12/29/2006 07:27 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Jane's Bingo! Award for Most Informative Book of 2006

At the end of a busy year, I am indulging myself in a lengthy
analytical post about who we Americans are and how we got that way. I
request your patience--the inflammatory meat is at the end!

My only criterion for the Bingo! Award is that, once I have read the
book, I think about it every subsequent day, saying to myself--oh! I
understand that (whatever it is) now, because I read blah blah." By
this criterion, the only book on my reading list for 2006 that
qualifies is Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer, Oxford University
Press, 1989, 946 pages and everyone of them a pleasure to read. And by
the way, the cover is beautiful and intriguing, a reproduction of a
picture in the Tate Gallery of two sisters holding their two swaddled
babies, entitled "The Cholmondeley Sisters".

Albion's Seed was Fischer's first big book--he has since written
Washington's Crossing (Pulitzer Prize 2005) and several other books,
including The Great Wave, a compelling page-turner about inflation (I'm
not kidding). After Washington's Crossing, Fischer did become a bit of
a darling of the Right (interviews in NRO and TNR), but he has been
careful to identify himself as an Independent who has never voted for a
Republican in a general election, "a little left of center" in his
personal views. I think the Right likes him because he's easy to read
and he doesn't say bad things about white people. And he is easy to
read. What he says about white people, especially WASPs, is that they
are interesting to analyse and who they are is pertinent to our current
national dilemma. Sorry, TNR, but the news is not good. I think Fischer
should be a darling of the Left, especially of the Huffington Post. You
should read it; judging by his speeches, James Webb has.

Fischer's thesis, in Albion's Seed, is that the four major emigrations
from England to the US came from four distinct regions and cultures in
England, set sail at four different periods of English history, and
settled in four different US regions. These cultures have remained more
or less distinct; they have set up the structures of American political
and cultural life; and they have often rendered Americans inexplicable
and hostile to one another. What is most important, from my point of
view, is that one of these cultures has taken over American life,
denigrating and threatening all of the others, and that it was almost
inevitable that it do so. Hackett wrote the book in the eighties, when
the four cultures seemed to be in balance. My view is that now, fifteen
years later, if we don't come to understand how these subcultures work
in American life, we will be unable to regain the democracy we have
often (but not always) had in the past.

Fischer devotes each of four long sections to each of the cultures.
They are:

1. Puritans from East Anglia to New England, 1629-1641. Characteristics
in both England and America: Calvinist, family-oriented (the ratio of
men to women was 3-2, rather than 4-1, as in Virginia), highly
motivated, closely related to one another, intently focused on moral
principles and precepts, urban, and generally middle-class and highly
literate. Women were not equal, but they were relatively independent
agents who entered into the marriage contract, could be divorced, could
inherit, and often were powers in the community. Children were
considered the responsibility of both parents, and they were required
to conform. Fathers were expected to be strict but affectionate. Local
government, as we all know, relied heavily on the input of all members
of the town, and on the town meeting. Political and religious life was
hierarchical, but the hierarchy was short and continuing power for any
individual depended continuing exercise of good behavior and
responsibility (not so elsewhere, as we shall see). New Englanders had
a well-thought-out and organized idea of liberty--groups should free
to establish their own rules; certain individuals might be granted
"liberties" to do otherwise proscribed things; the individual was free
to follow his or her religious obligations (at the time Calvinist); and
the individual should be free from want (which meant that members of
the community were obliged to help their unfortunate neighbors). Above
all, New Englanders were expected to cultivate and act upon their
consciences and to work.

2. Cavaliers and Indentured Servants from the south of England to
Virginia, 1642-1675. Characteristics in both England and America:
Anglican, status- and wealth-based, highly hierachical, focused on
familial inheritance rather than community, rural, with an emphasis on
large estates. Women were legally possessions rather than agents and
often referred to as "breeders", but were prized for beauty and fiery
independence. Children were absolutely subject to fathers, but
frequently indulged, expected to retain their independence of spirit
(sounds like contradictory parenting to me, but way American). Pleasure
was encouraged rather than disapproved of, and Virginians had lots of
pleasures, many of them blood sports. Government was seen as
essentially and properly hierarchical, punishments of offenders were
violent, and office- and power-holding were class and family based.
Virginian ideas of liberty were hierarchical, also--two categories
existed, "freedom" and "slavery". Freedom was when you did what you
wanted and caused others to do what you wanted them to, and slavery was
when you had to do what someone else wanted. Liberty was specifically
reserved for "free-born Englishmen" and their descendants in Virginia
(makes you mad, doesn't it?)

