Albion's Seed

by David Hackett Fischer

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

The organizing question here is about what might be called the determinants of a voluntary society. The problem is to explain the origins and stability of a social system which for two centuries has remained stubbornly democratic in its politics, capitalist in its economy, libertarian in its laws, individualist in its society and pluralistic in its culture.

Fischer reviews how scholars have tried to answer this question in regard to American society. He notes how the Anglo-Saxon thesis, in which the representative institutions of the early Germanic tribes were transplanted to America from England, was suggested in the early 19th century by east coast scholars trained in the German historical tradition. This tradition gave way to the Turner thesis, in which the American environment and the open western frontier were believed to better explain America's institutions. This view was dominant among scholars with middle-western roots, progressive politics, and a materialist approach to philosophy.

Fischer argues that the currently dominant immigration model of American culture is asserted by scholars of recent immigrant stock and appeals mainly to ethnic-pluralists that lack connection to the founding stock of British America and the early republic. He offers an alternative to these models, suggesting that four major waves of English speaking settlers to America established four British folkways in early America, whose legacy remains the most powerful determinant of America's voluntary society.

By 1775 these four cultures were fully established in British America. They spoke distinctive dialects of English, built their houses in diverse ways, and had different methods of doing much of the ordinary business of life. Most important for the political history of the United States, they also had four different conceptions order, power, and freedom which became the cornerstones of a voluntary society in British America.

The first of these four major waves identified by Fischer was the mass exodus of Protestant reformers from eastern England to New England from 1629 to 1640. The second wave was a small Royalist elite and a larger number of indentured servants from the south of England to Virginia between 1642 and 1675. The third wave came from the North Midlands of England and Wales to the Delaware Valley between 1675 and 1725. The fourth major wave of English speaking peoples came from the borders of northern Britain and northern Ireland to the uplands and backcountry of the British American south from 1718 to 1775.

Fischer argues that although they carried across the Atlantic a common language, religion, laws, and pride in their British liberties, they differed substantially in their religious denominations, social ranks, regions, historical generations, and attitudes toward order and liberty. He suggests these commonalities and differences gave rise to four competing British folkways underlying four different ideas of freedom in the United States today.

New Englanders became the Dutch of England's Empire. . . . by 1638 more than a hundred vessels engaged in foreign trade from Massachusetts. The West Indies provided a market for grain, meat, fish, butter, and many other products.

By 1647, New England's export markets included Virginia, Barbados, Bermuda, the Caribbean West Indies, Great Britain, Portugal, and Spain. New England's exports included clapboard siding, house frames, barrel staves, masts, timber, pitch, tar, rope, bar iron, iron goods, turpentine, soap, salted fish, butter, pork, beef, cheese, rum, and staples including barley, wheat, rye, oats, and peas. This basic economic system of production and trade, where British American exports paid for imports like tea, Madeira wine, Caribbean sugar, and manufactured imports from Great Britain, remained in place until the onset of the American revolution.

Regional variants in other colonial commercial centers included exports like rice, indigo, and tobacco. This basic system of diversified production and mercantilist trade resulted in British American subjects achieving an unusually high per-capita living standard in a relatively short time. A generation of modern scholarship has increasingly concluded that nowhere in the world did a population of comparable size live so well. This finding has important implications for understanding the optimal political framework for successful economic development, and Fischer's seminal exploration of America's four British folkways suggests a new framework with which to address important questions about the impact of culture on economic development.

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