Folkways & Atlantic History

Atlantic HistoryFew ‘paradigms’ have so full conquered historical thinking as “Atlantic History” has conquered the study of the colonization of North and South America. Perhaps “colonization” is the wrong word to use for what historians of Atlantic History are trying to describe. Venerable historian Bernard Bailyn describes Atlantic History as “not the aggregate of several national histories, but something shared by and encompassing them all.”[1] Beyond this, Atlantic history is fundamentally about exchange – of peoples, of culture, of disease.

As Bailyn notes, Atlantic History is not just a series of national histories. This Atlantic exchange was not a one-way street between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Worlds. Thus Atlantic History shows how ideas, animals, people, and foodstuffs moved back and forth across the Atlantic; connecting Europe, the Americas, and Africa in a dynamic way – with each journey changing the traveler. Finally, Atlantic history challenges traditional chronology and forces historians to think over larger spaces of time. It is clear that Atlantic History ‘began’ with the Spanish invasions of the Americas, but when does it end? With the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century? With the end of the slave trade in the nineteenth century? Bailyn notes that the Atlantic exchanges became “part of a global world system” in the nineteenth century.[2] Yet, historian Daniel Rodgers has identified distinctly ‘Atlantic’ exchanges of ideas about political democracy into the early twentieth century.[3] This chronological slipperiness is both a great strength and possible fatal flaw for Atlantic History as a framework – for it allows historians to reveal connections that strict adherence to traditional chorological and geographic categories can obscure, while always threatening to become such a defuse idea that it means everything and thus nothing.

Thus we have the defining characteristics of Atlantic History: “networks” of back-and-forth exchange, which fundamentally reshaped every society on the Altantic. Thus, in the words of German historian Horst Pietschmann, Atlantic History is the “connecting element between European, North American, Caribbean, Latin America, and West African history.”[4] Two striking examples of Bernard Bailyn’s bare this out: the exchange of ideas about freedom during the age of democratic revolutions and the trade in African slaves.

The ideas of ‘freedom’, which helped power the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Latin American independence movements, had their origins in the Neo-Classical thinkers from the Renaissance. These ideas diffused into Enlightenment thinkers of Britain and France, such as the ‘Commonwealth’ men of late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries and the philosophes of France. From Europe, this discourse flowed to British North America where it helped justify the American Revolution and the new American republic. These then washed back across the Atlantic to France and its revolution. These ideas then returned, again, to the Americas in the Haitian and Latin American revolutions. In Bailyn’s words “[t]he flow of ideas… permeated the Atlantic communities” and “[i]t is perhaps not strange that the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, which had been inspired by Virginia’s bill of rights, swept through the Western world and everywhere heightened reform aspirations.” Republicanism and revolution flowed back and forth across the Atlantic, with each wave shaped by the last and influencing the next.[5]

The story of the Atlantic slave trade provides horrific counterpart to this happy story of freedom’s spread. As Bailyn puts it the “Atlantic world can be conceived of as, in effect, an immensely complex and regionally differentiated Euro-Afro-American labor system” where “from Africa that by far the largest number of workers were drawn.” Slavery devastated and reshaped West African and provided the labor force and fueled the economies of British North America, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Even Atlantic societies that did not see the large-scale importation of African slaves were influenced by and, often, took part in the trade – as providers of ships, supplies, and credit.[6] For example the wealth derived from the slave trade helped power the early British industrial revolution.

On the surface, David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed is an example of Atlantic history. Fischer traces four groups of Britons – Cavaliers, Puritans, “backcountry”, and Quakers – who immigrated to British North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and brought their “folkways” with them.[7] Like works of Atlantic History, Fischer’s Albion’s Seed chronicles the movement of peoples across the Atlantic, challenges traditional chronological boundaries, and focuses on the ‘longue durée’. An example of this focus on the ‘longue durée’ is how Fischer argues that Virginian ideas about slavery are drawn from slavery in the south of England as introduced by the Danes in the medieval period.[8] Yet, when one moves beyond the surface, Fischer’s work is in many ways the opposite of Atlantic History and provides a challenge to its framework.

