Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America

By David Hackett Fischer

The four British folkways in the title are the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Royalists in Virginia, and the Scotch-Irish in the Carolinas and Tennessee.

Of late, we’ve been so focused on the other demographics in the American mix that we’ve stopped asking ourselves how people in the above-named four groups saw themselves.  That’s the question every anthropologist who visits a far-off tribe has been trained to ask.  Supposing it’s a fair question, this book attempts to answer it.  

It goes to 898 pages, including maps, illustrations, and charts, statistical and genealogical.  It’s not an exciting read, but good for bedtime or when you’re laid up with an injury or bad cold.  It doesn’t tell a story.  Instead, it details seventeenth-century speech patterns, religious beliefs, courtship and marriage customs, cooking, naming, architecture, orientations toward caste and class, status accorded to women, childrearing views, attitudes toward self-government, crime, punishment, and money.

Have I got you interested?  My word!  Who wouldn’t want to know those things?  As to how they saw themselves, we have ample evidence: in diaries, letters, memoirs and court records.  Here’s the abbreviated tour.

The Massachusetts Puritans came from a region in and around East Anglia and they didn’t change much when they got here.  They discouraged applicants who couldn’t pay for themselves or wanted to retain hereditary privileges.  They preferred to do without servants.  The Calvinist faith they came here to practice stressed that we are all born sinners and most of us, therefore, damned for eternity.  If, by relentless, righteous effort, we proved able to do the right thing, that might be evidence that God had spared us.  Children were viewed as little hellions.  Parents had to break their devilish little wills.  Congregants would spend six hours on a Sunday, listening spellbound to sermons.  The minister preached behind a pulpit on which a giant eye was painted, reminding them that God was Watching.  Inside marriage, sex was not regarded puritanically.  Young people chose their spouses and sustained often-ardent marriages for life.

Next case: the Quakers.  They came here to escape brutal persecution, also visited on them from the three other British groups.  Their “thee’s” and “thou’s” were grammatical ways of avoiding formal modes of address.  They disdained to recognize titles or inherited privilege.  They were doting parents, seeing children as innocents, imbued with the “inner light” that grownups cultivated in themselves.  Since they settled among the peaceful Delaware Indians, their pacifism didn’t put them at risk.  For a couple to get married took stamina, since the whole community had to give its consent.  Sex was not well regarded, except for reproduction.  Though many came from humble backgrounds in northern England or Wales, their frugality and hard work tended to bring them success in America.

The elite Virginians really were “distressed cavaliers,” some of whom had fought for Charles I.  They imported a large servant class to sustain their hierarchical style of life, into which enslaved Africans were subsequently fitted.  Male children were raised to keep their wills unbroken, and to fight for their honor – in the sense of “candor, courage, fidelity to family and loyalty to a cause.”  The females were rated for their social position and as breeders.  Social codes were intricate and took hours of training to master.  Bloodlines were valued and traced — in people and horses.

The fourth group, the Scotch-Irish, included dwellers on both sides of the wild border region where the kings of Scotland and England hadn’t fixed the line separating their kingdoms.  To America they brought their fighting spirit, religious revivals and contempt for pretense.  As for courtship: if you were swept off your feet by a young girl’s charms but failed to marry her, her family would keep yours in their gunsights for the next three generations.

How did these culturally distinct “races” of Britain ever get on the same side in a joint fight for American independence?  

Here’s how.  After about 150 years of leaving the colonies to their own devices, a new regime in the mother country started to act like (what they call in Australia) pommy twits: with clipped accents, burdensome fees and taxes, and brazen displays of contempt for the colonials.

Well, we can’t have that, can we?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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