This readable and remarkable book is the first in David Hackett Fischer’s projected series regarding American cultural history. In it, Fischer has drawn upon many sources of important information: narratives, statistics, linguistics, literature, diaries, topography, architecture, and political science. The result is a brilliant and formidable achievement, a major American contribution to the international tradition of great historical writing.
Fischer is a revisionist who subscribes to the “Teutonic germ” theory of American history, believing that the roots of the American system are to be found in pre-Latin Germany where a cultural tradition originated that was later carried to England and, still later, to the English colonies of North America. Here, he argues, colonization principally consisted of four “germ” populations, which arrived with no particular interest in associating with their neighbors in other colonies and came in fact from regions of the British Isles so different as to almost constitute separate countries. Fischer presents extensive proof that British North America was settled by geographical areas that each group intended for its use. Only in the case of the Quakers was this exclusivity discarded on the basis of principle.
When the migration to the Tidewater South began, the earliest colonists were wealthy men who brought servants. These settlers came generally from the southern and western English counties, an area of Britain that had an ancient ethnic and political identity associated with the early Saxon population. Massachusetts was settled between 1629 and 1640 by approximately 21,000 persons emigrating as part of a larger Puritan movement to escape the England of Charles I: altogether, about 80,000 Puritans left their home country in this period, primarily for religious and political reasons, to resettle in Europe, the Caribbean, and America. The East Anglians, sometimes as entire congregations following a particular clergyman, traveled to New England; not surprisingly, their society was more regimented than those of the other English groups.
It is interesting that a number of the Puritans returned to England following the victory of the Parliamentary forces in the English Civil War. Few Puritans migrated to the Tidewater areas, and many of those who did wound up being evicted for their “offensive” views. Fischer shows that the Puritans were mostly people with roots in the countryside of East Anglia, the majority of the Puritan families coming from an area within sixty miles of the town of Haverhill, near the counties of Suffolk, Essex, and Cambridge. East Anglia too was a region peculiar in Britain, being heavily populated and characterized by a continuing mixture of foreign influences such as Dutch, north German, and Scandinavian. East Anglia, furthermore, had a very strong Danish element—the result of long Danish occupation—and later Norman settlement was very prevalent.
Altogether about 23,000 Quakers emigrated to the Delaware Valley from the North Midlands, a region which had been so heavily Scandinavian in its settlement that as late as the Middle Ages Norse was still in daily use. This is the desolate, wild region made famous by Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights and by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre. The Quaker population established a unique culture, notable for its architecture, family life, cooking, and the idea of “reciprocal liberty” (a kind of libertarianism) in parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, where it persists in spite of the decline of Quakers in proportion to the rest of the community. The largest group—numbering over 250,000—of British immigrants was the Backcountry Borderers, who came from the Scottish British border area and the Protestant communities in Ireland. These colonists, who migrated between 1717-1775, were the last British group to arrive in North America before the Revolution. They settled in the American backcountry, in the Appalachians, where they subsequently became known for their fierce independence, militant religion, and rustic ways.
These four “germ” groups, though all from the British Isles, spoke in dialects almost unintelligible to one another and differed sharply in their understanding of the Protestant religion. Although they drew closer in North America than they had been in Great Britain, their descendants developed an ad hoc patchwork society and political system that reflected their continued differences and uncertainties in regard to each other. The contradictory and uneven imprint of each group remains today as a source of confusion to everyone, including Americans who can’t figure out why different meanings are attached to the same words by their neighbors. To Fischer, the paradoxical American system is a mystery only up to a point where one begins to note the profound differences consequent to a multiple British heritage. Fischer’s “four British folkways” have generally provided the basis for the process of Americanization that millions of non-British immigrants have passed through. Non-British Americans inevitably absorbed the Americanisms closest to hand through the cultures of those descendants whose ancestors first colonized Massachusetts, the Delaware Valley, the Appalachian Highlands, or the southern Tidewater regions and the lower Chesapeake.
David Hackett Fischer’s book raises important questions concerning the character of major American social and political issues. Have American disputes actually arisen out of tribal issues of centuries ago as well as from the transcendent intellectual and moral subjects as constitute the modern syllabus? Have national arguments regarding economics, law, sociology, and other matters really been veils for deeper and more inchoate preoccupations? Albion’s Seed could reopen some profound political and cultural questions. For instance, why should one area—Massachusetts—disproportionately dominate so many aspects of American culture and society? Should Massachusetts determine the system of government, the political issues, the cultural identity, the religious fashions and educational forms, and confirm the national aesthetic for 220 million other people? (The 21,000 Puritan immigrants are believed by Fischer to have 16 million descendants.)
These questions remain to be answered, perhaps by Mr. Fischer in his next book in this series. Having shown us that four British horses started at the gate, he could explain how one horse now consistently outpaces the other three.
[Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fischer (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press) 944 pp., $39.95]