Walter Russell Mead has a fascinating blog post up, The Birth of the Blues. In it, he traces the roots of modern American “Blue-state” liberalism back to the Puritans, the Yankees of New England. This is a plausible argument. I believe that many social-political coalitions and configurations in contemporary America do have deep historical roots. But assertions and models must be tested. It is for example absolutely correct that early New England was the redoubt of American statism. First the Federalists, and then later to a lesser extent the Whigs, took refuge in New England during the long phase of anti-government Democratic ascendancy which led up to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. But New England statism has its limits; the map above shows that it is in Greater New England that resistence to FDR seems to have been deepest. I don’t necessarily chalk this up to “flinty Yankee” anti-government sentiment. Rather, I think we need to consider that the ideological content of social-political coalitions and configurations sometimes matter less than long persistent affinities across cultural networks and domains.
Very few Americans for example are aware today that in 1800 New England was the region with the strongest adherence in the United States to orthodox Protestant Christianity. In contrast, Deism was firmly rooted among the Southern planter aristocracy. As late as 1850, even after the Second Great Awakening transformed the religious landscape of the South, the conservative Carolina aristocrat John C. Calhoun remained a Unitarian. And it was in the South than support for Revolutionary France ran strongest, while New England favored the United Kingdom and its allies. I suspect most modern Americans would be taken aback by such affinities simply based on the substance of what New England and the American South represent in terms of ideology at any given moment.
Until a few years ago I was very ignorant of American history. And therefore I was totally innocent of many important patterns which span the generations in our nation. Scholars such as Walter Russell Mead would have impressed me with their erudition, but I didn’t have the data base to evaluate the plausibility of their claims. In everyday discourse we often bandy about history learned when we were teenagers as if they can serve as robust frames for the sorts of inferences we make. Alas, they can not. There is no substitute for genuine knowledge. Albion’s Seed is a good start, but many accessible books which cover the first period of American sectionalism are filled with much relevant insight.