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How British Are You?

April 2024
14min read

Very. The legacy of British traits in America is deeper and more significant than we knew.

As one of the most imaginative historians in contemporary America, David Hackett Fischer has produced a work that may put his fellow scholars’ teeth on edge. Historians, rather conservative in temperament, are reluctant converts when their choice ideas are thrown into question. Yet Fischer’s latest book, Albion‘s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press) will fascinate them as well as the general reading public. Lucid, dramatic, and always entertaining, the thick, handsomely illustrated volume may safely be called a modern classic, and comparisons to Tocqueville are inevitable. The historian Gordon Wood declared that the Brandeis University professor has delivered a “revisionist blockbuster” that “has uncovered America’s political and cultural roots in the countryside of Britain.” The title suggests as much. Albion was the ancient Greek name for the island.

The four migratory groups had much in common. But they also differed, and those differences perpetuated in our regional cultures to this day.

Fischer shows how particular religious persuasions, coupled with certain regional habits in four distinct areas of the kingdom, helped build four equally separate cultures in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century America. Each British district and its American counterpart had special ways of doing things and thinking about them. This broad-sweeping reinterpretation flies in the face of long-standing scholarly assumptions and even popular myths. Neither the early frontier nor the ethnic mix of later centuries can alone explain who we are and why Americans so cherish liberty. According to Fischer, these British roots, long neglected in the textbooks, require reexamination. And he provides it.


Fischer has an infectious smile and cherubic face that belie a steely intelligence and a no-nonsense approach to historical verification. Trained at City College, Baltimore, Fischer graduated from Princeton and later from Johns Hopkins, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1962. The young Brandeis teacher gained quick notice—even notoriety—for Historians’ Fallacies (1970). This irreverent exposure of his elders’ scholarly sins sent professors scurrying to find their names in the index. A steady outpouring of other books, articles, and edited works established him as a major figure. As a History Book Club Main Selection, Albion’s Seed , however, reaches a much wider audience and arouses more praise than anything he has written before. It inaugurates an ambitious design to reinterpret, rather than merely retell, the whole of American history. (This interview took place in May at the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.)

What led you to write the series of books on American history of which Albion’s Seed is the first?

The effort comes out of a dissatisfaction with the state of history writing today. Many of my colleagues feel the same way. Some three generations ago scholars confined their interests to what we might call old political history—the study of Presidents, parties, wars, treaties, and the like. Then, in the sixties, something new called social history arose: a “total” history of ordinary people. Then it fragmented into such special areas as ethnicity, sexuality, and race. But the new school of historians calls to mind the man who mounted his horse and rode off in all directions. The great French scholar Fernand Braudel wrote that the new social history was overwhelmed by its own success. I am merely one of many historians who are looking for ways to bring the various components together in a form of cultural history that might unite the old political with the new social history.

How do you answer those who claim that material circumstances rather than ideas or cultural habits generate not only economic life but pretty much everything else in the social order? Marxist scholars adopt this position.

It strikes me that there is an irony here. Marxism is collapsing everywhere in the world. Its policies, appeal, and theories are thoroughly discredited. At the same time, a good many young American and British historians call themselves Marxists! Perhaps it helps them get a larger perspective, but the materialist model simply does not work. People and societies are more complicated than that. In fact, ideas and habits often predetermine economic choices rather than the other way around. For instance, most historians—even non-Marxist ones—believe that the culture of early Virginia, as well as the rest of the South later on, was created out of the introduction of slavery. But when did the slaves first appear in really significant numbers? Not until the colony was nearly a century old.

That gets us to the main arguments of Albion’s Seed . What regions of Britain and America bear the kinds of affinities you describe?

There were at least four great migrations. From the Puritan East of England came the pious families of Massachusetts Bay. Their numbers were small. But the twenty-one thousand emigrants who arrived between, roughly, 1629 and 1640 were sufficient to dominate the social, religious, and political life of the Northeast. Eastern England was close to the Netherlands. Dutch influences can be found in the region’s architecture and religion, in its burgher life of small towns and crafts and devotion to learning. This heritage is still very much alive in New England today. Much of the Massachusetts economy is based on educational institutions that grew out of the Puritan tradition.

