How British Are You?

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As one of the most imaginative historians in contemporary America, David Hackett Fischer has produced a work that may put his fellow scholars’ teeth on edge. Historians, rather conservative in temperament, are reluctant converts when their choice ideas are thrown into question. Yet Fischer’s latest book, Albion‘s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press) will fascinate them as well as the general reading public. Lucid, dramatic, and always entertaining, the thick, handsomely illustrated volume may safely be called a modern classic, and comparisons to Tocqueville are inevitable. The historian Gordon Wood declared that the Brandeis University professor has delivered a “revisionist blockbuster” that “has uncovered America’s po-i litical and cultural roots in the countryside of; Britain.” The title suggests as much. Albion was’ the ancient Greek name for the island.

The four migratory groups had much in common. But they also differed, and those differences perpetuated in our regional cultures to this day.
 

Fischer shows how particular religious persuasions, coupled with certain regional habits in four distinct areas of the kingdom, helped build four equally separate cultures in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century America. Each British district and its American counterpart had special ways of doing things and thinking about them. This broad-sweeping reinterpretation flies in the face of long-standing scholarly assumptions and even popular myths. Neither the early frontier nor the ethnic mix of later centuries can alone explain who we are and why Americans so cherish liberty. According to Fischer, these British roots, long neglected in the textbooks, require reexamination. And he provides it.

 

Fischer has an infectious smile and cherubic face that belie a steely intelligence and a nononsense approach to historical verification. Trained at City College, Baltimore, Fischer graduated from Princeton and later from Johns Hopkins, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1962. The young Brandeis teacher gained quick notice—even notoriety—for Historians’ Fallacies (1970). This irreverent exposure of his elders’ scholarly sins sent professors scurrying to find their names in the index. A steady outpouring of other books, articles, and edited works established him as a major figure. As a History Book Club Main Selection, Albion’s Seed , however, reaches a much wider audience and arouses more praise than anything he has written before. It inaugurates an ambitious design to reinterpret, rather than merely retell, the whole of American history. (This interview took place in May at the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.)

What led you to write the series of books on American history of which Albion’s Seed is the first?

The effort comes out of a dissatisfaction with the state of history writing today. Many of my colleagues feel the same way. Some three generations ago scholars confined their interests to what we might call old political history—the study of Presidents, parties, wars, treaties, and the like. Then, in the sixties, something new called social history arose: a “total” history of ordinary people. Then it fragmented into such special areas as ethnicity, sexuality, and race. But the new school of historians calls to mind the man who mounted his horse and rode off in all directions. The great French scholar Fernand Braudel wrote that the new social history was overwhelmed by its own success. I am merely one of many historians who are looking for ways to bring the various components together in a form of cultural history that might unite the old political with the new social history.

How do you answer those who claim that material circumstances rather than ideas or cultural habits generate not only economic life but pretty much everything else in the social order? Marxist scholars adopt this position.

It strikes me that there is an irony here. Marxism is collapsing everywhere in the world. Its policies, appeal, and theories are thoroughly discredited. At the same time, a good many young American and British historians call themselves Marxists! Perhaps it helps them get a larger perspective, but the materialist model simply does not work. People and societies are more complicated than that. In fact, ideas and habits often predetermine economic choices rather than the other way around. For instance, most historians—even non-Marxist ones—believe that the culture of early Virginia, as well as the rest of the South later on, was created out of the introduction of slavery. But when did the slaves first appear in really significant numbers? Not until the colony was nearly a century old.

That gets us to the main arguments of Albion’s Seed . What regions of Britain and America bear the kinds of affinities you describe?