Book Summary: “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America” by David Hackett Fisher


Albion's Seed

Title: Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
Author David Hackett Fisher
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Fisher argues that American culture is made up from four regional cultures, each originating from migration from Britain at distinct times and from distinct sub-regions within Britain.

My Comments

This is book is a milestone in both American historiography and the application of the concept of “culture” to a national history. While Fisher is correctly criticized for under-estimating the importance of the early French, Spanish, Dutch and Caribbean settlers to early American, he makes a very convincing case. It is a must read for anyone interested in American history.

Key Take-aways

  • American culture is made up of many regional cultures that have endured for centuries. Each regional culture started from a distinct wave of migration to a relatively unsettled part of the region.
  • New England culture originated with the Puritan immigration from East Anglia in 1629-1640.
  • The Midlands culture of Pennsylvania originated with the Quaker immigration from the northern England in 1675-1715
  • Virginia Tidewater culture originated with the immigration of English gentry and their servants from southwestern England in 1642-1675.
  • The culture of the Upper South originated with the immigration of “Scotch-Irish’ from Northern Ireland and Lowland Scotland in 1717-75
  • Each of these four cultures migrated westward from their original colonies in search of land. This create four bands of culture from Atlantic to Pacific that persists to this day.
  • Later immigrants who arrive integrated into these four sub-regional culture, not an overall American culture.

Important Quotes from Book

“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.”

“Most historians have tried to explain the determinants of a voluntary society in one of three ways: by reference to the European culture that was transmitted to America, or to the American environment itself, or to something in the process of transmission.”

“Other explanations have also been put forward from time to time, but three ideas have held the field: the germ theory, the frontier thesis, and the migration model.

This book returns to the first of those explanations, within the framework of the second and third. It argues a modified “germ thesis” about the importance for the United States of having been British in its cultural origins.”

“During the very long period from 1629 to 1775, the present area of the United States was settled by at least four large waves of English-speaking immigrants.”

“Most important for the political history of the United States, they also had four different conceptions of order, power and freedom which became the cornerstones of a voluntary society in British America”

“That is the central thesis of this book: the legacy of four British folkways in early America remains the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States today.”

“In any given culture, they always include the following things:

—Speech ways, conventional patterns of written and spoken language: pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax and grammar.

—Building ways, prevailing forms of vernacular architecture and high architecture, which tend to be related to one another.

—Family ways, the structure and function of the household and family, both in ideal and actuality.

—Marriage ways, ideas of the marriage-bond, and cultural processes of courtship, marriage and divorce.

—Gender ways, customs that regulate social relations between men and women.

—Sex ways, conventional sexual attitudes and acts, and the treatment of sexual deviance.

—Child-rearing ways, ideas of child nature and customs of child nurture.

—Naming ways, onomastic customs including favored forenames and the descent of names within the family.

—Age ways, attitudes toward age, experiences of aging, and age relationships.

—Death ways, attitudes toward death, mortality rituals, mortuary customs and mourning practices.

—Religious ways, patterns of religious worship, theology, ecclesiology and church architecture.

—Magic ways, normative beliefs and practices concerning the supernatural.

—Learning ways, attitudes toward literacy and learning, and conventional patterns of education.

—Food ways, patterns of diet, nutrition, cooking, eating, feasting and fasting.

—Dress ways, customs of dress, demeanor, and personal adornment

—Time ways, attitudes toward the use of time, customary methods of time keeping, and the conventional rhythms of life.

—Wealth ways, attitudes toward wealth and patterns of its distribution.

—Rank ways, the rules by which rank is assigned, the roles which rank entails, and relations between different ranks.

—Social ways, conventional patterns of migration, settlement, association and affiliation.

—Order ways, ideas of order, ordering institutions, forms of disorder, and treatment of the disorderly.

—Power ways, attitudes toward authority and power; patterns of political participation.

—Freedom ways, prevailing ideas of liberty and restraint, and libertarian customs and institutions.”

 “the more advanced a society becomes in material terms, the stronger is the determinant power of its folkways, for modern technologies act as amplifiers, and modern institutions as stabilizers, and modern elites as organizers of these complex cultural processes”

“Of all the determinants which shaped the cultural character of British America, the most powerful was religion. During the seventeenth century, the English-speaking people were deeply divided by the great questions of the Protestant Reformation. ”

“Another determinant of cultural differences in British America was the social rank of the colonists. This factor worked in two ways. First, the founders of America’s various regional cultures came from different strata of British society. Second, major changes occurred in England’s ranking system during the era of colonization. Emigrants in the early seventeenth century had one way of thinking about social status; those who arrived in the mid-eighteenth century had another. This process of change added another dimension to regional differences in America”

“England’s American provinces remained more nearly autonomous than other European colonies, and regional cultures developed with less interference from above.