Ever since the seventeenth century New Englanders have cultivated an indifference to high fashions, preferring “sadd” colors and sensible shoes.

Virginia’s character stems not from the frail founding of Jamestown but rather from a later time: 1640-80. During and after the English Civil War, younger sons of gentry households tried to create in Virginia an aristocratic order, to reproduce the style of life in which they had been raised. Historians still have it wrong: They deny any validity to the Old South legend of shining knights and “Cavaliers.” Of course, there was nothing very glorious about these Royalists, but they did set the style for Virginia life. They also imported large numbers of indentured sevants—about 70 percent of the population—from the South of England.

The Quakers of the Delaware Valley appeared later in the same century. Unlike the Puritans, who belonged to the middling ranks, Quakers came from the lower end of the social order. But not from the very bottom. Like the Puritans and the Cavaliers, they sought a haven from an unsympathetic government. They chiefly emigrated from the English North Midlands and Wales.

The fourth great migration brought people from the British borderlands—Ireland, Scotland, the North of England, and Wales. Hundreds of thousands poured in from 1720 to the American Revolution. These people endowed the hinterlands with a culture that Americans associate with the Wild West—the frontier spirit.

All these groups had much in common. They all spoke English, lived under British laws, and cherished British liberties. But they also differed in many ways: their separate dialects; wedding, child-naming, and child-rearing customs; attitudes about rank, age, gender, work, and leisure. These discrete folkways, as I call them, are perpetuated in our own regional cultures.

How about some specific examples for each of these regions?

Take speech, for example—something we all are aware of. New Englanders have a noticeable twang. It is a way of speaking that developed from the dialects of eastern England, such as the “Norfolk whine.” Or clothing. New Englanders have long cultivated an indifference toward high fashions, preferring “sadd” colors, sensible shoes, and so on. This attitude was brought to Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. It survives in the famous Harvard crimson. It’s really a muddy color, not blood red at all.

New Englanders thought that one should always be working hard; to Virginians the “gentleman of leisure” was a figure of high respectability.

Now contrast these two patterns with Virginia's. Yankees chose to say “I am,” “You are,” “She isn’t,” “I haven’t.” Virginians, even the wealthy, preferred to say “I be,” “You be,” “She ain’t,” “I hain’t.” They often dropped the “as if” in favor of “like": “He looks like he’s dead.” They dropped or softened their R’s. No respectable Puritan would say “book learning,” but in Virginia, where intellectuality was not so highly regarded, that was the preferred term for education. These peculiarities of vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and accent were derived from the South and West of England. In dress the Virginia elite mimicked the styles of London. Women wore bright red cloaks, men seldom went without a sword. It was a symbol of their claim to being “gentlemen.” Commoners were denied that equipage. Many upper-class Virginians displayed coats of arms and stamped their books, silver, and coaches with these emblems of their genealogical lines.

Most interesting is the speech of the Delaware Valley. It was here that arose the flat accent, which linguists call midland speech, stretching from mid-New Jersey all the way across Middle America to Utah and beyond. Appropriately enough, that dialect is derived from the North Midlands of England—Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, et cetera. An amusing example is the way people translated the noise their horses made. In East Anglia and New England they neighed —related to the Dutch neijen . In Wessex and the Chesapeake they whickered , but in midlands of both countries they whinnied .

Finally, the backcountry. The clothing of this culture underscored manliness for men, femininity for women. Bodices were cut low, and the dresses were comparatively short. They were thought to be immodest by Quaker, Puritan, or even Anglican standards. Backwoodsmen wore clothes that emphasized muscularity, with the broad seams running horizontally. The shirt was “cinched” tightly at the waist. This style enlarged the shoulders and narrowed the hips. We like to think that this attire sprang from the frontier life of these people. Not so. It was a direct importation from the borderlands. As for speech, do you remember Lyndon Johnson’s speech with its whar for where, far for fire, narrer for narrow ? This is typical of the British borderlands, especially Northern Ireland. Double negatives abound: “He don’t do nothin’.” Of course, linguistically and sartorially much has changed in both America and Great Britain. Yet the persistence of many old patterns of speech and even of clothing is striking.

