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David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed is an attempt, in his words, to look at "the determinants of a voluntary society" (4). By this, he means that he is studying how the United States evolved into a society that, over the course of its history, has reverence for democracy, capitalism, and...

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David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed is an attempt, in his words, to look at "the determinants of a voluntary society" (4). By this, he means that he is studying how the United States evolved into a society that, over the course of its history, has reverence for democracy, capitalism, and libertarianism.

His book takes a different approach than other histories by building on what he calls a "germ thesis"—that is, studying how England gave rise to the cultures and sub-cultures that flourished over time in the United States. Using the "germ thesis," he traces the development and evolution of four different folkways, which refer to regional and cultural patterns of development. These folkways include the Puritans in New England, the Royalist elite and indentured servants of Virginia, the settlers from the North Midlands of England and Wales in the Delaware region, and the settlers from North Britain and Northern Ireland to Appalachia. His idea is that each folkway had a different pattern of family life, marriage, naming, aging, death, religion, conception of freedom, etc. He defines twenty-four categories of differences for each folkway, and he believes that these differences help define the culture of the region.

His analysis delves into the settlers themselves and presents a detailed study of the ways they imposed their cultural ideals on their individual regions. One of the vital ways in which the folkways affected the regions was their conception of freedom. For example, the Puritans believed in the right of communities to make their own laws, while the Appalachians defined freedom as personal liberty.

The author presents extensive detail to back up his claims about each folkway. For example, he studies the names of children in each region (and the culture they reflected) and studies the vernacular architecture of the region. However, he can also present each folkway as a kind of monolith that obscures differences among members of each region.

Albion's Seed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1986

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 Bay, the Puritans followed the folkways that so many of them had known in East Anglia, the most densely populated and highly urbanized region of England, known for its religious radicalism, especially Puritanism. The New England pattern of settlement, town-meeting government, nuclear household structure, and family relations fit exactly the East Anglian model. The Puritans also maintained the middle-class social structure and values of the east of England, including an emphasis on schooling and learning. Most important, they brought their religion, whose influence dominated the lives of both ordinary settlers and leaders such as John Winthrop and John Cotton. Fischer argues that the Puritan belief in spiritual equality lessened the subordination of women, that New Englanders formed companionate marriages, and that New England parents regarded their children with deep affection. At the same time, their child-rearing practices were often harsh, aimed at breaking the will of the child. In New England, folkways encouraged hard work, moral conscientiousness, and commitment to freedom defined in terms of collective liberty, and continued to do so long after Puritanism itself declined.

Turning to the South, Fischer insists there is much truth to the so-called “Cavalier Myth” of Virginia’s founding. Sir William Berkeley and a small group of like-minded Royalists deliberately transferred to the Chesapeake the folkways of rural Sussex and Wessex in England. They concentrated political power in their own hands, presided over huge landed estates, established Anglican orthodoxy, and recruited thousands of indentured servants from southwest England. They maintained rigid class distinctions and had no desire to encourage either political activism or schooling among the masses. Devoted to the ideas of a hierarchical society, the Virginia elite emphasized both the rights and the responsibilities of the upper class. Family life was extremely patriarchal, and marriages were often quite stormy, due in no small measure to the predatory attitude of males toward women. Rape was severely punished in New England, but seldom so in Virginia, as Fischer points out. Unlike the Puritans, Virginians encouraged their children to be willful, especially the boys, who nevertheless were expected to develop the character, the dignity, and the integrity of the English gentleman. As natural leaders, nothing was more important to the Chesapeake elite than their personal and family honor and their freedom. They were dedicated to liberty, but it was the hegemonic liberty of the upper class, whose extensive freedoms were limited only by the gentlemanly ideal.

