Summary of “Albion’s Seed” and Implications for the 21st Century
What follows is a long letter I sent to my girlfriend Emily when she inquired about what I meant by the “four folkways” of American culture. This is my basic understanding of the cultural argument of Albion’s Seed, the masterwork of David Hackett Fischer.
I have primarily discussed the role of culture in American history and politics here, without delving into conclusions I reached on the significance of culture (it matters A LOT) the construction of ideas (they’re not JUST constructed but they are largely contingent on previous ideas and current situations) or philosophical musings on the nature of Americanism (true Americanism involves a healthy tension between various competing and contrasting ideals and values.)
Perhaps I will write such an essay.
“so the folkways theory, or the “Albion’s Seed Thesis” (Albion is an old word for England, and then seed as in its descendents) basically argues that there are four distinct and broad American cultural regions rather than one singular American culture, and that those four regions have differing ideals and have competed over the course of centuries, defining the American identity and determining American politics. There are some other cultural regions, but they are less influential and widespread; and most immigrant groups assimilate and take up the characteristics of one of the cultural regions, anyway, or at least bind themselves to it culturally.
Those four cultures were the Puritans of New England, the Quakers of the Mid-Atlantic colonies, the Cavalier Virginia gentlemen of the coastal South, and the Scots-Irish frontiersmen of Appalachia. In addition to these four Americas, there are the Dutch-influenced New Yorkers, the French-influenced Louisianans, and the Caribbean-descended deep Southern planters. Blacks brought their own folkways but, interestngly, have largely grafted onto the Scots-Irish and Cavalier cultures, while Hispanics have largely grafted onto the Scots-Irish culture and Asians have largely grafted onto the Puritan cultures. Meanwhile the flood of European immigrants that populated the cities of the East Coast and the Midwestern states largely assimilated into the Puritan (or Yankee) and Quaker (or Midland) cultures.
So let’s say Yankees and their descendants are dark blue, Midlanders are purple, Cavaliers are pink, and Scots-Irish are red.
The whole northern tier of America is blue, from DC up the coast to Maine, inland to Chicago and Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul, and still blue in the rural belt across the Great Plains and Rockies to Seattle, and blue from Seattle south to San Francisco. Additionally, all the major urban cores have some level of Yankeedom, because the Yankees have largely influenced American elite educational and corporate culture.
The Ohio Valley from Philadelphia out to the Mississippi River is purple, as the descendents of Quaker midlanders, no longer practicing that faith but still influenced by it, fanned out in a straight line moving West. And their descendents in turn settled the Salt Lake City area and the central Great Plains and Rockies, including Colorado.
From DC south to Florida and west to Houston, it’s all pink along a narrow strip on the coast. The lowlands of the South are dominated by the once-powerful planter elite; after the Civil War they were neutered, and after the New Deal they’ve largely been reduced to modern libertarian and corporate movements. But something of theculture still survives on the southern coastal strip, and ironically, in every major American city where there are concentrations of wealth.
And the Scots-Irish territories- Appalachia, Missouri, Texas, the Southwest and Southern Great Plains, and the Southern Rockies- are deep red. So are a bunch of other rural areas, actually, because the Scots-Irish fanned out more widely than any other ethnic group. And so vast stretches of the American hinterlands from central California to west Virginia to Montana to Texas feature their culture.
Now, the only solidly-colored regions are the East Coast heartlands of these cultures, because as they moved West they intermingled- for example, the Southwest is a blend of Scots-Irish folkways and Hispanic folkways, while California is a curious mix of all four types and the northern Rockies and northern Great Plains had a cultural fusion of Midlander Quakers and Scots-Irish. And other dynamics, especially class and the rural/urban divide, come into play very prominently. But generally, there are these divides.
What’s interesting is how this comes into play politically and culturally.
Yankee Puritans primarily favor social reform and activist government- they animated every major refrm movement in American history, and they’ve always been on the side of the Big-Government party (Federalists, Whigs, early Republicans, New Deal Democrats.) There are liberal ones (Franklin Roosevelt) and conservative ones (Theodore Roosevelt.) They largely influenced America’s corporate and educational elite.
Quaker Midlanders are temperamentally more moderate and favor an ethic of industrialism and a a nonviolent, egalitarian ethic. They’re currently the swing states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc) and have historically followed suit with the Yankees, almost but not quite grafting themselves onto them. Figures like Dwight Eisenhower and Abraham Lincoln represent this actually pretty boring tradition. They’ve largely informed the development of American industry and labor.
Cavaliers have always favored a strong, traditionalist, conservative society, an ethic of temperance and self-control and greatness, and minimal government oversight. They’re basically dead now as a regional force, but again, they live on through the libertarian movement and some great gentlemen from the south. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson- reserved, quiet gentlemen of strong character and elitist pretensions- characterize Cavalier society.
Scots-Irish or Jacksonians are also very anti-government, and even more, incredibly individualistic and violence-prone. They are moral traditionalists who prefer an ethic of survivalism. Andrew Jackson was the archetype Scots-Irish, though you can see this movement alive in every populist movement in Americanhistory. They’ve been the pioneers and frontiersmen since the Founding.
You can probably guess where these cultures fall politically these days; the far right is a mix of Scots-Irish and the remains of the Cavaliers, while the far left is a bunch of radical Puritans with some Cavalier finance. The establishment wing of the Democrats is Yankee/Quaker, while the establishment of the Republicans is Scots-Irish/Quaker. And the cultural divides follow regional lines, too- coasts and northeast for the Blue-Purple Democrats, West and South for the Red Republicans.
So the first two things you’re probably wondering are 1) what are you? and 2) what am I?
I am ashamed to admit that I don’t know you politically well enough to say for sure, but my instinct is that you are of the conservative wing of the Yankees, with some rugged folk Scots-Irish in you. Sacramento was settled by the Scots-Irish and, you know this because the area around it votes Republican, it remains a region fiercely proud of its pioneer heritage. But you’re also middle class and somewhat progressive,which adds the Yankee strain.
As for me, you know the dilemma- I don’t have a homeland, so I wasn’t brought up geographically in any of these cultures. My family does have Scots-Irish and Quaker roots, though, my dad being from Ohio and my family being conservative traditionalists. But all my political heroes, or a great many of them, were Whigs- and Whigs were typically Northeastern conservative Yankees. I complain about the activists all the time, but I favor activist government as much as they do. I think I would describe myself as a Southern Whig, then- holding some of the values of the Scots-Irish traditionalists (andhoping to emulate the Cavalier gentlemen) while viewing government the way the Yankees do. And with some Quaker industrialism mixed in.
The big question I have is 1) how have these four cultures evolved 2) how has the presence of non-Anglo migrants altered that dynamic and 3) what does the cultural-politicacl climate of 2016 look like in Fischerian terms. I don’t really know how to answer any of these at the moment.
America is locked in regional-cultural-political conflict between the Scots-Irish and the Yankees, broadly defined, with Cavaliers generally financing the Scots-Irish and the Midlanders generally aligning with the Yankees. The moderate-conservative Whig temperament, I think, would seek to build up a cultural middle ground- probably over Quaker Midlander culture- with a Scots-Irish conservative temperament, and a Yankee willingness to tolerate activist government.”