Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America

Here are some of my favorite bits from this 1989 book by David Hackett Fischer:

* Folkways in this normative sense exist in advanced civilizations as well as in primitive societies. They are functioning systems of high complexity which have actually grown stronger rather than weaker in the modern world. In any given culture, they always include the following things: —Speech ways, conventional patterns of written and spoken language: pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax and grammar. —Building ways, prevailing forms of vernacular architecture and high architecture, which tend to be related to one another. —Family ways, the structure and function of the household and family, both in ideal and actuality. —Marriage ways, ideas of the marriage-bond, and cultural processes of courtship, marriage and divorce. —Gender ways, customs that regulate social relations between men and women. —Sex ways, conventional sexual attitudes and acts, and the treatment of sexual deviance. —Child-rearing ways, ideas of child nature and customs of child nurture.

—Naming ways, onomastic customs including favored forenames and the descent of names within the family. —Age ways, attitudes toward age, experiences of aging, and age relationships. —Death ways, attitudes toward death, mortality rituals, mortuary customs and mourning practices. —Religious ways, patterns of religious worship, theology, ecclesiology and church architecture. —Magic ways, normative beliefs and practices concerning the supernatural. —Learning ways, attitudes toward literacy and learning, and conventional patterns of education. —Food ways, patterns of diet, nutrition, cooking, eating, feasting and fasting. —Dress ways, customs of dress, demeanor, and personal adornment. —Sport ways, attitudes toward recreation and leisure; folk games and forms of organized sport. —Work ways, work ethics and work experiences; attitudes toward work and the nature of work.

—Time ways, attitudes toward the use of time, customary methods of time keeping, and the conventional rhythms of life. —Wealth ways, attitudes toward wealth and patterns of its distribution. —Rank ways, the rules by which rank is assigned, the roles which rank entails, and relations between different ranks. —Social ways, conventional patterns of migration, settlement, association and affiliation. —Order ways, ideas of order, ordering institutions, forms of disorder, and treatment of the disorderly. —Power ways, attitudes toward authority and power; patterns of political participation. —Freedom ways, prevailing ideas of liberty and restraint, and libertarian customs and institutions.

Every major culture in the modern world has its own distinctive customs in these many areas. Their persistent power might be illustrated by an example. Consider the case of wealth distribution. Most social scientists believe that the distribution of wealth is determined primarily by material conditions. For Marxists the prime mover is thought to be the means of production; for Keynesians it is the process of economic growth; for disciples of Adam Smith it is the market mechanism. But to study this subject in a comparative way is to discover that the distribution of wealth has varied from one culture to another in ways that cannot possibly be explained by material processes alone. Another powerful determinant is the inherited structure of values and customs which might be called the “wealth ways” of a culture. These wealth ways are communicated from one generation to the next by many interlocking mechanisms—child-rearing processes, institutional structures, cultural ethics, and codes of law—which create ethical imperatives of great power in advanced societies as well as primitive cultures. Indeed, the more advanced a society becomes in material terms, the stronger is the determinant power of its folkways, for modern technologies act as amplifiers, and modern institutions as stabilizers, and modern elites as organizers of these complex cultural processes.

* Yankee speech owed much of its distinctive character to its pronunciation of the letter r. Postvocalic r’s tended to disappear altogether, so that Harvard became Haa-v’d (with the a pronounced as in happen). This speech-habit came from East Anglia and may still be heard in the English counties of Suffolk, Norfolk and Kent. At the same time, other r’s were added. Follow was pronounced foller, and asked became arst—a spelling which often appeared in town meeting records during the seventeenth century. Precisely the same sounds still exist today in remote parts of East Anglia.6 The Yankee twang did not develop in a perfectly uniform way throughout New England. In Boston it was spoken at a speed which made it incomprehensible even to others of the same region.

* Even in the twentieth century, the descendants of the Puritans still wear suits of slate-grey and philly-mort. In Boston’s Back Bay and Beacon Hill, Brahmin ladies still dress in sad colors, and their battered hats appear to have arrived in the hold of the Arbella.

