Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer, is the most interesting and revealing book about American culture and history that I have ever read, and I guarantee that anyone who reads it will gain a new understanding of our country. The purpose is stated in the Introduction:
Our society is dynamic, changing profoundly in every period of American history; but it is also remarkably stable. The search for the origins of this system is the central problem in American history.
The argument is enunciated a few pages later, after the four British folkways that originally settled here are named: the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Borderers:
. . . the legacy of four British folkways in early America remains the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States today.
Folkways are the "normative structure of values, customs, and meanings that exist in any culture," and Fischer lists twenty-four which he will use to describe each culture, including Speech, Marriage, Child-rearing, Naming, Religious ways, Learning, Food, Dress, Work, Order, and Freedom ways. These sound dauntingly sociological but in the author's deft prose they are fascinating.
The book is organized by the different migrations: first the story of the 20,000 Puritans who came to Massachusetts from East Anglia from 1629 to 1641, then the Cavaliers who settled in Virginia and Maryland from 1642 to 1775, next the Quakers in Pennsylvania and in West Jersey from 1675 to 1725, and last the Borderers (erroneously known as Scots-Irish) who settled the southern backcountry from 1717 to 1775.
The first thing that impresses the reader is the continuity of culture between East Anglia and Massachusetts. The austere cuisine of the Puritans (e.g., baked beans) came from their anti-sensuous religious principles and from East Anglia, where baking was a major cooking way. Similarly, the well known Yankee twang is the "Norfolk whine" in a New World guise, and the saltbox house came from England, too. In the distribution of land, Puritans generally followed patterns among freeholders in East Anglian villages, except that the American distribution, in keeping with the leveling principle embedded in its founding, was more equal. Fischer is careful to show how each culture did not simply duplicate Old World ways but creatively adapted them to a new environment.
The author's discussion of the Puritan's freedom ways or ordered liberty is full and nuanced as he demonstrates its manifold meanings. In one sense it was collective as in the "liberty of Boston," where public liberty meant that they could impose restraints on themselves in their own ways (by town ordinance, for example) but would fiercely resist outside interference. A second meaning was "liberties" extended to individuals or classes but not to all. Soul liberty was freedom to serve God in the world (in a Calvinist way, of course, and no other). There was also freedom from the tyranny of circumstance -- poor laws, for instance, guaranteeing freedom from want. This Puritan conception of ordered liberty was very important in the history of America as it interacted with different conceptions of the other colonial cultures.
To move from Puritan Massachusetts to Cavalier Virginia is a very real shock, because Sir William Berkeley, royal governor for more than thirty years, deliberately shaped the colony in a royalist, hierarchical way by encouraging emigration by Royalist refugees during the English Civil War, granting them large estates, and making them the ruling class in the colony. They came from another part of England, the southwest, marked by deep inequalities and powerful oligarchies of large landowners. The immigration pattern was very different from New England, where families had predominated; in Virginia males predominated by four to one and seventy-five percent were indentured servants. This was a colony for a small elite and a large underclass.
As in the description of Puritan folkways, the reader is surprised and amused by some of the information, for example that the well known southern accent, pronunciation, and dialect came originally from southwest England where these speech ways predominate: lick for beat, bide for stay, howdy, shuck for husk, woebegone, grit for courage, flapjack, moonshine, get shut of for get rid of, jeans, chitterlings or chitlins for entrails, holler, no-count for worthless. And so the account continues, tracing the roots of vernacular architecture, family ways, predatory attitudes to women (which predated slavery and were not caused by it). Let me quote the book on cooking:
. . . highly seasoned, with much roasting, simmering, and frying . . . methods of [English] preparation called "Dorset fashion" or "Dorset cooked."
Virginia's ruling elite . . . required an underclass that would remain firmly fixed in its condition of subordination. The culture of the English countryside could not be reproduced in the New World without this rural proletariat. . . . The South was not founded to create slavery; slavery was recruited to perpetuate the South.
As for liberty, the Virginia idea was hegemonic -- control of oneself, the power to rule and not be overruled by others. Fisher explains how this is only explicable in a society that conceives relations in hierarchical terms. Applied to the self -- a "truly free man must be the master of his thoughts and acts" -- hegemonic liberty was a noble ideal, and although the hierarchical elite is long gone, "the idea of an autonomous individual, securely in command of self, is alive and flourishing."
