Colin Woodard: Running for President on a Divided Continent

Roundup: Historians' Take

Colin Woodard is a longtime Chronicle correspondent and a state- and national-affairs writer at the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, in Portland. His most recent book is American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Viking).

During the recent presidential primaries, we heard a great deal, as we do every election year, about the founding fathers, and how their ideals, intents, and religious views were allegedly reflected in the policies and life stories of various candidates and opposed by their dastardly, un-American rivals. In a politically polarized America, it was—and still is—argued, we must consult the founders' writings, probe their biographies, contact them with our Ouija boards if need be to determine what they would have done if confronted with, say, a defense-allocation bill or a proposal to regulate traders of derivatives. If we only did so, we would find our lost sense of common purpose, restore our civic virtue, and return the union to unity.

But those arguments are frustrated by the simple fact that the men who came together to confront a common enemy in 1775 and to craft an enduring alliance in the late 1780s were not our country's founders, but rather the founders' great- or great-great-, or great-great-great-great-grandchildren.

The real founders—early-17th-century Puritans and Dutch West India Company officials, mid-17th-century English aristocrats, late-17th-century West Indian slave lords and English Quakers, early-18th-century frontiersmen from Ulster and the lowlands of Scotland and so on—didn't create an America, they created several Americas....

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