Sad colors also survive in the official culture of New England. In the older universities of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, scholars and athletes do not appear in colors such as Princeton’s gaudy orange or Oxford’s brilliant blues and reds. The color of Harvard is a dreary off-purple euphemistically called crimson. Brown University’s idea of high color is dark brown, trimmed with black. On ceremonial occasions, the president of that institution wears a mud-colored garment which is approximately the color of used coffee grounds. Dartmouth prefers a gloomy forest-green. All of these shades were on the official list of “sadd colours” in 1638; and are still in vogue today. In the New England dialect, it is interesting to discover that clothes have been called “duds” for three centuries. This was an old English term of contempt for dress. A scarecrow, in his castoff rags was sometimes called a “dudman.” The language of dress in New England was a vocabulary of deprecation. That pejorative attitude still survives in the culture of this region.

* In most cultures, attitudes toward work are closely connected to conceptions of time. For a Puritan, time was heavily invested with sacred meaning.

* When Ebenezer Taylor of Yarmouth, Massachusetts, fell into a forty-foot well, his rescuers stopped digging on Saturday afternoon while they debated whether it was lawful to rescue him on the Sabbath.

* At New London, a courting couple named John Lewis and Sarah Chapman were brought to trial in 1670 merely for “sitting together on the Lord’s Day under an apple tree.” Sexual intercourse was taboo on the Lord’s Day.

* If daily and weekly movements were unusually strong in New England, other common rhythms were exceptionally weak or even absent altogether. The Puritans made a point of abolishing the calendar of Christian feasts and saints’ days. The celebration of Christmas was forbidden in Massachusetts on pain of a five-shilling fine. In England, the Puritan Parliament prohibited the observance of Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, saints’ days and holy days.

* This “younger son syndrome,” as one historian has called it, became a factor of high importance in the culture of Virginia. The founders of Virginia’s first families tried to reconstruct from American materials a cultural system from which they had been excluded at home.

* The great majority of Virginia’s upper elite came from families in the upper ranks of English society.

* The more hierarchical a society becomes, the stronger is the cultural dominion of its elite.

* The temporal hierarchy of Virginia ranked people largely by their ability to regulate their own time whenever and however they pleased. Time-killing thus became an expression of social rank. Through many centuries, when the people of Virginia found a moment of leisure, they “killed the time” with any lethal weapon that came to hand. A dice box did nicely, or a pack of playing cards, or a book of dramatic readings, or long conversation at table in the gathering dusk of a Chesapeake “evening”—a word which was enlarged in this culture to include the entire afternoon. The progeny of the New England Puritans, on the other hand, preferred to “improve the time” by inventing alarm clocks and daylight saving time and by turning every passing moment to a constructive purpose. Here were two distinctly different time ways which lay very near the heart of regional cultures in British America.

* Virginia’s wealth ways developed within a system of stratification, which is not easily translated into the social language of a later age. Even in its own time, it was commonly described in metaphorical terms—which may still be the best way to approach it. In the year 1699, for example, an English landowner named Richard Newdigate explained his idea of society by a metaphor that came readily to the mind of a country gentleman. Society, he wrote, was like the landscape of his native Warwickshire. The common people were the grass that grew in the fields. The nobles and gentry were the trees that shaded the grass. And the clergy were the cherries that hung from the trees.

* New England…had a truncated system of social orders. The Virginians, on the other hand, extended the full array of English social orders, and reinforced them.

* by 1676, the rigidity of social orders was very great. It was exceptionally difficult to cross the great divide that separated “common folk” and “gentle folk” in that colony.

The psychological cement of this system was a culture of subordination which modern historians call deference. Country gentlemen in England and Virginia normally expected a display of social deference from their inferiors, and by and large they received it. “Everybody offered me abundance of respect,” William Byrd entered in his diary on more than one occasion.7 Gentlefolk and common folk agreed on the fundamental fact that social deference was normal in Virginia. The classical account, often quoted by historians, is the autobiography of Devereux Jarrett, who was born in the lowest order. “We were accustomed to look upon, what were called gentle folks, as beings of a superior order,” he remembered. “For my part, I was quite shy of them, and kept off at a humble distance.”

