How Albion Seeded American Liberty
By Arnold Kling
The Jacksonian coalition was built upon principles which most Americans accepted, but many voters were deeply troubled by the behavior of President Jackson himself—a political style characterized by intensely personal leadership, charismatic appeals to followers, demands for extreme personal loyalty, and a violent antipathy against all who disagreed with him.
—David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
David Hackett Fischer’s masterpiece, published in 1989, has aged very well. If you have read it once, I recommend re-reading it. If you have not read it, I recommend putting it at the top of your list of books to help understand American history, culture, and politics.
Four waves of immigration to America
Fischer describes four waves of immigration from different parts of England to the New World:
The first was an exodus of Puritans from the east of England to Massachusetts during a period of eleven years from 1629-1640. The second was the migration of a small Royalist elite and large numbers of indentured servants from the south of England to Virginia (ca. 1642-1675). The third was a movement from the North Midlands of England and Wales to the Delaware Valley (ca. 1675-1725). The fourth was a flow of English-speaking people from the borders of North Britain and northern Ireland to the Appalachian backcountry mostly during the half-century from 1718 to 1775.
Back in the United Kingdom, these represented four distinct cultures, including differences in speech patterns, food preferences, religion, marital customs, and other social habits that Fischer summarizes as “folkways.” Once they settled in America, these four cultures remained distinct.
“To remember these four cultures, I use four m’s: morals, manners, merchants, mistrust.”
To remember these four cultures, I use four m’s. The Massachusetts settlers were a deeply religious society focused on morals. The Tidewater settlers wished to create an aristocratic society focused on manners. The Pennsylvania settlers were a tolerant society that encouraged merchants. The backcountry settlers were a proud society that viewed outsiders with mistrust.
The Puritans sought to separate themselves from the depravity that they saw elsewhere in the world. The came to Massachusetts to found a new community based on religious conviction. They were mostly middle-class, with a high rate of literacy, strongly oriented toward nuclear families.
The cavaliers who came to the Chesapeake region were Royalists who under the Oliver Cromwell regime experienced discomfort at best and persecution at worst. They came to Virginia to try to enjoy the gentlemanly lifestyle of landed aristocrats. They brought with them indentured servants and soon acquired African slaves. Fischer indicates their concern with manners by citing a list of 96 rules from a book called The School of Manners, the first four of which are Fear God, Honour the King, Reverence Thy Parents, and Submit to thy Superiors.
Pennsylvania was settled by Quakers and by religious groups with similarly tolerant beliefs. To an unusual degree, their religious principles reinforced treating strangers and people of other faiths with fairness and respect. Fischer points out that Quaker meetings appointed committees to monitor the business ethics of members. Encouraged to deal honestly with everyone, these settlers took naturally to trade and finance. Fischer notes that the great banking houses of England were those of Quakers, and that Philadelphia was the financial center of the New World until New York overtook it early in the nineteenth century. In short, Quaker culture facilitated a diverse, open economy.
The backcountry settlers came from the English borderlands, where violence was endemic and extended families or clans could be more important than governments. They were often hot-tempered and suspicious toward strangers. Andrew Jackson, as described by Fischer above, reflected this background. Fischer notes the “fierce and stubborn pride” of this culture, and its strong resentment of anything smacking of elitism or cultural superiority on the part of others. He points out that in Appalachia, the word “foreigner,” which had very negative connotations, was used to indicate anyone not from the immediate area. “All the world seemed foreign to the backsettlers except their neighbors and kin.”
Four notions of liberty
Fischer shows that each of these four cultures had a different concept of liberty. For the Puritans, it was “ordered freedom,” which meant the rule of law, but laws could reflect strict community standards and hence become “an instrument of savage persecution.” For the cavaliers, it was “hegemonic freedom,” which meant that individual rights were clearly articulated and strongly protected, but these rights varied by social class, so that they “permitted and even required the growth of race slavery.” For the Quakers, it was “reciprocal freedom,” which meant equality of all under the law, but theirs was “a sectarian impulse which could be sustained only by withdrawal from the world.” In the backcountry, it was “natural freedom,” which meant resistance to foreign influences (including government) but “sometimes dissolved into cultural anarchy.” The Constitution and the Bill of Rights can be viewed as a delicate compromise that attempted to incorporate these disparate notions.
Persistent cultural differences
Several other writers have remarked on the persistence of the cultural differences Fischer identified. Fischer himself saw leading politicians representing these cultures well into the twentieth century. The Progressive movement was strongest in the New England home of the Puritans. It also was strong in places settled by migrants from New England, such as the northern parts of Wisconsin and Iowa. The populist movement was strongest in states with large backcountry populations, such as North Carolina, as well as in areas where backcountry migration was strongest, including Kansas, southern Missouri, and parts of Texas.
Walter Russell Mead, in his book Special Providence (2001), describes four strains of thought in American foreign policy, which he calls Wilsonian, Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian. The Wilsonian school, which undertakes the moral improvement of the world, clearly descends from the Puritans. The Jacksonian school, which is both isolationist and warlike, clearly descends from the backcountry settlers. But the Hamiltonian school, which sought to promote trade under Anglo-American naval supremacy, cannot be closely identified with any of Fischer’s four cultures. Nor can the Jeffersonian school, which seeks to focus on betterment at home and to avoid foreign involvement.
Colin Woodard, in American Nations (2011), modified Fischer’s original model in a number of ways. Woodard re-labels Fischer’s cultures of Puritans, cavaliers, Quakers, and backcountry as Yankeedom, Tidewater, Midlands, and Greater Appalachia, respectively. Woodard describes several additional American cultures, which he calls nations.
One of Woodard nations is New Netherland, the settlements of New York City and its environs. Fischer mentions this in Albion’s Seed, but he does not dwell on it. This culture is multi-ethnic, commerce-oriented, and powerful in the media industry.
Unlike Fischer, who treated the coastal South as a single region, Woodard sees the Southeastern United States as two regions. Woodard regards the cavalier migration as limited to the Tidewater area of the Chesapeake. He sees the Deep South as a separate region, owing more to the culture of harsh Caribbean slavery than to the genteel Tidewater culture.
Woodard describes the area of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico as El Norte, a mixture of English-speaking and Spanish-speaking culture. He sees the border between the United States and Mexico as an arbitrary political border, dividing people who share a common culture.
Woodard describes the coastal region of northern California, Oregon, and Washington as The Left Coast. In some ways, it is an extension of the New England culture, but it has more ferment, as illustrated by its role in the hippie movement and the computer revolution.
Woodard sees another regional culture in the Far West, the vast area that stretches several hundred miles east and west of the Rocky Mountains. Much of this region was not naturally suited to farming, and it owed its development to heavy investment in transportation infrastructure, water management, and resource-extraction equipment. Woodard sees its culture as reflecting both dependence on and resentment of corporations and government agencies headquartered elsewhere.
These additional regions bring their own attitudes toward liberty. New Netherland and the Left Coast are strongly libertarian with respect to immigration. The Far West is libertarian on environmental matters, seeing regulation as a hindrance to economic development. The Left Coast sees libertarian potential in technology. The Deep South sees other regions trying to use government to impose their values, and it resists government for that reason.
America is not a single culture with a common conception of liberty. It is an amalgam of several distinct cultures, each of which emphasizes different facets of liberty.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
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