June 15, 2022
At age 86, David Hackett Fischer, author of the landmark 1989 book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (which is perhaps the most influential work of American history in the last third of a century), has returned to try to apply his magnum opus’ method to African Americans in African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals.
In Albion’s Seed, Fischer offered a framework for how to think about the first three centuries of American history. Most early migrants to the United States from the island shared by England, Wales, and Scotland, which ancient Greek geographers called “Albion,” can be divided into four groups:
In the first half of the 17th century, about 20,000 Puritans moved to New England to found a progressive utopia where everything not forbidden was mandatory. From there they spread out across the northern latitudes of the United States, with Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco as the ultimate post-Puritan progressive outposts.
In the middle of the 17th century, while the leftist Puritans were temporarily on top in English politics, rightist Cavaliers migrated from England to Virginia to more or less reproduce the English class structure in their own conservative utopia. Moving out from the Chesapeake Bay, their descendants populated the lowland South.
In the late 17th century, William Penn set up Pennsylvania as a moderate utopia for his fellow Quakers, and invited Continental Europeans of similar religious values. From there they dispersed across the upper middle latitudes of the United States, with Southern California as the eventual end of the line for the Midlanders.
Finally, from 1715 to 1775, the Scots-Irish from the violent border region of England and Scotland, often with a stop in Northern Ireland, headed for the American frontier. They preferred healthy if hardscrabble highlands like the Appalachians and Ozarks to the richer but more fever-ridden lowlands. They established an ornery utopia of minimal government, from which, once your neighbors started to get on your nerves, you’d light out for the latest frontier.
Over time, non-British immigrants tended to flock to the regions where the British groups with whom they had the most in common had set their impress. For instance, Scandinavians followed Puritans to Minnesota, while Germans and Dutch tended to go to the middle Midwest where Pennsylvania was the role model.
A 2017 study of the DNA of 770,000 Americans largely confirmed Fischer’s framework, although while he’d lumped all the Scots-Irish together, the geneticists preferred to split them into northern and southern groups.
Albion’s Seed goes into extraordinary detail to compare and contrast the customs and ideologies of the four British-American groups. (Scott Alexander offers an amusing synopsis of Fischer’s findings here.)
Albion’s Seed is relevant to 21st-century politics, with the Greater Virginians and the Scots-Irish forming the core of the Republican Party, while the post-Puritans are the main WASP branch of the Democratic Party, with the Midlanders more up for grabs.
Fischer describes himself as a “whig historian.” In the tradition of Thomas Babington Macaulay, he’s something of a chauvinist and optimist about his country.
Once you get the hang of Albion’s Seed, it’s easy to see Fischer’s scaffolding everywhere. Still, let me point out that somebody as clearly American as Donald Trump doesn’t fit well into Fischer’s ethnic scheme.
(1) Trump is a native of New York City, and Albion’s Seed is pretty much American History With New York Left Out, which is a big hole. One excuse for the recent Hamilton mania on Broadway was that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s New York City-centric musical about Hamilton and Burr served as a counterbalance to the dominance of Fischer’s model in recent decades.
(2) Trump’s mother was a Scottish Highlander, who are very different from the Scots-Irish Borderers featured in Albion’s Seed.
(3) Trump’s father was German, but Fischer is not much interested in the cultural impact of the vast German migration on so much of American life, such as the fast-food hamburgers Trump is always eating.
And that’s not even to mention non-Protestants like Irish Catholics, Italians, Jews, and blacks.
In his new book African Founders, Fischer attempts to apply his famous Albion’s Seed methodology to African Americans by tracking the black populations of different American colonies back to their African tribal homelands.
This is an exciting ambition because Americans, white and black, tend to think of blacks as a largely homogeneous people with no history before 1619.
In contrast, West Indians maintained awareness of their tribal roots much longer than did American blacks. When African American novelist Zora Neale Hurston visited the Caribbean in the 1920s while studying anthropology under Franz Boas, the locals were always telling her things like: Well, of course, my neighbor acts like that: He’s a Yoruban, so what can you expect?
