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Book Review: Albion’s Seed
(David Hackett Fischer)

“Albion’s Seed” is a classic work of ethnography. It is refreshing to read because a book like it could not be written today (it was published in 1989). It’s not that the book has any political angle. Rather, it’s that it totally fails to acknowledge today’s left-liberal preoccupations, in particular the fictive primacy of “identity” and “inclusion” (used, of course, either as a political tool to demand unearned and undeserved benefits, or as a masochistic whip to indulge one’s own irrational self-hatred). In fact, “Albion’s Seed” offers no focus on identity other than ethnic identity as derived from Britain. And there is no effort at inclusion at all, only an effort at truth. Nor does it suggest there is anything evil about America, another necessary abasement for a history to be accepted by the Left. What the book does provide is a huge range of facts, carefully parsed and clearly communicated to the non-specialist reader, in service of explaining why America is what it is today.

The author, David Hackett Fischer, explicitly structured “Albion’s Seed” to avoid “reductive materialist models . . . presently in fashion” (doubtless a reference to Marxist influence of academic history). Further, he sought to find a middle road between old-fashioned history, which Fischer found to lack adequate empiricism, though it offered plenty of interpretation, and modern social history, which offered incomplete empiricism combined with a lack of adequate interpretation. Throughout the book, Fischer offers not just history, and not just empiricism, but interpretation in the light of other disciplines, notably studies of cultural values and economics, to create an integrated “braided narrative.”

What this amounts to is an exhaustive effort to compare and contrast the four British folkways of the book’s subtitle, examining a wide range of different characteristics of each folkway. (A “folkway” is “the normative structure of values, customs and meanings that exist in any culture,” they are “often highly persistent, but they are never static.”) The goal is to shed light on “the determinants of a voluntary society”—how to “explain the origins and stability of a social system which for two centuries has remained stubbornly democratic in its politics, capitalist in its economy, libertarian in its laws, individualist in its society and pluralistic in its culture.” Fischer’s thesis is that despite that fewer than 20% of Americans have any British ancestors at all, the four folkways that are the focus of his book, each a different “freedom way,” “remain the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States today”—in other words, we are the way we are because the nation was founded in the intertwining of these four groups of people, each with an origin in a specific area of Britain, who brought with them the cultural characteristics that marked them in Britain.

The book discusses each folkway and connects its members to their predecessors in a specific area of Britain. The first was English Puritans, mostly from East Anglia, whose settlement centered around Massachusetts. The second was settlers from the south of England, stereotypically “distressed cavaliers,” but including other social classes from the south, who came to Virginia, settling around the Chesapeake Bay. The third was Quakers and members of closely related Nonconformist sects, who settled the Delaware Valley (centered around today’s Pennsylvania). The fourth was borderers from north Britain, including southern Scotland and northern Ireland, who settled the backcountry, primarily Appalachia but also some areas farther north.

Fischer acknowledges that these four folkways do not exhaust all early settlement in America, British or otherwise. Other relevant groups include Dutch in New York and immigrants who preceded the great migrations of the four folkways that are the focus of “Albion’s Seed.” (They also include outriders, like “an eccentric Devon family called Maverick” that settled in Boston, had trouble with the Puritans, moved away, and kept moving as they came into conflict with others, ending up on the Western plains. “Their name was given to range cattle that bore no man’s brand, and became a synonym for independent eccentricity in American speech.”) But all of these were much smaller groups and, in Fischer’s view, much less relevant for the way the four original American folkways expanded geographically and culturally, until later swamped by non-British immigrant folkways, leaving behind as their main legacy a combination view of freedom that makes us who we are today.