We think of Pennsylvania and West Jersey as Quaker settlements, not only because of William Penn's foundational role and the numerical preponderance of Quakers there, but because their ideas and principles guided the colony long after their control lapsed. In fact, the area was something of a melting pot, with Welsh, Irish, German, and Dutch settlers recruited by Penn for their compatibility with Quakerism. Like the other colonists, the Quakers came from a distinct part of England, the North Midlands, where the culture made a virtue of simplicity and plain speech, and the values of both a region and a class affected the Quaker emigration. The author works through the folkways, describing Penn's background and purposes, the nature of the Quaker family, marriage and the equality of women, child raising, diet, work attitudes, wealth ways, and so on. When he tells of their dialect, I hear the speech of my childhood, for we lived in New Jersey although we are largely of Puritan descent. The culture, especially what might be called thrifty business ways, is familiar.
The Quaker way of order is particularly interesting, based as it was on mutual forbearance, social peace in which each individual was restrained from intruding on the peace of others. They were the only American colonists who believed in, and practiced, freedom of conscience. The great Liberty Bell, which we associate today with the War of Independence, was actually installed in 1751 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Penn's Charter of Privileges which guaranteed their liberty, reciprocal liberty that embraced all humanity: every liberty demanded for oneself should also be given to others.
The last and largest (one quarter million in 60 years) colonial immigration was that of the Borderers, and it was the only one launched without a consciously articulated purpose. Driven by material need from their home grounds -- England's northern borders, the Scottish lowland borders, Ulster across the Irish Sea -- in an area that had been fought over for 700 years. There was a very small elite, but most were farmers, farm laborers, and semiskilled craftsmen, a group humbler in rank than any of the other colonists, but they were remarkable for their fierce pride, an important characteristic they would carry into the backcountry -- western Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah and East Virginia, the frontiers of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. They were tough, belligerent people, as they had to be in the Border country, united for protection in clans, and their ethos served them well in the backcountry where they had to face fierce Indian antagonists, like the Cherokees. The American frontier did not shape the Borderers' culture, but it reinforced it. The archetypal frontiersman of our literature and iconography is actually a Borderer.
Fischer makes this astute observation about their childrearing ways:
Its primary purpose was to foster fierce pride, stubborn independence, and a warrior's courage in the young [male]. An unintended effect was to create a society of autonomous individuals who were unable to endure external control and incapable of restraining their rage against anyone who stood in their way.
Anyone who has lived in the backcountry knows about that. Girls, of course, were raised to be self-denying, consorts and helpmeets to their warrior husbands.
Anti-clerical but religious (Presbyterian) in a way, derived from practices on the borders, that favored camp meetings and an emotional, personal, evangelical faith. Their cuisine, modified by back country conditions (changed mutton for pork and corn for oats), was in the old tradition. So clabbered milk, potatoes, griddlecakes (unleavened dough, baked on a griddle on the open hearth) were staples. Whiskey was also an import. Another surprising revelation is that what we think of as "country western" dress style -- shirts with a yoke, tight pants, etc. -- also came from the borders, as the "dress ways of backcountry were designed to magnify sexual differences." Backcountry farming, derived from the old country, was mainly herding, but they substituted pigs for sheep and developed what became the Texas longhorn from border progenitors. It was extensive farming, herding animals in woodlands, eventually driving them long distances to lowland markets, the kind of work that's intense for short periods and then slack, which led to their much-noted "indolence." The image of the hillbilly sprawled on a cabin porch with a jug of moonshine expresses this. For all their self-reliance, land distribution was very unequal, the most extreme of all the colonies, just as it had been in the old country. As recently as the 1980s, two-thirds of the land in Appalachia was owned by five percent of the population.
There was a large rural underclass of tenants or squatters called by names -- hoosier, redneck, cracker -- derived from old border usage (surprise!), terms that meant the same mixture of poverty and pride. The question of liberty, a central concept of each colony, among such men meant "natural" liberty: minimal government, light taxes, the right of armed resistance to authority when it infringes liberty, but intolerant of dissent or disagreement.
The Conclusion, just as fascinating as what has gone before, moves forward into our history after the Revolution and so on up until the 1980s (when the book was published), demonstrating the persistence of the regional cultures by analyzing events like the Whiskey Rebellion, the Constitutional Convention, and presidential elections. Fischer adds a new dimension to our politics. And he shows how they moved out from their original settlements to spread across the continent (Borderers to the Southwest, Puritans settling the old and new NorthWest, etc.), and how later immigrants assimilated to the regional cultures where they settled. Fischer has some very interesting things to say about how cultures persist:
[It] is not the same as stasis. Many things must happen if a culture is to be transmitted from one generation to the next. . . . [It] has to be recreated anew in each generation.
Which is why we should be trying hard to restore the teaching of American history in our schools.
Let us end this essay on a note befitting the real achievement of this wonderful book.
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 . . . [creating] a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be . . . the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States. In time, this plurality of freedoms may prove to be [our] most enduring legacy to the world.
In the next issue: Lark Rise to Candleford. *
It is to me a new and consolatory proof that wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights." --Thomas Jefferson