Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Early American Regionalism

by Jeff Polet

Colin Woodard in his Eleven Nations identified the deep regional differences that divide this country. The temptation to see ourselves as united, or having been united, is irresistible, but the fact is that America has always had more pluribus than unum. Obviously, this nation has a lot of religious, ethnic, cultural, and political variety, but the voting patterns of the past decades indicate that a lot of those differences track regional differences. A Democrat in Ohio probably has more in common with a Republican in Indiana than he does with a Democrat in Oregon. Part of the reason for that is because political interest always has an intimate relationship to place.

Regional distinctions are baked into the cake of this country. One of the Constitutional proposals for the presidency suggested that there be three chief executives, one for the northeast, one for the mid-Atlantic states, and one for the south. So distinct were those regional interests, they believed, that a single executive would promote the interests of one region against that of another, a worry that soon proved legitimate.

Benjamin Rush, one of the most important and least known figures of the founding era, in 1786 (a year before the Constitutional Convention) wrote a letter to Richard Price, within which he said:

Some of our enlightened men who begin to despair of a more complete union of the States in Congress have secretly proposed an Eastern, Middle, and Southern Confederacy, to be united by an alliance offensive and defensive. These confederacies they say will be united by nature, by interest, and by manners, and consequently they will be safe, agreeable, and durable. The first will include the four New England states and New York. The second will include New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland; and the last Virginia, North, and South Carolina, and Georgia. The foreign and domestic debt of the United States they say shall be divided justly between each of the new confederations. This plan of a new continental government is at present a mere speculation. Perhaps necessity, or rather divine providence, may drive us to it. Whatever form of political existence may be before us, I am fully satisfied that our independence rests upon a firm basis and that Great Britain will never recover from any of our changes in opinion or government her former dominion or influence in this country.

After the Convention, John Jay argued in Federalist #2 that the regional diversity of the country was a source of strength, the “variety of useful information” coalescing into “the true interests of the country.” What made such coalescing possible was “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.…”

On the other hand, the author who wrote by the name Brutus disputed that judgment:

“In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other. This will retard the operations of government, and prevent such conclusions as will promote the public good. If we apply this remark to the condition of the United States, we shall be convinced that it forbids that we should be one government. The United States includes a variety of climates. The productions of the different parts of the union are very variant, and their interests, of consequence, diverse. Their manners and habits differ as much as their climates and productions; and their sentiments are by no means coincident. The laws and customs of the several states are, in many respects, very diverse, and in some opposite; each would be in favor of its own interests and customs, and, of consequence, a legislature, formed of representatives from the respective parts, would not only be too numerous to act with any care or decision, but would be composed of such heterogeneous and discordant principles, as would constantly be contending with each other.”

The tension, therefore, was not only a between the different parts that composed the union, but disagreement over the very possibility of reconciling them. In many ways, the history of America has been determined by this argument.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What’s the main argument for the idea that America is a united country, and what is the argument for it being disunited? What practical difference does it make?
  2. What sorts of stereotypes do you associate with people if you hear they come from a particular place? Are those stereotypes warranted?
  3. Identify the cultural, economic, legal, and habitual differences that mark each region. Do you see 11 distinctive regions?

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