On the Concept of “The North”

Much has been made in historical writing about “the South.”  Defining the South, discussing what makes the South distinct, discussing whether the South is distinct, discussing the utility of the concept of “the South” as opposed to many Souths … and so on.  Discussions of southern identity have long been a stable of scholarship and something of a cottage industry. There’s even a Southern Historical Association.

But what about “the North?”  What exactly is “the North?”  Is it what is not “the South?’  Of course not: no one would define California, for example, as part of the North, although much is made of the distinctions between northern and southern California.  Indeed, do so-called northerners recognize themselves as northerners outside of discussions about the South and southerners?  After all, folks from Wisconsin, New York, and Massachusetts are all northerners, but do they see themselves as sharing a common identity?  I’d argue no: southerners are far more likely to recognize a regional identity as southerners, while to the north there are distinctions between New England, New York, perhaps the Middle Atlantic states, and the Midwest/old Northwest … and that’s for starters. There is no Northern Historical Association (there is a Western Historical Association, by the way).

One could argue that “the North” does not exist except as a counterpart to “the South,” a construct constructed by (mostly white) southerners to make comparisons … maybe even to turn the notion of crafting “the other” on its head.  That is, many people define “American” in largely northern terms, rendering the South as a different (even exotic) land; in turn white southerners define a North in ways that serve their own bolstering of southern identity and distinctiveness.

The term clarifies some things and obscures others.  For example, I don’t think much of portraying the Civil War as North versus South.  That blurs divisions and diversity within both regions; moreover, very few people would define Maryland, Kentucky, or Missouri as northern (this issue is somehow less pressing when it comes to Delaware).

So how do you define “the North?”  Why?

30 thoughts on “On the Concept of “The North”

  1. Marc Ferguson February 25, 2012 / 3:40 pm

    I don’t think there is a “North,” except as a foil to the cultural, and much pilloried “South,” complained about by adherents of Southern and Confederate Romanticism, who continue to play the victim card.

  2. Marc Ferguson February 25, 2012 / 3:48 pm

    I get called a Northerner all the time, though I’m from California, which, as you point out is in the West, though I must confess to being from northern California, Stockton to be precise. So I consider myself a Westerner. It doesn’t seem to help me that almost all my ancestors are from the South, via Alabama. My ggggrandfather was a tax collector in Alabama during the CW, and had to write a request for a pardon from President Johnson, which I have a copy of. He, of course, claims never to have supported secession or the Confederacy.

  3. Bill Newcomer February 25, 2012 / 4:03 pm

    Having lived the vast majority of my life in Michigan, with a short few years in northern Indiana, the only times I think of being “North” is almost wholly in the context of the history of the “South”; from the antebellum slave culture, through the Civil war, through reconstruction and even up through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. There is a southern literature, but then Texas is “the west”. In the Great lakes region of the “Midwest” we look askance at “New England” as if it were a totally different country, and we also think in terms of those crazy people who live on the “East Coast” and then look in wonder at California as an exotic phenomena all its own.

    In the last few years I have made deliberate effort to avoid speaking of the Civil War in North vs, South terms. A geographical focus, as understandable and undeniable as it may seem, clouds the reality that the Civil War was a war of conflicting ideals and values; ideals and values that crossed the geographical dividing lines of state boundaries.

    One more modern concept of being a “Northerner” is how it defines the “snowbird” as people from northern states who upon retirement enjoy spending the winter months in a more southern, and warmer area of the country; Florida, Texas, Arizona, and etc…

  4. Michael Lynch February 25, 2012 / 4:29 pm

    For the purposes of talking about the Civil War era, I think “the North” pretty much equates to everything north of the border states. For all other purposes, I don’t really associate any particular place with “the North.”

    I guess we associate the words “south” and “west” with particular places because we have a notion that the regions associated with these directions are distinctive and/or monolithic. I’m a southerner, and I refer to “the South,” even though I’m aware that there are a number of “Souths” and that they all share a lot in common with America as a whole.


  5. Lyle Smith February 25, 2012 / 5:06 pm

    Some people who criticize the South or aspects of the South certainly do project themselves and their culture as being better than the South. People actually do make negative comments about the South or aspects of the South. Does that mean they’re Northern? No, but it does if they’re from a Northern state.

    So perhaps it is a term that is mostly projected from the South on to the North, but probably because it is cumbersome to spit out New England, Middle Atlantic, and Midwest every time you mean to say Northerner or Yankee.

    It is kind of like Hugo Chavez (really anyone that’s got a pet name for Americans) calling Barack Obama a Yankee so and so. What does it matter if Barack Obama does or does not think of himself as a Yankee? To Hugo Chavez he’s a Yankee.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 25, 2012 / 5:55 pm

      This captures some of the dynamic that I think is at work. People assume a “norm” of what it is to be an American that to me appears to be based on a Northeast-Midwest image; the South is seen as different and is indeed sometimes mocked and denigrated (westerners as a whole don’t get this, although California and sometimes Texas does). Southerners then speak of a “North” that is at least partially their construct and serves their purposes.

