Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Albion's Seed



My homeland is a strange and exotic place.

If nothing else, nearly eight years abroad left me with that conviction in profound and very deep way.

We are tabula rasa, the blank slate. We change our culture and osculate around the center of the political spectrum in a way that would strain most other countries’ sense of self identity. Rather than a nation, we are almost more of a system of system.

Also, we are amazingly pluralistic. It’s not that there aren’t other lands that rival or surpass us in terms of sheer cultural diversity, but somehow we have made it work for over two-hundred years without the religious strife and ethnic bloodshed that are endemic to most heterogeneous states.

Like all humans, we are a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes. However, if you ever really want to understand the cultural roots of why we are the way we are, I warmly recommend David Hackett Fischer’s essay Albion’s Seed.

In short, Fischer’s insight is that the United States’ notions of freedom derive from four groups of British emigrants, and that these concepts have evolved and been adopted by latter arrivals.

Personally, I believe that it is the tension between these ideals that defines politics in the United States.

Backcountry freedom, the idea of natural liberty. Much of the early southern frontier was settled by Scottish Presbyterians from the remote borderlands of Scotland and England, as well as the Scots who had been living in Ireland. These were frequently cattle herders and free holding famers who had lived far from major population centers and the heavy hand of the law. They saw freedom as a natural condition and government as an unwelcome if sometimes necessary evil that was best kept to a minimum.

Hegemonic liberty, freedom as merit based. The colony of Virginia was settled by indentured servants and wealthy land owners from an arc of Southwestern England. Heavily Anglican, these immigrants brought with them notions of liberty as being based on rank and social hierarchy. Self restraint and personal discipline were expected of those at the top, with greater autonomy going hand in glove with greater self-rule. These beliefs grew more egalitarian after the revolution with the notion of merit becoming detached from social standing and instead ever increasingly being associated with talent.

Ordered Liberty, communal freedom. The first large groups of British immigrants were orthodox Calvinist Puritans originally hailing from England’s eastern counties. They arrived seeking to build an ideal society, and they carried with them a view of liberty as being communal. They saw the freedom for their communities to behave collectively in a right and moral (Calvinist) manner as being paramount. Additionally, liberties were doled out to enlightened individuals as exemptions from communal restraints. Examples of this include fishing privileges as well as freedom from corporal punishment. Finally these Puritans also believed in an innate freedom from fear and want. The community, in their view, had an obligation to look after its members in times of distress.

Reciprocal liberty, freedom of conscious. The pacifist Society of Friends—commonly known as the Quakers—settled in Delaware and Pennsylvania seeking a freedom to practice their beliefs that had been denied in Brittan and Europe. They saw liberty as a gift from God to all of humanity, enshrined in the Golden Rule and proclaimed in the Bible:

Ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto the inhabitants thereof: and ye shall return every man unto his possessions, and ye shall return everyman unto his family.

The Quakers believed that extending liberty to all of human kind was particularly important because it was the basis for the highest of freedoms, liberty of conscious. In their view it was the individual sensing and acting on what they felt to be right that was the most important form of morality. An individual who was externally compelled to act in a right manner was neither free nor moral. In the words of William Penn:

Conscience is God’s throne in man, and the power of his prerogative.

Liberty of conscience is every man’s natural right, and he who is deprived of it is a slave in the midst of the greatest liberty.

There is no reason to persecute any man in this world about anything that belongs to the next...


Thus the Quakers in colonial Delaware and Pennsylvania extended freedom of worship to the members of other religions within their territory, allowed women equality in church and society, and attempted to outlaw slavery, much to the consternation of the British crown at the time.

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