In his American Nations, Colin Woodard sets out to debunk the idea that Americans used to agree on a fundamental set of values and that we live in an age of degenerate disunion. He is right to point out that different groups of Americans have always held different beliefs and pursued them by different means, though he goes rather far when he divides modern America into exactly 11 distinct “nations,.” When he likens the difference between Minnesotans and Iowans (citizens of Yankeedom and Midlands, respectively) to that between Armenians and Turks in Turkey or between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq…well, he’s gonna lose some people there.
Woodard’s thesis is that today’s ideological divisions are directly traceable to the character of the early (European) settlers in the various regions. Thus he begins with a survey of European colonization in North America; this is mostly well-enough done, though you might do better to read Alan Taylor’s American Colonies (Woodard sometimes sounds like the Reader’s Digest version of Taylor). One place where he diverges wildly from Taylor, however, is in his treatment of the different concepts of freedom in the North and South.
The patricians of Virginia, in this account, saw themselves as heirs to the libertas of ancient Rome, which was basically the freedom of slave-owning aristocrats to boss it over everyone else. I think Woody hits some pylons here, especially when he throws Athens in as if it were identical to Rome, but I guess it’s close enough for government work. Now we come to the northern alternative to libertas:
This was a fundamentally different notion from the Germanic concept of Freiheit, or freedom, which informed the political thought of Yankeedom and the Midlands…..
For the Norse, Anglo-Saxons, Dutch, and other Germanic tribes of Northern Europe, freedom was a birthright of free peoples, which they considered themselves to be. Individuals might have differences in status and wealth, but all were literally born free, all were equal before the law, and all had come into the world possessing rights that had to be mutually respected on threat of banishment….It was this tradition that the Puritans carried to Yankeedom.
As George Takkei would say, “Oh, my!” This paragraph is not merely a turkey but a veritable turducken of wrongness, with one nasty layer stuffed inside another.
Let us begin with the pseudo-learned invocation of the modern German word Freiheit, which I consider to be the argument’s drumstick. Freiheitisn’t any more meaningful, and certainly not any more “Germanic,” than plain old freedom, but its use gives us a clue about where Woodard is getting his material. Nineteenth-century Germany was the center of a movement to create a home-grown substitute for the classical studies around which intellectual life had revolved. Techniques of study once reserved for the Bible and Greek and Roman authors were applied to Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied, and scholars combed Tacitus’ Germania and early medieval law codes in search of a common Germanic cultural and political heritage. This project picked up adherents in England and, as I found out from Garry Wills’ biography of Henry Adams, also had influential admirers in America. My guess is that you won’t find many German books extolling the virtues of old-time Germanic Freiheit published after the spring of 1945, and it is disconcerting to find one in 21st-century America.
You might wonder whether early Germanic tribes or post-Romantic cultural nationalism have anything at all to do with the Puritans, and you would not be alone, but let’s leave that aside. What about that egalitarian Germanic utopia? Our first guide to Germanic culture is Tacitus, in the 1st century CE, and he repeatedly mentions the role of slaves. For example, he says that Germani will sell themselves into slavery to pay off gambling debts. Tacitus gives the overall impression of a society that is not quite as rigidly stratified as his own, but then few cultures consisting of modest-sized tribes can ever have been as stratified as the worldwide engine of exploitation that was Imperial Rome.
Another culture mentioned by Woodard, that of the Norse Vikings, really was a slaving empire. They would accept inanimate plunder, and would even trade if the places they visited turned out to be well defended, but their bread and butter was human chattel. I’m pretty sure we get the word ‘thrall’ from Old Norse, and it’s no accident.
So the Germanic Freiheit thing is total Quatsch, but maybe we can salvage the Anglo-Saxons? Later English people really did claim that their rights were an inheritance from before the Conquest; to be sure, the most plausible of these claims were, as in Magna Carta, not about universal liberty at all, but about the rights of nobles to wield power vis-à-vis the king (the Anglo-Saxon kings often ruled in conjunction with a council of witan, or wise guys). As for everybody being equal before the law, well….when the Venerable Bede tells the story of Pope Gregory seeing English slaves in Rome, he shows no sense of indignation, or even surprise that the Pope should spend his day off at the slave market, but only pride that he thought the English slaves were cute.
It’s been a while since I read the Anglo-Saxon law codes, but my recollection is that they are full of the distinction between earls and churls. A good example is the sliding scale of wergild amounts. Wergild is blood-money, compensation paid to the family of a person you have killed (if this sounds weird, consider that it replaces the institution of blood-feud). In a typical code, the wergild for an ordinary freeman is 200 shillings, for an earl 1200, for a king 30,000, for a slave nothing (well, you’d have to pay something, but it doesn’t make the wergild chart because it’s a property crime). Several codes also include similar scales for oaths; that is, the testimony of an earl was worth so-and-so many times that of a mere free man, and the testimony of a woman still less. Now, these codes were probably not much used in day-to-day dispute resolution, but they present what people thought of as ideal justice.
The word ‘free’ comes from a root meaning something like ‘love,’ the same root as ‘friend’ and the German word for peace (also ‘sapphire,’ btw). The idea must have been that we think a person is naturally free if they are among our loved ones, our friends, those with whom we are at peace. Anyone else is outside the pale. This would have been perfectly understandable to the Romans who enslaved conquered peoples, to the West Africans who did likewise, or to the Americans who bought slaves from the West Africans and worked them to death on plantations. For inalienable rights and universal freedom, we need to look somewhere else.
PS: Another interesting aspect of Woodard’s book is that none of his 11 nations has any special place for African-Americans. I am no scholar of these matters, but I would have thought that black Americans had as distinctive an identity as, say, Midlanders or Left Coasters.