I’ve often been asked a variation of the same question:
“If you had to choose one American history book to recommend, what would it be?”
The answer is simple: David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed.
I don’t make this suggestion lightly. There are other fascinating and important works to consider, but Fischer presents a compelling tale of early American culture that cannot be ignored.
Culture matters, and Fischer explains that white American society has never been a monolithic “nation” in the traditional sense.
Albion’s Seed empirically verifies John Taylor of Caroline’s argument that saying there is an “America for Americans” is like saying there is a “Utopia for Utopians.”
Southern exploration of cultural divergence in nineteenth century America was no mere rhetorical exercise. “White” had a cultural undertone defined by region and origin.
The Virginia elite may have found common cause against the British with their Puritan neighbors in Massachusetts, but their widely antagonistic folkways were destined to produce conflict once the common enemy in George III was banished from American society.
Jefferson’s desire to protect Southern boys from the “dark Federalist mills of the North” recognized culture more than politics.
This made federalism the natural cornerstone of American society. And it worked for a few decades until the innovations of the “nationalists” destroyed the uneasy truce between the States.
But if white American society could never rally around a common set of folkways, what about black Americans?
Race seemed to allow for the establishment of a rigid social order in America. Without hereditary aristocracy, the yeoman or mechanic could easily mix with the merchant or planter, but not so for for slave or the free black American who was readily identified by his skin tone, even in the North. Jim Crow was, in fact, born in New England.
White Americans bristled at less desirable Europeans entering the United States. Catholic Irish faced as much opposition in Northern cities as free blacks from the South when they arrived in New York City. But whereas Europeans could, perhaps, hide their cultural identity, black Americans could not. Race created a simplistic dichotomy, at least for political purposes, and therefore for centuries, historians, journalists, and politicos have tended to treat the black American population as a static and monolithic set of victims of “systemic white supremacy” without agency.
This has resulted in the 1619 Project and a growing demand for reparations.
Thorough studies of slavery bucked those trends, most importantly Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese, but even he treated the American black population as a “nation within a nation.”
Race mattered more than culture.
David Hackett Fischer has corrected this problem. His latest book, African Founders, applies the same empirical analysis to black America as Albion’s Seed. He even classifies this book as a companion to that study.
Fischer weaves the main themes of Albion’s Seed through black American society, and by default creates a different racial narrative.
Africa is a continent with regional and cultural diversity, and Americans knew it, even when purchasing slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In other words, “African-American” has as much meaning as “European American.” Both terms fail to recognize important regional identity.
Black Americans in Virginia differed from those in South Carolina, just as white Americans in North Carolina differed from those in Connecticut.
And even within States, black Americans boatmen who lived around the Chesapeake Bay watershed had little in common with those who lived and worked in the rest of Virginia.
Like Genovese in Roll, Jordan, Roll, Fischer emphasizes that these cultures were not always forced from the top, but rather brought from their respective homes in Africa, and in many ways contributed to American society as much as imported British folkways, particularly in the South where Fischer argues that black American leadership developed in earnest. Regional white American culture influenced black Americans, for example Quaker conceptions of “reciprocal liberty” filtered into Pennsylvania black society, but black Americans formed their own cultural identities.
The earliest slaves in this region arrived from modern Nigeria, and unlike their counterparts from other areas of the African West Coast had differing notions of power and liberty. In other words, they were not as docile as those eventually brought to the lower South.
He does identify some elements of African culture–speech, music, and religion–that crossed regions and individual customs, but like in Albion’s Seed, those broad cultural traits were secondary to the important regional black American cultural norms.
Fischer presents this material to spark questions in an effort to understand, not as a polemic or a critique. That is true job of the historian. In his mind, the work offers a bridge between the positive Whig histories that dominated the profession for decades and the more recent negative efforts of modern historians which can only be described as “useful” stories of past oppression and written in order to spark “activism.”
If his conclusions are accurate in both books, then the entire basis of a monolithic black or white American society needs a reexamination. Furthermore, such an analysis tends to promote reconciliation and continuity rather than conflict, a position typically lost in modern American society.
Like the 1619 Project, Fischer would seem to agree that black Americans believed in a “proposition nation” that was rejected by most Americans until the middle of the War for Southern Independence. In fact, Fischer suggests that black American notions of freedom have been more readily adopted in the modern era than earlier British patterns. But unlike the 1619 Project, his story of black American society is one of strength and innovation, not victim-hood and oppression.
In the end, African Founders presents a picture of American history at odds with modern scholarship and therefore demands review, study, and critique, but in a profession that now lacks much of the academic rigor that drove the publication of this work, the question becomes, will anyone care? Judging by the generally frosty reception by the establishment profession, probably not. Reconciliation doesn’t sell for loud mouthed, snarky activists.