In Which I Repent

— of my delay in purchasing and reading David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, which I am now devouring.
My apologies to 1) Lex; 2) anybody else on this blog; 3) anybody else in the blogosphere; and 4) anybody else anywhere over the past 17 years since its publication who has urged it upon me. Albion’s Seed is overwhelming. The pattern of cultural and linguistic influences in my own life — mostly Quaker/Delaware Valley, with a large (and thankfully benign) admixture of Border/Backcountry, and perhaps traces of the others (thanks to being born and mostly raised in Missouri, where worlds collide) — has shaped my political temperament, if not my specific beliefs; I’m a mild-mannered, moderate, quasi-anarchist.
But you don’t graze in here to read about me (if you do: for God’s sake, get a life*). The real lesson of the book, although I imagine many of its readers will enjoy developing a greater insight into their personal backgrounds at least as much as I did, is about how much of present-day American political culture is directly traceable to the four founding migrations from the UK in the 17th and 18th centuries. From the luridly ascetic authoritarianism of the Puritans, the luridly hedonistic authoritarianism of the Cavaliers, the relatively sane (but deeply sexually repressed) “reciprocal liberty” of the Quakers, and the fantastically violent impulsiveness of the Borderlands colonists came everything from the high taxes and gun control laws of Massachusetts to the 80 mph Texas speed limit and 40-per-100,000 murder rate in south Dallas.
Nor, I might mention, does Fischer stop at 1600. The four cultures themselves grew out of far earlier (first millennium) migrations to Britain itself, and from conflicts which had raged for several centuries before Jamestown, Plymouth Rock, et al. Antecedents may be seen in, among others, the kingdom of Alfred the Great — and the Nordic invaders he pacified; and if you try to guess which set of folkways would seem more congenial in early-21st-century America, you’ll probably guess wrong.
This one earns a place of honor on my bookshelf next to GENERATIONS and The Nine Nations of North America. By way of reparation, therefore: Lex, barbecue’s on me if you’re ever in KC. The rest of you are on your own.

* Having said that, here’s some more about me: I’m descended (probably) from a young man who landed at Boston in 1635 (he had an even younger brother who emigrated to Virginia at the same time, but tropical diseases thinned the southern colonists out pretty drastically) but whose descendants moved to Pennsylvania, picked up some portion of the Quaker worldview, moved on to Tennessee but (it is said, perhaps apocryphally) eventually left for Illinois when their abolitionist sentiments made them odious to their neighbors, and then to Iowa, where they resided for upwards of a century — I seem to have been conceived in Iowa, in fact. The post-Depression diaspora and migration to cities (and suburbs) scattered me and my cousins everywhere from Ohio to Florida, Texas, and Arizona. I am, somewhat ironically, closest to its starting point.

6 thoughts on “In Which I Repent”

  1. Jay, thank you for going ahead and reading “Albion’s Seed”. I fall in either Category 2 or Category 3 of the folks above, to whom you are apologizing for your sloth. I read it when it first came out, and have urged it on many of my friends, but never specifically upon you.

    I also found it fascinating from the personal standpoint. I reckon that I am a mix of all four of the great migrations, but mostly the Puritan and Borderer diasporas to the Midwest and beyond. My parents were from Missouri/Indiana, and I actually grew up in Rockford, in northern Illinois, and I now live in Wichita, Kansas. But the most important thing is the continuing effects on the political and social values of a good half of the American nation, and the continuing influence on Presidential elections politics, as Fischer demonstrates at some length.

    Now, Jay, are you ready for the REALLY BAD NEWS? I have your next three reading assignments for you! The first is C. D. Darlington’s “The Evolution of Man and Society”. First published in 1969, it was “controversial”, politically incorrect, and sort of suppressed at the time of its publication, at least in the sense that it was given the silent treatment by most of the rest of the social science crowd. Darlington’s book attempted to do what H. G. Wells’ “The Outline of History” did, but from the standpoint of human evolution and population genetics. That made Darlington anathema to the “blank slate” folks, and they screamed like wounded cateagles, and circled the academic wagons.

    The second reading assignment is Darlington’s “The Little Universe of Man”, which must have come out about 1974, and served to revise and extend his remarks in “The Evolution of Man and Society”. I think the two should be read together; particularly fascinating and important are Darlington’s takes on both Communism and Islam.

    The last book on the list is brand new; Nicholas Wade’s “Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors”. Think of it as a 40-years newer first section of Darlington, and you won’t be too far off. But Wade has the advantage of much more detailed knowledge of the genetics of the human diaspora from northeast Africa, and that makes the book a fabulous read.

    I shall be very interested to hear from all the rest of the Chicago Boyz, about these suggestions. Who else has read them, and how did you evaluate them, when you were done?

    David N. St. John

  2. Jay, I am going to have to go on a road trip for some barbecue. Glad you finally got to it.

    I would suggest as a follow-up, Alan Macfarlane’s two volumes The Riddle of the Modern World and The Making of the Modern World. They are a companion to DHF which are, I think, equally profound.

  3. It was interesting for me to compare the language Fischer cites as being used by the Puritans (a new Zion in the wilderness, etc) with the language used by the Mormans – but then Joseph Smith was from upstate NY.

    One also needs to read Albion’s Seed with Walter Russell Mead’s “Special Providence” – which is the one that created the “Jacksonian” foreign policy meme. Mead’s categories closely track Fischer’s, but uses different names for them.

  4. Yeah, like i’m sure descendants of Border areas (mostly Scots-Irish) are really responsible for Dallas’s high murder rate!! Check the ethnicity of the people who live in the area and you’ll find few are from the Albion seed.

  5. Fischer demonstrates quite convincingly that African-American culture (including even dialect) is overwhelmingly derived from the English settlers of the South, a combination of southwestern England and the region around the Irish Sea. Read the book. You won’t regret it.

  6. Matra, you are missing the whole point of the book. the culture gets transmitted even to people who have not ethnic link to the people who introduced the culture. This is very obvious in my own observation of “yankee” culture in my own home, which was composed of parents who are Irish/German and Russian /Polish and had not a drop of Yankee blood. I’ll just say along with Jay: Read the book.

Comments are closed.