What I’m Reading: Albion’s Seed

I did not fully understand American History until I read this book, especially colonial history. Isn’t that crazy? With a year of AP US History in high school, and as a frequent reader of history as an adult (just click on the “History” tag at the bottom of this post to see), I thought I had a pretty good handle on the subject. Sure, there may have been topics here or there I could brush up on, but an entirely changed understanding of the history of my own country? How could that be possible? Yet such is the power, and weight of evidence, in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer.

Albion’s Seed discusses the four groups from the British Isles that were the most important immigrant groups in founding the colonies that would become the United States. The four groups arrived at different times during the colonial period and came from varying areas of Britain, each bringing a highly distinctive set of folkways that guided the development of the colonies they moved to, creating cultures that persist even into the present day. Those four groups were the Puritans from East Anglia (period of immigration from 1629 to 1641), who settled in New England; the Cavaliers from the south and west of England (1642-75), who settled in Virginia; the Quakers from the English midlands (1675-1725), who settled in the Delaware Valley (i.e., around Philadelphia); and the Borderers (better but inaccurately known as the Scots-Irish) from the Scotland-England border region and northern Ireland, who settled in Appalachia (1717-1775).

The book provides us an in-depth look at each of these immigrant groups in turn, noting how each one brought its own ideas of religion, social order, marriage, child-rearing, even architecture, cooking, and speech patterns. Despite all four being British in origin, the differences among the four groups were not minor–European visitors thought the colonies as different as the various European countries.

This was intentional, as the immigrant groups were self-selected and extreme. They set out to do what they could not do in England–create unadulterated versions of themselves. The Puritans, for example, didn’t make a dangerous, months-long journey across the sea and to a country they’d never seen to do things halfway. Their intention was to build the best, purest, most Puritan society they could–and they did so. They invited only the most devout, upright Puritans from Britain to join the new colony of Massachusetts, they put in place laws to enforce their Puritan ideals, and they kicked out anybody who didn’t stick with the program, all in service to their highly rigid, Calvinist views of an ideal life. Massachusetts became an extreme outlier: the most Puritan place it was possible to be.

And it went similarly with Virginia and the Delaware River valley. The Cavaliers in Virginia built a highly hierarchical society based around having plenty of indentured servants (and later African slaves) to do the work, ensuring those at the top had the time and money to maximize their personal freedom, in a way they hadn’t been able to do in England. Virginia became a Cavalier utopia. In eastern Pennsylvania, western New Jersey, and Delaware, William Penn brought the Quakers to form a highly idealized and pacifist Quaker society based around egalitarianism, simplicity, and humility. This was as Quaker-ized a society as humanly possible.

The highly individual and defiant Borderers in Appalachia arrived in America with less of an overall vision of creating their own perfect society (too individualistic for that!) but nonetheless did so, as the huge amounts of land available in the interior allowed Borderer families to live on their own acreages, distant from neighbors. The best part of all for the Borderers, as for the other three groups, was that there was nobody else around to tell them what to do. They were left alone to create the most Borderer-ist society imaginable.

Fischer fully describes the huge differences among these four immigrant groups and these four sections of the book are fascinating in their own right. But for me, they payoff comes with the fifth, final section of Albion’s Seed, when Fischer applies these insights to the broader sweep of U.S. history. What were the consequences of creating such extreme societies, which were inevitably bound to come into conflict with each other and their mother country? In this final section, Fischer punctures a lot of assumptions and myths I was carrying around in my head about early American history:

Assumption #1: Before reading this book, I believed that the North American colonists generally were loyal British subjects, only becoming radicalized by the Stamp Act and other oppressions in the 1760s and 1770s.

Wrong! The colonists came to the American colonies either because they were actively persecuted in Britain (the Puritans in the 1620s-30s, the Quakers in the 1670s-1720s, the Borderers) or because they had been defeated in war by enemies (the Cavaliers, after being beaten by Oliver Cromwell’s troops during the English Civil War). While they missed the old country intensely, they saw their arrival in America as a new start, away from all those pesky other groups in Britain that were holding them back from creating their own ideal societies. They came to America to get away from the crown, the nobility, the Anglican church, or anybody else telling them what to do. Unlike other European colonies, where most Europeans would have been soldiers, priests, or administrators ordered to the colony for a limited period of time, or merchants hoping to earn a profit before returning home, the British immigrants were permanent, and determined to do things differently than where they came from.

