This fascinating book is the first volume in a projected cultural history of the United States, from the earliest English settlements to our own time. It is a history of American folkways as they have changed through time, and it argues a thesis about the importance for the United States of having been British in its cultural origins. While most people in the United States today have no British ancestors, they have assimilated regional cultures which were created by British colonists, even while preserving ethnic identities at the same time. In this sense, nearly all Americans are "Albion's Seed," no matter what their ethnicity may be. The concluding section of this remarkable book explores the ways that regional cultures have continued to dominate national politics from 1789 to 1988, and still help to shape attitudes toward education, government, gender, and violence, on which differences between American regions are greater than between European nations.
And I loved it.
As a work of research, it's incredibly impressive. The amount of time it must have taken to compile such a book is truly staggering. As a source of information, it's fantastic. The footnotes, plus a bibliography in the back, directs you where to find out more information on just about any subject covered in the book. As a handy reference, it's superb. The book is organized so well that the reader knows just where to go to find what information he or she wants, and can skip right over any irrelevant material.
As light reading, maybe not so much.
But what can I say? I just loved this book.
Fischer's basic premise is that America today is largely the result of four separate, very different emigrations of English settlers during colonial times. He takes each of the four groups - Puritans, Virginians, Quaker, and border folks - and describes their origins, their customs, and their relationships in great detail. He debunks several myths and backs up everything he says with solid research. And he manages to make it all an interesting read.
There's so much in here, I really can't begin to tell you what I learned. But a couple of things really stand out to me now that I've finished.
First, is that as I was reading about the four different groups, I was able to place my own ancestors in each of the four groups. My mom's family contains both Puritan ancestors and while there are no Quakers, there are those who settled among them and picked up their ways. My dad's family is solidly on the Virginian and border folks side. I found myself understanding why different ancestors had done things in a certain way, and why there was some conflict over traditions.
Second, I could clearly see how these four very different sets of people would come to disagree. The roots of the American Civil War were sown before America was even a country. The Puritans and Quakers were bound to view slavery as a moral issue, and to clearly support the cause of abolition, the one by force of arms, and the other by assisting runaways. The Virginians and the border folks (you can call them rednecks if you like - apparently the term came from England along with them, and isn't American at all) were bound to stick up for individual liberty, the Virginians contending that they in fact had liberty to enslave and the rednecks firm that no one had the right to tell them what they could do, especially the government. The real wonder here is not that Civil War happened, but that it took so long and that the country was every able to heal back together afterwards.
The last thing that struck me was about the history of my own faith, the Mormons or Latter-day Saints. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, my LDS ancestors and others, all came from the Puritan roots. They were Yankees, well steeped in the traditions of having a religious duty to fulfill, and the firm commitment to community and to God. They also picked up from the Quaker community a little of the family ways, the idea of rearing children in love, and seeking the Individual Light.
Then they came in contact with the border folks, who were very closed to outsiders, especially ones that arrived as a close-knit group already, intolerant of any dissent, and more than ready to fight anyone they saw as a threat. Of course they were going to be ready to respond with violence against any group that tried to settle among them, and to force them out any way they could. And the Latter-day Saints were bound to respond by drawing even closer together and defending themselves. But the idea of moving on, of settling down wherever they were planted, and making do with the rough environment, that was something that they picked up to a degree from the very border folks who were so set on forcing them out. So when the Saints arrived in the West and had some freedom to move around without interference, they were able to spread out from Canada to Mexico and establish small tight-knit communities that thrived in the harshest environment.
Would I recommend this book? Maybe. Certainly if you want a quick, easy read, this is not for you. But if you are interested in American history, this is a fascinating book. Don't be put off by the size. A lot of it is in footnotes that you can easily skip and charts and diagrams that are likewise easy to skip. And if you aren't interested in one particular section or group of settlers, although I recommend reading something about all of them, it is organized so that you can find just what you want and pass over what you don't want. It certainly gave me a lot to think about, and while it took me a little while to read, it was worth taking my time and enjoying the book. 5 stars.
The English Christians in Massachusetts Bay "meant to build a new Zion in America." Religion was not only their primary purpose for coming to America, "it was their only purpose." In New England, the idea of liberty was a collective liberty, consistent with restraints on individual expression, or, "ordered liberty for God's chosen few." These settlers came mostly from East Anglia, and their accents reflected their origins.
Tidewater Virginia became a new home for many of the English upper class. These colonists were staunch royalists, Anglicans, and had a strong belief in their own elitism. For them, liberty meant the freedom to pursue their rich lifestyles, or "the cavalier notion of hierarchical liberty for the keepers of slaves." These colonists were predominantly from the south and west of England, from whence came the "southern drawl."
Quakers, or Friends, settled primarily in the Delaware Valley. The earliest among them were actually refugees from the Puritan and Anglican colonies, where they had been punished and/or expelled. Quakers repudiated the God of Wrath of the Puritans, instead favoring "a God of Love and Light whose benevolent spirit harmonized the universe." Their idea of liberty was called "soul freedom" and included the notion that everyone carried within an inner light from God allowing him or her to determine what was best. Fischer calls this "reciprocal liberty" because the Quakers extended this notion of rights to everyone. Delaware Valley colonists were primarily from the North Midlands of England.
To the Appalachian Highlands migrated the Scotch-Irish border people. They were poor, and came from a survival-oriented culture. They brought with them an idea of "natural freedom" that was not necessarily consonant with "law and order."
These four areas are the "'seedbeds' from which four different populations overspread the nation." As the colonists migrated westward, they took their folkways with them. Fischer reviews these folkways in detail for each group, and it is fascinating to learn about the origins of many of the practices we retain today.
Lots of well-researched detail - sometimes seems like more than you might want, but it all adds up to an amazingly informative and important understanding of the [non-Indian] American heritage. (JAF)
It is a scholarly book, but eminently readable for all the tables, maps and footnotes, if the reader has even a middling interest in the early settlement of those regions. The author discusses not only what part of England (Albion) the colonists came from, but their socio-economic background, religion, family, occupation and social standing. He goes on to sketch in the traditions in architecture (domestic, public and ecclesiastical), attitudes towards women, marriage, sex, education, and a variety of customs, and how those traditions and attitudes gave a unique character to each region. The point is that the 17th and early 18th century English customs and traditions of the regions the immigrants came from had an enormous influence on many of the culture mores and values of the colonies where they settled. That, of course, should not be surprising, but what is surprising is the pervasiveness and persistence of many of those attitudes and traditions to this day. Although more than 80% of our population have no British ancestors at all, the regional customs of those four colonist groups still influence the politics, religion, gender, and government, as well as such general orientations as imperialism, populism and progressivism.
I also learned a lot more about early American immigrants than "they were persecuted for their religion". True in some cases, less so in others. And then some of them chose to persecute others for their religion once they got here, evidently.
All in all, a very interesting account of early immigrants to the US.