3. Quakers from the North Midlands to Pennsylvania and New Jersey,
1675-1725. Characteristics in both England and America: Quakers and
Quaker sympathizers were both anti- hierarchical and anti-doctrinal.
They believed in a God of love, not punishment, and did away with
rituals, sacraments, and professional ministers. Communities of Quakers
were ethnically diverse and had strong ties to communities with similar
beliefs in Europe; they were welcoming to the large number of German
immigrants who came after them, but not welcoming to the next set of
English imigrants, the North Borderers (see below). Quakers tended to
be working-class, and many of their journeys to America were subsidized
by Quaker groups back home. They came from a section of England that
was not yet urbanized--still sparsely settled and often frightening to
outsiders, home to a culture that in the 17th century still owed a lot
to the Norse conquest of the end of the first millennium. People tended
to be independent, egalitarian, rural, plain-spoken, and receptive to
unorthodox religious ideas. In America, Quaker families were
love-oriented rather than rule- or status-oriented, and more
child-nurturing than other English cultures; husbands and wives were
more or less equal, based on the idea that "in souls there is no sex"
(p. 490). One notable aspect of government was that Pennsylvanians
slashed the number of death-penalty offenses from 200, as in England,
to 2--treason and intentional murder. In prisons, they focused on rehab
rather than punishments. Such liberals! You've got a friend in
Pensylvania, indeed. And the Quaker idea of liberty of conscience was
based, not on rules, but on thought and choice, recognizing that
different people could make different choices, and that those choices
could still be conscientious. Certainly, this idea grew out of the
Quakers' understanding of the facts of life--other religions and ideas
were everywhere around them, and, as they had never been dominant, it
was likely, if not certain, that they never would be.

4. Scots-Irish "New Light" Protestants from the Border Counties and
Ulster to the Appalachian Backcountry, 1717-1775. Characteristics in
both Britain and America: Mean as a snake and twice as quick...oh,
excuse me. I am losing my judicious tone. Let me begin again.
Scots-Irish immigrants from the northern parts of Britain and from
Ulster were generally fleeing what was an increasingly archaic,
warrior-based society. Most were tenant farmers or the tenants of
tenants. As Irishmen and Scots, they had built up years of economic
resentment and Celtic pride with regard to their English neighbors and
landlords. The social arrangements of the Borders grew out of the
constant warfare (1040-1745) between Scotland and England over who
owned the borderlands (remember that the Act of Union that made
Scotland part of England was only enacted in 1707). Men on both sides
of the border were expected to be alert and aggressive, ready to fight
at a moment's notice. When the kings of England and Scotland weren't
fighting, local warlords were. Tenancy was based on the ability to
fight, and the economy was primitive compared to other parts of
England. Keywords: poverty and violence. The legal system relied on
vengeance and the economic system relied on protection money. Through
the 17th century, the Borders were "pacified", which as we all know is
actually a process of singling out the most independent warlords and
putting them to death as an example to the others (gallows were placed
on hilltops, so that the hanging bodies could be see from far and
wide). Absentee English landlords also got rid of tenants by means of
exorbitant rent increases (rack-renting), land enclosure, construction
of new roads, and imposition of new laws. Throughout the 18th century,
the Borderers came to America, more or less, as refugees from forced
modernization (where have we seen that before?) Their religious beliefs
were diverse on the surface, but shared an underlying intensity and
tribal character--they were believers, simultaneously, in grace and
sectarian conflict. As Fischer writes, "The North Britons brought with
them the ancient border habit of belligerence toward other ethnic
groups." [p. 632] The Quakers would not allow them to settle nearby,
and they moved west in Pennsylvania, then south through the
Appalachians. Clannish, suspicious, well-armed, and believers in "bride
abduction" (!) as a good method of courtship. In marriage, men
dominant, women absolutely subservient, and wife beating considered
normal. Rage a typical (if not desired) feature of child-raising;
beatings common. Religion--"emotional, evangelical, and personal",
deeply informed by superstition as a method of folk wisdom for avoiding
ever-present injury and death. You can see what I'm getting at.

One of Fischer's best points is that each of the British emigrations
occurred at a different stage of British as well as American history,
and grew out of different dissatisfactions with life in the British
Isles. By the end of the 18th century, Britain had more or less
assimilated the remnants of the groups who had moved out and was
evolving toward national consolidation. America, which was much larger,
allowed these groups to continue to isolate themselves and cultivate
their idiosyncratic qualities. When people or groups didn't get along,
they moved apart instead of working out their differences. But
Fischer's depiction of each culture is far more detailed and nuanced
and entertaining than I have indicated. Each culture shaped the US that
we have today in part through migration patterns. Each culture has also
changed. But each culture is to a greater or lesser degree not
understandable to the other cultures.

