated them from the coastal power centers.  Feeling unrepresented by their colonial governments, they tried to start their own.  Transylvania was the second, more successful attempt, but was not legal by any country's laws and went unrecognized by everyone else.  When war broke out, this nation didn't unify against the British empire, but split into factions to fight whomever was seen as the biggest oppressor in each area.  In some regions they would fight in support of Britain, in others, against, but they all did so for the same reason: to resist the threats to their clansmen's freedom, be it from Midland merchants, Tidewater gentlemen, Deep Southern planters, or the British crown itself.

Appalachia rebelled, at least, even if some of it was to their local colonies.  Left out of the common narrative we hear is the fact that some areas didn't even fight a rebellion--the commerce-minded New Netherlanders and peace-minded Midlanders, to be specific.  Neither felt independent self-government was essential to their way of life, so long as their other freedoms weren't curtailed.

The event we call the American Revolution wasn't really revolutionary, at least while it was underway.  The military struggle of 1775-1782 wasn't fought by an "American people" seeking to create a united, continent-spanning republic where all men were created equal and guaranteed freedom of speech, religion, and the press.  On the contrary, it was a profoundly conservative action fought by a loose military alliance of nations, each of which was most concerned with preserving or reasserting control of its respective culture, character, and power structure.  The rebelling nations certainly didn't wish to be bonded together into a single republic.  They were joined in a temporary partnership against a common threat: the British establishment's ham-fisted attempt to assimilate them into a homogeneous empire centrally controlled from London.  Some nations--the Midlands, New Netherland, and New France--didn't rebel at all.  Those that did weren't fighting a revolution; they were fighting separate wars of colonial liberation.

Ultimately, six different, loosely-connected wars of liberation were fought against a common threat and won, and the nations decided to make their alliance more permanent and stable.  Still, the negotiation of that new union was a tenuous affair.

Regional divisions were so profound that in 1778 British secret agent Paul Wentworth reported there appeared to be not one American republic but three: an "eastern republic of Independents in church and state" (i.e. Yankeedom), a "middle republic of toleration in church and state" (New Netherland and the Midlands), and a "southern . . . mixed government copied nearly from Great Britain" (Tidewater and the Deep South); the differences among them, he argued, were greater than those among the nations of Europe. . . .

In the end, the U.S. Constitution was the product of a messy compromise among the rival nations.  From the gentry of Tidewater and the Deep South, we received a strong president to be selected by an "electoral college" rather than elected by ordinary people.  From New Netherland we received the Bill of Rights, a set of very Dutch guarantees that individuals would have freedom of conscience, speech, religion, and assembly.  To the Midlands we owe the fact that we do not have a strong unitary state under a British-style national Parliament; they insisted on state sovereignty as insurance against Southern despots and Yankee meddling.  The Yankees ensured that small states would have have an equal say in the Senate, with even the very populous state of Massachusetts frustrating Tidewater and the Deep South's desire for proportional representation in that chamber; Yankees also forced a compromise whereby slave lords would be able to count only three-fifths of their slave population when tabulating how many congressmen they would receive.

The new United States worked for a while, but there was always tension and competition among the regions, with power shifting back and forth as they raced to expand westward in a competition for territory, size, and influence.  Sometimes there were nearly splinter groups that broke off.  Just like Transylvania before the war, Borderlanders in Appalachia founded a new state called Franklin after it on nobody's permission but their own, again because they felt unrepresented.  They were nearly admitted to the union but armed resistance from some of the existing states and war with the Cherokee brought the effort to a halt before it could succeed.  Later, they raised an army and took control of Pittsburgh, but that rebellion ended peacefully.