Scorned by both the Puritans and the Virginians, the Quakers brought the folkways of Britain’s North Midlands to the Delaware Valley. According to Fischer, the enhanced status of women and the simplicity of speech, dress, building styles, and general way of life so much associated with the Quakers had long been a part of the culture of the North Midlands, where Quakerism was to flourish. Especially important in transferring this set of folkways was William Penn, whose governments for Pennsylvania and Delaware were the most democratic and religiously tolerant in early America. Although male-dominated, Quaker marriages were almost an equal partnership. Quakers were nurturing parents, putting the emphasis upon “godly conversation” rather than corporal punishment. As advocates of the “inner light,” Quakers were ambivalent toward learning; however, they recognized the importance of literacy training and sponsored schools, though not in the comprehensive fashion of the Puritans. Because of their scruples against war, many Quakers would renounce political involvement altogether. In terms of freedom, Quakers were Christian libertarians who defined English rights in terms of “reciprocal liberty,” that is, they believed strongly that every liberty they enjoyed should be enjoyed by everyone else.

Generally disliked by New Englanders, Virginians, and Quakers alike were the immigrants from the British borderlands-northern Ireland, the north of England, and the Scottish lowlands-who brought their particular folkways to the colonial backcountry. Life in Britain’s borderlands was hard, conditioned by periodic warfare, and similar circumstances strengthened these folkways in America. Usually Presbyterian or Anglican in religion, immigrants from the borderlands trusted their emotions and intuition and were not much impressed by learning or even schooling. Despite their general poverty, the British borderlands had their own elite, known as the “Ascendancy,” including families such as the Jacksons, Donelsons, Polks, and Calhouns, who made their way to the colonies. Andrew Jackson was the epitome of the backcountry leader.

In America, the borderlanders found themselves continually threatened by either the Indians or the French, or both. Sex roles were highly differentiated in the backcountry, for men were seen as warriors and women as workers. Their marriages were usually loving, though characterized by considerable domestic violence, and their children were nurtured in ways that enhanced independence and self-confidence. According to Fischer, this method of child-rearing produced fiercely proud, independent, and stubborn men who were always ready to fight for kin and clan. They defined freedom in terms of natural liberty and bitterly resented and resisted restraints of any kind.

Describing these four folkways systematically and in exquisite detail, Fischer makes clear that each regional culture inculcated distinctive personality traits and attitudes toward economics, politics, and government which largely explain the paradoxes of American life. These British cultural patterns have persisted, Fischer claims, because later immigrants to the United States generally adopted the particular folkways of the region in which they settled. For example, New England is still the most educated and least violent region; the South is exactly the opposite. The regional folkways migrated westward with the population, mixing with one another only along the geographical margins. One can dispute the details of the four folkway models, but Fischer demonstrates their impressive explanatory power by relating them to American political developments over the years, beginning with the War of Independence, which is presented in terms of the rising of regional cultures. Moreover, in the light of changing political alliances among the cultural regions, American domestic and foreign policy shifts are made much more comprehensible.

Although in many ways antagonistic, the four British folkways have usually served America well by providing the wide variety of leadership necessary for handling complex situations. Consider American leaders in World War II. As Fischer points out, it was backcountry culture that shaped George Patton, the most brilliant of field commanders; but Patton’s superior was Dwight Eisenhower, descended from Swiss Mennonites and German Pietists of the Delaware Valley, perfectly suited to head the Grand Alliance because he was a soldier who hated fighting. Eisenhower’s boss was George Marshall, the Virginia gentleman of honor, dignity, integrity, and character, embodying the tradition of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Marshall answered in turn to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who despite his Dutch name was by birth and breeding a Yankee. To the war effort, Roosevelt contributed “high moral purpose, clarity of vision, toughness of mind, tenacity of purpose, flexibility of method and an implacable will to win,” all characteristics of leadership traceable to New England folkways.

One can carry this sort of thing too far, and Fischer, in his lengthy concluding chapter, comes close to doing exactly that. His folkway patterns suggest a kind of cultural determinism that is simply too reductionist. Fischer knows that, and readily admits that there are today seven regional cultures in America—Greater New York, the Great Basin, and Southern California departing most dramatically from his four patterns of British folkways. He has four additional volumes in draft which apparently deal with the issues of cultural change over time raised by this work. The next one, ready for publication and entitled American Plantations, examines “other folkways” in early America, including the development of slavery and African-American culture.

If Albion’s Seed is any indication of what is to come, David Hackett Fischer will completely restructure our understanding of American culture. In this most promising beginning, he has prepared the foundation for the histoire totale of the United States.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 28

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.

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