How four of Albion’s seeds sprouted in America

A New Englander once told me about traveling in the South, and stopping at a convenience store to ask for directions.  Even though there was a long line of people waiting to be served, the clerk came out from behind the counter and did everything she could to make sure the traveler was properly oriented.

The waiting customers did not resent this.  Instead they joined in and tried to assist the clerk.   A New England clerk would not have done this, my acquaintance said.  It is not that the New Englander would have been less concerned.  It is just that a Southerner would regard hospitality to a stranger as the first obligation, and a New Englander, equally kind, would have made sure that customers were served.

We Americans are very conscious of our regional differences.  I wonder if they’re apparent to foreigners.

We have sayings, such as: If you introduce yourself to New Englanders, they’ll ask where you went to school; to New Yorkers, they’ll ask what you do for a living; to Southerners, they’ll ask what church you attend; to Minnesotans, they’ll not ask personal questions of a stranger because that’s impolite.

Recently my friend Janus Mary Jones lent me a copy of ALBION’S SEED: Four Regional English Folkways in America, a fascinating 1986 book by a historian named David Hackett Fischer, which attempts to explain American regional differences in terms of colonial origins.

Fischer made the bold claim that the seeds of present-day American culture were planted by four relatively small groups of migrants from different regions of England at certain periods of history, and that American history is largely the flowering of these seeds.

The four groups of migrants were:

  • 21,000 Puritans who left East Anglia for Massachusetts Bay in 1621-1640.
  • 45,000 Cavaliers and their servants who left southern and western England for tidewater Virginia in 1642-1675.
  • 23,000 Quakers who left the English Midlands, along with German Pietist allies, for the Delaware Valley in 1675-1713.
  • 250,000 borderers who left northern England, the Scottish lowlands and northern Ireland for the Appalachia backcountry in 1717-1773,

Although few in number originally, these colonists multiplied and spread, Fischer wrote, and they established the cultural frameworks to which later migrants had to adapt.

These cultures were very different from each other and also very stereotypical, Fischer wrote.   The Puritans were very puritanical, the Cavaliers were very haughty and aristocratic, the Quakers were very plain and peaceful and the Appalachian borderers were very rebellious and violent.   None of these qualities originated in North America.  They all had roots in their British places of origin.

A blogger named Scott Alexander has written an informative and readable revew describing these four cultures.  Rather than try to summarize, excerpt or improve on what Alexander wrote, I will just link to his post.

I think the impact of these four original settlements was important, but I don’t want to exaggerate.   Present-day Americans have more in common with each other than we do with 17th and 18th century Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers or Appalachian backwoodsmen.

The early settlers were almost all WASPS—white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.   The original religions of the four founding groups were Congregationalist (now United Church of Christ), Anglican, Quaker and Presbyterian.  None of these is a dominant force in the USA today.

Nothing is just one thing.  The USA is not just one thing.  It is not just four things.

Regional conflicts have been important in American history, and still are.  But so are the conflicts of white vs. black, Anglo vs. Hispanic, urban vs. rural, native vs. immigrant, Protestant vs. Catholic—although that last one has faded and been replaced by conflict of secularists and religious modernizers vs. religious traditionalists and fundamentalists.

And there have long been class conflicts among the elite landowning and investor class vs. the educated salaried professional class vs. the wage-earning working class vs. the property-less poverty-stricken underclass.

I think Fischer’s four English folkways are like bright coats of paint, applied to an old house many years ago.   The bright colors have faded over time, and some of them have been painted over.  But if you look closely, you can still see the original colors underneath, still affecting the color of the whole.

I’ll look at these original colors in the next few posts.


Book Review: Albion’s Seed by Scott Alexander for Slate Star Codex.   An insightful and readable account of Fischer’s argument.

Critical Sources by Craig White of the University of Houston at Clear Lake.  A detailed page-by-page summary.


Afterthought [7/18/2017]   The bulk of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed consists of detailed information about the diets, clothing, architecture, wedding and funeral customs, recreation and other characteristics of Massachusetts Bay, tidewater Virginia, the Delaware Valley and Appalachia before the American Revolution, and also of the English regions from which these colonists came.

The research must have taken a lot of time by Fischer and his hard-working army of graduate students, and I am not surprised (although I am disappointed) that he never wrote his planned follow-up volumes on the development of American regional cultures in later eras.

Afterthought [7/22/2017]  The most thought-provoking idea in Albion’s Seed is the different and enduring concepts of freedom in the four cultures.

The Massachusetts Puritans believed in what Fischer called “ordered liberty,” which consisted of (1) the right to live according to their own laws and (2) the right and duty to live according to God’s law.   The Puritans did not allow much individual liberty, but they defended the right to self-government.

The Virginia Cavaliers believed in what Fischer called “hegemonic liberty,” which consisted of domination over others and also over oneself.   They enslaved others, but resisted being dominated themselves.

The Delaware Quakers believed in what Fischer called “reciprocal liberty,” which consisted of granting to others all the rights they wanted for themselves.   This included freedom of religious worship, trial by jury, the right to vote, the right to own property and freedom from enslavement.

The Appalachian backwoodsmen believed in what Fischer called “natural liberty,” which consisted of freedom to do as you will without interference.   This included living as far as you can from neighbors and from governmental authority.

I should have waited to write this post until I wrote the next four.  Oh, well.


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6 Responses to “How four of Albion’s seeds sprouted in America”

  1. ashiftinconsciousness Says:

    Very interesting. I’ve seen a lot of the U.S. and have noticed many differences as well as many similarities. The differences stand out more.

    Cool post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. simonjkyte Says:

    Ok so what about Lincolnshire. For some unknown reason (i.e. he was not from there) Roger Brierley had a lot of followers there.


    • philebersole Says:

      I gather from quick Internet research that Roger Brierley (1586-1637), the hero of your novel, A Certain Measure of Perfection, was a notable English Quaker.

      But he was not mentioned by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed and played no role that I know of in the Quaker settlement of the Delaware Valley, which began in 1675.

      Also, Lincolnshire is considered part of the English Midlands, from which main part of the English Quaker settlement came.


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