New England at first tried to impose its will and values on the other nations through the new federal government, but did so in a way that created resistance in the form of an alliance among the others and the power swung back the other way.  Not wanting to see Yankee values and interests overwhelmed by the south, they started a serious secession movement that came to a head with the War of 1812.  A plan was proposed that was backed by nearly all New England's newspapers . . . [and] even opposition papers admitted that a majority of Massachusetts' citizens supported secession.  Events in the end led to a less drastic resolution, but the intention to leave the union was entirely serious.

Disunity and competition continued to define the U.S. until an actual secession occurred and war broke out.  Each nation tried to expand westward as much as possible to increase their power and influence.  Woodward calls his chapter on the Civil War the "War for the West."  When the barren west stopped them, the Yankees skipped across it and tried to set up new colonies on the far coast.  The north of Mexico was conquered and added to the country, but it already existed as a nation with a regional culture.  When the Deep South couldn't expand their way of life any further on the continent, they started looking south and attempted to add Cuba and other parts of the Americas to their territories.  Their way of life depended on an oppressed working class that they'd institutionalized through racism and slavery.  The other nations were growing in size and influence enough that they threatened to take that away from them, so they either had to find new ways to expand so they could keep pace or they needed to abandon the alliance.  They finally chose to go their own way.

For a brief period, it looked like the south might secede peacefully, as there was a gap of time between when the states first left the Union and when fighting actually broke out.  Had that occurred, we might not have simply ended up with two new states, but four.

Greater Appalachia had the most ambivalent reaction to Deep Southern secession and the Yankee call to war.  From central Pennsylvania to southern Illinois and northern Alabama, Borderlanders were torn between their disgust with Yankees and their hatred of Deep Southern planters.  Both regions represented a threat to Borderlander ideals, but in different ways.  The Yankees' emphasis on the need to subsume one's personal desires and interests to the "greater good" was anathema to the Appalachian quest for individual freedom; their moral crusades to change the behavior of others were extremely distasteful, especially their endless harping about racial equality.  On the other hand, Borderlanders had already suffered generations of oppression at the hands of aristocratic slave lords and knew that they were the people the planters had in mind when they talked about enslaving inferior whites.

The nations between the Deep South and Yankeedom had their own agendas that were often benefited by the balance of power between the two rivals.  With the Deep South and Tidewater gone from the picture, the others worried the Yankees would be able to overpower their interests.  Faced with the possibility of a national dissolution, most Midland political and opinion leaders hoped to join the Appalachian-controlled states to create a Central Confederacy stretching from New Jersey to Arkansas.  The proposed nation would serve as a neutral buffer area between Yankeedom and the Deep South, preventing antagonists from going to war with each other.

Similarly, New Netherland didn't want to become a Yankee thrall: Some--including their senior political leadership--advocated seizing the opportunity to secede themselves to form an independent city-state modeled on the Hanseatic League, a collection of free cities in Germany.  "While other parts of our state have unfortunately been imbued with the fanatical spirit which actuates a portion of the people of New England," Mayor Fernando Wood told the city council after South Carolina's secession, the city had not "participated in the warfare upon [the slave state's] constitutional rights or their domestic institutions."  The city, he continued, "may have more cause of apprehension from our own State than from external dangers" and should escape "this odious and oppressive connection" by leaving the United States and, together with its suburbs on Long Island, becoming an independent, low-tax city-state.  The proposal had the support of prominent bankers and merchants and at least one of the city's Democratic congressmen, and at least three of its newspapers.  A fourth, the influential New York Herald, published details of the governmental structure of Hanseatic city-states "for a better understanding" of how an independent New York City might organize itself.

So even on the brink of war to preserve the Union, the different nations saw themselves as distinct with different interests and goals.  Of course, fighting did break out, which radicalized and polarized the situation and made everyone pick a definite side.  The Union won and "unity" was preserved, keeping the alliance between the nations alive, if resentfully so.

No further moves toward secession or independence have occurred since the conclusion of the war, but the resentments and power struggles have continued to fester and the differences between the nations and their ideals continue.  In Part 3, we'll look at how they shape and inform our current political landscape.

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