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Mothers of Us All

Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America

by David Hackett Fischer
Oxford University Press, 946 pp., $39.95

Most historians don’t much like generalizations. Indeed they make a trade of showing that this or that generalization about the past will not work here or there or then. Only a few are bold enough to marshal the manifold particulars of history into some larger configuration that seems to make sense both here and there, both then and now. The rest of us can then devote monographs to demonstrating that what seems to make sense does not in fact do so when tested against what actually happened at a particular time and place.

David Hackett Fischer is a bold man. His new work, of which the large volume under review is only the first of several, will treat the entire history of the United States as the product of four competing and interacting regional cultures, all of them originating in the British Isles and all of them well established in America by the end of the eighteenth century. It is predictable that before the second volume appears, specialists in the field will have found a great deal that does not make sense in the first volume. But it is also predictable that this volume will give direction not simply to the author’s future work but to the research of many other historians. If it is bold, it is not foolhardy. While it offers sweeping generalizations, it supports them with copious evidence and opens new perspectives on familiar facts.

Fischer identifies his four regional cultures as (1) New England, originating in the East Anglian counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex and brought to America in the years between 1629 and 1641; (2) Virginian, brought from the South of England, 1642–1675; (3) Delaware, brought by Quakers from the North Midlands of England, 1675–1725; and (4) the back country, brought from the northern borderlands of England, the lowlands of Scotland, and northern Ireland, 1717–1775. He recognizes that there were immigrants to America from other regions and at other times, but he sees these four as dominating American history, and he devotes most of his nine hundred pages to describing and differentiating their distinctive “folkways.” He breaks these down into no fewer than twenty-four categories of customs and attitudes, ranging from dress, eating, and the names given children (Virginians were fond of “Edward,” but there was only one Edward in the first forty classes at Harvard) to attitudes toward wealth, work, power, and freedom. For each of his four cultures he systematically examines each of his twenty-four categories of “ways.”

Even in nine hundred pages no one of these ways can be treated in depth. Fischer necessarily leaves out the complexities that have filled the pages of more specialized works, though for some of his categories few specialized works exist (Fischer himself has written one of the few dealing with attitudes toward old age). For his purpose the complexities are perhaps beside the point. His aim is to discover the attitudes prevailing in each culture that distinguished it from the others and to show that each set of attitudes originated, not in the environment of that part of America where the migrants settled, but in the British regions from which they came. Life in the New World frequently required adaptations and adjustments, but seldom to the point of reversing the patterns that prevailed in the Old.

The text is supported with maps, tables, and highly effective drawings by Jennifer Brody, copied from original paintings and photographs and artifacts. The cumulative effect is impressive. Although these groups, all originally British, necessarily had much in common (enough to make them join in a new nation), by the time Fischer has gone through his twenty-four categories for each of them, whatever exceptions there may be, we are convinced of the distinctive character of each. He offers us not only the evidence derived from what people said and did at the time, but quantitative evidence (the details happily consigned to footnotes) in which we can see, for example, that prenuptial pregnancy was common in the back country and uncommon in New England, that wealth was more concentrated in a few hands in Virginia than in New England and still more concentrated in the back country. In each case he attributes the differences not to the force of the market or the means of production or the environment, but to the folkways of a British region transplanted to an American one.

The evidence is strongest where it deals with behavior, with rituals of marriage and death, with dress and diet and bringing up children. As it approaches more sophisticated categories of attitudes—toward power and authority and freedom—it necessarily depends heavily on the author’s interpretation of less objective evidence. In other words, it is most convincing in dealing with popular culture where popular culture does not intersect high culture, or where the attitudes in question have not been sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.

For the most part Fischer avoids intellectuals and intellectual history. For example, although “religious ways” is one of his categories, he devotes only two pages to the theological beliefs of early New Englanders as against five to their eating habits. Whether any popular culture can be understood in isolation from its accompanying high culture is an open question. Many historians will doubt that Fischer has understood early New England (a reader will have some difficulty in recognizing Fischer’s New England as the same place that David Hall has delineated in his brilliant new synthesis of popular culture and high culture there).1 Others will take issue with his revival of the old interpretation of the royalist cavalier origin of Virginia’s folkways and with his attribution to the Quakers of so dominant a position in the folkways of the Delaware region.

It is perhaps rash to predict that there will be less dissent from his dazzling reconstruction of back-country culture, where attitudes were least touched by thought and most sharply distinguished from their counterparts in other regions. The migrants here, usually identified as Scotch-Irish, can be understood more properly, Fischer shows, as coming from the borderlands: the English counties of Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland, Durham, and the North Riding of Yorkshire, and not simply from Ulster or the nearby Scottish lowlands. This was a region where centuries of violence had generated attitudes and shaped customs that emphasized masculine strength and feminine subservience. Carried to the back country of America, the borderland ways were easily continued and too easily attributed by historians to the influence of the frontier environment. It will come as a surprise to many to discover that the camp meeting was not an invention of pioneer American preachers but an old borderland institution, that the “regulators” of the Carolinas were carrying on a practice familiar from their homeland, and that such familiar words as “leather-stocking,” “redneck,” and “cracker” were not Americanisms but imports.

