Review

Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America

  • ALBION'S SEED: FOUR BRITISH FOLKWAYS IN AMERICA by David Hackett Fischer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, hardbound, 948 pages, illustrations, maps, index. ISBN O-19-503794-4.

Reviewed by Nelson Rosit

David Hackett Fischer has performed several notable services in writing Albion's Seed. First, he has brought to American historiography the approach of the French school of the Annales begun by Georges Dumezil and developed further by Fernando Braudel. French social historians have been concerned with both continuity and change over long periods of time. American historians of the 20th century have written history that is almost exclusively concerned with the new.

Second, Fischer has sought to write a total or unified social history rather than a historical fragment. As the author explains in the preface:

Instead of becoming a synthesizing discipline it [U.S. social history] disintegrated into many special fieldsñwomen's history, labor history, environmental history, the history of aging, the history of child abuse, and even gay history -- in which the work became increasingly shrill and polemical. (p. ix).

This book is a comprehensive, almost encyclopedic, guide to the origins of colonial American culture.

The third achievement of Albion's Seed is that it "searches for a way beyond reductive materialist models" for causality in history. Professor Fischer, though of German Lutheran stock, teaches at Brandeis. Predictably, he disavows any racial determinist theories.

Fourth, Fischer brings back from recent oblivion the colorful regional stereotypes of American history. New Englanders really were puritanical; Southern gentlemen genuine aristocrats; Quakers were very pious; and Southern highland clans feuded as they had in the old country.

Fischer's basic thesis is that although less than 20% of the present U.S. population has British antecedents, our British genesis is still the dominant factor determining our culture. This formative British culture, however, was not monolithic. America still reflects the regional, religious, and class divisions of 17th and 18th century Britain.

According to Fischer, the foundation of American culture was formed from four mass emigrations from four different regions of Britain by four different socio-religious groups. New England's constitutional period occurred between 1629 and 1640 when Puritans, most from East Anglia, settled there. The next mass migration was of southern English cavaliers and their servants to the Chesapeake Bay region between 1640 and 1675. Then, between 1675 and 1725 thousands of Quakers, led by William Penn settled the Delaware Valley. Finally, English, Scots, and Irish from the borderlands settled in Appalachia between 1717 and 1775. Each of these migrations produced a distinct regional culture which can still be seen in America today.

The plotting of cultural continuities of long duration inevitably leads to the question of causality. As stated above, Fischer discounts race as a factor in such continuity. He does so in a very brief and completely unconvincing discussion. Of course there is overwhelming historical evidence for race being one very important factor in determining culture. For example, racial change within a society inevitably brings about fundamental and lasting cultural change.

Although Fischer disallows the racial factor there is still much of interest for the student of race in Albion's Seed. The book for instance, lends weight to those who see a Teutonic/Celtic split between the American North and South. The theory is that the Puritans and Quakers came from the areas of England with heavy Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian influences while the cavaliers and southern high-landers originated from the more Celtic areas. East Anglia, as its name implies, was the home of the Angles, the regions where the epic Beowulf originated and after became part of Danelaw. The North Midlands, the Quaker stronghold, has a heavy concentration of Scandinavian place names. "From the Norsemen came the custom of moots, or assemblies in the open at a standing-stone or hilltop grave, which may have influenced the Quakers' love for such meeting places," quotes Fischer from another historian (p. 446). Instead of the town meetings of the Puritans or the Friends meetings of the Quakers, Southerners, whether cavaliers or highlanders, tended to be less communal and more individualistic; less collective and more libertarian.

The Nordic aesthetic is not totally neglected either. The author relates the story of a "Latin adventurer named Francisco de Miranda" who visited America in 1784. While here he attended a Quaker meeting which he describes in his journal:

I entertained myself ... by examining slowly the dress and the countenance of the female concourse and I can assure you with all ingenuousness that neither more simplicity, cleanliness and taste in the first nor natural and simple beauty in the second can be imagined. I am firmly persuaded that the coloring of Rubens and the carnations of Titian can never imitate what nature offers her in the hue and complexion of simple Quaker women who have not a grain of powder or drop of oil on their persons. (p. 551).

As Fischer wrote his conclusion in 1988 he saw the continued dominance in America of cultural values and institutions originating in Britain. The author supposes that if Anglo-American culture can remain pre-eminent while the British ethnic component sinks to less than 20% such a culture can survive any manner of racial change. Unfortunately, there are several factors the author does not consider.

While America is less than 20% British, it is still 60% northern European. The main reason America has remained so British culturally is because the millions of German, Irish, Scandinavians, Dutch, and other Europeans who came to these shores, along with their descendants were close enough racially to assimilate culturally. Millions of Americans who are not ethnically Anglo-Saxon are culturally Anglo-Saxon.

To make his point Fischer has somewhat overstated his case for the continuity of British culture in America. Certainly the formative or constitutional period of America was overwhelmingly the work of British peoples. Many of their values and institutions remain. But how much of mass culture; the products of the entertainment industry and the mass media, can still trace its origins to 17th and 18th century England? Perhaps the last volume (Albion's Seed is the first of a five volume cultural history of America) will deal with these concerns.

Whether or not Professor Fischer provides the right answers, he has asked the right questions. To finish enumerating the accomplishments of the book, probably the work's greatest asset is that it asks the right questions. The author asks, "Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?" To be useful, history should ask the big questions, the questions of collective identity and purpose, Asking the right questions is half the battle.


From The Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1992 (Vol. 12, No. 1), pages 114-117.