Fischer does not slight the contributions of subsequent immigrant
groups (in fact, he is currently working on a book about African
culture in America), but he believes that we have not thrown off the
structures of cultural and political life given us by the British Isles.

One especially fascinating section of Fischer's book is his analysis
of four World War II commanders, Patton, Eisenhower, Marshall, and
Roosevelt. Patton was a warrior, descendant of Borderers, who literally
preceded his troops into furious battle. Eisenhower, descendant of
Quakers and German Pietists, preferred to stay in the rear,
coordinating and planning. George Marshall, descended from Virginia
aristocracy, devised, with what Fischer considers to be characteristic
honor and generosity, the Marshall Plan. Roosevelt was the Yankee--he
"contributed ...high moral purpose, clarity of vision, tenacity of
purpose, flexibility of method and an implacable will to win." [p,
879]. But so what? Well, so this--when the war is a war that all or
almost all Americans agree is necessary, that all Americans are asked
to contribute to and sacrifice for, the warrior and culture styles of
each group will make differing but essential contributions to the

Now for my take on Fischer's material. When Fisher was writing
Albion's Seed in the 1980s, it still seemed that the four cultures were
more or less in balance. What we have seen since, though, is the
ascendancy of culture #4, the Borders/Appalachian culture of
hot-blooded and violent populism that is xenophobic, religiously
aggressive, fundamentalist, and sectarian, that is supicious of
learning, antagonistic towards "elites", and antipathetic to women's
autonomy. It defines itself by masculinity and arms-bearing, is
belligerent by nature and quick to take offense. Its natural (and
historic) enemy is the outgrowth of Quaker culture, liberalism.

After reading Albion's Seed, my take on American history is that each
culture has another that is its natural opponent. For the New
Englanders, it was the Virginians, and the Civil War constituted the
pitting of those two antagonists, with the Virginians being defeated
and in many ways routed by the New Englanders--perhaps the Civil War in
the US is more akin to the earlier Civil War in England that we usually
realize. The Appalachian/Borderers culture, the natural ally of the
Virginians, emerged from the Civil War in some sense intact and
unscathed, because a) the Confederacy conceived of itself in terms of
the slaveholding Virgina culture and b) the Appalachian southerners who
fought for the South were in a position to move west after the war, and
they did, leaving behind the ruins of a South that they had only been a
tangential part of to begin with. It might also be noted that for the
Borderers, the American Civil War possibly amounted to just more of the
same after seven hundred years of border wars in Britain. The
borderers/ Appalachian culture never had the opportunity to fight their
natural enemies, really, until now, because they have never been
ascendant until now. Their enemies are us, culture #3, the descendants
of the Philadephians. They do not understand us and we do not
understand them. What we see around us is the inevitable culture war.

It is important to remember that these cultures are no longer
inheritance-based or even regionally-based. They have become affinity
groups, and Americans define themselves, increasingly, by their
allegiances. They also use their cultural allegiances to define
"America" and the right and proper form that patriotism must take. For
New Englanders, let's say, patriotism is about the history of the
Constitution, the slow progress of law and reason as differences that
define the US in contrast to other nations with a more haphazard
history. For Virginians, patriotism was about having the right to
construct one's own way of life without outside interference. For the
Quakers and their descendants, patriotism is about toleration, welcome,
diversity, rewards rather than punishments. For Borderers and their
descendants, patriotism is about passionate loyalty to the group, alert
self-defense, and domination in every sphere. To me, this shows, at
least in part, why George W. Bush has retained his loyal following for
so long, and why his White House staff don't ever seem to cross him or
make him angry. As participants in this newly ascendant culture, their
loyalty is always to their group rather than to abstract principles or
ideas, even ideas that other groups take very seriously, such as the

It's also important to note that two of these groups, #2 and #4, are
honor-based, and two, #1 and #3, are self-respect based. In violent,
status-conscious cultures, insults have to be dealt with because they
threaten a loss of status that might be dangerous. In more egalitarian
cultures, insults are less dangerous, and one's own conscience is a
stronger guide to behavior. Cultures 1 and 3 are less likely to respond
aggressively to an insult, because the insult is seen as revealing more
about the issuer of the insult than about the recipient of the insult.
Cultures 2 and 4 view this equanimity in the face of insult as a
weakness and failure of masculinity, and so they perennially
underestimate the strength of liberals and their convictions. At the
same time, members of cultures 1 and 3 cannot understand why members of
cultures 2 and 4 are so hasty to act, and often not in their long term
best interest.