This relationship created intense feelings of anxiety and fear among the “common folk,” in a manner that is not easy for people of another world to understand. A clergyman named James Ireland remembered an encounter with a Virginia gentleman: “When I viewed him riding up, I never beheld such a display of pride in any man. … arising his deportment, attitude and gesture; he rode a lofty elegant horse … his countenance appeared as bold and daring as satan himself.”

Social rank in Virginia was an extended hierarchy of deferential relationships. Even the greatest planters were conscious of a rank above them, which was occupied by the King himself and the royal family. Distant as the sovereign may have been, the gentry of Virginia thought much about him. William Byrd even dreamed about imaginary intimacies with members of the royal family, as did many English-speaking people in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. “I … dreamed the King’s daughter was in love with me,” he wrote in his diary on one occasion—a common fantasy in the minds of seventeenth-century Englishmen, who were obsessed with the feelings of those above them.

Just as the gentlemen of Virginia deferred to their King, so the yeomanry were expected to defer to gentlemen, servants were required to defer to their yeoman masters, and African slaves were compelled to submit themselves to Europeans of every social rank. These rules were generally obeyed in Virginia. Acts of criminal violence, for example, were rarely committed on people of higher rank by social inferiors.

* It never occurred to most Virginia gentlemen that liberty belonged to everyone. It was thought to be the special birthright of free-born Englishmen—a property which set this “happy breed” apart from other mortals, and gave them a right to rule less fortunate people in the world. Even within their own society, hegemonic liberty was a hierarchical idea. One’s status in Virginia was defined by the liberties that one possessed. Men of high estate were thought to have more liberties than others of lesser rank. Servants possessed few liberties, and slaves none at all.

* This libertarian idea had nothing to do with equality. Many years later, John Randolph of Roanoke summarized his ancestral creed in a sentence: “I am an aristocrat,” he declared, “I love liberty; I hate equality.”5 In Virginia, this idea of hegemonic liberty was thought to be entirely consistent with the institution of race slavery. A planter demanded for himself the liberty to take away the liberties of others—a right of laisser asservir, freedom to enslave. The growth of race slavery in turn deepened the cultural significance of hegemonic liberty, for an Englishman’s rights became his rank, and set him apart from others less fortunate than himself. The world thus became a hierarchy in which people were ranked according to many degrees of unfreedom, and they received their rank by the operation of fortune, which played so large a part in the thinking of Virginians. At the same time, hegemony over others allowed them to enlarge the sphere of their own personal liberty, and to create the conditions within which their special sort of libertarian consciousness flourished.

* The Puritans worshiped a very different Deity—one who was equally capable of love and wrath—a dark, mysterious power who could be terrifying in his anger and inscrutability. Anglicans, on the other hand, knelt before a great and noble Pantocrator who ruled firmly but fairly over the hierarchy of his creatures. A central tenet of Quaker theology was the doctrine of the inner light, which held that an emanation of divine goodness and virtue passed from Jesus into every human soul. They believed that this “light within” brought the means of salvation within reach of everyone who awakened to its existence. Most Quakers rejected the Calvinist principle of limited atonement. They believed that Christ died not merely for a chosen few, but for all humanity. Quakers also rejected the Calvinist ideas of inexorable predestination, unconditional election and irresistible grace. They agreed that people could spurn the spiritual gift that was given to them.

* Quakers repudiated the principle of fear as the cement of family relations. Puritans and Anglicans both regarded fear as a healthy emotion, and urged that it should be cultivated in relations between parents and children, and even husbands and wives. Members of the Society of Friends, however, actively condemned fear as an organizing principle of human relationships, except fear of God. They built their ideas of the family upon a radically different base.

* This Quaker rule against outmarriage was strictly enforced in America. For nearly two centuries, half of all the disciplinary proceedings among Pennsylvania Quakers were about problems of courtship, and marriage with “unbelievers.” The frequency of these cases increased with time.3 The rule against outmarriage was grounded not merely in a negative principle of sectarian exclusion, but in the positive idea that marriages should be founded in true Christian love. To the Quakers, love did not mean romantic attraction, sexual passion or even domestic affection. Their idea of “pure and true love” was not the Greek eros or Roman amor but the Christian caritas and pietas which were thought to be attainable only between true believers.

