Sectionalism submerged

By Razib Khan | April 25, 2011 1:42 pm

Aside from transient memes such as Jesusland sectional sentiment tends to be implicit and remain below the surface, especially outside of “Dixie”, in the United States today. In a nation the size of a continent and populated by over 300 million we first start with an aggregation, as if we’re just another nation-state. This is evident when we compare how the United States is doing compared to…France, or the United Kingdom, or Denmark. Except the Russian Federation the proper point of comparison for all the large European nations is probably California. If we do disaggregate the United States first we generally start with race, and then perhaps move on to politics. But many of these variables are rooted in deeper sectional identities, which were much more salient in the early republic. Many of the arguments about the nature of the Civil War in terms of whether it was “about” slavery or economics or states rights misses the bigger picture that all of these issues contributed to, and emerged out of, an organic historical process where the new republic crystallized as a divergent set of regional interests which predate the founding.

Here is an fascinating section from the New England polemicist and minister Theodore Parker from The great battle between slavery and freedom:

In 1850…Arkansas had 97,402 white persons under twenty, and only 11,050 attending school; while of 210,831 whites of that age in Michigan, 112,175 were at school or college. Last year, Michigan had 132,234 scholars in her public common schools. In 1850, Arkansas contained 64,787 whites over twenty, – but 16,935 of these were unable to read and white; while, out of 184,240 of that age in Michigan, only 8,281 were thus ignorant, – of these, 3009 were foreigns; while, of the 16,935 illiterate persons of Arkansas, only 37 were born out of that State. The Slave State had only 47,852 persons over twenty who could read a word; while the free State had 175,959. Michigan had 107,943 volumes in “libraries other than private,” and Arkansas 420 volumes….

Arkansas and Michigan were of particular interest because these were old frontier states which were settled primarily (at least initially in the case of Michigan, before 20th century industrialization) by whites from particular regions of the United States; the Old South in the case of Arkansas, and New England and upstate New York in the case of Michigan. A new paper, Black and White Fertility, Differential Baby Booms: The Value of Civil Rights, has some old Census data which I thought would be of interest. In particular, they report fertility and years of education for a given Census region. Here’s a map which shows the divisions:

Below are two types of plots. One shows the absolute values and the other a ratio compared to the national mean. The data are children born and years of schooling. Please note that background variables are not controlled for, so regions with lots of young people will naturally have lower years of schooling, and regions which are adult migrant magnets may have inflated years of school.

Some comments:

1) Migration patterns probably explain some of the patterns. The Pacific region seems to have been the most well educated for much of the past century, but I wonder if that is a function of th selective migration of people from the east.

2) There has been a radical convergence in the years of education. When Theodore Parker was writing there was a big gap between the North and the South which no longer exists. But history matters for institutions, and most elite universities remain skewed in their regional distributions.

3) Looking at the ratio of regional fertility to the national mean it seems like you see evidence for different points of demographic transition.

You can see the data here as a Google Doc.

MORE ABOUT: Regionalism
  • ohwilleke

    Perhaps as remarkable is how modest much of the regional variation seems to be. For a huge nation, the number of really distinct sectional cultures is small, and the distinctive areas tend to be small.

    The pre-Anglo substrate in Florida is very deeply submerged, with much of its Hispanic character traceable to recent rather than pre-American roots. The French impact on American culture, outside Louisiana, has been very modest. There may be isolated instances of Native American influence in American culture, but a very large share of it can be traced to Europe. Even culture elements with New World roots, like potatos appear to enter American culture via Europe.

    The North-South divide appears to have roots in divisions within English speaking immigrants. Sucessive waves of Germans, Italians, Irish, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Mexicans and more seem to have been largely assimilated into either primarily Yankee derived or in a few exceptional cases primarily Southern white cultures (mostly the former).

    There is probably more diversity from New Jersey’s New York City suburbs to Long Island than there is from Cleveland to St. Paul or Denver. The 20th century, as the Google Docs charts show, was a period of massive convergence.

    Sectional sentiment outside the former Confederacy is exceedingly modest, even in places like the American Southwest or Alaska or Hawaii that have prior legacies with other sovereigns. It isn’t non-existent (as Sarah Palin’s husband can attest to) but it is not very serious or widely felt either.

  • Razib Khan

    two points

    1) right, sectionalism sometimes takes time to build up. new nations lack time for it to coalesce. the USA for example is pretty modest in its dialect diversity, and what there is tends to be squeezed in the east (new england arguably has more than the whole nation west of the mississippi!).

    2) sectionalism becomes a bigger deal if you aren’t dominant. southern separatism was a mark of a period between 1830-1860 when the south’s dominant role in our national politics was contested and eventually overturned. north identity will probably become more evident if the south’s recent demographic and cultural influence keeps cresting (though that’s partly masked by the fact that northern derived migration is changing the south itself).

  • John Emerson

    I think that it’s wrong to think of France as more homogeneous then the US. Historically Bretons, Basques, and Alsatians were not even speakers of a Romance languages, Corsicans had their own Romance language which was not even Italian, and the whole south of France spoke Romance languages that were not French. Even in the North there were distinct dialects such as Norman. These languages have been fading, but there have also been a lot of immigrants from the French empire and elsewhere during the last century or two, including Algerian French who are French speakers but have a distinct history.

    The difference is that France has a strong and almost unchallenged history of centralism and a resulting history of government-encouraged, almost forced linguistic frenchification (or whatever you call it). The homogeneity is a historical and political fact, not a cultural or linguistic one.

    By contrast, the US has 50 state units, any one of which can make a stink about its uniqueness, plus an unresolved North South divide which federalism helps keep alive.

    Trivia: the Parisian dialect is the dialect of the common people of Paris and is low prestige; the elite dialect is Paris based, but quite different. Anyone with ambitions is well advised to learn the elite dialect.

  • Dwight E. Howell

    Be a lot careful about claims that people could not read or do math. A lot of these people could read after a fashion and could do basic math. Home schooling is not new.

  • Meng Bomin

    On the topic of John Emerson’s point, I was reminded of this animated map of lingual groups in southwestern Europe. The focus is Spain, but it includes over half of France.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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