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Thread: Albionís seed: Four british folkways in america

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Fly-over country

    Default Albionís seed: Four british folkways in america

    Joe Klein Explains How the History of Four Centuries Ago Still Shapes American Culture and Politics
    By Joe Klein

    • Published Oct. 4, 2021Updated Oct. 6, 2021

    Through the spring and summer, I’ve been watching the daily maps of Covid-19 cases and vaccinations — the diagonal slash through Appalachia and the South to the Ozarks and Texas, where cases soared; the high vaccination rates in New England — and I’ve thought back to “ALBION’S SEED: FOUR BRITISH FOLKWAYS IN AMERICA,”” David Hackett Fischer’s classic history of British migration to colonial America, which was published in 1989 and explained these phenomena with a clarity that seems even more stunning today. The divide between maskers and anti-maskers, vaxxers and anti-vaxxers is as old as Plymouth Rock. It is deeper than politics; it is cultural.

    The Appalachian hill country and much of the Deep South were settled by a wild caste of emigrants from the borderlands of Scotland and England. They brought their clannish, violent, independent culture, which had evolved over seven centuries of border warfare. They were, Fischer wrote, “a society of autonomous individuals who were unable to endure external control and incapable of restraining their rage against anyone who stood in the way.” The spirit of the Scots-Irish borderlanders could also be seen in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol; their ancestors staged the Whiskey Rebellion against the U.S. Constitution.

    In New England, it was quite the opposite. “Order was an obsession” for the Puritan founders. Everything was regulated. Local selectmen had to report — that is, to spy — on the domestic tranquillity of every family in their jurisdiction. Cotton Mather defined an “honorable” person as one who was “studious, humble, patient, reserved and mortified.” These habits have lingered, too.

    “Albion’s Seed” makes the brazen case that the tangled roots of America’s restless and contentious spirit can be found in the interplay of the distinctive societies and value systems brought by the British emigrations — the Puritans from East Anglia to New England; the Cavaliers (and their indentured servants) from Sussex and Wessex to Virginia; the Quakers from north-central England to the Delaware River valley; and the Scots-Irish from the borderlands to the Southern hill country. This is a controversial argument, especially now, as the very nature and importance of “culture” has become a point of contention, especially by those who would reduce the American experience to the single lens of race. And, of course, our national sensibility has evolved since the colonial migrations. There are centuries of non-British immigrants to account for and there are the formerly enslaved African Americans, who brought distinctive cultures of their own to the mix. (Fischer planned a second volume on Southern plantation culture, but it hasn’t appeared. He drops a hint, though: The values of the Virginia Cavaliers caused the unusual brutality of the American system of Black enslavement.)

    Culture is amorphous; it isn’t immutable. Somehow, the borderland descendants accepted the polio vaccine in the 1950s. Somehow, the Puritan state of Massachusetts opposed Prohibition — led by a generation of Irish Catholic politicians (but banned “Happy Hour” during a spate of drunk-driving accidents in 1983). Fischer writes of the Scots-Irish: The people of the Southern hill country region “were intensely resistant to change and suspicious of ‘foreigners.’ … In the early 20th century, they would become intensely negrophobic and antisemitic.”

    But how does one prove such an assertion? The only way is through the meticulous accumulation of detail. Over nearly a thousand pages, Fischer describes 22 different patterns of behavior or “folkways” for each of the four cultures — from dress and cooking, to marriage and child-rearing, to governance and criminal justice. These culminate in four distinctive definitions of liberty. Freedom, he writes, “has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with each other.”

    Here is the nub of the book: The Puritan, Cavalier, Quaker and Scots-Irish notions of liberty were radically different, but each provided an essential strain of the American idea. The Puritans practiced an “ordered freedom” with the state parceling out liberties: Fishing licenses allowed the freedom to fish. This was a concept that would seem laughable in the Southern hill country — and would predict our current struggle over gun control. Puritan order also predicted two of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: The state provided “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” — that is, freedom maintained by government regulation.

