This is my Critical Text Review of David Hackett Fischer’s 1989 book, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, New York Oxford: Oxford University Press. This is one of two reviews for the class HIUS_911 Comprehensive Examination and Readings in Early America.
David Hackett Fischer’s book, Albion’s Seed provides a unique look at the founding of America. He has a centralized theme of “British Folkways”, where he evaluated four early British migration waves, where each group arrived from distinct British regions between 1629 and 1775. These diverse clans landed with distinctive and differing folkways, i.e., shared beliefs and practices, they spoke English, followed the Protestant religion, dwelled in similar manner, and embraced British liberties and laws.
These varied groups settled in four geographical areas. First, 1629-1640, Puritans from East of England to Massachusetts. Second,1642-1675, from the South of England, a few Royalist elite and many indentured servants settled in Virginia. Third, 1675-1725, immigrants moved to the Delaware Valley from Wales and North Midlands of England. Fourth, 1718 to 1775, found this group from the boundary of Northern Ireland and North Britain heading to live in the Appalachian backcountry. Each group shared the influences of their mother country and their varied regions on this nation (6).
Furthermore, Fischer indicated these external influences shaped this country, and claimed the South and its politic structure did not create slavery, nor did slavery create the South, but that the institution of slavery was brought to this country from Wessex, where it was practiced on a large scale and had existed since the Middle Ages (241). Moreover, he stated, the initial wave of Virginia settlers were “cavalier” gentlemen, which came from proud “armigerous families”, followed Royalist dogma, devout in their Anglican faith, and held onto rural biases. Additionally, Fischer claimed, the rest of the early Virginia settlers were “a degraded rural proletariat who had no hope of rising to the top of their society” (787).
He also mentioned Americans have less than 20 percent of British heritage, yet the initial “folkways are constantly in process of creation, even in our own time.” Thus, indicating these original mores have morphed over the years and still influence the social and business practices of this country (8). Furthermore, despite the small number of Americans with British heritage, Fischer points out how these morphed folkways are found in our language, i.e., how “New Englanders omitted h after w, so that whale became wale”, or that Harvard became Haa-v’d (60).
Likewise, Fischer reported, after the war for independence these established preeminent Anglo-American groups rapidly grew, and by the nineteenth century “overspread the nation” (p. 832). Moreover, he added, these varied clans were “highly complex, involving differences of British region, religion, rank, and generation, as well as of the American environment” (788), which in turn, continued to shape our budding country.
Moreover, based on the complexity of these folkways, Fischer decided to examine and analyze American leadership. He looked at Franklin Roosevelt, George C. Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower, exploring how their leadership decisions were based on the differing folkways in which they were raised. Fischer claimed, Franklin Roosevelt owed much of his leadership practices to the folkways of New England. General George C. Patton and Dwight Eisenhower made their military decisions based on the varied folkways in which they were raised. Patton was influenced by his families ties to the Appalachian backcountry and Southern California, while General Eisenhower, who “hated fighting” was influenced by his Swiss Mennonite and German Pietist heritage who had settled in Quaker Pennsylvania (879).
Furthermore, Fischer indicated these regional mores, based on tradition, party loyalty, class, and ethnicity, helped shaped social, cultural, and political decisions made during the Civil War, Reconstruction, the world wars, as well as many other local, state, and national decisions. It also helped form political parties, such as The Progressive movement, which was comprised mostly of “Yankee stock, who traced their ancestry to the Puritan great migration”(867).
In Albion’s Seed, the empirical evidence presented is organized around folkways and as Fischer indicated, folkways are complex with “many interlocking parts” (p. 7). He firmly demonstrated how these initial four folkways spread out across time and space in this country and how they provide an empirical way of measuring the varied peoples, the regions in which they live, and how their differing mores shaped and changed this country. Fischer’s thesis is strong and compelling, with tangible evidence that will be hard to dismiss, thus this book is capable of changing our perception on the founding effects that built this country.
Featured image if from the books cover