British America also differed from other empires in another way. It was settled mainly by voluntary migration. Most British men and women made their own way to the New World. This voluntary migration was unique to the British colonies. In New France, a large part of the population was descended from conscripts, soldiers, sailors, basket women, “king’s girls,” civil servants, priests and nuns, and others who had been ordered to America, sometimes much against their will. Once arrived, these immigrants tended to be more closely controlled, except on the fringes of the colony.

In New Spain, colonists were screened for religious and social orthodoxy,

British America’s voluntary migration encouraged religious diversity rather than uniformity. It also allowed like-minded colonists of various sects to settle together and to transplant their own folkways to the New World.

Immigration also promoted regional development in another way. For many years, the American colonies effectively became their own gatekeepers. They were able to control the process of immigration themselves, and did so in very different ways.”

“Every regional culture had its own history, which unfolded in its own way. But all of them passed through a similar sequence of stages which created a powerful rhythm in colonial history. The first stage was the transit of culture from Britain to America, in which individual actors played decisive roles.”

“All of these cultural leaders gave a direction to regional development.

The second stage was a cultural crisis of great intensity. It always began as an internal conflict among immigrant elites who supported the founding purposes of their colony, but disagreed on issues of authority, order, and individual autonomy.”

“These crises were followed by a period of cultural consolidation which occurred in Massachusetts during the 1640s, in Virginia during the 1680s, in Pennsylvania during the early decades of the eighteenth century, and in the backcountry during the late eighteenth century. In every case, the dominant culture of each region was hardened into institutions which survived for many years”

“This period of consolidation was followed by a complex and protracted process of cultural devolution.”

“In every instance, founding purposes were lost, but institutions were preserved and regional identities were given new life”

“After independence, all four Anglo-American cultures began to expand very rapidly. Each of the original areas in Massachusetts Bay, tidewater Virginia, the Delaware Valley and the Appalachian highlands were what folklorists call “cultural hearths” or “seedbeds” from which four different populations overspread the nation.”

“The growth of ethnic pluralism did not diminish regional identities. On balance, it actually enhanced them. This was so because the new immigrants did not distribute themselves randomly through the United States. They tended to flock together in specific regions. Ethnic pluralism itself thus became a regional variable.

Further, the new immigrants did not assimilate American culture in general. They tended to adopt the folkways of the regions in which they settled. This was specially the case among immigrant elites”

“Black culture throughout the United States tended generally to be an amalgam of African and southern folkways. Hispanic Americans in Texas and southern California combined the legacy of Latin America with the culture of the backcountry. Irish, Italian, Greek and French Canadian immigrants in Massachusetts all joined their special ethnic heritage to the customs of New England. The Germans and Scandinavians who settled the middle west learned the folkways which had spread outward from the Delaware Valley. Similar patterns of regional acculturation appeared in most major American ethnic groups”

“By 1988, the original four regions of British America had greatly expanded, and were also joined by other regional cultures which did not exist two centuries earlier. Altogether, there were now at least seven cultural regions in the continental United States:

1. The Northern Tier, including New England, the upper old northwest, the northern plains and the Pacific northwest, all settled by Yankees.

2. Greater New York

3. Midland America, extending from Pennsylvania west through the Ohio Valley and the middle west to the Rocky Mountains, marked by a diversity of European immigrant groups; the leading religion in many midland counties is Methodist.

4. The Great Basin, a predominantly Mormon culture in Utah, and parts of Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming; a mix of New England, midland and highland southern culture.

5. The Coastal South, from southern Maryland to Florida and the Texas coast near Houston. Its culture is tempered by large numbers of northern immigrants

6. The Southern Highlands, including Appalachia, the old southwest, the Ozark Plateau, and much of Texas and Oklahoma which are still dominated by the old ethnic groups; the leading religion is Baptist.

7. Southern California, a hybrid of highland southern, midland, Hispanic and Jewish culture, spreading into Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.”

“The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be. It has also become the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States. In time, this plurality of freedoms may prove to be that nation’s most enduring legacy to the world”

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