Wednesday, June 15, 2005

American Politics and Regional Folkways Part 1: The Great Migrations

There were Red and Blue States in the Rennaisance.

We were taught in grade school that factions and regional interests have shaped our national politics since the Revolution. But the work of David Hackett Fischer traces the roots of cultural differences in American regions all the way back to England. Albion's Seed is an exhaustive study of four Great Migrations from England and how each created a distinct regional folkway in America--I will rely heavily on it. This will be the first in a four-part series of posts summarizing this fascinating work, and interpreting how it illuminates modern American politics.

While much 20th century American history focused on subsequent immigrant groups, Fischer notes that these groups tended to assimilate much of the culture, especially political ideas and definitions of American values of the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of the regions they move to. Studying the four great English migrations is a high-yield enterprise.

The Yankee Migration
English people had made several early settlements in the New World, but the first massive influx occurred 1630-1641 with over 200 ships bringing 21,000 individuals to New England. They were motivated by their Calvinist religion, mostly concerned with the spiritual upbringing of their own children, not conversion, though that was a secondary task. Accordingly they came as nuclear family units. They very rich and very poor were systematically excluded, providing an artificial economic class equality. The place names of New England reflect their origins in East Anglia in the Southeast. The people of East Anglia had played host to many rebellions to arbitrary power, and they traditionally had been more Protestant than most other areas. Sea travel was easier than overland travel in much of this region, and so they developed close ties to the Netherlands in terms of trade, legal traditions, and political ideas. The same sea access made them vulnerable to Norse depredations, which also left their cultural mark. This region also had many more freemen than other regions of England during the Middle Ages. Their churches were Congregational--a weak confederacy of independent congregations and a weak synod. Finally, the generation of East Anglians who came to America is important. They departed during the "eleven years' tyranny," a time when the king abolished Parliament and persecuted Calvinists. New Englanders continued to ruminate about constitutional issues like the separation of church and state in a way defined by this moment in history, even after the Mother Country had resolved the debate in its own way. The descendents of these East Anglians became Yankees, and they spread to the West in a pattern roughly approximating the Blue States.

The Chesapeake Tidewater
In 1641 Sir William Berkley became the Royal Governor of Virginia and spent the ensuing 40 years molding a society which fit the cultural values of southwest England. He actively recruited Royalist nobility, mostly landless younger sons. The demand for American land from this group soared after the King was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Most of Virginia's ruling families arrived within a decade of 1655. Their recent defeat gave them an obsession with honor and a constitutional concern for preserving hierarchical order in government which they carried on for years. However, more than 75% of the immigrants were indentured servants. Thus Virginia from its inception was home to the highest and the lowest of classes, with no real middle class. The place names betray their Royalist politics: Prince George, Princess Anne, King and Queen County. The vast majority of places named after English cities are named for spots in southeast England--in particular, Wessex. The language and laws of southeast England are Saxon, as are its units of land and weights. The countryside was divided into large manors, as opposed to East Anglia's farms. Slavery existed here during the early middle ages on a large scale, and lasted longer than in any other area of England. It had been long abolished by the migration to America, but other forms of social bondage were strong.
Though history Wessex had stood by the King and the Anglican Church traditionally; it supported the Western Rebellion against Prostestants in 1549. When they came to America, the Royalists found in the Chesapeake tidewater that the geography suited their purposes; complicated estuaries allowing sea-access to strips of arable land. They made a virtually town-less society of scattered manors. Living in nuclear family units, they had a stronger sense of extended family association than their New England counterparts. This was partly because of the high mortality rate from malaria, and partly a function of the family ways of Wessex. An important theme linking family, church and government in this regional folkway was the idea of deference to an the elder-patriarch, a leader of several households. This was distinctive from the New Englanders' concept of an elder-saint whose long life was seen as a sign of God's favor.