If Al Gore had been elected, would we have gone to war in Iraq? Al
Gore and George W. Bush, according to Fischer, present an interesting
contrast. The Bush family is a Yankee family and the Gore family is
Appalachian. But Gore grew up in Washington and went to Harvard, where
he enthusiastically took up and was changed by a New England sort of
education. Bush grew up in Texas, did not care for a New England sort
of education, and had a typical Borderers alcohol addiction/religious
conversion. He reacted to 9-11 belligerently. Gore did not, and, by his
own testimony, would not have triggered the war machine as Bush has
done. Who they seem to be as men reflects their affinities and
allegiances rather than their inheritances. Obviously, the Neocons and
the military/industrial complex bear much of the blame for the fix we
are in in Iraq, but at this point we have to understand that George
Bush and the Republican Party originated and persist in this war for
their own cultural and psychological reasons.

I could go on. I do think that there are several reasons why culture
#4 has risen to prominence. One is that, facing a loss of power in the
seventies, the Republican Party (once the party of culture #1, but
bumped out of there by Roosevelt) cynically opted to appeal to the
worst aspects of culture #4, especially racist anger, in order to use
the electoral college to gain office. A second contributing reason, I
think, is the rise of pop culture. Culture #4 is the most musical of
all the cultures. The rise of rock and roll, bluegrass, and country
music has familiarized the whole country with the norms of culture #4,
and made them appealing, too. Certainly, a third important reason is
that culture #4 is inherently aggressive and resentful. If we accept
Fischer's history, then it has taken the Borderers a thousand years to
enter the ruling class--or become the ruling class. What better use of
their new power than to attempt to disenfranchise the other cultures?
And, fifth, guess what, they've been busy reproducing. Evangelical
pastors never hesitate to tell their congregations to go forth and
multiply. And sixth, as we all know, a culture that was once turned
inward has been galvanized in the last generation by social changes
that it has found dangerous or intolerable--Civil Rights, the Women's
Movement, the acceleration of social and technological change, and
increasing secularization of public life. If culture #4 is our
conservative warrior culture, it is going to behave like other
conservative warrior cultures around the world; these similarities have
been noted elsewhere.

For liberals, perhaps this analysis helps to explain why American
economic populists are often split and therefore unable to assert
themselves against the depredations of the wealthy. Populism based on
an idea of "liberty from want" (a New England idea, and a Roosevelt
idea), according to which the community has an obligation to help its
unfortunate members, is quite different from populism based on
self-assertion by self-consciously resentful non-"elite" parts of
society. One is a populism based on a sense of social obligation, the
other a populism based on injured pride. I would also suggest that
arms-bearing economic populists like James Webb and John Tester, who
were elected in November, are not especially trustworthy friends for
liberals, because they are temperamentally, traditionally, and
psychologically very different from us. Just because they want the
corporations to disgorge some of their plunder doesn't mean that they
understand us or, more importantly, respect us. Our natural allies are
descendants of the Puritans, members of culture #1, who may seem to us
hard to get to know, not especially welcoming, too legalistic and
insular. That's how they have always seemed to other Americans. One
thing Fischer points out about Puritan society is that New England
congregations made membership difficult to achieve and surrounded it
with rules and responsibilities, but even so, most Puritans and their
families strove to become members and succeeded, achieving a
tremendously high level of social cohesion that looked from the inside
like community and from the outside like an intimidating and exclusive

As Pennsylvanians, New Englanders, and Virginians, not to mention
Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic
Americans, Jews, Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch descendants, former
Canadians, etc., Americans do not mind sharing our society with the
Borderers, but we don't want to cede it to them, either. Christian
Reconstructionism, let's say, does not meet the criteria for valid
patriotism. Neither does relentlessly impugning the patriotism of every
other group, as the warrior party has done for the last six years.
Neither, many Americans would agree, do pre-emptive attacks upon
sovereign nations and torture of the helpless and hapless. Even the
idea of a pre-emptive attack seems more like a warlord idea than a
nation idea. Waging war with indifference to the casualties on both
sides may be characteristic of a war-ready culture, but it is not
generally American, and the rest of America's cultures have been very
hard for the war-party to convince on this score.

I do think that the rise of culture #4 puts our democracy in danger,
simply because it is an uncompromising culture that has been reluctant
to assimilate itself into the larger society for a thousand years, both
in Britain and in America. It is a culture that is passionately intense
about weapons, social hierarchy, and religion, three things that are in
and of themselves threatening to the broader social compact. Perhaps
culture #4 cannot be, or won't be assimilated, but can only be reduced,
subdued, or dominated. Personally, I have no idea. David Hackett
Fischer isn't saying. When he gets interviewed, he always seems in a
good mood.

At any rate, fyi, this article is only 175th as long as the book,
Albion's Seed. So you should probably get started on it ASAP.