Albion’s Seed is missing two elements of Atlantic History, as outlined above. Fischer’s story is one of transplantation, not change and exchange as in Atlantic History. As Gordon Wood notes, Fischer is stressing “continuity” in history with Albion’s Seed.[9] Fischer argues that whatever modern Americans’ ethnic origins “in a cultural sense most Americans are Albion’s seed.”[10] For Fischer, whatever changes wrought by the journey across the Atlantic or the effect new American landscape had on the culture these Britons brought with them was minimal and their “folkways” endured strongly overtime. In Fischer’s telling the each group of British immigrants were culturally coherent people. Unlike in Atlantic History, there is no room for multiple origins in Fischer’s argument. For Fischer, there isn’t even room for other Britons to influence these groups. Each set of “folkways” is a closed cultural system with a specific geographic origin that transplanted itself nearly wholesale in America.

An example of this is Fischer’s telling of the Puritan migration. In his argument, the story of the great Puritan migration (1629-1675) is one of a comprehensive transplantation of East Anglican culture to Massachusetts Bay. Although some Puritans came from other parts of England, they “did not long remain in the Bay Colony.”[11] Thus the East Anglicans were able to recreate a new East Anglia in Massachusetts. Fischer makes a similar argument about the Chesapeake and its Cavalier ‘founders’. In a telling anecdote, Fischer notes that as a “historian who was born and raised in Maryland” he “feels strangely at home when walking the country lanes of south-western England.”[12] The story of Albion’s Seed is not one of a new society formed out the exchange between Europe, the Americas, and African. Fischer is, instead, describing a old European society reforming itself almost wholesale.

The presence of Native Americans or the importation of African slaves does not affect Fischer’s story. Indians do not affect the fate of these British “folkways” in America. When mentioned by Fischer they exist in the margins of the narrative. Slavery is treated the same way, even for Fischer’s discussion of Virginia and the Chesapeake. For Fischer, “slavery did not create the culture of the tidewater Virginia; that culture created slavery.”[13] Non-Europeans, actually all non-Britons, are a non-entity in the cultural development of British North America in Fischer’s telling. The contrast with Atlantic History could not be starker.

The sort of understanding of the transatlantic nature of ideas about freedom, as described by Bailyn, is not present in Fischer’s understanding of the origin of American ideology. Instead each group – Quaker, backcountry, Puritan, or Cavalier – had a distinct its own “freedom way,” which “preserves its separate existence in the United States” through to today.[14] There is no flowing back and forth over the ocean with the American Revolution influencing the French and the French influencing Latin American revolutionaries, as in Bailyn’s telling, but instead four distinctly and sometimes opposed notions of freedom with origins in the social and cultural arrangements of four particular areas of the British Isles. The freedom that Fischer is describing is not transnational or transatlantic but fundamentally British and thus later American. Again, the contrast with Bailyn’s Atlantic perspective could not be starker.

Put bluntly, for Atlantic Historians the development of American culture was a swirl of influences creating a new society; for Fischer it was a straight line of an old culture reproducing itself in a new guise. The cultural systems described by Fischer are fundamentally closed. Each set of “folkways” has its own separate history and origin, in the South of England or East Anglia. The role of other Britons, much less other Europeans or non-Europeans, in the development of each system is minimal. The cultural systems described by Atlantic History are fundamentally open. Each society along the Atlantic was influenced by the other through trade, cultural collision, migration, and labor exploitation. Influences were multiple and diverse. Thus fundamentally, Albion’s Seed is not Atlantic History, but something that it is very much its opposite.

Looked at starkly, the sort of histories presented by Bailyn and other historians schooled in Atlantic History are superior to Fischer’s recast “germ theory.”[15] There is far more room for the sort of changes created by the collision of so many cultures – Native American, European, and African – over so much time and space. There is simply more room for diversity – reflecting the diversity of our own day and that of the past – in a ocean-wide viewpoint than in a framework that seeks out narrow particulars to explain a multifaceted society.

However, Fischer’s prospective provides a critique of Atlantic History that historians should learn from. Models that stress change and exchange – such as Atlantic History – often over look the sort of continuities stressed by Fischer. Despite all of the change overtime, many practices and experiences do persevere in a variety of forms throughout human experience – someone being glib could mention death and taxes, someone being a bit more serious could mention patriarchy and other forms of exploitation. Fischer’s understanding of continuity in history is, perhaps, at once too overreaching (did these four “freedom ways” really persevere so fully over American history?) and too constrained (it is really so easy to locate, almost to the zip code, the origins of American culture?) but Fischer is wise to be sensitive to such continuities, whatever the deep flaws in Albion’s Seed are. The best of sort of historical framework is one that masters the creative tension between the sort of continuity that Fischer is so sensitive to and the diversity of the origins and influences that Atlantic History stresses.


