Posts Tagged ‘American history’

How four of Albion’s seeds sprouted in America

July 17, 2017

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.


How American history should be taught

October 3, 2014

The United States is an exceptional nation because American nationality is not based on race, religion, an ethnic culture or loyalty to a dynasty.  What unites us Americans as a nation are certain foundational ideas, and to a Constitution created to implement these ideas.

These ideas were set forth by the drafters of the Declaration of Independence, who said that —

Writing_the_Declaration_of_Independence_1776_cph.3g09904We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men [1] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed …

I think the best way to understand American history is to understand what led up to the writing of those words, and the consequences that followed.   The history of the United States is largely an argument over the meaning of those words, and the story of the struggles (not always successful) to live up to them.

The history of the United States, like the history of all nations, is a history of crimes and oppression as well as of glory and achievement.  There is nothing exceptional about that, and no reason to hide it.  What makes us exceptional is that we have created a benchmark by which we judge ourselves and by which others can fairly judge us.

Please don’t be hung up on the phrase “all men.”  The logic of the Declaration’s ideas meant that their application ceased, over time, to be limited to white male property-owners and came to apply to all human beings.   .

The Founders, of course, were very different from 21st century Americans.  They didn’t agree among themselves, some of them hated each other and they didn’t necessarily practice what they preached.  To be loyal to their spirit does not mean to try to recreate the USA as it was in George Washington’s administration.  It means to love liberty as the Founders did.

I don’t believe the teaching of American history should be indoctrination.  I don’t believe students should be required to profess belief in American ideals of freedom and democracy, or anything else, but I do believe they should have a concept of those ideals.  If we disagree on what these ideals are, then teach the controversy.

Because when we Americans cease to be a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, when we cease to pledge allegiance to a republic with liberty and justice for all, then the United States of America ceases to longer a nation.  It becomes nothing more a labor force and a consumer market with an army.

‘Who controls the past controls the future’

October 2, 2014

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.

==George Orwell, 1984 

So many people I know seem to have amnesia about the past.  I think this is both sad and dangerous.

I think history is the key to understanding almost everything—how different things were in the past, but how the present is a product of that past.  If you have that knowledge, you have a grounding that will help keep you from being swept away by the propaganda of Big Brother.

But if you don’t have an independent knowledge of history, Big Brother can manipulate you into believing almost anything.

The Democracy Now video above is about a controversy between the Jefferson County, Colorado, school board, and various public school teachers, about how history should be taught.   It’s an important topic.

The school board says the teaching of history should emphasize citizenship, patriotism, the merits of the free market, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.  I personally agree in principle with all of these, but I suspect my interpretation of these principles differs from the school boards.

What is the free market?  Do they think this is what the United States has now?  Do they advocate respect for all authority, or only legitimate authority?  If you respect all authority, what happens to individual rights?  Is patriotism loyalty to the government, loyalty to fellow Americans or loyalty to the Constitution?

And most important: Are these open questions or is there one and only one officially true answer?

The school board specifically opposes material that encourages or condones civil disorder, social strife and disregard of the law.  What, I wonder, do the members think should be taught about the Sons of Liberty, the Boston Tea Party and the Minute Men?

I think if a nation—any nation—is to exist, its children should be taught to be proud of the good things in their national heritage.  But they shouldn’t be shielded from the facts about the bad things.  And every nation, like every person, has both good and bad things in its past.  If children are only taught the good, they’ll become disillusioned and cynical when they finally learn the bad.


Virginia Postrel on the American paradox

July 2, 2011

Virginia Prostel

The paradox of America is that we have built a history and tradition, a national culture, on the defiance of history and tradition.  From William Penn, who would not take off his hat, to Rosa Parks, who would not give up her seat, we teach our children the stories of stiff-necked heroes.  

Rhett Butler, not Ashley Wilkes, is the hero of  Gone With the Wind.   Nobody thinks Huck Finn should return Jim to slavery or stick around and be civilized.  We’re not a by-the-book country.

Click on Dynamist for Virginia Postrel’s web site.