- Historic Sites
How British Are You?
Very. The legacy of British traits in America is deeper and more significant than we knew.
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
On the other hand, very different were the Virginians. Of course, they could hardly avoid disagreeable work in the wilderness setting. But for both commoner and rich landholder, leisure was to be prized. Virginians had to engage in all sorts of commercial activities, but their attitudes toward work were ambivalent. Although no one admired the spend-thrift, the “gentleman of leisure” was a figure of high respectability.
Quakers were less dedicated to the life of the intellect than were the Puritans. They also believed that the Puritans made an idolatry of time. The Quakers’ neat farms, attention to business, and stolid sobriety revealed a sense of godly orderliness.
Backcountry folk had a different economy and a different sense of time’s utility. Their cabins and farms were almost impromptu affairs, compared with those of the Quakers and German pietists who settled in Pennsylvania. These border and backcountry attitudes were a response to insecurity: There was no point in building forever when a conquering army or band of brigands could abruptly destroy your handiwork. In some respects, conditions in frontier America, especially where Native Americans were powerful, seemed little different from the old borderlands. So, idling away time in gossip, storytelling, sipping spirits, or singing ballads was a particular pleasure. Hogs and cattle, foraging in the unclaimed forests, were the prime source of livelihood and required little concentrated labor.
The Revolution was a cultural conflict. A fifth British culture had emerged, united and bureaucratized, and it became the common enemy.
From the way you describe it, it sounds as if these Britons deliberately chose sites for settlement that would duplicate the conditions they knew at home. Or was it just happenstance to lead East Englishmen to rocky New England soils, borderers to the foothills, South Englishmen to the Southern lowlands, midlanders to a fertile valley?
Well, take the Quakers for an example. They were looking for a very special environment. What they wanted was a place to live in peace, a matter of profound importance to them. George Fox, the great Quaker leader, found in Pennsylvania that the local “Indians were loving,” as he put it. He thought there would be less hostility, less conflict with natives than would be the case elsewhere.
How about the border people? Why did they choose the hinterlands, where the Native Americans were not at all so “loving”?
By the time the border folk reached America, the coastal areas were pretty well occupied and the lands too expensive. Many arrived through Philadelphia. The Quakers disliked their alien ways and hurried them on to settlements inland. The backcountrymen migrated south along the Appalachian ridge. They did not have a lot of choice, but after all, the harsh life of the herdsman was what they knew. By the way, these people were not all Scots-Irish, as popular opinion has it. Ulster could not have produced the numbers. There were many Lowland Scots, more from Northern Ireland, and some from Southern Ireland, largely nominal Anglicans. We like to think that the backwoods revival camp-meeting was a strictly American experience. It was not. The encampment for worship and fellowship was a border practice, long predating the famous pioneer revivals.
Two points, somewhat related. Where do we get our ideas of liberty? And how does your four-regions approach explain our polity today?
Each of the regions in Britain and America had a different understanding of liberty. New Englanders believed in ordered liberty. Consensus was a prime requirement. The whole community was an entity to itself, enjoying a freedom of association, but that did not allow for much internal dissent. Quakerism, witchcraft, and other alien heresies or blasphemies had no place at all but were to be suppressed without mercy. Yet in a curious paradox the Puritans were sincere in defending what they called liberty of conscience—even as they failed to see contradictions in their persecutions of those practicing it.
Backcountry folk saw liberty as a natural endowment—the right of a man to protect himself and his loved ones from enemies outside the clan.
Virginians had a hegemonic or hierarchical notion of liberty—the right to rule others and themselves without interference from outside authorities. Hence, liberty for some—the elite—involved subordination of others. Slaveholding was a right, not just a convenience.
Quakers were the most egalitarian group and saw freedom as a more universal commodity, as a reciprocal matter. Although Quakers recognized the primacy of men, they allowed women to speak at church meetings, for instance, and children were tender plants to be nurtured as if in a garden. Quakers did not resort to the customary cuffings and spankings by which Puritans sought to break the will of a child, naturally evil or amoral. So the Quakers’ sense of liberty eventually brought them in the mid-eighteenth century to the then revolutionary idea that enslavement of Africans was a sin against God.
Backcountry folk saw liberty as a natural endowment. It had an individualistic and familial character—the right of a man to protect himself and his loved ones from enemies outside the clan (or even, in feuds, within it).