Virginians spoke of killing time, backwoodsmen of passing time, New Englanders believed in improving time, Quakers in redeeming time.

What about other contrasting patterns, such as sports, for example?

Let me make a comment before doing so. These topics—I have about twenty-five or so categories—are important in themselves but also in their cumulative and integrative capacity. They dovetail and reinforce each other. In other words, you won’t find housing styles out of line with modes of social ranking or clothing habits out of alignment with religious and magical beliefs and so on. To illustrate: Virginia’s upper-class houses were designed like the manor houses of southern England. In both countries they were built with a distinct public function in mind: In the great center halls the gentry conducted their business, entertained their guests with balls, administered local justice, and so forth. That form of vernacular architecture was suited to the kind of life and culture the big planters developed.

But to answer your question. Sport is a very good indicator. New Englanders, for instance, were very organized in all things, even the kinds of games they played. They especially liked team sports. In early America football was called the Boston game, and baseball the New England game.

In Virginia sport meant a hierarchy of blood sports. Every rank was encouraged to kill animals of a size proportionate to their status—a great chain of slaughter. Commoners were not allowed to race their mounts against those of the elite. Even their betting was prohibited. Whereas anyone, high or low, could be fined in New England for gambling, in the Tidewater commoners alone were punished for violating their social position by gaming. Virginia gentlemen wagered enormous sums to demonstrate their wealth and power and to defy the fates. The Virginians were obsessed with fortune and astrology. Gambling was a testing of one’s fortune. In fact, Virginians often cast their sense of social order in terms of fortune. That is, it was fortune that placed one rank over another. The New Englanders had a very different way of thinking about the world, dividing it between the forces of good and the forces of evil. So their obsession was with witchcraft, the same as in eastern England. But back to sports. Sundays and court days in Virginia were favorite times for a horse race that often ended in bloody melees over the outcome. Jockeys lashed each other as well as their horses.

In stark contrast were the quiet habits of the Quakers. They preferred gardening. In the backcountry the Scots and Irish imported those sports that suited the warrior mode of their life. Our modern field sports—the javelin, foot race, broad jump, weight throwing, and so on—derive directly from the so-called Caledonian games. Also boxing and wrestling. These sports were a hardy business in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Eye gouging was common. Some backwoodsmen let their nails grow long and hard, the better to spring an eye from its socket.

It sounds as if there were differences as well with regard to more serious matters, such as the proper use of time and the concept of work.

‘Time ways” is a superb marker of cultural distinctiveness. As you might expect, New Englanders believed in the idea of improving time. Virginians spoke of killing time; Quakers, redeeming time. Backwoodsmen thought in terms of passing the time. Each of these concepts reflected the deepest values of their culture. By improvement New Englanders had in mind personal and spiritual advancement. “Killing time” was not a phrase that appeared in any New England diary I have ever read. After all, it was a native of Boston who invented daylight savings time and an English Puritan who invented the alarm clock. New Englanders thought that one should be working hard at either mental or physical labor, not leaving it to others so that one could simply relax and enjoy. Study—especially religious study—was a high priority for self-enhancement.

On the other hand, very different were the Virginians. Of course, they could hardly avoid disagreeable work in the wilderness setting. But for both commoner and rich landholder, leisure was to be prized. Virginians had to engage in all sorts of commercial activities, but their attitudes toward work were ambivalent. Although no one admired the spend-thrift, the “gentleman of leisure” was a figure of high respectability.

Quakers were less dedicated to the life of the intellect than were the Puritans. They also believed that the Puritans made an idolatry of time. The Quakers’ neat farms, attention to business, and stolid sobriety revealed a sense of godly orderliness.

