The seeds of America’s culture wars

David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America is a ground-breaking 946-page book I never got around to reading, and probably won’t.  But I think I got the gist of it by reading a review by Scott Alexander on his Slate Star Codex blog.

Fischer’s argument is that basic patterns of American culture were set by migrations of four very different groups of migrants from the British Isles:

  • Albion'sSeedhek32xef_largePuritans to New England in the 1620s.
  • Cavaliers to Virginia in the 1640s.
  • Quakers to Pennsylvania in the 1670s.
  • Borderers (aka Scots-Irish) to the Appalachians in the 1700s.

Those who came after, he said, had to adapt to social systems established by these four groups—the moralistic Puritans, the aristocratic Cavaliers, the tolerant Quakers and the warlike Borderers—even though the biological descendants of these groups ceased to be in the majority.

It’s interesting and, I think, at least partly true.   Alexander’s review is long for a blog post, but much shorter than the book, and even those uninterested in his basic theme will enjoy reading his lists of fun facts about each group.

Alexander thinks these patterns underlie American political divisions today.   Liberal Democrats represent Puritan and Quaker values; conservative Republicans represent Cavalier and Borderer values.

Albion'sSeed32081I think these divisions do explain some things—why, for example, the only region in which Barack Obama got fewer votes in 2008 than John Kerry in 2004 was Appalachia; why Senator James Webb, a proud descendant of the Scots-Irish, did so poorly in the Democratic primaries; and why rural New England counties and counties settled by New England Yankees go Democratic.

I think if Alexander applied these categories to Democrats and Republicans of a century ago, he would find the reverse.  The Democratic Party from Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson was—speaking very broadly—a coalition of Cavaliers and Borderers, plus poor white urban immigrants; the Republican Party from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt was a coalition of Puritans and Quakers, plus African-Americans.

Democrats in the 19th century were the party that represented the interests of common white people, whether poor farmers on the frontier or immigrant laborers in the cities, and also were the main proponents of white racism.  College-educated reformers, such as Theodore Parker and Dorothea Dix, were mainly Whigs and Republicans who accepted the established business order.  It would be interesting to read a history of how and why these groups changed sides in the 20th century.

Be that as it may, I don’t see anything in any of these cultural patterns that would justify crony capitalism or perpetual war.  Even the Cavaliers, defenders of privilege and personal honor, would disdain today’s Wall Street manipulations.  Even the Borderers, fighters for freedom and landcountry, would disdain perpetual war waged by means of foreign proxy armies and flying killer robots.


Book Review: Albion’s Seed by Scott Alexander on Slate Star Codex.

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