The Delaware Valley Migration
Over 23,000 English Quakers arrived in the Delaware valley between 1675-1715 to found the colonies of Pennsylvania and Delaware, and settle areas of Maryland and New Jersey. They were another religious group fleeing persecution, but that was not the main reason they came; they wanted to demonstrate Quakerism flourishing without outside interference. Quakers were a radically egalitarian sect, whose beliefs centered on the doctrine of the 'inner light,' that every person had a direct connection to Jesus' love and virtue. They lived in a very different spiritual world from the Calvinists, whose God ruled angrily and mysteriously, and from the Anglicans whose God comprised an Ultimate Patriarch.
English elites were not fond of Quakers, and wealthy Quakers often funded poorer ones' adventures to the New World, so Delaware settlers tended to be poorer than their neighbors to the North, but more middle-class than those in the Tidewater. They were primarily poor farmers or craftsmen from from the Northern Midlands of England (especially the Pennine Moors), or artisans from the vicinity of London. Place names in Pennsylvania reflected social ideals--eg Philadelphia--or northern English places like Chester, York and Lancaster. The North Midlands was historically an area of Norse settlement, sparsely populated and dangerous from bandits at the time of the migration. The inhabitants--Quaker or not--were known for egalitarianism; it was said that the farmhands had dinner with their landowners. The Norman nobility was never seen as fully legitimate by the people, and they felt alienated from the schools, churches, and political institutions controlled by London. This attitude was reflected in Quakers' affinity for basic learning, but disdain for higher learning--the first university in Pennsylvania was founded by Benjamin Franklin, a hundred years after the colony's founding. Quaker egalitarianism extended to disdain for an elite of money or birth (famously they refused to give 'hat honor', removing the hat, to their 'social betters', never used 'Mister' or 'My Lord' and used the informal 'thee' instead of the formal 'you' addressing them), but they strongly believed in leadership by an elite of virtue.
William Penn actively recruited German Pietists and other radical Protestant sects, the only of the four migrations' leaders to do so. The impetus for this recruiting can be found in the historical period that produced the migration itself--the Restoration was a period in which England was wrestling with the question of how people of different beliefs could all live together in peace, and the Quakers found an answer in radical pluralism, stemming directly from the doctrine of Inner Light. Making pluralism work was critical to demonstrating the success of Quakerism. Finally, Quakers had an original idea of order as peace, distinct from New England's concept of order as unity, or the Tidewater's ideal of order as hierarchy. While Quakerism as an organized sect declined over the ensuing years, a linguistic map of Northern Midlands dialect in the US shows their theme of egalitarianism was carried across the Appalachians to Ohio, most of the Midwest, and into the northern Mountain states.

The Backcountry Migration
The final Great Migration took place over a much longer period, from about 1717-1775, and as much of 1/3 of it may have occurred in the four years before Independence. They were called "Scots-Irish", a mix of English, Irish and Scottish borderland natives. This was a region rattled by war almost every year for seven centuries. This violence shaped the culture in many ways: clans formed as blood relations were the most stable relationship possible in turbulent times. Homes were typically temporary in nature since one never knew when one would be forced off the land--the characteristic hovel was adapted to the American envionment to become the log cabin (prior migrants built more permanent homes even early on) and this temporary home has carried to today in the form of the mobile home. In the period of the Migration, the area was being systematically 'pacified' as entire clans were outlawed and killed en masse. Hence the desperate search for space to live away from oppression, and a political concern in this generation with the question of whether the rights of English gentlemen also belonged to other people.
The Scots-Irish mostly arrived in Philadelphia, and moved into Western Pennsylvania when they found little in common with the Quakers. They belonged to many denominations, but worshipped in large groups with dramatic services led by charismatic leaders (a pattern predating Christianity in this region), instead of smaller, silent Quaker meetings. The men wore shirts with broad horizontal seams across the back to emphasize broad shoulders (which evolved into the typical country-western shirt), and the women wore more revealing clothes, than the simple modest Quaker garb. And the Scots-Irish came for political and economic reasons, to escape oppressive English landlords, not for a social experiment. They moved inland, north and south along the backcountry, and in the 19th century into the Southwest. Their decendents occupy the area roughly where country-western music is popular.

In coming posts, we'll examine how different ideas of liberty and cultural values in each of these regional folkways have driven much of the political history of the United States.


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