Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer poses some interesting and thought-provoking ideas about the origins of American culture and how British ancestry still influences American society today. The book seeks to answer the question of “what are the determinants of a voluntary society?” (Fischer, 4). Fischer claims that in reference to American society specifically, four British “folkways” stand as the most powerful determinants of this voluntary society. The four British folkways (or structure of societal values and customs) that Fischer identifies are the Puritans who migrated from England to Massachusetts between 1629-1640, the migration of Royalist elite from England to Virginia between 1642-1675, the movement of people from England and Wales to the Delaware Valley between 1675-1725, and the migration of people from Britain and Ireland to Appalachia from 1718-1775 (6).
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Fischer spends the first 200 pages of Albion’s Seed focusing on the Puritans who came from England to Massachusetts in the years 1629-1640. He states that in year 1630 alone, seventeen ships made the voyage to Massachusetts and that within eleven years some 80,000 people had migrated out of England to live elsewhere (Fischer, 16). He describes their Puritan “folkways” by evaluating their religious, social and regional origins. There are many complicated layers within these origins that include customs that range from ideas about marriage and family to ideas about power and freedom as a society. He breaks down many of the modern stereotypes surrounding Puritan culture, fairly portraying all aspects of their society and not just religious fanaticism. He summarizes the Puritan faith in five words: depravity, covenant, election, grace and love (Fischer, 23). He then goes on to talk about how the faith of the Puritans influenced all the other areas of their lives from raising children to social ranks. Understanding the religious aspects of Puritan culture is key to understanding their society, and how it affected American society as a whole.
The information Fischer gives about the “folkways” of the Puritans that moved from England to Massachusetts is very helpful in understanding the English influence on their culture and how that shaped their influence on America. Although the Puritans are just one of the four folkways Fischer highlights in the book, he brings American culture back to its original British roots in a very clear and understandable way. Fischer’s argument that these early English settlers created a foundation for current American culture is strong and well supported by his in depth analysis of their “ways” of living. He gives a well-rounded perspective of their society that challenges the reader to compare and contrast the Puritan lifestyle to American lifestyle. Although, they have many differences, it is clear that the masses of Puritans flooding Massachusetts during this time shaped the cultural future of New England, and from there the United States as a whole. Although this is just one piece of Fischer’s overall point about British folkways shaping early American culture, it is an importance part of America’s birth story. These early settlers build the stage that modern American culture is set upon. If Americans do not educate themselves about the lifestyles and social customs of these early colonists, they will fail to understand the full extent of their own historical beginnings. This is the overall thesis of Albion’s Seed, and David Hackett Fischer used the Puritans of Massachusetts as a prime example of a British folkway paving the way for the American folkways that would develop in the New World under the influence of early British settlers.
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