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…

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