For each of the four folkways, Fischer examines each of the following “ways”: speech, building, family, marriage, gender, sex, child-rearing, naming, age, death, religious, magic, learning, food, dress, sport, work, time, wealth, inheritance, rank, association, social, order, power, and, most importantly, freedom. He examines each way, for each folkway, with both quantitative (where available) and qualitative measures. For example, speech is examined with the qualitative indicators of “pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar” and the quantitative indicator of “speech frequencies.” Sex is examined with the qualitative indicators of “ideas and language” and the quantitative indicators of “prenuptial pregnancy, bastardy and fertility.” About 200 pages detailed pages are spent on each of folkway; at the end of each section, the reader has, or at least feels he has, a real grasp of how a prototypical member of that folkway lived, thought, and acted. And, just as importantly, how that differed from a prototypical member of a different folkway. A review can’t do justice to all the fascinating details (for example, you can learn all you want about different methods of food preparation in each folkway, and from where they derived, as well as methods of building and architecture, and endless more). Reading the book is the only way to get all the good information, but I will focus on highlights, as well as Fischer’s overall theme of liberty.

Intermittently, usually in the copious footnotes, Fischer adverts to various competing hypothesis about one matter or another. When he rejects those in favor of his, he says so clearly. When he sees value in them, he says so, and why. He generally rejects outright any ideological theses; he banishes as mostly irrelevant Marxist or other purely materialist revisionist views, or those that, for example, try to prove inanities such as that the Puritans were not strongly driven to precise action by precise religious beliefs. For example, he notes that contrary to revisionists, the Puritans did not come to catch fish, and their religious beliefs were not confined to a small oligarchy. Such pithy summations of matters that doubtless occupy much ink of professional historians add real value to the book, for it gives confidence to the reader that the author has mastered his subject.

An interesting theme to which Fischer repeatedly returns it that not only did each American folkway diverge from its English precedent, which is natural, but each strongly resisted such change, clinging to many cultural elements that had long disappeared in England. Cotton Mather famously called for resistance to “Criolan degeneracy,” and the same spirit, if not as vigorously, appeared in all areas of America. (Although Fischer does not mention it, Cotton Mather was negatively contrasting the Spanish tendency to adopt native customs and intermarry; “criollo” is the Spanish term for local people with all, or nearly all, Spanish ancestors, and, of course, the origin of our term “creole,” which means something somewhat different.)

As to the Puritans, Fischer portrays them much as they are commonly thought of—God-haunted and strict, with very little of a private sphere in their communities. But, in many ways, they were surprisingly modern. Husbands could not verbally abuse wives, much less physically abuse them, and punishments against such abuse were strictly enforced. Men and women were spiritually equal, and in fact women were admitted at higher rates to churches (a process involving a long process of approval, not just showing up on Sunday and signing a list), though men were expected to take most leadership roles. Similarly, men and women were punished identically for sexual sins. There was little hierarchy, with most settlers coming from the middle ranks of East Anglia, although naturally there was some hierarchy, including immense respect paid to the aged. Time focus was on “improving the time”—using one’s time profitability. These, and many more fascinating details, draw a clear, nuanced and compelling picture of Puritan folkways.

Puritan political methods and beliefs were, unsurprisingly, highly influential in later America. Fischer notes that the town meeting, stereotypical of New England and practically a cliché, complete with the famous Norman Rockwell “Freedom of Speech” painting, actually had existed in East Anglia for many centuries prior the Puritan migration; it was neither Puritan nor an American development. As to freedom ways, the Puritan concept of liberty was not borrowed from East Anglia as such, but rather seems largely to have derived from Puritanism filtered through East Anglian customs. Freedom mostly meant “ordered liberty,” which meant numerous individual restraints, imposed on themselves but never by outsiders, and also a recognition of fundamental rights of the commonwealth. Liberty also meant “soul liberty”—“the freedom to serve God in the world,” although in sharply constrained ways. But “ordered liberty” meant “publick liberty,” the right not to be interfered with without the community’s consent, and this concept was instrumental, of course, in touching off the American Revolution.

Fischer next turns to Virginia, home to “indentured servants and distressed cavaliers” from the South of England. We today are perhaps most familiar with a relatively accurate picture of Virginia society, since this is the society that dominates our conception and stereotype of America at the time of the Revolution. Unlike Puritan society, hierarchy was ubiquitous; indentured servitude, slavery and other forms of functional bondage were common. The upper classes were very upper class. For example, the first governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, was a scion of one of England’s noble families, which could trace its ancestry back to a Saxon nobleman who joined William the Conqueror and was killed in 1068 (and to this date, 2016, still owns the same Gloucestershire castle the family has owned since about 1100 A.D.) Religion was mainstream and Anglican; dissenters were punished.