* Fornication before marriage, a venial sin for Puritans of Massachusetts and the Anglicans of Virginia, was sometimes cause for disownment, the heaviest penalty in the power of a meeting to inflict.

* Quakers were specially interested in ending the sexual exploitation of social inferiors. George Fox in 1672 insisted that any master who had sexual relations with a female servant must marry her, “no matter what the difference in outward rank or race.”3 The meetings of Friends also specifically condemned the predatory attitude toward sexuality which had been so much a part of Virginia’s sexual customs.

* Quakers also encouraged the practices that would be called prudery in the nineteenth century. Quaker meetings carefully monitored female dress and sternly forbade even the slightest hint of sensuality. In 1718 the London yearly meeting went so far as to condemn “naked necks.”13 Ordinary language was carefully purged of carnal connotation. A French traveler in the eighteenth century was startled to discover that respectable ladies of Pennsylvania could not bring themselves to speak plainly about their bodies even to their physicians, but delicately described everything from neck to waist as their “stomachs,” and anything from waist to feet as their “ankles.”14 This prudery had an important function. It lowered the general level of sexual tension in social relationships, even between husbands and wives. The Quakers of the Delaware Valley were very different in that respect from both the New England Puritans and Virginia Anglicans, but very similar to their co-believers in England.

* It also became part of the official culture of Philadelphia, which was very different from New York or Baltimore.

* Libertarian as the Quakers may have been on many questions, they were exceptionally intolerant on the subject of sport. The statutes of Pennsylvania forbade many forms of sport outright, under threat of severe criminal punishment. Its laws agreed upon in England banned “all prizes, stage plays, cards, dice, may games, masques, revels, bull-baitings, cock-fightings, bear-baitings and the like.”1 Most colonies in British America enacted laws on the subject of sport, but none were quite as strict as those of Pennsylvania. The legendary blue laws of New England paled by comparison with those of the Quaker province, which gave their courts unlimited power to punish any sort of amusement “which excites the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness and irreligion.”

* The Quakers, more than any major Protestant denomination, fostered a style of life which Max Weber called worldly asceticism—the idea of living in the world but not of it. Work itself became a sacrament, and idleness a deadly sin. Wealth was not to be consumed in opulent display, but rather to be saved, invested, turned to constructive purposes. Restraints were placed upon indulgence. The most extended form of this belief was to be found not among the Puritans with whom it is often associated, but among the Quakers.

* The Quakers had a horror of debt, which they felt to be a palpable evil in the world. Falling into debt beyond one’s ability was regarded as a moral failing of the first degree.

* Quakers tended to help one another. They loaned money at lower rates of interest to believers than to nonbelievers, and sometimes charged no interest at all… It is interesting that Quakers also developed systems of insurance against commercial risks, and played a major role in the development of the insurance industry…

* International ties throughout the Atlantic world also gave Quaker merchants many advantages in the eighteenth century. “By virtue of their commercial, religious, personal and family contacts,” historian Frederick Tolles writes, “the Philadelphia Quakers were in close touch with the entire north Atlantic world from Nova Scotia to Curacao and from Hamburg to Lisbon.”12 In all of these ways, the Quakers provided an ethical and cultural environment which strongly supported industrial and capitalist development. Frederick Tolles writes from long acquaintance with the records of Quaker capitalists, “One is probably justified suggesting that in the conduct of business, the Quaker merchants were extremely cautious and prudent, meticulously accurate in details, and insistent upon others being so. It is not difficult to understand how men who exhibited these traits in their commercial dealings (no matter how generous and sympathetic as individuals and friends) should have acquired a reputation for driving a hard bargain.”13 In England Quakers played a role far beyond their numbers in the industrial revolution. The great banking houses of England were those of Quakers. The largest private bank in Britain was developed by descendants of the great Quaker writer Robert Barclay. Lloyd’s Bank was also owned by Quakers…

* Closely related to these attitudes toward work were Quaker ways of thinking about time. In place of the Puritan idea of “improving the time,” and the Anglican notion of “killing the time,” the Quakers thought in terms of “redeeming the time.” This concept of temporal redemption had a complex meaning. Fundamentally, Quakers tried to purge time of sin and corruption. They also sought to raise time above the world.

