U.S. Intellectual History Blog

This Be The Verse

Twenty years ago, David Hackett Fischer published Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, which attempts to explain U.S. political culture down to the present through the initial patterns of British immigration to North America. Historiographically, Fischer’s project flowed from the twin streams of Annales School histoire totale, which was if anything losing influence at the time of the book’s publication, and cultural history, which was very much on the rise. From the Annalistes, Fischer borrowed many of his interests (e.g. the longue durée; regionalism) and the scope of his project (this very hefty book announced itself as the first of a five-volume rewriting of the social and cultural history of the United States). But Fischer’s approach stressed the importance of culture and ethnicity, both of which made this in-many-ways old-fashioned project seem more of its moment (though Fischer’s conception of culture was itself rather anthropological and pre-“linguistic turn”).*

Fischer’s book was widely reviewed but got an almost universally mixed reception. Historians celebrated the audacity and ambition of the project, while questioning its details, logic, and conclusions. Charles Joyner, writing in the Journal of American Folklore, called it a “stunning but problematic achievement.” Jack P. Greene, writing in the Journal of Social History, compared the book–in its extraordinary scope–to an encyclopedia, but worried that its individual components were not up to the historical standards one expects from encyclopedia entries. Darrett Rutman, reviewing the book for the American Historical Review, concluded that “Albion’s Seed has borne at best questionable fruit.” Albion’s Seed stood as a kind of cautionary tale of the difficulties of writing total history. Though Fischer’s career has continued to flourish, it has gone in other directions; the other four volumes of the project that Albion’s Seed was supposed to inaugurate have never appeared.

But despite its rocky initial reception among historians, Albion’s Seed has worked its way into the public discourse. Sara Robinson, co-author of the influential liberal blog Orcinus, devoted a two-part series to the book in 2007. And 2008 was a very good year for Albion’s Seed. In trying to explain voting patterns during last year’s protracted Democratic Presidential primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, many analysts turned to Albion’s Seed and argued that Scots Irish culture in Appalachia made the region especially good for Clinton and bad for Obama (here’s one random example of from The Seattle Times; googling “Scots Irish Fischer Obama” yields many others).

More recently, Albion’s Seed has become a go-to explanation of what’s going on with the Republican Party today. Indeed, at the time of this writing, the top-rated diary on DailyKos, the most influential Democratic blog, is “Yo, Pundits! Here’s What’s Up With the Republicans,” which uses Albion’s Seed to argue that each of the two major parties are based on two of Fischer’s four ethno-regional groupings.**

(Lest anyone think that David Hackett Fischer has become the property of Democrats and progressives, it’s worth noting that he was the 2006 recipient of the American Enterprise Institute’s Irving Kristol Award for “notable intellectual or practical contributions to improved public policy and social welfare.”)

While Albion’s Seed has undoubtedly become something of a classic, I don’t think that my fellow twentieth-century historians turn to it much to explain political cultural phenomena in our period. Rereading reviews from nearly two decades ago while putting together this post, I was tempted to agree with Fischer’s critics about both its virtues and its flaws. Has it fared any better among historians of earlier periods of U.S. history? Or is this an example of a work of academic history that has become more read–or at least more significant–outside the profession than within it?

Perhaps Albion’s Seed will do more to transform our political culture (or at least the ways that we talk about it) than it did to explain it.

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* Albion’s Seed was old-fashioned not only in its Annalistes qualities, but in its argument, which harkens back to the pre-Frederick Jackson Turner view of American history as best explained by the political traditions of the Germanic forebears of its founders.

** For those keeping score at home: Democrats = Puritans+Quakers while Republicans = Borderers+Cavaliers. Once again, the Scots Irish “Borderers” are the focus of the dKos diarist’s attention.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for the post, Ben. I’ve not read Albion’s Seed, although I had always wondered about its contents based on the title (I had guessed historiography because of my first contact with Fischer*). Does the book stick to on-the-ground political culture, or does it attempt to move upward into the ideas of the regions? If the latter, I can see it being an object of scorn for the same social historians who disdained the too-grand intellectual histories of the 1950s and 1960s. – TL

    *Anyone who writes a book titled Historians’ Fallacies (my first contact with Fischer) wherein the author calls out a great many of his colleagues for their illogic has most certainly set himself up for reviews questioning his own work’s “details, logic, and conclusions.” … Consider it an object lesson in the hazards of engaging in historiography—and getting specific!

  2. As I recall, Fischer was heavy on social patterns and mores, clothing, worship, etc. It was definitely different and interesting. I think it’s overly schematic, particularly as I get more into my own (Scotch Irish) genealogy. Some went north and west, some south; some fought for the Confederacy, some for the Union. Or, looking at the Young Irelanders–John Mitchel ended with 3 sons fighting for the Confederacy, Meagher led the Irish Brigade.

  3. As it happens, I’m just now reading Albion’s Seed, thanks to Sarah Palin. Her gaffe regarding Paul Revere immediately sent me to two easily accessible sources online: Revere’s own letter explaining that famous night, and David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride. I quickly found what I needed, but Fisher’s book pulled me in and I bought the Google Books etext. His description of Revere’s notions of liberty (clearly at odds with Palin’s) directed me to further discussion in greater detail in Albion’s Seed. I bought the Kindle edition, which is more difficult to skim than a printed book, and so I’m slogging my way through this monstrous text. I expect that I’ll be writing more later, but and affinity modern simplistic-thinking Republicans feel for Fischer is surprising to say the least. He does share their disdain of multiculturalism, but he also seems too good of a historian to find much comfort in their ranks.

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