Is America really “one nation”, indivisible? Has it ever been? It is a remarkable question, made more important as we suffer the impact of decades of increasing divisiveness in our economic, civic, and political environments. And it is a question at the heart of what pushes me to travel along Wisdom Road starting next month. What binds us and what divides us, as humans and as a nation? Do we honestly explore these divergent perspectives in our teaching and learning of North American history?
In American Nation: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Colin Woodward makes an extensive and detailed argument that “Americans have been divided since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth”. The people who colonized America came from countries and regions of the world with vastly different cultures, religions, economies, and reasons for their immigration to new lands. They found and either exterminated or attempted to assimilate, both consciously and accidentally, Indigenous people of vastly different backgrounds as well.
Woodard traces how these differences have played out since the first era of colonization. He reminds us that the formation of the American Union in the 18th century was not one of agreement, but one of accommodation amongst people and areas that spent more time fighting each other than they did agreeing on a united future. The westward expansion was as much about forces of division looking for a way to separate further from those with whom they violently disagreed, as it was merely the search for new lands and resources.
Ultimately, we see many of the same divisions today. Woodard cites election data going back to the 1860’s that show, for example, political boundaries along lines of latitude in states like Ohio that we see today, rooted in the migratory routes of settlers from different regions of the Eastern seaboard.
The question grows more profound and urgent: what has held us together? Will it hold going forward? Are the values that unite us stronger than those that divide us? We know that with the rise of social media and access to the internet, the loudest voices are those at the extremes. On Wisdom Road, I want to hear from and share the voices that are being drowned out. Woodard’s book has been a great background resource to prepare me as I travel through the “eleven” regions of America and Canada and look for signs that might help answer these questions. Join me in this journey!