The real reason for the persistence of sectionalism in U.S. foreign policy can be found in the ethnoregional theory of American politics, which has been developed by the historians David Hackett Fischer, Daniel Elazar, D.W. Meinig, Kevin Phillips, and others. The ethnoregional theory holds that in the United States powerful ethnic and regional subcultures are more important and enduring than political parties and ideologies. The labels “Democrat” and “Republican” differ in their meaning from generation to generation; regional subcultures such as those of New England and the Tidewater South change much more slowly.
The greatest insight of ethnoregional theorists is that immigrants in the United States do not assimilate to a uniform American national culture; rather, they assimilate to one of a small number of preexisting regional cultures. The historian Wilbur Zelinsky has defined a thesis he calls the Doctrine of Effective First Settlement that holds: “Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to affect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been.” . . .
Historians differ on the question of how many of these enduring regional cultures there are in the United States. Most agree on three: a Yankee culture that spread westward overland from New England; a Quaker culture operating in Pennsylvania; and a Cavalier culture originating in the coastal South. Most, but not all, identify a fourth regional culture, that of the Scots-Irish Highland South from Appalachia to the Ozarks and Texas. In his magisterial Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989), David Hackett Fischer argues persuasively that these four “hearth cultures” originated in different regions of early modern Britain and were transplanted to North America by four waves of immigrants. In the first wave (1629-40), Puritans from the eastern counties of England settled New England. The second wave (1642-75) brought anti-Puritan, royalist Cavaliers from the south of England to Virginia. Quakers from the North Midlands of England colonized Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley after emigrating during the third wave (1675-1715). The fourth and final major Anglo-American migration, which lasted from 1717 to 1775, transplanted so-called Scots-Irish from northern England, lowland Scotland, and the north of Ireland (Ulster).
In addition to having distinctive folkways and dialects of English, these four groups of British-American immigrants had their own unique variants of a common individualistic and liberal British political culture. Fischer describes the New England Puritan ideal as “ordered freedom,” the Quaker ideal as “reciprocal freedom,” the Scots-Irish ideal as “natural freedom,” and the coastal southern ideal as “hegemonic freedom” (deference to traditional elites). Another historian, Daniel J. Elazar, calls the New England tradition the “moralistic” culture, the midatlantic region the “individualistic” culture, and the coastal southern tradition the “traditional” culture. . . .
The ethnoregional theory provides the answer to the mystery of American sectional differences with respect to war. Regional disagreements about war are part of a larger pattern of regional disagreement about the legitimacy of all forms of violence. “Historians of Southern mores are agreed that violence as an aspect of Southern life clearly distinguished the region from the rest of the country,” writes historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Of the southerner, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “the energy which his [northern] neighbor devotes to gain turns with him to a passionate love of field sports and military exercises; he delights in violent bodily exertion, he is familiar with the use of arms, and is accustomed from a very early age to expose his life in single combat.” Southern states lead the nation not only in military academies but in homicide rates and death penalty laws and in low penalties for domestic violence. Northern states have the lowest homicide rates and the greatest number of statutes requiring a citizen to retreat before attacking an assailant or intruder in hishome.
These regional differences reflect the difference in moral systems between the post-Calvinist Puritanism of Greater New England, which shuns violence as a means for resolving disputes, and the cultures of honor of the Scots-Irish Highland South and the Anglo-American Tidewater South. The two southern cultures are quite different, but compared to Greater New Englanders, both Highland and Tidewater southerners look with greater approval on violent retaliation for insults. But southerners are not indiscriminately violent. The difference between northern and southern homicide rates is accounted for almost entirely by violent responses of southerners to personal offenses: arguments, insults to women, lovers’ quarrels, and disputes within the family. The researchers Richard E. Nisbet and Dov Cohen discovered that, at the same university, white southern students were more likely to respond aggressively than white northern students to the same set of insults and provocations. The same researchers have pointed out the similarities between the culture of honor of white southerners and that of inner-city black Americans, most of whom are descendants of southern migrants.