    The Scots-Irish were the opposite: Their sense of “natural freedom” was deeply libertarian. You moved to the backcountry so that you could do what you wanted — within, of course, the ethos of the border culture. “Natural liberty was not a reciprocal idea. It did not recognize the right of dissent or disagreement,” Fischer writes. Scots-Irish leaders were charismatic — Andrew Jackson was the paragon — and their religion was evangelical, “illiterate emotionalism,” an aristocratic governor of South Carolina sniffed. Honor was valor, a physical trait (among the Puritans and Quakers, honor was spiritual). The American military tradition, and a disproportionate number of its soldiers, emerged from the descendants of Scots-Irish warriors in the Appalachian highlands.

    The Virginia definition of freedom was complex, contradictory — and remains problematic. It was hierarchical, the freedom to be unequal. “I am an aristocrat,” John Randolph of Roanoke said. “I love liberty; I hate equality.” Freedom was defined by what it wasn’t. It wasn’t slavery. It was the freedom to enslave. It was a freedom, granted to the plantation masters, to indulge themselves, gamble and debauch. “How is it,” Fischer quotes Samuel Johnson, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” And yet, it was Virginia aristocrats, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who concocted our founding documents. Over time, this plutocratic libertarianism found natural allies, if strange bedfellows, in the fiercely egalitarian Scots-Irish hill country folk. Neither wanted to be “ruled” by a strong central government. Look at the Covid maps: The regional alliance remains to this day.

    The Quakers seem an afterthought, but their migration was larger in size than that of the Puritans or Cavaliers. And their version of liberty seems most amenable today. It was “reciprocal freedom,” based on the golden rule. (Fischer notes the borderlands practiced the opposite: “Do unto others as they threatened to do unto you.”)
    The simple clarity of Fischer’s prose is rigorous and delightful. There are surprising pleasures to be had along the way. American cuisine mirrored the cultures — the Puritans baked (as in beans and pies), the Cavaliers roasted (as in barbecue), the Quakers boiled (as in cream cheese) and the Scots-Irish fried and mashed (as in pancakes and grits). Puritans eschewed the wearing of black — that was reserved for the clergy — but favored the “sadd colors” later adopted by their colleges: Harvard’s dull crimson, Yale’s navy blue, Dartmouth’s forest green, Brown’s brown. The Scots-Irish spoke a dialect that predated current British English, and that, because of their notion of freedom, included “an actual antipathy to fixed schemes of grammar and orthography and punctuation.” The Quakers created the first political parties in colonial America and William Penn enjoined them, “Don’t be so governmentish.”

    Culture is a sticky thing. “To change a culture in any fundamental way,” Fischer writes, “one must transform many things at once.” Child-rearing was wildly different in the four colonial systems, for example. And, in turn, that affected education, which affected criminal justice and traditions of governance. The great American mystery is why such disparate value systems never quite tore the country apart — though we came close in the Civil War, and there are times, like now, when our unity seems fragile and tenuous. Indeed, cultural divisions seem most pronounced when faith in the federal government diminishes. But the tensions among the founding cultures — enhanced, eventually, by freedom for African Americans and immigrants from every race and ethnic group in the world — also created a distinctive American spirit. This defines us, too.

    One night in Soviet Moscow a long time ago, I walked through a feathery curtain of soft, fat snowflakes with a Russian friend. “This is great!” I shouted. And he said to me: “I wish I could smile the way you Americans do.” His parents had taught him that any stray public emotion could lead to the gulag. With the blatant exception of race bigotry, most Americans have no such fear. We have created a multifarious society, but one resistant to intimidation. We smile, and antagonize one another, and we have thrived.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jun 2016
    Western Pa.


    ''... I believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people...are a safeguard to the continuance of a free government...whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast Republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.''- Gen. Robert E. Lee

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