We continue to think through Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past. Chapter 5 is Wood’s 1989 review of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford, 1989). The title of the chapter is “Continuity in History.”
At 972 pages, Albion’s Seed qualifies as a tome. Believe it or not, I read the entire thing in graduate school. Fischer’s central thesis, which he describes as a “modified germ thesis,” is that the cultural roots of the United States are British in nature. In order to prove this, Fischer describes over twenty different folkways that the British brought with them to four different regions in four different periods of seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century migration. They are:
1). The Puritan migration from East Anglia to New England
2). The Wessex migration of indentured servants to the Chesapeake
3). The migration of North Midland Quakers to the Delaware Valley
4). The migration of Scots-Irish to the Appalachian backcountry
Each of these British settlers brought their own food, speech, architecture, social customs, labor practices, religion, approach to education, etc… to the particular places they settled. Fischer tries to show that these different folkways not only shaped the culture of these early settlements, but continue to shape them today.
Wood is impressed with Fischer’s work, particularly for how it offers a critique of the lingering staying power of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis.” But he also writes: “In his zeal to demonstrate persistence and continuity, however, Fischer ultimately misses the point of history, which is to show not how things have remained the same through time but how they have changed.”
In a related criticism, Wood chides Fischer for failing to raise the possibility that his four British cultural regions will eventually have to give way (if they have not done so already) to the fact that twenty-first century America will be largely Hispanic, Asian, and African.
But there are other probems with Fischer’s work that Wood only alludes to in his afterword. Shortly after Albion’s Seed appeeared, the William and Mary Quarterly devoted a symposium to the book. The scholars who participated were specialists on the various regions Fischer covered in the book. All of these authors dismantled Fischer’s treatment of the particular regions and further questioned his understanding of early American ethnic and cultural history. If you are a graduate student, this forum is must reading.
Wood’s review of Albion’s Seed reminds us that “the task of the historian is to determine how people in the past moved chronologically from A to B.” Since “people rarely stay the same between A and B, describing and explaining change through time” is “at the heart of historical reconstruction.”