Title: Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America
Author: David Hackett Fischer
Categories: Cultural History, Social History, Migration, Geography
Place: Massachusetts, Delaware Valley, Virginia Tidewater, Southern Backcountry
Time Period: 1629-1750
Fischer crafts a massive synthesis of colonial America that centers around the question of cultural origins. Why do certain regions in America have different cultural characteristics? His answer stems from a kind of revision of an anthropological "germ theory" that was popular in late 19th century, as he argues that four major regions in the colonies stemmed directly from "folkways" of culture transmitted from Britain, each of which can be described in a taxonomy of characteristics (speech, food, religion, architecture, family, sex, etc.). Fischer posits that the distinctiveness of these four regions gave rise to the pluralism and libertarianism of America needed to accommodate these differences within one national framework.
He has been roundly criticized for his characterizations in all four regions, with critiques ranging from his characterizations of both the English regions the cultures stemmed from and the classifications of the American regions they were transmitted to. Some think he is also ahistorical, treating culture as largely static and reading back and forwards temporally far too loosely. Especially in New England and Delaware Valley, some argue that their characteristics are not marked by geographical origins, but by religious origins. He disregards or downplays material conditions and instead focuses on cultural primacy. Finally, his emphasis on elites, while somewhat understandable given their influence, presents a distorted and narrow view into the majority of people in the regions.
Fischer's Four Folkways:
1. Massachusetts stemmed from the Great Migration of English Puritans in 1630s, who were of middling and upper-middling means from the east of England ("East Anglian"), under an elite of Puritan ministers. This folkway was marked by relative homogeneity, stable families, older demographics, and a more balanced sex ratio. Fischer argues that it was essentially a conservative folkway that attempted to strive backwards for lost piety and had harsh institutional mechanisms for control. Finally, it was marked by several different conceptions of freedom, including spiritual freedom to focus on God, a collective liberty that restrained individuals, and more contemporary notion of liberty of protecting people from basic wants.
2. Tidewater Virginia stemmed from the Royalist Cavaliers, who were loyal to the crown during the English Civil War in the 1640s and came from Southwest England (embodied by Governor William Berkeley). These elites were actively recruited and established a hegemonic stranglehold on the region, lording over a stratified society in which 75% were poor indentured servants. They followed the Anglican church and cherished their English cultural inheritance. They ordered their society in an extremely hierarchical manner following the Anglican church and institutionally deeply tied to the crown and systems of rank and status. They crafted an ideology of "hegemonic liberty," the power to rule over others and where liberties were not universal but divvied up according to rank.
3. Delaware Valley stemmed from Quakers from northern England counties, whose ideological framework laid the ground for structuring one of the most pluralistic societies in the region. It was a culture that valued commerce and industry, and that ordered society according to keeping the peace between people rather trying to enforce unity or hierarchy. Political parties emerged fairly early on and centered on ethnic divisions. Finally, freedom centered on reciprocal (golden rule) liberty, religious liberty, and growing antislavery sentiment.
4. The Southern Backcountry stemmed from England's northern borderlands of Ireland, northern England, and southern Scotland. It was a mixed, if largely impoverished group, led by the "Ascendancy" social class of English borderlands. Fischer argues that the "Scotch-Irish" label is a misnomer, and was much more mixed. Society was structured around a culture of retaliation and retribution, and politics that were marked by improvisation and personal leadership ("men of influence") like the future Andrew Jackson. Finally, its conception of freedom revolved around "natural liberty" that stressed personal autonomy from institutions.
*From Fischer's response in the WMQ:*
Fifteen major points:
1. Albion's Seed is a cultural history in an anthropological sense
2. It deals with origins of the United States in four major migrations from Britain to America, defined by their religious beliefs, social rank, historical generation, and regional origins.
3. The Great Migration to Massachusetts Bay stemmed from English Puritans of middling and upper-middling means from the east of England ("East Anglian"), led by Puritan ministers.
4. Tidewater Virginia was settled by a mass of indentured servants coming from south and west of England and were led by Royalist and Anglican elite who came from commercial backgrounds
5. The Delaware Valley came from Quakers from the North Midlands of England and Wales, most from lower-middling ranks and whose leaders were a rich Quaker elite.
6. Southern backcountry came from borderlands of northern Britain and the north of Ireland, migrating mostly in families and as New Light Presbyterians or low-church Anglicans. The elite in this group came from the northern border "Ascendancy" families.
7. Immigrant groups actively created new cultures from old materials (?)
8. The different cultures can be differentiated through different anthropological categories (speech, marriage, food, etc.)
9. All four cultures developed in similar stages. After settlement they faced crises as elite became conflicted, then underwent a period of consolidation centered on laws and institutions, and finally a long process of transformation into new identities
10. Four geographic regions expanded from initial hearths (but doesn't encompass all of America) that encompassed vast majority of colonists - calls for revision of traditional geographic taxonomy of colonies
11. A fifth culture of England's ruling class challenged all four cultures
12. Regional distinctiveness was maintained for years beyond the Revolution
13. Until early nineteenth century, regional elites actively shaped immigration and influenced ethnic diversity, argues that new immigrants more assimilated regional culture rather than American culture
14. Four cultures dominated American politics through the 20th century.
15. The ongoing dominant paradigm of pluralism and libertarian culture is a sign of continuing influence of trying to preserve different cultural regions
Key Themes and Concepts
- Four "folkways"
1. East Anglian (New England Puritans)
2. South of England (Cavaliers in Virginia)
3. North Midlands (Quakers in Middle Colonies)
4. Borderlands (Lowland Scots, northern Irish, northern British in the backcountry)
- Importance of elites in trying to recreate British culture
- The presence of four different "freedom ways" worked together to necessitate an expansive pluralism and libertarianism in order to accommodate all of them.
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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