- 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
The critic might complain that such a view suggests that American Revolutionary unity was based on false premises. If there were so many versions of liberty, how could the colonists have coalesced to seek a single goal, independence?
I understand the Revolution as a cultural conflict, developing mainly from the challenge of a fifth British culture. Over the years Britain itself had become increasingly united- subduing the Jacobite Scots and Irish—and more bureaucratized. A new national elite emerged with its own distinctive dialect, which we call Oxford English. This imperial elite tried to impose on Americans a new cultural order along with unprecedented modes of taxation—an unworthy, demeaning form of “slavery,” as the Patriots saw it. The people of the four regions had long enjoyed their distinguishable liberties, many of them for nearly two centuries. A common enemy made for a common cause.
In major national policy questions, region remains the salient factor, and today’s political struggles arise from old folk ideas of power and freedom.
What does your interpretation tell us about today?
A very important purpose of this book is to study the past in a way that speaks to the present. Too many historians are antiquarians. They think the past is separate from the present. Still others see the past as merely prologue to the present, without its own integrity. Neither is correct. I am looking for a way of writing history without falling into either error.
It’s interesting that many Americans feel that early colonial history is irrelevant to things happening in the United States today. We differ in this respect from other cultures in the world. In Latin America, for example, the memory of the colonial period is urgently important in debates about public questions. The same is true for Canada and South Africa or the current ethnic troubles in the Soviet Union. But in America our colonial past has been sanitized. This is partly because Americans think of history as change. We tend to be less conscious of continuities. History, we assume, is something that happens to less fortunate people. I think this is wrong.
But how can the colonial past seem pertinent when so few Americans today have even a drop of “British blood”?
It’s true that only 19 percent of us have British ancestry. Nonetheless, most Americans are “Albion’s seed” in a cultural sense. Take the Kennedys of Massachusetts, for example. Though Irish and Catholic, John F. Kennedy and his family were also New Englanders. When he pronounced “Americer” and “Cuber,” he demonstrated the old New England twang. Another example is Franklin Roosevelt. He was three-quarters Yankee, despite his Dutch New York name. His New England culture profoundly influenced his political beliefs.
So, in other words, these cultural factors not only demonstrate the survival of old tendencies but also affect national politics.
Very much so. We have had forty Presidents, and all but two, Martin Van Buren and Kennedy, descended from one or more of the four great migrations. Surprisingly, the borderers have supplied the greatest number—some eighteen—from Andrew Jackson and James Polk to Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. Next came the sixteen Presidents from Puritan roots. They include George Bush. Ten can be traced to the “distressed Cavalier” tradition—the early Virginia Presidents down to Harry Truman. Only seven arose from the Quaker-German Pietist background, most notably Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower, a soldier-hero who hated war. Isn’t it curious that, apart from Kennedy, only those of early colonial extraction have reached the White House?
If we turn to major national policy questions, we find that region was the single most salient factor—quite apart from the obviously sectional character of the Civil War. Richard Bensel, the political scientist, has demonstrated that between 1880 and 1908 congressional voting was based more on region than on party, class, or any other factor. Even today political struggles arise from old folk ideas of order, power, and freedom, all of which still define our regional cultures. For instance, the retributive and every-man-his-own-master principles of the border legacy help to explain the Southern and Western opposition to gun control. In contrast, those states most affected by settlement of New Englanders have a low rate of homicide when compared with the statistics of the South and Southwest. On the women’s suffrage and equal rights amendments, where has been the strongest support or challenge? The answers lie in those sections of the land affected by their roots in the colonial past.
How will your series develop hereafter?
Albion’s Seed is the first of other works designed to fill out many questions left unanswered here. For instance, the next book will explain four distinctive African-American cultures that developed in various regions of the United States. Vol>ume three is about Dutch, German, and Spanish cultures in North America. But the first, Albion’s Seed, suggests that the colonial period of American history has left us a rich and dynamic legacy. That bequest continues to be a vital part of our contemporary culture.