Albion’s Seed

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Our American history book club’s official selection was The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America, 1600-1675, by Bernard Bailyn. But since I’m ridiculously competitive, I also read the additional 900 pages of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, which had come highly recommended by a number of friends.

Fischer traces the British settlement of North America to four main waves of migration, originating in four different regions in Britain at four different times, bringing with them four distinctive folkways that proved to be surprisingly durable here in the New World. Their social and political attitudes, and their distinctive interpretations of liberty, set the tones for the four different regions they settled, persisting often into the 20th Century, and the interplay of the four, with the occasional dominance of one or another, greatly affected national politics.

Fischer identifies four main English folkways that came to dominate what would become the United States. These are the Puritans who came here from 1620-1650, settling in New England; the Quakers and sympathetic (mostly) German Pietists who came here from 1675-1700; the Virginia Cavaliers, sympathetic to the Crown in the English Civil War, arriving in the mid-1600s, and the Anglo-Irish or Scots-Irish who settled the backcountry, coming in a series of waves from 1700 to about 1775.

Each of these migrations came from fairly specific locations back in England: the Puritans from East Anglia, the Virginians from Wessex and Mercia, the Quakers from the north Midlands, and the backcountry from the Border counties near the England-Scotland line. While none of the sections was settled exclusively from those areas, each of them drew at least 60% of their populations from them.

Fischer’s genius here is two-fold. First, he traces back distinctive cultural features to the groups’ regions of origin in England, including clothing, house design, language, relations between age groups and between the sexes, and so on. Many elements that historians had assumed were developed here on this side of the Atlantic in response to the Indians they encountered, or the geography where they settled, were actually brought over. Even terms such as “hoosier” or “redneck,” the origins of which frequently are the subjects of social media arguments and bar bets, were already in use back in England.

The fact that generations of historians continued to tell what amount to just-so stories about the layout of the Puritan house or village, for instance, should be profoundly disturbing, and cause for great skepticism concerning any generally accepted historical consensus.

The second great insight here is the persistence of these cultural differences, which were often the actual reasons for political differences we have traditional explained by other factors. A friend of mine who teaches American colonial and Revolutionary history points out that the best way to approach the colonial period, especially up to about 1750, is to treat the various regions as more or less independent entities, with occasional interaction.

Fischer himself takes it a step further, pointing out that the four folkways didn’t just operate independently before the Revolution, they actually detested each other, sentiments which continued well into the 19th Century. The Puritans saw the Virginians as dissolute and immoral. The Quakers saw the Puritans as tyrannical in their own way. And all three more or less looked down on the Border-country immigrants, which the Scots-Irish returned in at least equal measure.

Their political institutions also came into conflict when they came into contact at the Constitutional Convention. The conflict between the Virginia and the New Jersey plans for the Senate is usually painted as purely as dispute between the large and small states. But Fischer argues that it was at least as much a conflict between Puritans who were used to frequent elections and town meetings, and Virginia aristocrats who were used to controlling the paths to higher power. Massachusetts, a large state, opposed the Virginia Plan as presented.

Likewise, the Puritan idea of “ordered liberty” meant a strong government enforcing morality and limiting destructive dissent. It came in for a rude awakening when the other three folkways turned on it after the John Adams administration, and again after that of his son, John Quincy Adams.

Fischer deserves great credit here for the book’s organization and layout. First of all, he doesn’t stint on maps. You want to see where in America people settled, where in England they came from, and in what numbers, and he’s always got a clearly-labeled, clearly-shaded map for you. I cannot stress enough how frustrating it is to read a history book that skimps on maps.

Second, in each of the four main sections on the four folkways, he’s covering about 20 different aspects of their culture and society. It would have been easy – and lazy – to write each as a completely independent section, leaving the reader who’s working his way through the marriage section on the backcountry to remember what he read 600 pages ago about Puritan marriage customs. But he doesn’t do that. He frequently refers back to the earlier sections, making it easier to compare them all as you read.

The last chapter attempts to trace the post-Independence effects of these four folkways in the country’s presidential politics. It works reasonably well through the Virginia Dynasty, the Age of Jackson, the Civil War, and even the Gilded Age, up until Wilson’s election, after which the more one knows about the politics of the period, the more apparent how selective the supporting data becomes.

The dangers of this sort of analysis when applied to individuals become apparent in the few pages devoted to the country’s WWII leadership. Roosevelt, despite his Dutch name, was of largely Puritan stock, giving a clear moral tone to the war effort; Patton, whose family was Scots-Irish, loved fighting, and loved fighting from the front, but had problems controlling his own temper; Eisenhower, from a German Pietist background, went to West Point for the free education, never saw combat in his career, and sought to win the war with minimal casualties; Marshall, born in Pennsylvania of a family from the old Virginia aristocracy, was born to command, took on tremendous responsibility with tremendous self-restraint, and suffered neither fools nor insubordination. The stereotypes work for these four, but the weakness is in the millions for whom the stereotypes were no longer working.

But excellent books often overstate their cases. Fischer is still able to trace distinctive, persistent political elements back to the original culture created by each folkway. Virginia, for example, governed for many decades by Governor William Berkeley, early on had concentrated power and lower levels of literacy. The governing Cavaliers saw no reason why the populace at large should go to school, nor why independent presses with potentially dangerous ideas should be allowed to operate. And so lower literacy levels continue to persist, even to this day. Likewise, New England and the northern tier of states remain bastions of aggressive state-sponsored moralism, and the backcountry border people are clearly visible in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

None of the four regions was, itself, a little proto-America, nor was it, in itself, representative all of England during the whole of 1600-1750. Fischer’s insight here is to show how much they brought over of what they became, and how their slow mixing and interaction formed what we are today.

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