Albion's Seed

by David Hackett Fischer

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Critics have called Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America the "finest work of synthesis in early American history in more than fifty years". In its nearly 900 pages, Fischer convincingly argues that folkways are functioning systems of high complexity that remain operative in today's advanced civilizations, where they are augmented by technology and institutions. The author drills down into the folkways of what he considers to be the four cultures that have had the greatest influence on modern American civilization. These folkways include four complementary and sometimes conflicting sets of speech ways, building ways, family ways, marriage ways, gender ways, sex ways, child-rearing ways, naming ways, age ways, death ways, religious ways, magic ways, learning ways, food ways, dress ways, sport ways, work ways, time ways, wealth ways, rank ways, social ways, order ways, power ways, and freedom ways. The author argues these four cultures have been enormously successful in transmitting their outlook to later immigrants settling in regions where these cultures predominate.

The four main sections contain a detailed analysis of these four culture groups of English speaking settlers. "East Anglia to Massachusetts: The Exodus of the English Puritans, 1629 to 1641" describes the tens of thousands of English subjects that settled in New England during the period of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. They were roughly twice as literate as their countrymen and largely came as groups of English middle-class families. A skilled artisan class comprised the base of this society, and at its apex was an aristocratic gentry of Cambridge University-educated scholars, merchants, lawyers and magistrates. It was this latter group that established the first American schools, the Boston Latin School and Harvard. They believed in mixed government with the lower legislative house representing the democratic element, the upper legislative house the aristocratic, and the chief magistrate and Captain General of the military representing the executive or monarchical element. This system was similar to that established earlier in Virginia and subsequently in the other colonies. Fischer argues that their ideal of ordered liberty was based on the four libertarian ideals of collective liberty, individual liberty, soul liberty, and freedom from the tyranny of circumstance. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt represented different aspects of this influential culture.

In "The South of England to Virginia: Distressed Cavaliers and Indentured Servants, 1642 to 1675" the author describes the departure of Sir William Berkeley, an Oxford-educated courtier from a cadet branch of an ancient noble family, to Virginia, where he would shape the colony's development for the next thirty-five years. Berkeley transformed Virginia from a rough-and-tumble society into a flourishing colony with a prosperous economy and a stable social order under his aristocratic elite. Berkeley took advantage of the social turmoil in the wake of the English Civil War to attract this polished elite of Royalist cavaliers that would set the agenda for Virginia society for generations. Whereas New England society was diamond-shaped, with a large middle-class and relatively small elite and laboring class, Virginia's was pyramid-shaped, with the largest number of settlers coming as indentured servants rather than as families. The Virginia elite's idea of hegemonic liberty was that freeborn Englishmen of high estate had more liberty by right than others of lesser estate, an outlook which allowed slavery to flourish in the colony. By the 18th century, these Royalist families would become staunch Whigs like their counterparts in England, but through the American Revolution and the 19th century, the idea became less hierarchical and more egalitarian, as eventually everyone in America was admitted to the ruling class. The idea of...

(This entire section contains 1101 words.)

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hegemonic liberty was no longer the privilege of a small elite but of every autonomous citizen securely in command of self. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Robert E. Lee are examples of American leaders from this tradition.

"North Midlands to the Delaware: The Friends' Migration, 1675 to 1725" describes the Quaker migration and the society's evolution from a radical Millenarian sect (so radical that the orderly New Englanders expelled them for appearing naked in church) to an enlightened, liberal (in the 18th-century sense), and commercially prosperous culture. This culture had its greatest impact on America in the period when Philadelphia hosted America's colonial leaders during the revolution and Constitutional Convention. Unlike the proprietary colony's leader, Sir Wiliam Penn, they were mostly of yeoman origin (lower middle class), but their thrift and commercial acumen soon generated a Quaker elite. Their idea that their rights and liberties were rooted in the immemorial customs of the English-speaking peoples was similar to the New Englanders and Virginians. The Quakers generally believed, however, that every liberty demanded for oneself should be extended to others, giving their outlook a more egalitarian cast. Not believing in politics, their longer-term impact on America's leadership has been more muted, although many American presidents have some partial Quaker ancestry.

In "Borderlands to the Backcountry: The Flight from Northern Britain, 1717 to 1775," the author recounts the roots and evolution of the largest wave of British settlers from northern Ireland and the borderlands between northern England and the lowlands of Scotland. These newcomers were mostly poor, yet fiercely proud and independent. They poured in through ports like Philadelphia and made their way into the uplands and backcountry of the south, where they re-established a clan-based society that strongly replicated their culture back home. They were fleeing high rents and taxes, shortage of food, and what they called the "rapacity" of English landlords. Leaders from this part of Britain were known as "the ascendency," and they quickly established their leadership of the clans in the backcountry where, despite myths of frontier equality notwithstanding, inequality was actually greater than in most other rural areas of British America. Their idea of natural liberty was not reciprocal and did not brook dissent or disagreement. This attitude gave rise to constant feuding, disputes, and raids that characterizes the often violent life of the border clans in the British periphery. The martial skills and bravery of this group has led them to take a leading role in military affairs since the 18th century. Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan are representative of this group.

The author then traces each of these four freedom ways into the 20th century. Fischer concludes that American liberty was never a single idea, but rather a set of different and often contradictory traditions in "creative tension" with one another. He argues this diversity of competing libertarian ideas has created a culture more open than any single tradition could have done, and that this plurality of freedoms may prove to be America's "most enduring legacy to the world."