Albion's Seed

2003-11-30

Today I finished yet another book recommended by James C. Bennett in his essay the Anglosphere: The Cousins' Wars by Kevin Phillips. Before I write about that book, however, I feel the need to record my thoughts on Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer.

Both of these are massive works of historical reflection (the former is 707 pages, the latter 946). Albion's Seed is a logical precursor to The Cousins' Wars -- while to my mind much of the latter book extends Fischer's work in certain directions, Fischer's historical research elucidates Phillips' analysis.

In Albion's Seed, Fischer investigates the English and British roots of the four main emigrations to America before the Revolution:

  1. Puritans from East Anglia to New England (1629-1641)
  2. Cavaliers and indentured servants from Wessex and Sussex to Virginia and the Carolinas (1642-1675)
  3. Quakers from the North Midlands to the Delaware Valley (1675-1725)
  4. Presbyterians from the Scottish-English Borderland to the Appalachians (1717-1775)

Obviously there were other emigrations: of the Dutch to the Hudson Valley before 1664; of Irish and Germans in the early to middle 1800s; of Slavs, Jews, and Scandanavians in the middle to late 1800s. But Fischer argues persuasively that these four comprise the founding cultures of America. Part of what makes his exploration so persuasive is the detailed information he provides regarding each culture's social and regional origins, religious beliefs and behaviors, speech patterns, architectural styles, family ways (including child-raising and child-naming), marriage customs, gender relations, attitudes toward elders and toward death, educational approaches, food and dress customs, ways of working and of recreation, use of time, attitudes toward wealth, division of labor, societal orders and social rankings, patterns of settlement, and relations of power -- culminating in each culture's ideas about freedom and liberty. These details are fascinating and telling, providing connections both back to various British regions and cultures and forward to our own times and the regional and cultural tensions evident throughout American history. Having lived in all but the last of Fischer's founding cultures, I can attest to their historical influence even today.

The information amassed by Fischer is deep and wide, and there is no way I can summarize 900 pages in a blog entry. The ways of living I found perhaps most telling relate to child-rearing: the intent in Puritan New England was to break the child's will for the sake of social and religious conformity in the context of town democracies; the intent in Cavalier Virginia was to bend the child's will back upon itself for the sake of a kind of Stoical leadership in the "Squirearchy" of the coastal plantations; the intent in Quaker Delaware was to enlighten the will for the sake of personal and familial fulfillment in the context of strong meetinghouse communities; the intent in the mainly Presbyterian backcountry was to build up the will for the sake of a fierce, stubborn independence in the context of the shifting, warlike culture on the frontier between civilization and chaos.

These folkways, and much else besides, led to quite distinct, and often diametrically opposed, ideas about liberty. Fischer calls the New England idea "ordered liberty" (freedom to determine the course of one's own society), at worst exemplified in the stifling, moralistic conformism that we still associate with the word "Puritan", at best in the strong town-based democracies (and suspicion of anything but local power) still evident in parts of northern New England. The Virginia idea was that of "hegemonic liberty" (freedom to rule and not be ruled), at worst exemplified in the hierarchical "Slaveocracy" that valued freedom for those at the top but not for poor white trash or black slaves, at best in the aristocratic excellence of men such as George Washington. The Quaker idea was that of "reciprocal liberty" (freedom for me and for thou), at worst exemplified in the pacifistic pursuit of commerce without regard for nation or principle, at best in a quite modern-sounding respect for all human beings to pursue their own fulfillment. The frontier idea was that of "natural liberty" (a freedom without restraints of law or custom), at worst exemplified in the violent chaos and often-emotionalistic anarchy of life beyond the reach of civilized norms, at best in eternal vigilance with regard to the sovereignty of the individual.

These ideas about liberty, which find their roots in their respective cultures in England, live on to this day in American life and even in so small and seemingly monolithic a subculture as the libertarian movement. Most economic libertarians seem to be inheritors of the East Anglian commercial culture that took root in New England: respectful of the rule of law, acknowledging a need for some forms of social order deriving from custom and community consensus, relatively unconcerned about the absolute liberty of the individual. Some libertarians, often especially those of a Randian persuasion, value liberty mainly for the sake of those at the top of the "pyramid of ability"; while none of them today would attempt to justify slavery or indentured servitude, they seem not to care about the effects of freedom on those with lower levels of talent, intelligence, or attainment. Then there is a certain kind of pacifistic libertarian, who values a studied neutrality in all wordly concerns (quite similar to that of the early Quakers). Finally, the anarchist edge of the libertarian movement cleaves to the frontier concept of natural liberty, and proudly chafes at any least restriction on the right of the individual to do as he (or she) pleases.

Is any of these strands more valuable or true than the others? I'm not prepared to say at the moment; all I know is that each strand is in large measure culturally determined, and has origins deep in English history (or even before, in the cultures of the Angles, Saxons, Scandanavians, and Scots). Libertarians, and Americans in general, would do well to understand and reflect on those origins, rather than demonize those who come from a different tradition of thinking about freedom and society. Naturally, it's more work to try to understand and seek common ground with others, instead of dismissing them as evil compromisers; sadly, it seems that all too many otherwise intelligent people can't be bothered to make the effort. But for those who can be bothered, Albion's Seed is a great place to start.


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