      In my case, I define myself regionally as a New Yorker first, from the Northeast second. I only become a “northerner” in discussions with southerners (I rarely become an easterner in chats with a westerner).

      The superiority/inferiority debate (on both sides of the fence) also interests me.

      • Lyle Smith February 25, 2012 / 10:39 pm

        Yeah, I see myself as a Louisianian first, then Southern.

        I had a conversation once in Houston with a Hispanic guy, myself (the cracker) and a Vietnamese New Orleanian girl about whether or not Houston was part of the “Dirty Deep South”. The native Houstonian guy started this conversation and argued that Houston was part of the Dirty Deep South. Us two Louisianians were like no, Houston is not part of the Dirty Deep South… it’s Texas, it is just something different. I conceded though that maybe Houston is the far extremity of the Deep South.

        So there are divisions even within the solid South, I guess: Texas, the Deep South, and whatever the others are.

  6. wgdavis February 25, 2012 / 6:19 pm

    Mason-Dixon Line…

    That said, sure there is a North. The Southerners point north and call us “you-uns”.

    People from New England variously style themselves Yankees. Interestingly, while late Colonial and Revolutionary Americans were styled as Yankees [a term of probably Dutch origin], especially by those who were not Americans. How the New Englanders had the term hung around their necks when the Dutch were only as far north as Manhattan, and not into the “New England

    I believe the “North” was configured at the same time as “The South”, both shaped by Slavery. It was not a sudden thing, but a long process from Colonial America to the Civil War. There were differences in the two regions besides slavery, such as the agrarian South vs. the Mercantile North, and the preponderance of immigration was into Northern ports, rather than Southern.

    As a native Keystoner I have always considered myself a “Northerner”. I think the Civil War actually made the final delineation between North and South, but geez, even the Civil War boundaries were muddled thanks to the Border States.

    • Buck Buchanan February 27, 2012 / 8:17 am

      Actually, its not you-uns (that sounds more Western PA!)

      Singular is Y’all; pural is All Y’all!

  7. John Foskett February 26, 2012 / 9:02 am

    I think those who have essentally said it only exists in counterpoint to the “South” have it right. The only time I identify with anything “northern” is when somebody raises the issue in the context of the Civil War/Lost Cause/etc. If there’s a ‘who shot first” in this dynamic, the bullet was fired from below the Mason Dixon Line. Right or wrong, for better or for worse, those who have pushed “southern” identity (books, movies, politics) have played a large part in creating “southern” stereotypes of culture, cuisine, racial matters, etc. There are no “northern” equivalents. Instead, as Brooks suggests, folks in the “north” (i.e., everything that isn’t ‘the “South”) tend to see themselves as hailing from a variety of different regions.

  8. Lynn Mercer February 26, 2012 / 10:04 am

    I think that there is more to a sense of Northern-ness than just opposition to the “South.” A distinction between the Northern and Southern states was evident in the disagreements of the Early National period. You don’t have to buy into the old Cavalier vs. Round-head sort of argument to see that differing cultural elements and ethnic origins shaped the two sections of the country. There must have been some reason why public education, for example, began far earlier in the Northern states.

  9. Pat Young February 26, 2012 / 10:59 am

    My experience is that people around here define themselves as New Yorkers and Americans. They do see Southerners as different because they are perceived to have nasty racial and political views, and because they don’t fit our more diverse religious model. Around here, Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants and seculars dominate.There is also a vague perception that southern whites are not loyal to the united states since their politicians occasionally talk about seceding, something never even spoken of here.,

    • Connie Chastain February 26, 2012 / 1:56 pm

      Nasty Southerners…. How dare they see things differently…

      • Pat Young February 26, 2012 / 4:01 pm

        I said nasty racial and political views. We grew up watching film of cops down South beating blacks trying to vote. Sticks with you.

        • Roger E Watson February 27, 2012 / 5:05 pm

          Connie’s too young to remember the Freedom Riders and the marches. She’s always had to share her drinking fountain !

      • Marc Ferguson February 26, 2012 / 7:37 pm

        “See things differently”=Refuse to allow Southerners to define the identity of people who live in other parts of the country and persist in wearing their persecution complexes on their sleeves. . Also, refuse to acknowledge the racist legacy of the Jim Crow South.

    • Mike Musick February 26, 2012 / 2:28 pm

      Pat: Don’t forget that in the 1969 NYC mayoral race Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin teamed up to run on a platform advocating secession of the city from the state. They thought the Big Apple should be the 51st state. When the dust settled, they came in next-to-last, but garnered over 41,000 votes.

      • Pat Young February 26, 2012 / 3:59 pm

        Seceding from Albany was always considered a joke. Anyway, New Yorkers would’a still been New Yorkers.

        • Mike Musick February 26, 2012 / 5:42 pm

          You’re right on both counts, of course. Still, one can’t help but suspect that back in ’69, somewhere in the Great Beyond, Fernando Wood was smiling.