* Like the Puritans, Quakers were deeply interested in making the best use of time, which they regarded as a precious and perishable gift. They marveled at the ways in which other people squandered time.

* More than their neighbors, the Quakers were morning people. They carefully organized their daily routines and kept schedules which contrasted sharply with the time ways of Virginia gentlemen.

* This Quaker idea of a routine which made “the whole day seem like a long morning” would have filled many an English gentleman with horror.

* A Quaker’s honor was far removed from the code of chivalry that existed among Virginia gentlemen. It was also not the same as the contractual code that was kept by New England’s specially elected saints. Instead it was a reputation for Christian love, peace, “good neighborhood,” godliness, and doing good to others.

* The idea of order continued to be defined in terms of peace and mutual forbearance, rather than unity or hierarchy.

* Quakers insisted that a believing Christian had a sacred duty to stand against evil in government, and that individual conscience was the arbiter of God’s truth. The ideology of Quakerism justified political opposition in a way that was not the case in other English cultures.

* The idea of minimal government was carried farther in Pennsylvania than in any other colony. There was no legally established militia until after the 1750s. In one period, when interest from a land bank provided an alternative source of revenue, there were nearly no taxes at all. The legislature of Pennsylvania passed fewer laws before 1750 than any other assembly in British America, and its courts were less active in the work of enforcement than most provinces.


* The young women startled Quaker Philadelphia by the sensuous appearance of their full bodices, tight waists, bare legs and skirts as scandalously short as an English undershift.

* On the subject of sex, the backsettlers tended to be more open than were other cultures of British America. Sexual talk was free and easy in the backcountry—more so than in Puritan Massachusetts or Quaker Pennsylvania, or even Anglican Virginia. So too was sexual behavior.

The Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason was astounded by the open sexuality of the backsettlers. “How would the polite people of London stare, to see the Females (many very pretty) …,” he wrote. “The young women have a most uncommon practice, which I cannot break them of. They draw their shift as tight as possible round their Breasts, and slender waists (for they are generally very finely shaped) and draw their Petticoat close to their Hips to show the fineness of their limbs—as that they might as well be in puri naturalibus—indeed nakedness is not censurable or indecent here, and they expose themselves often quite naked, without ceremony—rubbing themselves and their hair with bears’ oil and tying it up behind in a bunch like the indians—being hardly one degree removed from them.

* Other evidence suggests that these surface impressions of back-country sexuality had a solid foundation in fact. Rates of prenuptial pregnancy were very high in the backcountry—higher than other parts of the American colonies.

* Rates of illegitimacy and prenuptial pregnancy had long been higher in the far northwest of England than in any other part of that nation. The magnitude of regional differences was very great. Rates of bastardy in the northwest were three times higher than in the east of England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Regional disparities persisted from the beginning of parish registers to the twentieth century. Historian Peter Laslett notes that “in early Victorian times Cumberland … had the highest recordings [of bastardy] in the country.” Westmorland was very similar. High rates of illegitimacy and prenuptial pregnancy in the backcountry were not the necessary consequences of frontier conditions. Puritans also moved onto new lands in the northern colonies and continued to behave in puritanical ways. The same continuities appeared among the Quakers when they moved to the frontier.

* From an early age, small boys were taught to think much of their own honor, and to be active in its defense. Honor in this society meant a pride of manhood in masculine courage, physical strength and warrior virtue. Male children were trained to defend their honor without a moment’s hesitation—lashing out instantly against their challengers with savage violence.

* In North Britain, from time immemorial, the rule of tanistry (or thanistry, as in thane) had long determined the descent of authority within a clan. It held that “succession to an estate or dignity was conferred by election upon the ‘eldest and worthiest’ among the surviving kinsmen.”8 Candidates for this honor were males within the circle of kin called the derbfine—all the relatives within the span of four generations. By the rule of tanistry, one man among that group was chosen to head the family: he who was strongest, toughest and most cunning. This principle became an invitation to violent conflict, and the question was often settled by a trial of strength and cunning. The winner became the elder of his family or clan, and was honored with deference and deep respect. The losers were degraded and despised—if they were lucky.

