Albion’s Seed, the Hillbilly Myth, and Slate Star Codex
A recent post on /r/badphilosophy reminded me of the Slate Star Codex review of Albion's Seed. This is one of the most popular posts ever on SSC and is frequently reposted and quoted. I even shared it on my Facebook wall at some point.
Unfortunately it is also /r/badhistory, and in this post I will prove why. (edit: This is not a complete rejection of Albion's Seed, see the full post below and comments)
A Reddit search confirms for me that Albion's Seed is still taught in universities. It's a book with some fun elements, especially about the Puritans of New England and the Cavaliers who formed the origins of slaveholding Southern society. The author, David Fischer, pushes the idea that English immigrants self-sorted into different cultural communities.
However, when I read the book for myself and started looking at the footnotes, I discovered some interesting difficulties. Much of the Puritan section is based on a small selection of 19th century reminisces, rather than contemporary sources. There are various little bits of folk etymology and urban legend here and there.
In the Puritan and Cavalier sections this isn't all that bad, but the Quaker section is a bit dubious, and the Appalachian section betrays a rather dark undercurrent, which was recognized by academics when the book was first published.
Specifically, part of the mission of Albion's Seed is to revive the "Teutonic germ theory" of pre-WW2 historiography, which states that America achieved power and liberty based on unique English cultural achievements, rather than geographic or social advantages (for example, slavery).
The place in which we may see Fischer reviving the Teutonic germ myth is chiefly in the section on "Borderers". Fischer's book is called Albion's Seed for a reason: he wishes to reinforce that America's ruling class came not from various peoples from the British Isles, or Europe, or other parts of the world, but specifically from the English first and foremost. Some of the early colonists of the rural South and Appalachia were not English — they are often called Scots-Irish — so they serve as his chief counterexample and outgroup. He calls the Appalachian settlers "Borderers" regardless of their actual place of origin. One of Fischer's sources claims that "the whole of Scotland can be considered a Border region" of England, ignoring Scotland's centrality to the development of liberalism, science, and nationalism.
Fischer creates a Frankenstein's monster of "Borderers" out of bits and pieces of anecdote of specific events from the 18th to 20th centuries, mostly getting his methodology and analysis directly from pre-1920 sources, and ignoring most research contemporary to his own publication. His section on "Borderers" is meant to create an image of a race of uncivilized whites who are habitually violent, chaotic, stupid, and resist attempts by others to "civilize" them, when in fact the Scots-Irish often sought integration, while rural, poor Appalachianers were more often the victims of violence from these supposedly civilized groups. While Albion's Seed was initially hailed in popular and academic reviews, when people looked closer as I did, they began to see that the "Borderers" section is one big fib.
Here's how academics responded to Fischer at the time (“Culture Wars: David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed.” Appalachian Journal, vol. 19, no. 2, 1992, pp. 161–200):
Edward J. Cowan: "It is just not acceptable to pretend that areas as diverse as the Gaelic-speaking Highlands, Ireland, Lowland Scotland, the border country and the north of England shared some kind of cultural homogeneity. … he presents the equivalent of a potted history of the United States in which he might highlight only presidential assassinations and the crime figures from New York."
Rodger Cunningham: "[I]t was primarily a matter of violence done to the ancestors of Appalachians and not, as it naturally appeared from the other side, one of violence being perpetrated by them. And of course this has continued for eight centuries in the same terms … the omission of these facts has serious consequences for Fischer's concept of 'violence' …"
For reasons of space I will not quote the entire argument made by Altina Waller in her talk, but she very persuasively argues that social position (what would be called "class" in the 19th century) was more important than geographic heritage in determining cultural mores, and makes the supposedly huge distinctions between these four groups of Britishers quite dubious compared to their commonalities. She expresses some sympathy for Fischer's attempted project but sharply rejects his concept of "Borderers."
Fischer was given space for a reply to these critiques. He chose to conflate the scholars he was responding to with anonymous threats sent to him by mail, and characterized his critics as aged hippies who hadn't gotten over the Vietnam War and couldn't see that the Puritan/Quaker/Cavalier gift of freedom was now blossoming throughout the world of 1992 (by "the world", one might stress, he means the former Soviet Union, and by "freedom" he means some very structural thing the "Borderers" were never able to provide, but had to have supplied to them). Here's a direct quote from him:
With the spectacular rebirth of freedom around the world and the decline of the nuclear danger, many of my younger students are returning to the classical problems of American history with a more optimistic and even whiggish teleology that sees history as a process of progressive change.
The following issue of this journal contains an article by Michael Ellis, "On the Use of Dialect as Evidence: "Albion's Seed" in Appalachia," which presents a greater amount of damning detail, as follows:
How Fischer arrived at his generalization [about the existence of a "family of dialects" called "Appalachian"] based on [his cited] sources is confusing … the manner in which Fischer arrives at this conclusion is questionable.
