David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed is a monumental work of cultural analysis, and a must-read for students of American identity. Fischer traces the United States’ traditions of language, family, authority, and freedom to their roots in four distinct, and very different, regions of 17th century Britain. In doing so, he reveals not only the origins of American regional cultures still predominant today, but the source of our never-ending conflict over the true meaning of liberty.
First he examines the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, showing that their roots mostly lay in the culture of East Anglia. The clothes they wore, the food they ate, their naming ways and societal structure were all carried with them from the Old World to the New, and suffered very little modification in the process. According to Fischer, the Puritans believed in what he calls “Ordered Liberty”. Four factors of this idea of liberty might seem odd to modern Americans. First, liberty belonged not to the individual but to the community, the individual being only a part of the community and no more. Second, liberty was an exemption from an assumed prior restraint – that is, the natural human condition was not conceived of as total freedom which was then imposed upon by law, but rather of complete servitude, to God and neighbor, from which one might obtain certain freedoms. Third, it was “a freedom to order one’s own acts in a godly way – but not in any other.” Religious freedom meant not freedom of all religions, but freedom of the true religion from constraint by false ones. Finally, the Puritans believed in the obligation of the community to provide its members freedom from want, from fear, and from “the tyranny of circumstance.” The welfare state was not wholly invented in the 20th century – it has its roots in the ideas of ordered, communal liberty brought to America by the Puritans, of whom FDR was a descendent.
The author then turns to the Cavaliers of Virginia, whose culture was inherited from the royalist aristocracy of southern England. A rigidly hierarchical social order, a colorful, sensual, and opulent culture, and a dedication to chivalric ideas of honor, and of the relationship between man and woman, lord and peasant, subject and king, all made Virginia a completely different world than Massachusetts. They also brought with them a very different idea of liberty, which Fischer calls “hegemonic liberty”. Simply put, this was the liberty of the gentleman to act as an independent sovereign over his own lands and people. Liberty for women, for servants, for slaves, was out of the question, as it would infringe on the liberty of their lord and master to impose his will on his environment. To the Virginians, liberty was “a hegemonic condition of dominion over others and – equally important – dominion over oneself.” This style of liberty resented any disobedience from those below, and any interference from those above – the King, or Parliament, or anybody. The modern idea of the sovereign family, of a man’s home being his castle, we owe in large part to the influence of the Cavaliers.
Third come the Quakers of the Delaware Valley, who mostly emigrated from the English Midlands. Plain dress, plain speech, plain living, a sound business sense and a disdain for intellectuals and aristocrats were the hallmarks of this culture. They were the most egalitarian society in England or America, practicing universal religious toleration, giving women an almost equal place with men, and discouraging all forms of slavery or servitude. They believed in “reciprocal liberty” – liberty for all, not just the nobility (as in Virginia) or God’s chosen few (as in Massachusetts). To this notion of liberty Fischer traces the “idea of ethical neutrality”, of a secular, non-interfering government whose only role is to provide a level playing field to every philosophy and creed.
Finally come the Borderlands, the Appalachians and southern highlands, the backwoods of Mississippi and Georgia and the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee. To this wild and hostile country came the wild and warlike inhabitants of the borderlands of northern Britain and Ireland. Extremes of wealth and poverty, widespread illiteracy, uncontrolled emotion, uninhibited sexuality, and a culture of violence and revenge made this region radically different from the ordered and peaceable communities of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, as well as the sophisticated aristocracy of Virginia. To this culture we owe such place-names as Whiskey Springs, Devil’s Tater Patch, Killquick, Scream Ridge, and Shitbritches Creek. These people believed in “natural freedom”, the doctrine that every human being is born into a state of complete liberty, and that all government is an imposition and an evil. It was this culture that gave us the American ideal of the rugged individual making his own way in the world, living by his strength and wits alone. No referees, no rules, no charity. The strong live. The weak die.
These are the four competing conceptions of liberty we have inherited from our ancestors.