David Hackett Fischer’s book on Anglo-American origins continues to exercise inordinate influence on most discussions of American history and culture.
Of course the thesis of the book is that although the British Isles were the source of most of the colonists who settled this country (though Fischer, I think, unduly emphasizes other European colonists) there is not a unified culture nor a single people as the source of the American nation. There are, according to Fischer, several cultures which are at odds. From there, it’s an easy progression to making the claim that the South and the North, for example, constitute two distinct peoples, with their accompanying cultures — an idea that has caught on for political reasons amongst some Southrons.
Other modern writers have used Fischer’s book as a jumping-off point for their own pet theories about the various “nations” contained within America. All this can only contribute to more dissension and animosity; some Southern nationalists find Fischer’s writings justification for a new-found hatred of “puritans” and Yankees generally. Some people, based on Fischer’s writings tend to blame not just those long-dead Puritans but Christians in general, or Protestants or Calvinists.
I have read Fischer’s book though it’s been some years since I waded through it.
This recent review of Albion’s Seed seems to emphasize many negative ‘facts’ about our colonist ancestors. Fischer, in my opinion, uses the usual post-modern, politically correct standards by which to judge the colonists. Once upon a time, historians actually did try to exercise some kind of objectivity in writing about history; no longer. Every history of America today seems to have to lean over backward to chastise the Southern colonists especially — the Cavalier class, specifically — for slavery/racism and elitism. Every history of today has to give blacks undeserved credit for some cultural accomplishment. For instance, did you know that the English spoken by my cavalier ancestors actually resembled so-called ”ebonics”, and that Elizabethan English sounded like African-American dialect?
INTERESTING CAVALIER FACTS:
1. Virginian cavalier speech patterns sound a lot like modern African-American dialects. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why, but it’s strange to think of a 17th century British lord speaking what a modern ear would clearly recognize as Ebonics.
Really, how could Fischer or anyone else back up such a statement? Can we exhume an English lord (English, not British; the Union did not exist till the next century) and compare his speech to that of an ”African American”? Until then, Fischer is just talking through his hat, just making things up.
10. Our word “condescension” comes from a ritual attitude that leading Virginians were supposed to display to their inferiors. Originally condescension was supposed to be a polite way of showing respect those who were socially inferior to you; our modern use of the term probably says a lot about what Virginians actually did with it.
In a lot of ways, Virginia was the opposite of Massachusetts. Their homicide rate was sky-high, and people were actively encouraged to respond to slights against their honor with duels (for the rich) and violence (for the poor).
Fischer seems to have thrown in such examples of good old class-warfare propaganda. Jacobinism by any other name.
From yet another blog post on Fischer’s book:
Among Cavaliers and corporatists, there is no morality beyond might makes right. There is no law — and no honor — beyond their own desire to expand their own sphere of power. There is no equality, no justice, and no universal freedom as we understand it. Theirs is the ancient plantation mentality we Americans have spent over 220 hard, bloody years trying to put behind us. It’s an outdated social system that has no place in a modern technological society — yet, in almost every detail, it’s the very world our new corporate royalists want to drag us back to.
In the back of their minds, they’re just Virginia gentlemen, taking the liberties such gentlemen have always rightfully enjoyed at the expense of others. It’s true that we owe a handful of Cavalier gentlemen a tremendous debt for so clearly articulating the principles of American liberty during the Revolution. But we should also remember that when these first men asserted their God-given right to life, liberty, and happiness, they had no intention of sharing those blessings with anyone else.”
Oh, if only we could go back in time and share our superior wisdom with those benighted ignoramuses! Wouldn’t this world be perfect if only David Hackett Fischer and his fan club could enlighten us all.
This Biblical passage comes to mind:
And Job answered and said,
No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.”
Fischer’s book, I think, impresses people simply because it is so very long and so extensively footnoted and bibliography-ed. The sheer size and weight of the book intimidates people.
An old history prof/mentor of mine in college informed me, when I was a naive and idealistic history student, that all historians have some agenda, whether they are aware of it or not; nobody can be completely bias-free, but today even a pretense of objectivity and impartiality is missing. Fischer, though seemingly regarded as the Voice Of Authority on early American history now, is human like the rest of us, prone to his own biases (which seem to be the PC, egalitarian biases of our time) and also prone to human fallibility. I only wish that people would stop the uncritical acceptance of everything Fischer writes, as if he is the last word.
Similarly with lesser-known writers like Colin Woodward. Even many Southern readers skeptical of ‘Yankees’ still accept Woodward’s writings as absolutely true, and even very right-wing readers seem oblivious to the fact that Woodward is a liberal with a liberal’s presuppositions.
As always, my advice is to read mostly older sources. Today there are a good many old (and sound) books on history which are available online, free. Unfortunately our politically corrected public libraries are purging the old books and replacing them with inferior, dumbed down, ideologically correct ‘history’,which is invariably tainted by today’s PC shibboleths and cliches.
We should learn about the past from people of the past. Their books are still there to be found and used.