[M]ore disturbing are instances where Fischer misrepresents a source in order to imply an empirical basis for a subjective generalization. For example, Fischer claims that:
This was an earthy dialect. The taboos of Puritan English had little impact on Southern highland speech until the twentieth century. Sexual processes and natural functions were freely used in figurative expressions. Small children, for example, were fondly called little shits" as a term of endearment. A backcountry granny would say kindly to a little child, "Ain't you a cute little shit." (p. 653)
[But Fischer's cited source] goes on to argue that in regards to sexual teminology, the mountain folk were considerably more inhibited, employing, for example, various euphemisms to avoid the words bull and stallion. Fischer, however, ignores this information since it does not support his assertion that "Sexual talk was free and easy in the backcountry" (p. 680).
Furthermore, Fischer was not simply skimming his source; he was actively discarding counterevidence. For the more eye-popping parts of his entertaining Puritan section, many of which are quoted in the SSC blog post, Fischer relies heavily on a very interesting book, Oldtown Folks by Harriet Beecher Stowe (yes, that Harriet Beecher Stowe). However, if you pick up this book for yourself — and I recommend that you do — you will find that it portrays a vibrant "common folk" in New England who more closely resemble Fischer's uninhibited, taboo-free "backcountry" than they do his stuffy, moralistic Puritans. Fischer threw out a whole lot of fun stuff from his own principal source in order to (1) resurrect our beloved Cotton Mather stereotype from the depths of the 19th century and (2) create a fictitious group of "Borderers" who were so culturally backwards they impeded the march of progress initiated by "the Puritans."
In Albion's Seed, Fischer's anti-Appalachian rhetoric is presented in the refined manner of a well-read historian, but the SSC post brings Fischer's prejudices out into the open in a rather uncomfortable way. Poor Scott Alexander was simply reading a well-regarded book probably recommended to him by someone smart, and he is astonished by what happens as he draws each of Fischer's pigheaded generalizations to a clickbaity conclusion. Here, at last, is the bad history from Slate Star Codex:
So the Borderers all went to Appalachia and established their own little rural clans there and nothing at all went wrong except for the entire rest of American history.
This is precisely what Fischer wanted his readers to believe, and Scott falls for it.
Colonial opinion on the Borderers differed within a very narrow range: one Pennsylvanian writer called them “the scum of two nations”, another Anglican clergyman called them “the scum of the universe”.
Scott again takes Fischer's bait and repeats propaganda used to justify violence against the rural poor, as if it represents a neutral judgment made by well-informed observers on the ground. Fischer probably presented this material mostly humorously, but for Scott it has become more serious.
Borderer town-naming policy was very different from the Biblical names of the Puritans or the Ye Olde English names of the Virginians. Early Borderer settlements include – just to stick to the creek-related ones – Lousy Creek, Naked Creek, Shitbritches Creek, Cuckold’s Creek, Bloodrun Creek, Pinchgut Creek, Whipping Creek, and Hangover Creek. There were also Whiskey Springs, Hell’s Half Acre, Scream Ridge, Scuffletown, and Grabtown. The overall aesthetic honestly sounds a bit Orcish.
Anyone who has been to England knows that names like this are normal throughout England, not just in a mythical "border" region. Fischer has lumped together these placenames into the Borderers section for no reason at all, and Scott follows the logic to the intended conclusion that these "Borderers" were "a bit Orcish."
This is not to paint the Borderers as universally poor and dumb – like every group, they had an elite, and some of their elite went on to become some of America’s most important historical figures. Andrew Jackson became the first Borderer president, behaving exactly as you would expect the first Borderer president to behave
Once again, socioeconomic position transmigrates into ethnic, even racial deficits because of Fischer's massive stereotyping.
The [Borderer] conception of liberty has also survived and shaped modern American politics: it seems essentially to be the modern libertarian/Republican version of freedom from government interference, especially if phrased as “get the hell off my land”, and especially especially if phrased that way through clenched teeth while pointing a shotgun at the offending party.
Again, as we have seen above, this is the exact conclusion that Fischer intended his readers to draw, based on his own political beliefs.
Although I have not read either, a better reviewed book on colonial backwoods life is Jordan and Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier: An Ethical and Ecological Interpretation (1992), and a better one the Scotch-Irish in North America is Blethen and Wood, Ulster and North America: Transatlantic Perspectives on the Scotch Irish (2001). Some of the major differences between these books and Albion's Seed include the presence of other, non-British immigrants in the backwoods, and the surprising success of many Scotch Irish at integrating with the "English" coastal elites of America. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of lengthy reviews of these books from extremely online people, so I'll have to find them myself.
In conclusion, don't trust everything you read on the Internet, even if the cited source is a widely read and well-reviewed book. Thank you and goodnight!