Gilbert: Albion’s Seed

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Summer is a good time to explore our roots – both collectively and as
individuals.  And while we’re at it, commentator and Vermont
Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert says there’s a
provocative book that explores the historical roots of regional
differences in this country.

(GILBERT) I’m often struck by
just how different attitudes and opinions in
different regions of our country are so different. One can actually
map the dominant attitudes around the country regarding
government, taxes, liberty, religion, gender, violence, and many
other cultural characteristics. And those differences have sustained
themselves for a very long time despite the homogenizing tendencies
of mass media and a highly mobile society.

1989 historian David Hackett Fisher published a fascinating and
hugely ambitious book entitled Albion’s Seed. It discusses four
different waves of immigration from England to what is now the United
States. They came from four different regions of England, and they
settled in four different regions in America; each group brought its
own culture – what he calls "folkways." Now, cultures are
always changing and the ethnic composition of regions of our country
has changed profoundly over time. What’s striking, Fisher argues,
is how persistent those regional cultures have remained, even over
centuries. They – and their regional roots in England – form the
basis of the regional cultures we still have in America today.

four English migrations were, first, Puritans, from the eastern
counties of England; they settled in Massachusetts, and greater New
England. Second, "Cavaliers and indentured servants" from
southern England; they settled in Virginia and the tidewater South.
Third, the Friends’ migration – Quakers, from England’s North
Midlands, who settled in the Delaware Valley – New Jersey,
Pennsylvania, Delaware, and northern Maryland. And finally, people
from the borderlands – England’s northern counties, the Scottish
lowlands, and the north of Ireland. They generally settled, Fisher
argues, in America’s backcountry and southern highlands.

compares numerous characteristics of each region’s culture – not
just different speech and food traditions, but differences having to
do with, among other things, family, marriage, child-rearing, dress,
work, sport, time, death, and inheritance. He asks about cultural
attitudes about rank – was it hierarchical, egalitarian, or something
else? How deferential were people in the different regions to rank
and wealth? What were their notions of honor focused on? What were
the levels of taxation, voting, literacy, and crime in these
different regions? Particularly striking – if you’re interested in
issues affecting overarching national identity and government – are
the regional differences related to freedom, power, order or
authority, and wealth. These four waves of English immigration and
their different cultures help us understand why states that are in
those four different regions are so different from each other today –
states like Massachusetts, Virginia, New Jersey, and West Virginia or
South Carolina.

My goal here is not to prove Fisher’s
complex, ambitious, and somewhat controversial thesis, but merely to
provide this briefest of summaries of it – because to consider these
specific facets of our nation’s different regional cultures is to
wrestle with some of the cultural identities and assumptions that
underlie the fracture lines in our political landscape today.

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