Albion's seed : four British folkways in America

by David Hackett Fischer

Paper Book, 1989




New York : Oxford University Press, 1989.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member cmbohn
This is a mammoth book. It's over 900 pages long, with footnotes on every single page, full of charts, diagrams, illustrations, pedigree charts, and more. It's the size of a phone book.

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.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
In this seminal work Fischer examines four British "folkways" that defined early America and evolved into what we know today as "American culture." By folkways he means "the normative structure of values, customs and meanings that exist in any culture." These customs include speech, architecture, gender roles, child-rearing, religion, recreation, and much more. The four major folkways identified by Fischer correspond to four regions of settlement: Massachusetts Bay, tidewater Virginia, the Delaware Valley, and the Appalachian Highlands.

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)
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LibraryThing member waitingtoderail
This is the kind of book the word "magisterial" was made for. Fischer's synthesis of British and American folkways is stunningly illustrated and argued. It lags a bit in the concluding section where he struggles a bit in tying everything together, but the sheer weight of the research and Fischer's breadth of knowledge is overwhelming. I have a master's degree in history, a work like this one is why I never went any further - I feared not reaching work this outstanding. This book has changed how I view my own country, and what more can one ask from a work of scholarship? I hope that Fischer will be able to complete his planned second volume.… (more)
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Albion's Seed posits the existence of at least 11 distinct regional cultures in America and focuses on the first and largest 4, these were the founding cultures. They are New England, Virginia and the coastal south, the Mid Atlantic (PA, NJ, part of MD), and the "backcountry" which is basically Appalachia from PA southward. These regions were settled from different parts of England, respectively: East Anglia, southern and central England (Wessex and Mercia). the English midlands, and the border regions of England-Scotland-northern Ireland. Fischer contends the 17th and early 18th century established the cultural patterns in these regions that still exist today. He provides extensive evidence which is very convincing. I learned as much about English culture as American. Although published in 1989 it is just as relevant today, it's a classic. It will change how I view the US and UK forever, a perspective mind shift. It goes a long way to explaining our current problems and is a reminder that the US has always had internal conflict between cultures. Fischer says each culture has different ideas of what it means to be American, what freedom means. These competing cultures have been its strength over time even when they sometimes appear to be at each other's throats.… (more)
LibraryThing member sumariotter
This book is 899 pages and I read every one of them. Yes, I am highly impressed with myself. But really, it is a testament to how interesting this book is. I had come across a mention of it in one of Malcolm Gladwell's books. If you are at all interested in the cultural history of America, I highly recommend it. It is both thoroughly researched and readable.… (more)
LibraryThing member greginAk
Great book. 900 pages but never boring. filled with insights into the cultures that shaped this country from before the revolution to this day. rare is a book that tells us so much about our country today through the telling of distant history.
LibraryThing member sweetFrank
This book contains a wealth of data and insights about four early settlements: New England by the Puritans, the Delaware Valley by Quakers, tidewater Virginia by a Royalist elite and their servants, and the Carolina backcountry by peoples from the Scottish borders and northern Ireland.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
Tracing four American folkways from the English settlers who first established them, Fisher argues that many practices we now deem characteristically American were actually transplants from English cultures, preserved in immigrants’ practices longer than they survived in the mother country. He covers the Puritans, Virginia Cavaliers and the poorer people they brought along, the Quakers, and the Scotch-Irish back-country folks. It’s hard not to see the Quakers coming off best here—the Cavaliers and the back-country traditions involve a lot of violence and indifference to education/fetishization of hierarchy, and the Puritans are really protective if you’re one of them and really not if you’re not. A fascinating read. Whether Fisher’s repeated claims that “these practices persist today almost unchanged” are true, however, seems a bit dubious, though it is probably worth noting that Puritan Massachusetts kept trying to punish people for reading porn long into the twentieth century, after most of the country had given up.… (more)
LibraryThing member thornton37814