Almost uniquely among New World colonies–whether Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, or even the other English colonies in the Caribbean, the North American colonists were left to rule themselves. This was not due to any desire of the crown–indeed, English rulers several times set up various commissions to try to bring the American colonies into line, only to be executed, deposed, or die a natural death during the Civil War or the general turbulent English politics of the 17th century, leaving the brief-lived colonial commissions to be forgotten. And when Britain did get stable rule under the Hanover dynasty starting in 1714, the German-born George I and George II simply had little interest in overseas British possessions.

So for well over a century, until the Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War (1756-63), the British colonists had more or less run their own affairs. They’d set up their own political arrangements, church authorities, courts and law enforcement, and defense against Indians. Each colony had its own assembly, which the colonists saw as equivalent to the Parliament in London. And though the English saw these assemblies as more akin to municipal bodies, the question had simply never been put to the test.

So when Britain put in place the Stamp Act in 1765, imposing (what the colonists perceived as) onerous new taxes, it did not radicalize the population. It merely brought in the open the dormant ideas of being separate that the Americans had implicitly had all along, but had never had reason to consider in any explicit way. That is, the American colonists had been fine with passively being British subjects so long as they were left alone and not asked to do anything. Their loyalty was superficial. Once being a British subject required that they change in some way, the Americans rose up. The American revolution didn’t take place because they were newly radicalized by some misstep of the British in the 1760s–the revolution would have taken place whenever the British decided to crack down on the American colonies and their divergent ways, whether it’d been 20 or 40 or 60 years earlier or later.

Assumption #2. Slavery caused the North and South to diverge in the decades before the Civil War, but back in the colonial era, the colonies had mostly gotten along.

Wrong! The four groups of early colonists hated each other! The New England Puritans saw the Anglican Cavaliers in Virginia as part of the establishment that had so persecuted them back in England, not to mention as immoral, lazy, and sexually depraved. The Cavaliers bitterly remembered their battlefield losses to Cromwell’s Puritan army in the 1640s and equated the New Englanders with those foes, besides seeing the Puritans as morally uptight scolds nursing a weird obsession with witchcraft.

Both Puritans and Cavaliers detested the Quakers, with their offensive ideas about the innate equality of all men and their annoying thee- and thou-ing all the time. (In the 17th century, the top three crimes for which Puritans carried out executions were witchcraft, murder, and Quakerism, so it was dangerous for Quakers to even visit New England.) And all three groups hated the Borderers, who they considered illiterate, disputatious, disorderly rednecks (a term borrowed from the English). As the Borderers arrived later than the other groups, and were the only ones who didn’t have a specific geographic area picked out ahead of time, they originally tried to settle with the existing colonists (especially in the Delaware Valley). The otherwise tolerant Quakers didn’t mind when well-behaved German Pietists and Swiss Anabaptists showed up, but they were not okay with the rowdy Borderers, and swiftly moved them along to what was termed the “backcountry,” meaning the Appalachians from southwestern Pennsylvania through Virginia and the Carolinas.

Assumption #3: But all the colonies came together to fight the British in the American Revolution and then overcame their differences to create a new country, right?

Well, yes, but still wrong! For instance, there was no one American Revolution where all the colonists came together–there were four phases, each fought by one of the groups, and in its own way. The original conflict took place in New England in 1775-76 and was fought by New England militias. The second took place in the middle and southern states from 1776-81 and fought by a more professionalized army, largely consisting of southerners under George Washington. The third was from 1779-81 in the backcountry and was fought savagely by Borderers with atrocities on both sides. Finally, Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin and the Quaker-influence mid-Atlantic took leadership positions in the final diplomatic and economic stages of conflict, from 1781-83. Even at the Continental Congresses, the colonists were not unified, but disagreed on the proper way to fight the British, with voting largely along regional lines.

