Albion’s Seed Summary

David Hackett Fischer

Albion’s Seed

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Albion’s Seed Summary

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Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989) by historian and Brandeis University professor David Hackett Fischer traces four major groups of immigrants from the United Kingdom. Fischer argues that each of these four cultures contributed to the formation of modern America; even while most Americans don’t immediately have British ancestors, these four “folkways” from before 1776 were so dominate that virtually every ethnic group in the U.S. has accommodated some of their worldviews.

The title comes from the earliest recorded name for the island of Great Britain, Albion. Its themes include the nuanced origins of America, the connection between current American traits and past American foundations, and the human urge to establish a more perfect government.

At nearly 1,000 pages, the work is divided into four parts. Throughout, Fischer examines each group through two dozen variables, including how they deal with death, what they think about magic, how they relate to clothes, how they speak, etc. He provides over 117 charts to illustrate the distinct patterns of each group, as well as to demonstrate how they influenced their peers and successors.

Part one looks at the English Puritans who migrated to America’s Northeastern coast from about 1629 to 1640. Hailing from East Anglia, England (northeast of London) this group would lay the foundations for America’s current corporate structure and work ethic. One law stated that no citizen was ever to waste time; several individuals were found guilty of the crime of wasting time.

The Puritans also influenced how children and young adults were educated and founded Harvard University in 1636. They tended to be highly educated, and on average, had a literacy rate that was double that of the standard population.

Inspired by the stoic teachings of John Calvin, the Puritans placed a premium on hard work and a serious life. They left England to establish their own religion, but also to avoid the sin they perceived to permeate throughout their native country. They introduced a sense of elitism into America: only with a letter of recommendation from a current colonist would an immigrant from Britain be welcomed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Part two centers around those immigrating to Virginia. These people travelled from scattered towns throughout the south of England from about 1624 to 1675. These immigrants, who also went by the name The Cavaliers, tended to be loyal to the British monarchy. When King James II was killed in 1649, they fled an England now ruled by Oliver Cromwell and his rebel army.

Fischer details how the first governor of Virginia, William Berkeley, styled the new colony as a friendly land for English noble people. As these elites were unaccustomed to performing agrarian labor themselves, they paid (sometimes blackmailed or kidnapped) other people to work for them. Fischer estimates that nearly 75 percent of Virginia’s initial population were indentured servants. But the European population couldn’t fare as well in the hot weather; many of them would die from malaria. So the English aristocrats mimicked labor relations in the Caribbean, and started to buy slaves from Africa. They rationalized slavery by claiming a free society (for themselves) could only be brought about if a certain majority group did all the work and absorbed all of the suffering.

Unlike the Puritanical north, The Cavaliers had a high rate of crime, mortality, and teenage pregnancy. They encouraged gambling, prostitution, and hunting animals cruelly for sport.

“The Friend’s Migration,” part three, looks at those who settled around the Delaware Valley from 1675 to 1725. These individuals came from the middle of England (aka the North Midlands). Their prevailing religion was Quakerism founded by George Fox. They continue to influence American’s thoughts on industry and democracy.

Quakerism had a benign view of human nature, especially compared to The Puritans. George Fox taught that everyone had an “Inner Light” that connected to god. Thus, people didn’t need to attend a church service or rely on a priest to connect with God; simply by being a good person, they could do so. They were the most democratic of any religious sect in that they believe men and women to be equal, as well as all racial groups; they were also strongly opposed to cruelty toward animals.

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania and a philosopher and entrepreneur, is perhaps the
most famous of early Quakers. For his views on pacifism, he was arrested several times, but he argued his own case so effectively that his adversaries had a difficult time keeping him in jail.

Those hailing from the far north of England or the very south of Scotland are examined in part four, “The Flight from North Britain.” As these people tended to be farmers, when they moved to the U.S., the gravitated toward farmlands in the Southern U.S. They also settled throughout Appalachia. They would become some of the first people to move west; thus, these people would (according to Fischer) lay the foundation for cowboy culture, western expansion, and obeisance to the military.

Fischer argues that the thoughts toward gender, race, and education between these four “folkways” is so distinct that they are more radically different from each other than countries in Europe are different from each other.