Backcountry folk had a different economy and a different sense of time’s utility. Their cabins and farms were almost impromptu affairs, compared with those of the Quakers and German pietists who settled in Pennsylvania. These border and backcountry attitudes were a response to insecurity: There was no point in building forever when a conquering army or band of brigands could abruptly destroy your handiwork. In some respects, conditions in frontier America, especially where Native Americans were powerful, seemed little different from the old borderlands. So, idling away time in gossip, storytelling, sipping spirits, or singing ballads was a particular pleasure. Hogs and cattle, foraging in the unclaimed forests, were the prime source of livelihood and required little concentrated labor.

The Revolution was a cultural conflict. A fifth British culture had emerged, united and bureaucratized, and it became the common enemy.

From the way you describe it, it sounds as if these Britons deliberately chose sites for settlement that would duplicate the conditions they knew at home. Or was it just happenstance to lead East Englishmen to rocky New England soils, borderers to the foothills, South Englishmen to the Southern lowlands, midlanders to a fertile valley?

Well, take the Quakers for an example. They were looking for a very special environment. What they wanted was a place to live in peace, a matter of profound importance to them. George Fox, the great Quaker leader, found in Pennsylvania that the local “Indians were loving,” as he put it. He thought there would be less hostility, less conflict with natives than would be the case elsewhere.

How about the border people? Why did they choose the hinterlands, where the Native Americans were not at all so “loving”?

By the time the border folk reached America, the coastal areas were pretty well occupied and the lands too expensive. Many arrived through Philadelphia. The Quakers disliked their alien ways and hurried them on to settlements inland. The backcountrymen migrated south along the Appalachian ridge. They did not have a lot of choice, but after all, the harsh life of the herdsman was what they knew. By the way, these people were not all Scots-Irish, as popular opinion has it. Ulster could not have produced the numbers. There were many Lowland Scots, more from Northern Ireland, and some from Southern Ireland, largely nominal Anglicans. We like to think that the backwoods revival camp-meeting was a strictly American experience. It was not. The encampment for worship and fellowship was a border practice, long predating the famous pioneer revivals.

Two points, somewhat related. Where do we get our ideas of liberty? And how does your four-regions approach explain our polity today?

Each of the regions in Britain and America had a different understanding of liberty. New Englanders believed in ordered liberty. Consensus was a prime requirement. The whole community was an entity to itself, enjoying a freedom of association, but that did not allow for much internal dissent. Quakerism, witchcraft, and other alien heresies or blasphemies had no place at all but were to be suppressed without mercy. Yet in a curious paradox the Puritans were sincere in defending what they called liberty of conscience—even as they failed to see contradictions in their persecutions of those practicing it.

Backcountry folk saw liberty as a natural endowment—the right of a man to protect himself and his loved ones from enemies outside the clan.

Virginians had a hegemonic or hierarchical notion of liberty—the right to rule others and themselves without interference from outside authorities. Hence, liberty for some—the elite—involved subordination of others. Slaveholding was a right, not just a convenience.

Quakers were the most egalitarian group and saw freedom as a more universal commodity, as a reciprocal matter. Although Quakers recognized the primacy of men, they allowed women to speak at church meetings, for instance, and children were tender plants to be nurtured as if in a garden. Quakers did not resort to the customary cuffings and spankings by which Puritans sought to break the will of a child, naturally evil or amoral. So the Quakers’ sense of liberty eventually brought them in the mid-eighteenth century to the then revolutionary idea that enslavement of Africans was a sin against God.

Backcountry folk saw liberty as a natural endowment. It had an individualistic and familial character—the right of a man to protect himself and his loved ones from enemies outside the clan (or even, in feuds, within it).

The critic might complain that such a view suggests that American Revolutionary unity was based on false premises. If there were so many versions of liberty, how could the colonists have coalesced to seek a single goal, independence?