Similarly, at the constitutional convention of 1787, regional differences made negotiations a blueprint for governing the country a gargantuan task. The Great Compromise is famous for providing a balance between large and small states–but Fischer points out that nearly every point of the new Constitution required a compromise. That’s the reason that so much of the Constitution and Bill of Rights have such vague, convoluted, contradictory language. That was the only way to secure the agreement of Puritans, Quakers, and Cavaliers. (For instance, Fischer’s illustration of the difference between the clear, readable, and far-reaching early proposals for religious freedom in the First Amendment and the actual difficult-to-parse clause that was eventually adopted is eye-opening. The problem here was the Puritans, who did not care for the idea of religious freedom and wanted to continue discriminating against non-Congregationalists.)

Moreover, the Constitutional Convention only succeeded in its task because the Borderers were largely shut out of its creation. The states where they resided–Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas–simply didn’t send representatives to the Convention from the backcountry areas. Practically as soon as the new federal government began to function, the entire region rose up in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. The name for the rebellion was intentionally chosen by Federalists at the time to trivialize the concerns of the Appalachian rebels. But what the Borderers were really opposed to was not the whiskey tax itself, but the very validity of taxation at the federal level, and the whole apparatus of tax officials and permanent federal offices that went along with it. The rebellion was more widespread and serious than is typically presented in history classes, and only George Washington’s quick and brutal campaign against the rebels saved what could easily have become a mortal threat to the new nation.

But even with independence, a strong federal government, and the defeat of the backcountry rebels, the new United States was far from a harmonious, unified land of like-minded citizens.

Assumption #4: Still, the mass immigration and intermixing of populations in the 19th century served to dilute regional identities, especially after the Civil War.

So, so wrong! First, what intermixing? The four regional cultures certainly did spread across the states, but they remained mostly homogeneous as they did so. Puritans spread to northern Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and as far as Oregon. The Cavalier culture of tidewater Virginia spread across the coastal areas of the Carolinas, Florida, and the Gulf Coast as far as Houston. The Quaker-influenced mid-Atlantic people spread across the middle tier of the country, including much of the mid-west and as far as San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Borderers spread from Appalachia to the Ozarks, and from there to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. This homogeneity is most easily recognized in regional accents, which persists in the different regions even to the present day.

Second, as late as 1900, nearly 60 percent of Americans still had British ancestry (with most of the rest being descended from other northwest European countries). All the old divisions were still there, because it was still the same people who had always made up the regional cultures. Not until the 1920 census did the number of Americans with British ancestry drop below 50 percent.

But even then, immigration did not especially dilute the old regional differences, because the immigrants largely adopted the attitudes and values of the regions where they settled. And since hardly any immigrants moved to the coastal south or Appalachia where the descendants of the Cavaliers and the Borderers lived, the fact of immigration itself became one more source of difference. The immigrant-filled cities of the north and mid-Atlantic contrasted with the stagnant cities of the south. So it was that, despite the decades of mass immigration that preceded it, the decade of the 1920s saw the most regionally-aligned voting ever in US history in presidential and congressional elections, as well as for bills in congress.

Even when Albion’s Seed was published in 1989, strong regional differences persisted that traced their origins to the original colonial settlement patterns. I would venture that they persist in 2022, as well. This can be seen in varying levels of regional support for such hot-button issues as gun control or abortion.

Of all the U.S. history books I’ve ever read, Albion’s Seed is probably the one that has most informed me, deepened my understanding of trends in U.S. history, and changed my pre-existing views. I’ve heard people say similar things about the People’s History of the United States, which I’ve never read, though my understanding of that book is that it is not sourced, and many of its claims are questionable. Contrast that with Albion’s Side, which is extensively sourced, rigorously argued, and I believe widely accepted among historians.

Yet, I’m not quite sure I can widely recommend Fischer’s book, as it is a true academic history, dense with citations and with a style that is somewhat dry in parts. Still, for a reader willing to put in a bit of work, Albion’s Seed is probably the best book you can read to truly understand American history. Thus, I am also awarding it with my coveted Shortcuts to Smartness tag, bestowed only rarely and awarded solely to those books that “so expand your knowledge and understanding in so many areas that they are like a college course in and of themselves.”

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