Jerry's Reviews > Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America

Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer
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's review
Jan 02, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: history
Read in October, 2009

Excellent book explains the origins of the distinctly different cultures that exist in the U.S. These have their roots in the origins and time of the migration from Britain.
For example:

East Anglia to Massachusetts 1629 - 1641
Calvinist Puritans escaping religious persecution
Middle class excluding the top tier of royalty and the bottom tier of poverty
Wealth distinctions not great e.g. Top 10% had 31% of property, bottom 50% had 18%
Men married at 26, women at 23, 98% of men married, 94% of women
Town meeting government, elected selectmen
Could settle here only with permission of the General Court
Public liberty: severe restriction on individual liberty
High respect for age, more than wealth, old age was a reward from God
In 1660 two-thirds of men, one-third of women could sign their name; in 1760 84% & 50%
Every town of 50 families had to hire a schoolmaster; of 100 families a grammar school

South and west England to Virginia 1642-1675
Younger sons of gentlemen seeking to enjoy the life of wealth not available to them in England
Royalist cavaliers who supported King Charles I in the Civil War (opposed to the Calvinists)
Small market towns and plantations made the population more dispersed than New England, similar to English country manors, 6000 miles of shoreline of the bay and rivers allowed dispersed settlement
50% of children died before adulthood, 75% of children lost at least one parent before age 18
Patriarchal family, all including servants and visitors lived under protection of the male head of the house; extended family, cousins more important than in New England
Families more hierarchical than in New England
Virginia elite made up 10% of the population and owned 50-75% of the productive assets, yeoman class was 20-30% of population and owned their own land, bottom 60-70% owned no land & little property
Land was distributed by the Royalty to the elite, average 890 acres but ranging up to 20,000 acres
Social rank was well established in several levels with strong deference and condescension
Cultural violence, social betters could beat inferiors but not vice versa
Seniority system, people of all ages benefited from seniority over others
Average age of first marriage men 28 women 19
25% to 30% able to sign name in 17th century
Virginia elite feared learning among the general population
County sheriff appointed from above rather than elected. In practice controlled by the county gentry.
Independence, lower taxes, less restrant of individual liberty compared to New England
Hegemonic liberty: God-given right of English nobility to oppress everyone else, they had the liberty to deny liberty to others

Borderlands to Backcountry 1717-1775
Scots-Irish immigration began after Queen Anne's War in 1713
Came for material betterment, escape low wages and oppression of landlords
Faced intense prejudice from other ethnic groups when they arrived in the new world
Most were of lower rank, not landowners, but also not the poorest of Britain
Poor but proud, part of a warrior culture
Blood relationships highly important
Pennsylvania Quaker leaders moved the new Borders rapidly westward from Philadelphia to Appalachia
Borderers were 75 - 100% of the backcountry population
Backcountry was occupied by warlike Indians: Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw
Contested territory without government or rule of law
Family: derbfine - all kin within 4 generations; beyond that was the clan, lived near each other, carried the same surname, banded together when danger threatened
Entire clans migrated together
Clans very loyal with honor and shame attaching to the clan rather than just the individual, thus the feud
Rule of tanistry determined descent of authority in a clan by election of the eldest and worthiest. Strongest, toughest and most cunning won. Losers were degraded and despised. As a general, informal principle this rule sorted the elders into two groups, the strong were respected and the weak were degraded.
Age of grooms 21, brides 19.
Literacy rates were highly variable, 70-80% in North of England could sign there names, 50% of Highland Scotts, 90% of German Protestants. This compares to a literacy rate of 20% - 30% in Italy and Spain. Most estates included a few books. Libraries were more secular than in New England.
Backcountry was an oral society where writing was less important than the spoken word. Ballads and folktales were important. A high value on speaking the truth. Also a high value on memory.
Average schooling was 1.5 years. This is lowest among the colonies. There were not the public schools found in other colonies, the schools were private subscription.
Southern highlands owned in large tracts by absentee landlords just like north of England. Top 10% owned 40-80% of land. Two-thirds to one half of taxable white males owned no land.
Rich and poor dealt with one another as more or less social equals.
There was a highly materialistic system of social rank. Unlike New England or tidewater Virginia a family that lost its property fell immediately to the bottom of the social ranks.
System of highly personal politics without deference to social rank. Men of influence tended to be large landowners, magistrates, merchants, surveyors, millers, and speculators.
The idea of natural freedom and hostility to ordering institutions. They did not recognize the right of dissent or disagreement. It was more difficult for the borderer than other men to allow an honest difference of opinion in an opponent, so opponent and enemy are synonymous.
Strong sense of self sovereignty. "Every man should be sheriff on his own hearth."
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