    • Carl Schenker February 26, 2012 / 5:24 pm

      I am under the impression that Southerners are overrepresented in today’s voluunteer army. I have always taken that as an indication of good old patriotism. CRS

      • Pat Young February 26, 2012 / 6:56 pm

        Since the all-volunteer army came into being, Southerners, Blacks, and Native Americans are overrepresented in the military. During the mid- 19th century, immigrants made up roughly half of all professional soldiers.

  10. Noma February 26, 2012 / 6:59 pm

    In case it is not already clear, I just want to note that the terms “North” and “South” are not something we just came up with in the 20th century. Grant himself uses those terms:


    The South…has been in many ways a disappointment to me. I hoped a great deal from the South, but those hopes have been wrecked. I hoped that Northern capital would pour into the South, that Northern influence and Northern energy would soon repair all that war had wasted. But that never came. Northern capitalists saw that they could not go South without leaving self-respect at home, and they remained home…

    I had hoped much from the poor white class. The war, I thought, would free them from a bondage in some respects even lower than slavery; it would revive their ambition; they would learn, what we in the North know so well, that labor is a dignity, not a degradation, and assert themselves and become an active Union element. But they have been as much under the thumb of the slave-holder as before the war.

    Andrew Johnson, one of the ablest of the poor white class, tried to assert some independence; but as soon as the slave-holders put their thumb upon him, even in the Presidency, he became their slave. It is very curious and very strange. I hoped for different results, and did all I could to bring them around, but it could not be done.”

    — Around the World with General Grant (John Russell Young)

  11. Buck Buchanan February 27, 2012 / 8:41 am

    I am a native Bay Stater, born in Southie. Moved to Buffalo in grade school and moved to DC for junior high and high school. Went to college in West Virginia. Served in the Army in Georgia (3 times), Kentucky, Texas, Germany and have been in Virginia since 1989. I have not lived above the Mason Dixon line since I was 12.

    Ask me where I am from and I say Boston. Ask m e where I live I say Virginia (NOT Metro DC!). When addressing the Civil War I more often than not refer to the Union as “we”. I chalk that up to more my military service in units with a strong Civil War lineage than place of my birth. I do read Civil War history and fully admit to its US versus Them. I believe strongly that the Union cause was right and the Confederate cause was wrong (a gross oversimplification for illustrative purposes). The flag sticker on my car has 34 stars, not 50.

    All of that said, in my amateur writing and touring I always refer to Federals/Union and Confederates not Northerners and Southerners. How do you parse the geographic direction of 6th Missouri CSA and the 6th Missouri USA?

    How about the Delaware soldiers who crossed into Maryland to enlist in Confederate regiments vice the soldier who enlisted in the 11th Kentucky from the southern tier of that state? Which soldier is the Northerner, which one the Southerner? How about the Galvanized Yankees of the 1st US VI fighting at FT Rice against the Cheyenne? Are the Northerners or Southerners?

    Labels are just that, labels. They lack the nuance to describe a person a group or a region.

    I guess it kind of goes along with how do you define a Yankee.

    To a European a Yankee is any American.
    To an American, a Yankee is a Northerner.
    To a Northerner a Yankee is a New Englander.
    To a New Englander a Yankee is a Vermonter.
    To a Vermonter a Yankee is anyone who still uses an outhouse.

    • Pat Young February 27, 2012 / 9:03 am

      Love it.

      Even though our team is the Yankees, New Yorkers never refer to themselves as Yankees.

      Another problem with conflating the term Southerner with Confederate is the large number of Blacks in the South who clearly were not sympathetic to the Confederacy.

      I recall a historian saying that “South Carolina won the Civil War. The audience reacted as though he was some unreconstructed Neo-Confederate, but he added “Most South Carolinians were Black and the war set them free, so most South Carolinians were benefited by a Union victory.”

  12. TF Smith March 4, 2012 / 12:46 am

    Worth considering is how the Billys and Johnnys saw themselves – at least some of the US soldiers in 1861-65 definitely seemed to self- identify as “Western” vs. “Eastern” – the Iron Brigade in the AotP, for example. Not sure about Hooker’s corps when they went to the West.

    • Carl Schenker March 4, 2012 / 11:14 am

      Yes, and Grant says in his memoirs that, if possible, he wanted to close things out with Robert E. Lee with eastern troops, rather than relying on Sherman and western troops, lest the westerners get all the credit for wrapping up the rebellion. CRS

  13. Buck Buchanan March 5, 2012 / 1:49 pm

    Old Pap’s comments on states rights I think sums up many views of sectionalism.

    Thomas needed a place to bury his dead and established a small cemetery near the position at Orchard Knob. He personally supervised the burial of the Union soldiers who died at Chattanooga. When asked by a chaplain if he wanted them buried by state as they had done at Gettysburg he replied, “No, No, mix them all up. I’m sick of state’s rights.”

    • Bill Newcomer March 7, 2012 / 4:41 pm

      ,,, and that’s Old Pap who happened to be originally from Virginia….

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