Premature Evaluation: Albion’s Seed

Why is America the way that it is?

Wrong question, the author of Albion’s Seed would say. America isn’t any one way, and hasn’t been since the very beginning of European, particularly English, colonization. David Hackett Fischer puts the core of his argument straight into his subtitle: Four British Folkways in America. He identifies four distinct migrations from Britain, and to a much lesser extent Ireland, that shaped American culture and regions down to the present day. These migrations were fairly coherent in origin, destination and religion. Understanding these origins will help understand cleavages in the contemporary United States, and it will help understand America as a whole.

The four migrations that he identifies are Puritans, distressed cavaliers and indentured servants, Quakers, and borderers. The Puritans came from East Anglia and settled New England. The cavaliers and their servants came from the south of England and settled tidewater Virginia. The Quakers came from the north Midlands and settled the Delaware Valley. The borderers came from the border between England and Scotland, sometimes by way of Ireland, and settled the thirteen colonies’ backcountry. Each had a distinct religious tradition: Puritans and Quakers most obviously; cavaliers had Anglicanism; and I haven’t read about border religion yet, this is a premature evaluation after all.

It’s a fascinating argument and a fascinating book. It’s filled with snippets and stories, and for an 800-page tome it zips along nicely. That’s due in part to Fischer’s non-ponderous historical prose, but also in part to the book’s organization. Each group gets roughly 200 pages, and in that space he covers a set list of 15 topics, so that the four are analyzed in parallel. He looks at naming patterns, marriage patterns, views on aging, on death, on hierarchy, and so forth. He argues strongly for religion as the key motivation for many colonists, and for religion’s importance in shaping the folkways that he describes. It’s a thorough discussion.

Though not without its flaws. Most obviously, America’s largest city in colonial times is not mentioned: New York. While religion’s role may have been discounted in 1989, when the book was published, it is more prominent today. Influence on contemporary America is more often asserted than demonstrated. And the book was supposed to be the first volume of five or more that would form a social history of the United States. Subsequent volumes have not appeared, making references to them in the main text or footnotes irritating.

Two related questions follow from Fischer’s argument. First, if the religions and regions of the original migrations are so important for the fabric of America, are they equally so for the contemporary United Kingdom? Why or why not? The topic is obviously beyond the remit of Albion’s Seed, but thinking about it illuminates the claims about influence down to the present. Second, what about later migrations? I think he addresses this a little at the end, but it was probably a question for the subsequent volumes that never appeared.

I think the basic premise is useful, and the details are fascinating. (Last night I learned that Philadelphia cream cheese isn’t actually a cheese, but more like semi-dehydrated sour cream. Who knew?) Some of the patterns do hold, and it is a usable framework for thinking about competing currents in American culture and politics.

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