Saturday, December 13, 2003

The long shadow of the Yankee Puritan tradition (and others)

Kos guest DHinMI points to a fascinating idea by D. H. Fischer:

In 1989 the great American historian David Hackett Fischer published Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Fischer shows that in just about everything, from home design to what we eat for holiday dinners, from the names we give our children to the ways we pronounce our words and experience time, marriage, aging and death, there are discernable continuities between certain regions of seventeenth and eighteenth century Britain and certain regions of the contemporary U.S.. The Puritans who settled New England, the Anglican Royalist elite and their servants who settled Virginia, the Quakers from Wales and the Midlands who settled the Delaware Valley, and the poor English-speakers from Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England who settled the backwoods south each brought with them very different conceptions of liberty; as Fischer writes, "the problem of liberty cannot be discussed intelligently without a discrimination of the libertarianisms which must be made in historical terms." Fischer attributes American regionalism largely to the continuing influence of these four British migrations, and the religious, ethical and political societal norms their descendents have carried with them across the continent.

We can see this effect by looking at upstate NY, the Great Lakes states, and western WA and OR, all of which were initially settled largely by Yankee descendents of the Puritans. The Puritans established communities with greater civic participation, tolerance of or desire for government intervention in business and community life and adherence to the law, and lower rates of violent crime than those founded in the regions settled by the other British immigrant groups. This pattern has held for over three hundred years, even as new immigrant groups merged with the Yankees in New England and as the Yankees settled the areas to the west. The other side of this phenomenon is that later immigrant groups have conformed to the norms of the regions in which they have settled; Germans who immigrated to the Great Lakes states largely adopted the communal folkways of the Yankees, but Germans who immigrated to Texas were likely to adopt the more individualistic and anti-authoritarian folkways that originated on the frontier of eighteenth-century Britain.

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