Albion’s seed in Quaker Pennsylvania

David Hackett Fischer argued in Albion’s Seed that the United States is the product of four relatively small groups of migrants to the 17th and 18th century Atlantic seaboard.

The first wave, John Winthrop’s Puritans, established a repressive theocracy in Massachusetts Bay.   The second, Sir William Berkeley’s Cavaliers, established a haughty and repressive aristocracy in tidewater Virginia.

But the third wave, William Penn’s Quakers, established a community around the Delaware Bay based on values that most 21st century Americans could accept.

Quakers believed that all human beings possess an Inner Light which enables them to establish a relationship with God.   They lacked the Puritan sense of sin and the Cavalier sense of hierarchy.

The Quakers opposed war, opposed artificial distinctions among human beings and opposed religious persecution.   They did not weigh down their children with a sense of sin, like the Puritans, nor encourage self-centered pride, like the Cavaliers.   They came the closest of any of the colonists to practicing social equality and equality within marriage.

Many were prosperous and sophisticated merchants—aided by the Quaker reputation for honesty and fair dealing and by the Quaker practice of lending money to each other at zero or low-interest

Like the Puritans, they were extremely austere and enforced strict standards of behavior within their group.   But their method of enforcement was shunning—not the whipping post or the stocks.

Pacifism and toleration are not good memes for staying in power, and the Quakers in a few generations lost positions of power in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.   But they continued to influence the general American culture.

They were the first and foremost opponents of slavery and advocates of women’s rights in the early 19th century USA.   In all of the great New England movements for humanitarian reform, whether regarding prison inmates, the insane or even animals, the Quakers were there first.

I don’t, however, see the Quakers as the founders of a regional culture—unlike the New England Puritans, Virginia Cavaliers and Appalachian borderers.

Albion’s Seed is illustrated with a map of American regional dialects—a Northern dialect across the northern tier of U.S. states, a Coastal Southern dialect covering a crescent from Virginia through Florida and around to east Texas, a Mountain Southern dialect extending from the southern Appalachian  through the Ozarks to the Southwest and a Midland dialect in between, extending from Pennsylvania to the Far West.

Click to enlarge.

Within the first three of these regions, there are proud New England Yankees, proud Southerners and proud Appalachian mountaineers, but I don’t think there are any Americans who think of themselves as Midlanders.

The closest thing there is to a Quaker regional culture is the Pennsylvania Dutch country, settled with Quaker encouragement by German immigrants including the two other main American peace churches—the Mennonites and the Brethren.

As it happens, I grew up in Washington County, Md., which borders West Virginia on the south and Pennsylvania on the north.   We had a community of Mennonites, who out-Quaker the Quakers in terms of simple living, plain dress and pacifism.   We also had the Church of the Brethren, whose Sunday services included foot-washing, in imitation of Jesus’ demonstration of humility to his disciples.

Click to enlarge

But neither Quakers, Mennonites or Brethren are a dominant force, even in their home regions.

What the Quakers did do in colonial Pennsylvania was to establish institutions that more democratic than in the colonies to the north and south.   In the early days of American independence, Pennsylvania had the widest voting franchise and the most egalitarian laws, and these continued in place even though their origins may have been forgotten.


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

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One Response to “Albion’s seed in Quaker Pennsylvania”

  1. ashiftinconsciousness Says:

    Excellent post.


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