Book Review #4

14 Mar

Southern Highland Hero, William Wallace Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: A Cultural History) is really two books, the first section of which the book’s title accurately represents, and then a second section on the electoral history of the United States from 1789 to 1988 seeking to prove the cultural thesis in the first section. HistoryBookReviews offers a convenient, quick synopsis. But, it’s much more entertaining than that.

The book follows the four great waves of immigration from Britain to America: the Puritans from the east of England to Massachusetts, in 1629-1640; the Royalist elite with their indentured servants from the south of England to Virginia, 1642-75; the Quakers from the North Midlands of England and Wales to the Delaware Valley, 1675-1725; and the Borderlanders (“Scots-Irish”) from the borders of North Britain and northern Ireland to Appalachia, 1718-1775.

These groups were all protestants who lived under British law, but it is important to note that they were very different in many important ways. And, their influence on America was profound.

“Waitaminnit!”, you say. “What about all the other waves of immigration? German, Irish, Scandinavian, Italian, East Europeans, Jews, Japanese…? We’re just chopliva?” Well, Fischer would point out that the Brits were here first, and had put their stamp on American culture, religion, and politics before the others arrived.

There’s a popular appeal here, when most people like to research their family tree. It’s nearly impossible not to identify family traits, e.g., your grandfather’s Chesapeake tendency to philander, or your mother’s Borderlander habit to raise children indulgently. What makes this conservative thesis in the first section controversial is, that it limits the influence upon these British immigrants of the American environment, including geography and Native Americans. The author argues, that the cultural aspects he identifies in the British context devolved by contact with the American environment. Southerners in the highlands built log cabins like British borderlanders, only with timber, not stone and mud, e.g. Characteristically, this first section is a treasure trove of vignettes of an America and representative men and women, like Andrew Jackson, William Penn, George Washington, and the Adamses, before the Revolution and successive immigration waves, and I think is the strongest part of the book. Where did Boston baked beans come from? What are the origins of the Southern drawl? Fischer quips, that the 1787 Constitution is the “rules of engagement” between the four cultures of the migrations, perhaps a very helpful interpretation for bad legal debates about guns and the executive’s war powers. Immigration opponents and supporters can take heart from the history of their respective individual cultures.

In the second section, Fischer offers a sweeping interpretation of American electoral history in which he categorizes presidents as descendants from the four migrations. Once in a while a president is an “omnibus” candidate, which means he appeals to voters in every category. For instance, Woodrow Wilson could appeal to the Chesapeake migration through ancestry, the Delaware migration because of his Princeton identification, and New Englanders by his Progressive views. The borderlanders also were represented in his family tree. Most American presidents represented one migration, but popularity among voters in that cultural cohort provided the margin of victory. The ways a candidate can represent a tradition seem a bit flimsy: e.g., family tree, message, residence. Fischer also disputes the “sectional” thesis, that there is a North and South. According to Fischer, both categories are unstable aggregations of the four cultures.

Another example of how someone might use the “Four Migrations” thesis is Walter Russell Mead‘s recent “Liberalism 5.0” argument.

Right now we are having an argument about whether the blue model is in irreversible decline and whether its remnants should be liquidated or defended. But as the model continues to decompose, and it will, the argument will inevitably shift. The four schools who now quarrel about the old model will change their ground without losing their values; New England, New York and the Virginias will compete to shape the next stage in American history.

David Hackett Fischer‘s “Four Migrations” is convenient for a well-designed thesis, but not Fischer’s cultural interpretation of America’s electoral history.

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