I understand the Revolution as a cultural conflict, developing mainly from the challenge of a fifth British culture. Over the years Britain itself had become increasingly united- subduing the Jacobite Scots and Irish—and more bureaucratized. A new national elite emerged with its own distinctive dialect, which we call Oxford English. This imperial elite tried to impose on Americans a new cultural order along with unprecedented modes of taxation—an unworthy, demeaning form of “slavery,” as the Patriots saw it. The people of the four regions had long enjoyed their distinguishable liberties, many of them for nearly two centuries. A common enemy made for a common cause.

In major national policy questions, region remains the salient factor, and today’s political struggles arise from old folk ideas of power and freedom.

What does your interpretation tell us about today?

A very important purpose of this book is to study the past in a way that speaks to the present. Too many historians are antiquarians. They think the past is separate from the present. Still others see the past as merely prologue to the present, without its own integrity. Neither is correct. I am looking for a way of writing history without falling into either error.

It’s interesting that many Americans feel that early colonial history is irrelevant to things happening in the United States today. We differ in this respect from other cultures in the world. In Latin America, for example, the memory of the colonial period is urgently important in debates about public questions. The same is true for Canada and South Africa or the current ethnic troubles in the Soviet Union. But in America our colonial past has been sanitized. This is partly because Americans think of history as change. We tend to be less conscious of continuities. History, we assume, is something that happens to less fortunate people. I think this is wrong.

But how can the colonial past seem pertinent when so few Americans today have even a drop of “British blood”?

It’s true that only 19 percent of us have British ancestry. Nonetheless, most Americans are “Albion’s seed” in a cultural sense. Take the Kennedys of Massachusetts, for example. Though Irish and Catholic, John F. Kennedy and his family were also New Englanders. When he pronounced “Americer” and “Cuber,” he demonstrated the old New England twang. Another example is Franklin Roosevelt. He was three-quarters Yankee, despite his Dutch New York name. His New England culture profoundly influenced his political beliefs.

So, in other words, these cultural factors not only demonstrate the survival of old tendencies but also affect national politics.

Very much so. We have had forty Presidents, and all but two, Martin Van Buren and Kennedy, descended from one or more of the four great migrations. Surprisingly, the borderers have supplied the greatest number—some eighteen—from Andrew Jackson and James Polk to Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. Next came the sixteen Presidents from Puritan roots. They include George Bush. Ten can be traced to the “distressed Cavalier” tradition—the early Virginia Presidents down to Harry Truman. Only seven arose from the Quaker-German Pietist background, most notably Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower, a soldier-hero who hated war. Isn’t it curious that, apart from Kennedy, only those of early colonial extraction have reached the White House?

If we turn to major national policy questions, we find that region was the single most salient factor—quite apart from the obviously sectional character of the Civil War. Richard Bensel, the political scientist, has demonstrated that between 1880 and 1908 congressional voting was based more on region than on party, class, or any other factor. Even today political struggles arise from old folk ideas of order, power, and freedom, all of which still define our regional cultures. For instance, the retributive and every-man-his-own-master principles of the border legacy help to explain the Southern and Western opposition to gun control. In contrast, those states most affected by settlement of New Englanders have a low rate of homicide when compared with the statistics of the South and Southwest. On the women’s suffrage and equal rights amendments, where has been the strongest support or challenge? The answers lie in those sections of the land affected by their roots in the colonial past.

How will your series develop hereafter?

Albion’s Seed is the first of other works designed to fill out many questions left unanswered here. For instance, the next book will explain four distinctive African-American cultures that developed in various regions of the United States. Vol>ume three is about Dutch, German, and Spanish cultures in North America. But the first, Albion’s Seed, suggests that the colonial period of American history has left us a rich and dynamic legacy. That bequest continues to be a vital part of our contemporary culture.

Massachusetts and East Angalia: Taxes and Town Government Virginia and Rural England: Cavalier Rape Pennsylvania and the North Midlands: A Loving Neighborhood Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Scottish Border: Backcountry Squalor



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