Saturday, September 15, 2007

Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America

-- by Sara

I don't know how this book got away from me for as long as it did. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America by Brandeis history professor David Hackett Fischer has been on the shelves since the late 80s; yet, somehow, I missed it entirely until someone (I think it was Anne Lamott, but I can't find the link) mentioned it in a Salon article last winter.

I got it. I read it. It was one of those books that truly, deeply, rearranges the way you interpret the things that go on in this country. No one theory explains everything, of course: history, even more than science, is notoriously immune to all attempts at a Grand Unified Theory of Everything. But this book sheds a stunning amount of light on why America is the way it is -- and, especially, the way we are with each other when it comes to topics like racism, authority, values, liberty, power, and the boundaries of who we are as a people.

Getting at the whole thing is likely to take several posts, so this discussion is destined to become an informal series of weekend maunderings until we've talked it through. In the next few posts, I'll simply lay out the essence of Fischer's argument, which will be the starting point for a round of deeper discussions.

This is a big book, upwards of 900 pages (not including 100+ pages of source notes). But most of the book comprises scrupulously detailed documentation of what is, in essence, a very simple thesis.

When we think of early America, we think of "The British" in monolithic terms. The first English settlers are usually portrayed as a handful of adventurers, religionists, and opportunists from one small and rather homogeneous island nation -- bringers of a common-enough language, religion, and culture who worked together to create the basic cultural matrix into which every subsequent group of immigrants eventually had to fit. It turns out, though, that this is just another high-school textbook oversimplification -- one that deafens us to some very important historical machinery that's still grinding on noisily in almost every facet of American culture today.

"The British" who came to America may have been subjects of one crown; but Fischer's exhaustive sociological study shows that they were actually four separate groups, each radically different from the others in terms of class, culture, religion, values, and goals. They arrived in four separate waves, each of which originated in a different part of England and came to dominate a specific part of the Colonies. And in the differences between them, Fischer argues, you can hear the origins of the essential American discussion about liberty, power, rights, and values. It turns out that the very arguments we're having in the blogosphere today started long ago in Puritan town halls, Virginian drawing rooms, Quaker meetinghouses, and Appalachian hollows. Incredibly, the issues are the same; the values, priorities, and worldviews behind them have hardly changed; and even the cultural identities of the people doing the arguing are in many cases largely intact. It's not an exaggeration to say that these four groups are still duking it out wherever Americans gather to discuss their common fate to this day.

Before we get started, I'd like to speak to the apparent Anglocentricism of Fischer's thesis. Albion's Seed was intended to be the first of several books (which, sadly, have not yet materialized) studying the folkways of all the major ethnic groups that have contributed to the American blend. He had plans to discuss the contributions of the Native Americans, Africans, Germans, Scandinavians, Mexicans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and so on -- which means he's quite clear that the English were not the end-all and be-all of American culture as it currently stands. No historian of Fischer's stature could (or would) ever deny that we've all left our marks.

However, the historical fact remains that the English were here first. And that simple primacy gave them the power all pioneers have to frame the national discussion, and establish the baseline society with which all later arrivals will have to negotiate if they're to find their place. Notably: many of them did this by casting their lost with one of the four existing English cultural groups. The Irish, Mexicans, and Native Americans joined up with the more tribal Borderers; the Germans and Scandinavians blended in seamlessly with the pietist Quakers; African-American freemen found a sort-of home among both the Puritans and Quakers. None of these arrangements were entirely smooth; but they did, over time, serve to reinforce and extend the four cultural patterns established by the English.

The next post sketches out the story of each of those four groups. Later posts will look at the way their beliefs and interactions continue to affect American politics and culture, and the implications of this for some of the specific questions we address in this blog.

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