Posts Tagged ‘David Hackett Fischer’

Albion’s seed in Appalachia

July 22, 2017

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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Albion’s seed in Quaker Pennsylvania

July 21, 2017

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.

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Albion’s seed in the South

July 20, 2017

The Cavalier settlers of tidewater Virginia were noted for their strong sense of rank—much more so than the Puritans, Quakers or Apppalachian borderers.   That is a heritage that continues today.

Rank in the old army sense of “rank has its privileges”.   Rank in the sense of expecting men to take off their hats and women to curtsey in your presence.   Rank based not just on wealth and power, but on hereditary privilege.

This was idea behind the 17th and 18th century English class system, based on the idea of the “great chain of being.”  God was at the top, then the King who ruled by divine right, then the different ranks of aristocrats, yeomen and tenants.

David Hackett Fischer wrote in Albion’s Seed that the early Virginia settlers, of all the North American colonists, were the strongest royalists and the most committed to aristocratic privilege.

The Quakers at the other extreme were persecuted because they refused to recognize  rank.   They refused to call people “mister” or “your excellency” or anything but “friend.”

The Appalachian borderers talked to each other as if they were equals, but they respected wealth and power men who were strong enough to acquire it and hold on to it.

The Puritans abbreviated the English order of rank.   They didn’t have hereditary aristocrats, and they didn’t allow any members of their communities to sink into absolute poverty.  But the “meaner sort” were expected to take off their hats and show deference to the “better sort.”

But the Virginia Cavaliers, whose families warred with the Puritans back in Britain, imported the English rank system in all its glory.    Fischer said the Virginians believed in what he called “hegemonic freedom.”   The idea is that you are free to the extent that you have power over other people and nobody has power over you.

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Albion’s seed in New England

July 17, 2017

The Puritan colony in Massachusetts Bay was a much more thoroughgoing theocracy than modern-day Iran.

The Puritan leaders not only banned all religious worship except their narrow version of Calvinism.   They screened newcomers for religious orthodoxy.   Sunday religious worship was compulsory.   They might jail or fine you for such offenses as wasting time.

It’s true, as David Hackett Fischer pointed out in Albion’s Seed, that established churches and religious persecution were the norm in 17th century Europe and its colonies.

Virginia and the other southern colonies, like New England, had tax-supported established churches.  The settlers on the Appalachian frontier settlers did not hold with established churches, but they were quick to drive out any clergy whose preaching didn’t meet with their approval.   Only the Quakers of the Delaware Valley embraced the radical idea of tolerating religious teachings they thought to be in error.

But the Puritan religion was exceptionally narrow, austere and joyless.   It was about human sinfulness, the threat of hell, policing each others’ behavior and listening to hours-long sermons on hard benches in unheated churches.   The Anglican religion of tidewater Virginia, in contrast, involved a rich liturgy, 20-minute sermons and many feast days.

The flowering of New England culture was the result of a revolt against this Calvinist orthodoxy at the dawn of the 19th century.

Transcendentalists rejected original sin, and taught that we all have a divine spark within us.  In that respect, their theology was more like the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light than it was like the old-time Calvinism.

Humanitarian reformers sought to bring about the Kingdom of God by championing the cause of the blind, the deaf, the mentally ill, the American Indian and the black slave.   There, too, New England Congregationalists and Unitarians followed in the footsteps of Quakers.

The things the Yankee reformers retained from Puritanism were moral and intellectual seriousness, belief in education and self-government, and commitment to collective action.

One of the first fruits of the flowering of New England was the emergence of the Republican Party, which was formed to oppose the spread of slavery.   Almost all the famous New England writers and reformers were Republicans.

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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.

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The seeds of America’s culture wars

April 29, 2016

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.

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