Women were few (at least as settlers) and held low social status; male sexual predation and patriarchy was the norm. However, many women did not take kindly to this, leading to various forms of strife, and physical violence against spouses by men was frowned upon, for what that was worth. Wealthy women often held their own property (which was the norm throughout Europe from the early Middle Ages, and also in America, contrary to myth, although married women tended to have fewer rights to their own property, and little rights to property acquired during marriage, under the doctrine of coverture). But unlike in Puritan New England, divorce was essentially impossible, leading to the following evocative story of a bitterly unhappy marriage, where after a violent argument, the husband, Colonel Custis (presumably no close relation to George Washington’s wife) invited his wife to go driving. “They rode in sullen silence through the Virginia countryside, until suddenly the colonel turned his carriage out of the road, and drove straight into Chesapeake Bay. ‘Where are you going, Mr. Custis?,’ the lady asked, as the horses began to swim. ‘To hell, Madam,’ he replied. ‘Drive on,’ said she, ‘any place is better than Arlington.’” Fischer notes that “Col. Custis ordered a record of his domestic misery should be carved upon his gravestone.”

Time was “killed” by Virginians, including by gambling and fortune telling, rather than “improved” as by Puritans. At the same time, a form of virtue, basically Stoicism, was emphasized. Elements of this can be seen, for example, in George Washington, in his upbringing, his program of self-directed self-improvement, and in his own (largely unsuccessful) upbringing of his step-son. Related to this, in some ways, is the Virginia concept of freedom: “hegemonic liberty . . . conceived of mainly as the power to rule, and not to be overruled by others.” By this means, the entire structure of hierarchy was justified—and not only justified, but found desirable and natural, down to chattel slavery. Social independence was necessary to true freedom (in many ways, although Fischer does not note it, this concept is the same as that of the Greeks in the Classical Age). Nonetheless, within hegemonic liberty could be found the necessary principle that the role of the state had to be minimal, or it would erode the power of the people to rule themselves (or at least the power of the ruling class). Similarly, it implied the importance of the rule of law. Fischer quotes Edmund Burke on the distinctions between this freedom way and the Puritan freedom way. Finally, hegemonic freedom strongly meant dominion over self—again, the Stoic conception of duty over personal choice, or, as John Randolph said, “Life is not as important as the duties of life.” At its best, this combination of freedom ideas produced men like George Washington or Robert E. Lee, or, in a more modern example cited by Fischer, George Marshall.

Fischer notes that early Virginia speech is prototypically what we think of as “Southern,” and that most of it, recognizable to us today, came directly from England. It did not come from African borrowing, and not from local conditions, as “a small minority of radical and Marxist language-historians” would have it. Instead, Africanisms and local conditions somewhat modified an already-distinct way of speaking. This language parallelism continued a long time; Fischer quotes a length a poem in today-extinct Sussex dialect that is largely indistinguishable from what we think of as “African-American” dialect. While perhaps of interest only to a small percentage of readers, this discussion shows Fischer’s distaste for ideological readings of history.

Third, Fischer turns to the Quakers of the Delaware Valley. This group is less noted today (my guess is that the average educated American, asked about Quakers, can come up with only two data points—William Penn and pacifism), but was very important in the early formation of America. Most of these immigrants came from the North Midlands of England—poor areas with heavy Scandinavian, as opposed to Norman, influence. As with the Puritans and the Virginians, very much that was characteristic of this American region was imported directly from England, down to colloquialisms such as “spuds” for potatoes. Hierarchy was minimal (though there was to be “an aristocracy of Christian virtue”); the role of women was significant, including preaching, and although marriage customs were rigid, and marriages to non-Quakers strongly discouraged, women were regarded as near-equals in marriage. Religion was optimistic and decentralized (but there was an enormous amount of Spiritualism and superstition as well). Material belongings were simple and ornamentation and luxury strongly discouraged. Time was “redeemed”—focused on purging oneself of sin and corruption, and Quakers “sought to raise time above the world.” Schedules were rigid to assist in making the best use of time; holidays were rejected, since, as Robert Barclay declared, “All days are alike holy in the sight of God.”