In his treatment of this and of his other cultures Fischer ranges easily from Britain to America and from the seventeenth century to the eighteenth. Although he properly insists that none of his cultures was static and that their folkways developed and changed over time, his interpretation is basically unhistorical. It posits immigration during a limited period from a particular region as the determining factor in each of his cultures. The cultures themselves then become relatively timeless, and it is possible to use evidence from later periods to describe practices presumably established at the outset. What the New Jersey visitor, Philip Fithian, saw in Virginia in the 1770s becomes evidence of Virginia’s religious ways in general. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s recollections of her nineteenth-century childhood in Connecticut, embodied in her novel Oldtown Folks, are drawn on heavily for a number of New England ways, presumably established in the seventeenth century. And the author’s own experiences buttress the descriptions of habits and attitudes that still persist: the volume is studded with phrases like “even today,” “even in the twentieth century,” “even in our own time.” The ladies of Beacon Hill today, whose “hats appear to have arrived in the hold of the Arbella” give testimony to the “sadd colors” supposedly favored by their Puritan forebears.

The timeless continuity of cultures extends across the ocean. In the absence of direct evidence on this side of the water, Fischer draws on sources in the regions from which the migrants departed. What he refers to as “the colonial mood of cultural nostalgia” gives a certain plausibility to this tactic. As Marcus Lee Hansen observed many years ago, immigrants tend to cherish and magnify the customs and institutions that they are able to bring with them to an alien country. In the effort to sustain their identity they cling to ancient customs (and ancient speech) long after these have disappeared in the homeland. Hence customs that prevailed in sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Britain may furnish a clue to those of eighteenth-century America.

A clue, but not a proof. It is a little disconcerting to find the practices of American settlers described so largely from descriptions penned in England. Anyone who has studied seventeenth-century Virginia knows how thin the original sources are. Virginians were not as fond of keeping records as New Englanders were, and many of the records they did keep were destroyed in the Civil War. One can thus sympathize with the author’s difficulties in discovering what Virginians’ attitudes were about twenty-four matters, on many of which they left no record. All the same, since the author is bent on demonstrating that immigrating royalists dominated the culture, it seems a little circular to draw as heavily as he does on the writings of English royalists like Sir John Oglander and Sir Robert Filmer to portray folkways in a country they never saw.

Fischer’s boldness in the use of evidence in this fashion enables him to place his four cultures by the time of the American Revolution as distinct ways of life, differing from each other as much as the different nations of Europe. The description of each culture builds from small matters of everyday life into more controversial matters of power and authority, culminating in each case in what he calls “freedom ways,” the differing conceptions of liberty that seem to have guided the residents of each region in their relations with one another and with the rest of the world. New Englanders were characterized by a sense of “ordered liberty,” liberty for specific ends, informed by the religious purposes that lay behind the original emigration from England, and continuing to give New Englanders a greater willingness than others to coordinate liberty and public purpose. Virginians believed in “hegemonic liberty,” that is, extensive liberty for the ruling class but less for those they ruled. Quaker, and thus Delaware, people were more ready to do as they were done by: they believed in “reciprocal liberty.” The border folk, as befitted their violent origins and their frequent defiance of official authority, were devoted to “natural liberty,” which was largely a matter of every man for himself without regard for anyone else’s right to disagree.

Fischer’s definition of these types is more subtle than a summary can indicate and the more persuasive by coming after the enumeration of the other folkways in which it fits. “Freedom ways” are the crucial factor in a concluding section of the book that is perhaps a preview of succeeding volumes. In 116 pages he gives us an overview of American history from the Revolution to the present as a product of the interaction, extension, and development of his four cultures. Some of the interpretations are ingenious: the American Revolution as a joining of the four cultures against an attempt by a new British imperial elite to undermine all of them; the Revolutionary War as four different wars occurring successively in the four different regions; the Constitution as a series of compromises among the three eastern regions, excluding the back country. The rest of American political history is a story of shifting coalitions through which the different regions grouped and regrouped to control the central government and to adapt to new waves of immigration. Even the differing battle tactics of different generals in the second World War can be seen as reflecting the differing cultures in which they grew up.

The difficulty with a thesis that explains so much is that it explains too much. One is reminded a little of a much older and bolder book that astonished historians of American religion in 1930. T.C. Hall in The Religious Background of American Culture discovered that virtually every religious movement in American history owed its origins to the dissenting tradition begun by John Wycliffe and the Lollards in fourteenth-century England.2 The Plymouth Pilgrims, the Massachusetts Puritans, the Great Awakening of the 1740s, Mormonism, Christian Science were all to be accounted for in terms of this tradition. But to explain what such diverse groups and movements had in common with the others is to explain nothing of any significance about any of them. Behind every large-scale generalization about history lurks the danger of triviality. Fischer’s thesis is much more complex and sophisticated than Hall’s. On the whole it illuminates without trivializing the topics it touches. And it gives us a systematic depiction of customs and attitudes that defined the way of life in four admittedly distinct and different regions. But when the description becomes a basis for explaining every major development in American history, it is in danger of explaining too much.

Nevertheless, when every exception has been made, this is an important and seminal work. No serious historian is likely to question the existence of the four cultures Fischer identifies. No one else has so clearly differentiated them from each other. If he makes too much of them, he has challenged other historians to recognize them and to test their significance—as Fischer himself will be doing in future volumes.

  1. 1

    David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Knopf, 1989).

  2. 2

    T.C. Hall, The Religious Background of American Culture (Little, Brown, 1930).

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