Albion's Seed

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Albion is an ancient name for the island of Britain, Celtic or possibly pre-Celtic in origin. In Albions’ Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer argues that the origins of American culture are not to be found in either the frontier or ethnic pluralism. Rather, Fischer locates them in four patterns of folkways brought from Great Britain and established in the British Colonies by successive waves of immigrants before 1776. Although less than 20 percent of Americans today are of British stock, Fischer contends that British folkways nevertheless retain much of their vitality, having been adopted by millions of non-British immigrants who subsequently came to the United States. Based largely on empirical data drawn from an amazing variety of primary and secondary sources, this remarkable book brilliantly illuminates both the American past and present. Indeed, it is likely to transform American historiography, both in terms of theory and methodology.

A professor and head of the history department at Brandeis University, Fischer is a leading scholar of early America and American historiography. His first book, The Revolution in Early American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy (1965), documented efforts to transform the Federalist Party and adapt it to the democratic politics of the first American party system. His second book, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970), exposed the sloppy logic, the unwarranted conclusions based on impressionistic sources, and the inept application of statistics that have characterized much historical writing. Rejecting historical relativism, Fischer urged scholars to refine empirical methods and apply historical analysis to clarify the context of contemporary problems. In his third book, Growing Old in America (1977), Fischer followed his own advice, bringing together demographic data and literary sources to place popular perceptions of old age in historical perspective.

Like many other scholars, Fischer celebrated the new social history of the 1960’s because of its rigorous empiricism and its reach toward the histoire totale of American life. Instead of unifying the discipline, however, the new social history has itself divided into many subgroupings. Doubting the utility of either materialism or modernization as organizing concepts, Fischer became increasingly convinced that folkways, defined as “the normative structure of values, customs, and meanings that exist in any culture,” have largely shaped the American experience.

Simply put, Fischer’s thesis is that between 1629 and 1775 four successive waves of English-speaking immigrants transplanted their distinctive folkways in different parts of early America. First, from 1629 to 1640, Puritans from the east of England founded Massachusetts Bay. Second, between 1624 and about 1675, small numbers of Royalist aristocrats and thousands of indentured servants from the south and west of England settled the Chesapeake Colonies, especially Virginia. Third, Quakers from the English Midlands immigrated to the Delaware Valley between 1675 and 1725. Last came the settlers from the north of England, the Scottish lowlands, and northern Ireland-the British borderlands—who settled the Appalachian back-country between 1718 and 1775. According to Fischer, these immigrants established distinctive folkways that have largely determined the nature of American society and culture yesterday and today.

To demonstrate this complex transmission of culture, Fischer carefully assembled empirical data on twenty-four categories of folkways. They include speech patterns, building customs, family relations, the naming and nurturing of children, attitudes toward courting and sex, the elderly, death, religion, magic, learning, food, dress, work, time, wealth, rank, power, and freedom. The result is an encyclopedic work of almost one thousand pages, including thirty-six maps, fifty-two illustrated drawings, and 117 tables on demographics, genealogy, land tenure, and voting patterns. Fischer devotes about two hundred pages to each of the regional folkways, concluding with a lengthy chapter on their continued vitality in twentieth century America. His knowledge of primary and secondary sources from both Great Britain and America is simply staggering. Not only does he build upon and expand the findings of the new social history; he incorporates the conclusions of traditional historians and scholars from many different disciplines. In short, Albion’s Seed is a scholarly masterpiece, deftly combining problem-solving with storytelling, and filled with erudite insights. All this makes for lively and fascinating reading for the scholar and the layman alike.

Fischer is both convincing and eloquent. In Massachusetts...

(The entire section is 1986 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Library Journal. CXIV, September 15, 1989, p.121.

The New Republic. CCI, October 30, 1989, p.27.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, February 1, 1990, p.18.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, February 11, 1990, p.10.