Quaker freedom ways were centered around “reciprocal liberty.” In some ways this was libertarian, in that strong government was rejected, but more so than the Virginians or Puritans, in that liberty was to be extended to all humanity. (The Liberty Bell was bought by the Quakers in 1751 to celebrate the fifty-year anniversary of the Charter of Privileges of Pennsylvania, and its inscription about liberty was taken from Leviticus, where God commanded that every fiftieth year be a Jubilee year, where liberty was granted to all.) Everyone was to have liberty of conscience—not so that there could be a multiplicity of belief, but so that Christian truth would triumph over error, as the optimistic Quakers believed it necessarily would. Slavery was rejected early. Quaker freedom of conscience informed post-American Revolution concepts of freedom of religion, and although the Quakers might find today’s America trying to their optimism, they would doubtless be pleased by the liberty extended to all Americans.

Finally, Fischer evaluates the “backcountry,” settled by immigrants from North Britain. Here, again, there is much truth to the stereotypes. They were poor, prideful, and extremely violent. They rejected natural hierarchy (though they most definitely had an elite, which maintained hegemony over generations in every area they settled), and they favored a militant, violent brand of decentralized, anti-clerical Presbyterian Christianity. These are what are commonly called “Scotch-Irish,” although there were plenty of settlers from the border regions of England as well. Those border regions had always been violent and unsettled, and their mountainous character encouraged the usual characteristics of mountain people—insularity, contempt for central government, a tendency to blood feuds, and poverty. All these people settled mostly in the westernmost part of the colonies, roughly Appalachia down to the Georgia backcountry, with some settlements in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

As in Virginia, male domination was the norm (as, Fischer points out, it always is in warrior cultures). War was more important than work, leading observers to characterize backcountry dwellers as lazy and slovenly, which was only half true. Time was “passed,” subject to rhythms and rituals, without any emphasis on the individual need to do anything in particular with it. And, unsurprisingly, the backcountry freedom was “natural liberty”—extremely limited government, even with respect to law and order, and a distaste for any kind of constraint. This was not new; it was a direct import from the borderlands of England. It was exemplified by famous men such as Patrick Henry, who as early as 1758 was openly accusing the King of tyranny. And, of course, this “natural liberty” has remained an important strain of American thought through today, although perhaps the call for it is even greater than in Patrick Henry’s day, given that the tyranny of the English king was as nothing compared to the tyranny of today’s federal government and its strangulating administrative state.

In the last part of the book, Fischer compares and contrasts the four folkways, both in tabular form and with a brief evaluation of how each folkway created a regional culture larger than its original settlement area, and what those cultures implied for basic American issues, such as relations with the Indians, with the British monarchy, racial conflict, and so on. He closes with a detailed evaluation of each United States presidential election and how the candidates in each related to these original folkways (a relationship that has become harder to trace since 1928, with the rise of non-British cultural impacts in America, and therefore new regional cultures). And, finally, his very last paragraph relates again to freedom ways: “The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be. It has also become the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States. In time, this plurality of freedoms may prove to be that nation’s most enduring legacy to the world.”

“Albion’s Seed” was explicitly created as the first of several related ethnographic studies. The second volume was to be “American Plantations.” The focus there was to be race, expanding on Fischer’s “major conclusion” of the first volume in this regard, that “ “race slavery did not create the culture of the southern colonies; that culture created slavery.” But this book has never appeared. There are a few occasional references on the Internet to it being “in progress,” but I assume it will never appear, since Fischer is 80 years old. Why, I have no idea. Perhaps he realized that his conclusions would be rejected as politically incorrect. In any case, it’s unfortunate, because if that book were half as interesting and insightful as “Albion’s Seed,” it would have been very valuable indeed.

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Published in American History Book Reviews Charles Ethnography & Race


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