This ambitious volume identifies four regional cultures which migrated from the British Isles to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Fischer examines each culture in depth, particularly noting thing which set each culture apart from others. It's a classic work covering regional differences and how those differences play out in interacting with one another even down to the late twentieth century. For genealogists, it provides excellent background material for the study of ancestors from each of these groups. As I read the book, I participated in a discussion with other genealogists from across the United States. I identified most with the Puritans, Cavaliers, and Quakers, and least with the Backcountry Scots-Irish. Since I live in an area where many residents embrace their Scots-Irish ancestor, this surprised me. However, as I looked at the majority of my ancestry, it really falls into the first three groups. While some of my Cavalier ancestors were some of the indentured servants they brought along, I still identified more with that culture than with the Backcountry culture. My genetic composition includes all four groups. Excellent book. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member Persisto
While this book over-reaches (and for which it was widely panned by academia), this book is still chocked full of the historical and cultural information and remains a classic "must-have" for any student of Colonial American history and genealogy.
LibraryThing member PhyllisHarrison
Being descended from two groups of settlers from the British Isles and having researched the lives of a third, I find the differences between the groups at the time of settlement fascinating and the facts and data in the book illuminating. Four different regions of our country, settled by inhabitants of different regions of the mother country, became even more divergent as the years went by. This is not a book to be finished off in one or two sittings, but is more like finding a never-ending feast, to be enjoyed a little at each sitting over a long period of time so that everything can be sampled and fully digested. This monumental work has primary documentation, studies, and carefully considered conclusions that will stand the test of time long after the author is gone. This is an excellent resource for understanding the people and cultures of various regions of our country. In spite of the hefty size and price, I felt it was an important investment in my library and something I will enjoy a page at a time for a long time to come.… (more)
LibraryThing member Doey
Wish he would finish the second volume of this book. What a masterpiece. The more things change, the more we as people stay the same as our ancestors. A powerful force is on us, Everything he writes is beautiful!
LibraryThing member Miro
For anyone interested in the interaction between early British regional cultures and the founding settlements of America, Hackett's book is essential reading. I promise that you won't look at the United States ( or Great Britain ) the same way again.
LibraryThing member kencf0618
Fischer's argument is not a little overdrawn, but is nevertheless of considerable pith and interest. A welcome and hefty addition to early American history.
LibraryThing member kerns222
Helps you understand US history as an outgrowth of England's. Something we Americans (at least ones of a certain age) were taught to reject.
LibraryThing member timepiece
Admittedly, I have not quite finished this, and have only been able to read it in small bits interspersed with my other books - it's a lot of information. But it's fascinating! I've seen a lot of the differences between myself (from Virginia) and my local friends (NY) explained - slang expressions, favorite foods, manners. Not to mention learned a lot about regional differences in England that I wasn't really aware of.

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.
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LibraryThing member kaulsu
Excellent, excellent. Fischer makes a compelling case for why there are the regional differences found in America. Of course, I especially enjoyed reading about the influences Quakers had on American life. Fischer is very readable and makes history live.
LibraryThing member turtlesleap
Excellent analysis of folkways carried from Britain to Colonial America and how they have influenced regional traditions, preferences and politics into the current time.
LibraryThing member snash
The book explores the culture of four different waves of immigration to the US: puritans to New England, cavaliers and tenant farmers to the Chesapeake Bay, Quakers to the Delaware, and borderers to the backcountry. He then proposes that the different cultures that they established have and still do influence US character and conflicts. It's a very interesting book.… (more)
LibraryThing member atiara
I haven't taken American history since high school, and my British history is shaky, so it might have helped if some references were explained, but I still loved this book. I don't know what the current thinking in on his theory, but overall I enjoyed this book. This book is organized so you can skip around if you want to.… (more)
LibraryThing member auntieknickers
This book is essential for genealogists researching the populations studied -- the Puritans, the Scotch-Irish, the early Quaker immigrants, and the "Cavaliers" who came to Virginia and nearby colonies.


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