Similarly, PBS correspondent Robert MacNeil reported that the residents of Barbados, the West Indian island closest to Africa, believe that the reason Barbadian culture is famously more genteel than that of Jamaicans is because of selection:
[Barbados] was the first main port of call for the slave ships. It is said that unruly slaves from the least domesticated tribes were progressively shipped up the “claw” of the West Indies until they reached Jamaica. In any case, the Barbadians—or Bajans as they are sometimes known—still have a reputation for well-spoken respectability….
So the idea of Fischer writing, in effect, The 1618 Project was alluring. It would be fascinating to be able to detect hitherto unnoticed regional variations in African Americans due to their tribal origins. After all, we are constantly told—although I don’t notice Fischer saying this—that Africans have far more genetic diversity than any other race.
On the other hand, the fact that Americans largely hadn’t noticed much in the way of regional differences in African Americans that relate to their diverse African origins suggests that this project might be harder than it sounded when Fischer started working on it in the 1990s.
Fischer doesn’t use genomic evidence, stating African data is still “sparse.” But in recent decades, huge written databases documenting the Atlantic slave trade have been assembled. For most slave trade voyages during the legal era of the slave trade up to 1808, we now have reasonably reliable data on which ports on the Atlantic coast of Africa were visited to buy prisoners of war from black slavers, as well as some information on the ethnicity and/or language of the unfortunates. (The ports at which the captives were sold to whites were often far from where they were captured, because black slave traders would march new prisoners vast distances to make them less likely to try to escape and return home.)
New World customers tended to have strong opinions on which tribes they preferred. But, strikingly, they didn’t seem to agree much.
Consider the Igbo (a.k.a. Ibo or Biafrans), who average the highest scores on the national Nigerian college admission test and tend to now dominate black organizations on elite campuses. One Twitter wit riffed on the joke that got Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel suspended for retweeting—“Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual”—with “Every black Ivy League student is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s biracial or Biafran.”
But Biafrans in centuries past tended to get kicked around by other tribes. (Their enthusiastic embrace of English learning in the 20th century was perhaps a response to their lack of political power relative to neighboring tribes.) So, there were often a lot of Igbos on the market (although keep in mind that the supply on sale in African ports was constantly fluctuating depending upon who happened to be conquering whom lately far inland where virtually no white men had ever been).
In America, both the New York Dutch and South Carolinians refused to waste their money on Igbos. But the Chesapeake Bay planters of Virginia and Maryland thought they were just fine, and thus a huge fraction of slaves in those states were descended from Igbos.
It would be intriguing if cultural or behavioral differences in the contemporary African-American populations of, say, Virginia versus South Carolina could be traced back to differing views of owners 300 years ago on the Igbo Question.
But Fischer largely isn’t able to correlate African tribal origins to modern differences. Why not?
One reason is because few regions of the U.S. had black populations drawn only from one part of Africa. For example, the famous Afro-English Gullah dialect or language still spoken on the Sea Islands of South Carolina draws most from the Congo and Angola, but also substantially from Sierra Leone far to the northwest.
Fischer praises the African knack for learning new languages. I can recall similarly theorizing in 1981 to a diplomat that Africans tended to be unusually multilingual. The expert dismissed my amateur observation, but Fischer comes down on my side.
He points out that blacks and mulattoes played an outsize role in opening up Indian territory to trade, citing Jan Rodrigues, a half-black adventurer who in 1613 was the first non-Indian to open a trading post on Manhattan. I’d add that the first non-Indian in Chicago was black fur-trapper Jean du Sable, while the expedition the king of Spain sent to found Los Angeles in 1781 was much blacker than the current population of Mexico. Probably their oral skills (which I’m guessing stem in part from black talkativeness) played a role in them learning how to haggle productively with local Indians.
So, it wasn’t crucial to planters to only acquire Africans who spoke the same language because different tribes could be counted on to rapidly work out a pidgin followed by a creole language.
Hence, by the end of the legal slave trade in 1808, most African American populations were blends of different ethnicities.
Also, African Americans haven’t stayed put all that much, moving west in the 19th century with the opening of the cotton belt, moving north in the 20th century Great Migration, and so forth.
