06 October 2012

Impressions From Albion's Seed

David Hackett Fischer's opus, "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways In America" (1989), a self styled "cultural history" of the United States is a classic far beyond its core area of inquiry, the history of colonial America.

More than anything else, Albion's Seed is notable for making a powerful case that the culture of a founding population leaves a pervasive and persistent cultural legacy that can remain central to politics, dialects, and attitudes about how to live daily life centuries later, despite massive subsequent immigration, technological development and social change.

Linguists, political scientists, and cultural anthropologists have long observed some of the main currents of regional diversity in American life. But, Fischer traces in excruciating detail the way that these regional cultures came into being, naming names, attaching dates, trotting out statistics, quoting diaries and reviewing obscure legal enactments along the way to make his case.

The fact that differences in founding populations produce regionally different cultures itself is unremarkable. The fact that the detailed cultural affinities of a few thousand people here and there three hundred and fifty years ago could lead to wars and drive politics in the United States today is stunning.

The differences in adolescent sexuality and family structure we see in "Red State/Blue State" comparisons in the past decade were deeply ingrained already in colonial New England, Pennsylvania, Appalachia and Virginia by the 1770s and have clear British antecedents which have faded to near irrelevance to some extent where they originated. By then, 10% of women in the Delaware Valley (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Northern Maryland),15% of New England women, 30% of women in Virginia and 40% or more of women in Appalachia (one contemporaneous source put the figure as high as 94% in one county) were pregnant when they married. On that wedding day, the average Delaware Valley woman was 24, the average New England woman was 23 years old, the average Virginia woman was 18, and the average Appalachian woman was 19. About 33% of the Delaware Valley women were literate, as were 50% of the New England women, 25% of the Virginia women, and a smaller percentage of the Appalachian women.

At the same time that Salem was prosecuting witches, Virginians were prosecuting people for falsely accusing their neighbors of witchcraft.

Fischer also notes a few of the notable exceptions to his four founding waves theory: the Dutch founders of New York City and the Hudson River Valley, the mix of founding families from the West Indies and French Huguenots as well as Virginia to coastal South Carolina that produced the Gullah dialect of the black slave majority there (Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court has origins there), and the Gaelic settlers of the Cape Fear Valley in North Carolina. Fischer also omits the cultural impacts of the French and Spanish colonists in later acquired territory, and doesn't discuss at any length of cultural origins of Canada.

More pertinently to his core thesis, however, he does discuss how subsequent waves of migrants to the United States assimilated not "American culture" at large, but the specific regional cultures of the places where they settled.

My own origins, for example, are from 19th century German Lutherans and an Irish Catholic migrant on my father's side, and Swede-Finn Lutherans on my mother's side. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia and lived there until I started the first grade, and one of my earliest childhood memories is of a visit to a monument to confederate war heroes. Yet, my cultural legacy owes a great deal to New England Puritans and Pennsylvania Quakers. My accent is that of a Midlander, not a coastal Southern drawl or the accent of a European immigrant or even the accent of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where my mother grew up. My allegiances are Blue and not Gray. I use more Yiddish and Japanese derived words that would have mystified all of my immigrant ancestors in my every day speech, than I do Swedish or German or Irish ones combined.

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