* Tanistry caused much violence in the history of North Britain. It was also a product of that violence, for it was a way of promoting elders who had the strength and cunning to defend their families, and command respect. But those elders who were unable to do so became a danger to their people.

* Drake was only mildly interested in what lay in store in the next world, but he was obsessed with the question of how death should come to him in this one. This question, for a Puritan or a Quaker, was a mere triviality compared with the great business of salvation. But for Daniel Drake, as for Robert Burns, the secular circumstances of death loomed as large as its sacred nature. Both men were fatalistic about the inevitability of death, but they were deeply affected by its uncertainties. This is an attitude that commonly exists in the face of endemic violence. In the twentieth century the same paradox of nescient fatalism—that is, of fatalism without foreknowledge—may be observed among men at war. It has also existed in entire cultures where sudden, violent and senseless death was a constant fact of life—as in the British borders and the American backcountry.

* A woman of the Bell clan who understood this backcountry culture very well, tried to explain the special quality of its fatalism to outsiders: “The fatalism of this free folk is unlike anything of the Far East; dark and mystical though it be … it is lighted with flashes of the spirit of the Vikings. A man born and bred in a vast wild land nearly always becomes a fatalist. He learns to see nature not as a thing of field and brooks, friendly to man and docile beneath his hand, but as a world of depths and heights and distances illimitable, of which he is a tiny part. He feels himself carried in the sweep of forces too vast for comprehension, forces variously at war, out of which are the issues of life and death. … Inevitably he comes to feel, with a sort of proud humility, that he has no part in the universe save as he allies himself, by prayer and obedience, with the order that rules.”

* Where the warrior ethic is strong, the work ethic grows weak. This was so among the borderers and backsettlers, on both sides of the water. A traveler in North Britain remarked that the inhabitants were “indolent in high degree, unless roused to war.”1 In the American backcountry, other travelers frequently repeated similar observations. “They are very poor owing to their extreme indolence,” wrote an itinerant clergyman. A Philadelphia Quaker wrote: “ … the Irish are mostly poor beggarly idle people.”

* These were not a people who took time by the forelock. The folkways of the backcountry differed very much in that respect from the attitudes of New England, the Delaware, and even tidewater Virginia. Of all the inhabitants of British America, the back settlers were the most conservative and the least instrumental in their time ways. By and large the people of the backcountry tended to believe that the rhythms of life were inexorable and ineluctable, and beyond the capacity of mere mortals to change in any fundamental way. In place of the more instrumental attitudes of improving time, or redeeming time, or even killing time, the backsettlers had a fatalistic idea of passing the time—letting it happen in its ineluctable way. Here was another striking paradox of backcountry culture. The more these people moved through space, the more rooted they became in time.

* Crackers, Rednecks, Hoosiers—words that described the largest social class in the American backcountry—were not coined in the New World. They were carried out of North Britain. For three centuries these terms were variously used as praise words and pejoratives, according to context and occasion. But always they described the same paradox of poverty and pride.

* Another term for this rural proletariat was redneck, which was originally applied to the backsettlers because of their religion. The earliest American example known to this historian was recorded in North Carolina by Anne Royall in 1830, who noted that “red-neck” was “a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians.” It had long been a slang word for religious dissenters in the north of England.

* A third word for this rural proletariat which also came from Britain was cracker, which derived from an English pejorative for a low and vulgar braggart.

* Within this comity, personal relations between backsettlers were often brutally direct. The mother of President Jackson prepared her son for this world with some very strong advice. “Andrew,” said she, “never tell a lie, nor take what is not your own, nor sue anybody for slander, assault and battery. Always settle them cases yourself.”1 That folk saying was a classical expression of backcountry attitudes toward order, which differed very much from other regions of British America. In the absence of any strong sense of order as unity, hierarchy, or social peace, backsettlers shared an idea of order as a system of retributive justice. The prevailing principle was lex talionis, the rule of retaliation.

