Albion’s seed in Appalachia

The hardscrabble people of northern England, the Scottish lowlands and Ulster were cannon fodder for the English-Scottish and English-Irish border wars.

They were uncouth, fierce, stubborn and rebellious, and hard to get along with.

When the border wars ended, they were encouraged to leave for colonial America.  Once here, they were encouraged to leave the coastal settlements for the Appalachian back country.

David Hackett Fischer, in Albion’s Seed, wrote that they were the last of the four great British migrations whose folkways became the basis of American regional cultures.

Fischer stated that each of the folkways had its own concept of freedom.   The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay believed in ordered freedom, the right of communities to live by God’s will and their own laws.  The Cavaliers of tidewater Virginia believed in hegemonic freedom, the power to rule and not be ruled.   The Quakers of the Delaware Bay believed in reciprocal freedom, the duty to allow others all the freedoms you want for yourself.

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The Appalachian backwoodsmen believed in natural liberty, the right to live as you wish without interference by others.   They found this liberty in America and felt at home here.   They and their descendants, when asked their ancestry, are the most likely to merely answer “American.”

Their desire for natural liberty put them in the forefront of the American westward movement.   Kentucky and Tennessee became states before Ohio and Alabama were barely settled from New England and the deep South.

They provide our image of the pioneer West.   Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston and Kit Carson were products of the Appalachian culture.

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Together with the indentured laborers of the Deep South, they also provide our image of poor white people.

And more recently, they provide our image of right-wing, gun-loving, evolution-denying, diversity-hating supporters of Donald Trump.   This latter image, while not completely false, ignores a lot of history

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Appalachia was not slave country.   A number of Appalachian counties voted against secession.   A majority of the people of eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and what later became West Virginia were loyal to the Union.   Several Appalachian communities resisted Confederate authority, including an interracial community in Jones County, Mississippi, under the leadership of Newton Knight.

The populist movement of the 1890s was strong there.   The Appalachian region was the stronghold of the United Mine Workers and the United Textile Workers.

New Deal Democratic leaders such as Sam Rayburn and Alben W. Barkley had roots in Appalachia, which as a region strongly supported the New Deal, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, the most radical  U.S. example of economic planning to date.

The Wagner Act, which gave workers a legal right to be represented by unions, was co-sponsored by David Lewis, a congressional representative from the Appalachian region of Maryland, helped write the Social Security Act of 1934.

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What changed? What happened, for example, to the former Democratic stronghold of West Virginia?

The explanation most commonly given is that Appalachian mountaineers don’t like outsiders, and Barack Obama, with his Kenyan father and Indonesian stepfather, is the ultimate outsider.   There may be some truth in that.

But Obama also was molded by his mother and grandmother, who are descended from one of the original Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Bay.  He is a graduate of Harvard Law School.   He is a product of the New England culture as much as anything else.

David Hackett Fischer said the secret of success of President Franklin Roosevelt was that the New Deal conferred material benefits on all the regions of the country without interfering with the folkways of any of them.

FDR deserves blame for his hands-off attitude toward white supremacy in the South, which ought to have been interfered with.  But liberal Democrats of today seem to have gone to the opposite extreme.

Many of them, like the Puritans, are interested in reforming individual behavior, but not, like the backwoodsman Andrew Jackson, in fighting powerful financial institutions.


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

An Appalachia Reading List by Joshua Wilkey for This Appalachian Life.

White People and the Persistence of Culture by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Donald Trump and the Borderers by Yoni Applebaum for The Atlantic.

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2 Responses to “Albion’s seed in Appalachia”

  1. ashiftinconsciousness Says:

    Very interesting essay.

    Don’t forget that while Andrew Jackson fought the powerful bankers in his battle against Nicholas Biddle and The Bank of the United States, he also was a genocidal maniac. He crossed the border into New Spain and attempted to wipe out the “savage” Seminoles.

    Enjoying this series of essas. 😀


  2. carney3 Says:

    In the first map, I see the widespread modern user-hostile norm of fastidiously refusing to use common sense, easy to follow color coding for various population groups continues.

    This new norm is most notable and silly when the groups involved are solely racial groups – with the comical choice of NOT using white for white, black for black, red or maroon for Amerindian, yellow or something similar for east Asian, brown for Hispanic, etc.

    But even here with ethnic groups within particular larger racial groups also thrown in, we see the same phenomenon. Instead of the most brain dead obvious choice of green for the Irish, we see purple. Pink was the color of the British Empire on world maps, and to this day is the most common color for the UK in many maps, but here it’s lavender. This is not merely silly – it’s actively difficult to follow and make sense of.

    Not all the choices are howlers. Blue, especially navy blue, is probably the best choice for France, as a contrast with British red or pink, and the grayish blue is OK here I suppose. Although “African American” being given maroon (rather than Amerindians getting it) makes little sense, at least that is darkest color in this pallete,


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