Moreover, there’s not really all that much in the way of regional differences among African Americans, although I’ve long been on the lookout for them. For instance, I’ve been widely denounced for pointing out in 2005 that the high murder rate in New Orleans suggests that the local culture of “Laissez les bon temps rouler” is less than optimal for blacks. Fischer likewise notes:
In 2016 [Louisiana] ranked first for murders among fifty American states, as it had done for twenty-eight years in a row. This tradition of corruption, crime, and violence has spanned three centuries in Louisiana, from its founding flibustiers in 1699 to its new-modeled freebooters in our time.
But that’s a rare critical assessment in African Founders. Fischer typically follows the safe rule that if you can’t think of anything nice to say about blacks, then don’t say anything at all. This makes it hard for him to compare and contrast different groups of Africans. In contrast, Scott Alexander pointed out how hilarious his caricatures of the four types of British-Americans could be.
But, in general, regional differences among blacks aren’t all that strong in modern America. For example, blacks tend to be steadfast Democrats in virtually every state.
My impression is that the size of the black impact on local American culture correlates more with the sheer quantity of blacks than with any peculiar qualities they brought. For example, the African influence on cuisine in South Carolina or Louisiana is greater than in Massachusetts not because the semitropical states got better cooks from Africa but because they got more of them.
Also, perhaps the parts of Africa from which American slaves were drawn aren’t really as genetically and culturally diverse as people these days like to say they are. Senegal to Angola is a vast expanse, but it’s largely populated either by West Africans (who are described by an authority Fischer cites as “culturally homogeneous”) or by the Bantu Expansion from the eastern edge of West Africa.
Fischer is always on the lookout for interesting African diversity. For example, he cites two literate Muslim black aristocrats who, due to the fortunes of war, wound up as friends in the Sea Islands with both managing hundreds of other slaves every summer when their masters would flee tropical fevers for the cooler North.
One, Bilali Mahomet, was a Fulani who wrote a treatise in Arabic on Islamic law, always wore a fez, kept a harem, and was famous for his commanding presence and arrogant manner. He once wrote to his owner, “I will answer for every negro of the true faith, but not for these Christian dogs of yours.”
In African Founders, the dog, whether Islamic or infidel, who doesn’t bark is the lack of examples of American slaves coming from the most diverse populations of sub-Saharan Africa. Fischer mentions a tiny sprinkling of “Malagasy negroes” from Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, but I don’t believe he ever cites any American slaves of Pygmy, Bushman, Hottentot, or even Nilotic descent.
A learned 1896 article in Popular Science asserted that there were hidden villages in the forests of the American South still populated by Pygmies who’d escaped from slavery. I like to think that’s true, but I’ve never seen any other evidence for Pygmies in America from the last 125 years.
Among mainstream sub-Saharans from the western half of the continent, basically every large tribe was an iron age agricultural civilization growing food with hoes rather than with plows like in Eurasia. The main exceptions were herding tribes like the Fulani.
One interesting chapter in African Founders is devoted to Fischer’s hunch that Fulani culture influenced the famous cowboys of Texas. He’s found some references to 18th-century South Carolina cattlemen specifying they want to buy Fulani slaves for their skill with cows. But he can’t undermine the traditional interpretation that the essence of Texas cowboy culture came from Spain through Mexico: Vaqueros herded cattle on horseback with ropes, while the Fulani tended their herds on foot using sticks. (The British, by the way, instead bred specialized dogs, like bulldogs and border collies, to deal with livestock.)
So, Fischer is forced to fall back on a hazier assertion: that the Fulani mastery of the art of livestock psychology, the bovine equivalent of “horse-whispering,” was passed down over the generations to black cowboys in Texas after the Civil War. To support this claim, he musters fascinating vignettes about the uncanny skills of several famous black cowboys such as Robert Lemmons (1848–1947), who could cajole a herd of wild mustangs to follow him into a corral through force of personality.
Overall, I get the impression that Fischer eventually decided that, for whatever reason, his ambition of pulling off a second Albion’s Seed wasn’t going to happen. So, African Founders winds up packed instead with interesting and encouraging human interest anecdotes about Americans whom the great patriotic historian admires for their achievements despite adversity.
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