* The politics of the backcountry consisted mainly of charismatic leaders and personal followings, cemented by strong and forceful acts such as Jackson’s behavior at Jonesboro. The rhetoric that these leaders used sometimes sounded democratic, but it was easily misunderstood by those who were not part of this folk culture. The Jacksonian movement was a case in point. To easterners, Andrew Jackson looked and sounded like a Democrat. But in his own culture, his rhetoric had a very different function. Historian Thomas Abernethy observes that Andrew Jackson never championed the cause of the people; he merely invited the people to champion him. This was a style of politics which placed a heavy premium upon personal loyalty. In the American backcountry, as on the British borders, loyalty was the most powerful cement of political relationships. Disloyalty was the primary political sin.

* No matter whether they came from the England or Scotland or Ireland, their libertarian ideas were very much alike—and profoundly different from notions of liberty that had been carried to Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The traveler Johann Schoepf was much interested in ideas of law and liberty which he found in the backcountry. “They shun everything which appears to demand of them law and order, and anything that preaches constraint,” Schoepf wrote of the backsettlers. “They hate the name of a justice, and yet they are not transgressors. Their object is merely wild. Altogether, natural freedom … is what pleases them.”2 This idea of “natural freedom” was widespread throughout the southern back settlements. But it was not a reflexive response to the “frontier” environment, nor was it “merely wild,” as Schoepf believed. The backcountry idea of natural liberty was created by a complex interaction between the American environment and a European folk culture. It derived in large part from the British border country, where anarchic violence had long been a condition of life. The natural liberty of the borderers was an idea at once more radically libertarian, more strenuously hostile to ordering institutions than were the other cultures of British America.

* A leading advocate of natural liberty in the eighteenth century was Patrick Henry, a descendant of British borderers, and also a product of the American backcountry. Throughout his political career, Patrick Henry consistently defended the principles of minimal government, light taxes, and the right of armed resistance to authority in all cases which infringed liberty.

* Patrick Henry’s idea of natural liberty was itself a border folkway that took root in the American back settlements and still flourishes in the United States today.

* In 1788, Patrick Henry led the opposition to the new national Constitution, primarily on the grounds that strong government of any sort was hostile to liberty…

* Patrick Henry’s ideas of natural liberty were not learned from treatises on political theory. His idea of a “state of nature” was not the philosophical abstraction that it had been for Locke. Thomas Jefferson said of Patrick Henry with only some exaggeration that “he read nothing, and had no books.”11 Henry’s lawyer-biographer William Wirt wrote, “Of the science of law he knew almost nothing; of the practical law he was so wholly ignorant that he was not only unable to draw a declaration or a plea, but incapable, it is said, of the most common or simple business of his profession, even of the mode of ordering a suit, giving a notice, or making a motion in court.”12 Patrick Henry’s principles of natural liberty were drawn from the political folkways of the border culture in which he grew up. He embibed them from his mother, a lady who described the American Revolution as merely another set of “lowland troubles.”13 The libertarian phrases and thoughts which echoed so strongly in the backcountry had earlier been heard in the borders of North Britain.

* This libertarian idea of natural freedom as “elbow room” was very far from the ordered freedom of New England towns, the hegemonic freedom of Virginia’s county oligarchs, and the reciprocal freedom of Pennsylvania Quakers.

* As late as 1900 nearly 60 percent of Americans had been of British stock. The old English-speaking cultures still firmly maintained their hegemony in the United States. But that pattern was changing very rapidly. By 1920 the proportion of Americans with British ancestry had fallen to 41 percent. Still, three-quarters of the nation came from northwestern Europe, but other ethnic stocks from eastern and southern Europe were growing at a formidable rate.

* There is a cultural equivalent of the iron law of oligarchy; small groups dominate every cultural system. They tend to do so by controlling institutions and processes, so that they become the “governors” of a culture in both a political and a mechanical sense. This iron law of cultural elites is an historical constant, but the relation between elites and other cultural groups is highly variable. Every culture might be seen as a system of bargaining, in which elites maintain their hegemony by concessions to other groups. These bargaining processes worked differently in the four regions of British America.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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