[1] Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press, 2005), 111.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[4] Bailyn quotes Pietschmann in: Bailyn, Atlantic History, 59.

[5] Bailyn discusses this ‘flow of ideas’ in: Ibid, 101- 111. The quotes are on 107.

[6] Bailyn discusses the slave trade in: Ibid, 89-95. The quotes are on 92-93 and 94.

[7] Because of the assigned class readings this paper will focus mostly on Fischer’s discussion of the Puritan and Cavalier “folkways”. See: David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folks in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 3-418

[8] Ibid, 241-243.

[9] Gordon Wood, “Continuity in History,” in The Purpose of the Past: Reflections of the Uses of History, 73-84 (New York: Penguin Press, 2008).

[10] Fischer, Albion’s Seed, 6.

[11] Fischer describes the demographic origins of Massachusetts in: Ibid, 25-36. The quote is on 34.

[12] Ibid, 246.

[13] Ibid, 256. To be fair to Fischer, he states that his full discussion of slavery will be found in his second volume, American Plantation. This volume has yet to appear.

[14] For Fischer’s description of how these four “freedom ways” persevered over time and maintained separate identities see: Ibid, 783-898 esp. 897-898. The quote is on 898.

[15] For Fischer’s defense of the “germ theory” see: Ibid, 5.

Few ‘paradigms’ have so full conquered historical thinking as “Atlantic History” has conquered the study of the colonization of North and South America. Perhaps “colonization” is the wrong word to use for what historians of Atlantic History are trying to describe. Venerable historian Bernard Bailyn describes Atlantic History as “not the aggregate of several national histories, but something shared by and encompassing them all.”[1] Beyond this, Atlantic history is fundamentally about exchange – of peoples, of culture, of disease.

As Bailyn notes, Atlantic History is not just a series of national histories. This Atlantic exchange was not a one-way street between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Worlds. Thus Atlantic History shows how ideas, animals, people, and foodstuffs moved back and forth across the Atlantic; connecting Europe, the Americas, and Africa in a dynamic way – with each journey changing the traveler. Finally, Atlantic history challenges traditional chronology and forces historians to think over larger spaces of time. It is clear that Atlantic History ‘began’ with the Spanish invasions of the Americas, but when does it end? With the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century? With the end of the slave trade in the nineteenth century? Bailyn notes that the Atlantic exchanges became “part of a global world system” in the nineteenth century.[2] Yet, historian Daniel Rodgers has identified distinctly ‘Atlantic’ exchanges of ideas about political democracy into the early twentieth century.[3] This chronological slipperiness is both a great strength and possible fatal flaw for Atlantic History as a framework – for it allows historians to reveal connections that strict adherence to traditional chorological and geographic categories can obscure, while always threatening to become such a defuse idea that it means everything and thus nothing.

Thus we have the defining characteristics of Atlantic History: “networks” of back-and-forth exchange, which fundamentally reshaped every society on the Altantic. Thus, in the words of German historian Horst Pietschmann, Atlantic History is the “connecting element between European, North American, Caribbean, Latin America, and West African history.”[4] Two striking examples of Bernard Bailyn’s bare this out: the exchange of ideas about freedom during the age of democratic revolutions and the trade in African slaves.

The ideas of ‘freedom’, which helped power the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Latin American independence movements, had their origins in the Neo-Classical thinkers from the Renaissance. These ideas diffused into Enlightenment thinkers of Britain and France, such as the ‘Commonwealth’ men of late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries and the philosophes of France. From Europe, this discourse flowed to British North America where it helped justify the American Revolution and the new American republic. These then washed back across the Atlantic to France and its revolution. These ideas then returned, again, to the Americas in the Haitian and Latin American revolutions. In Bailyn’s words “[t]he flow of ideas… permeated the Atlantic communities” and “[i]t is perhaps not strange that the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, which had been inspired by Virginia’s bill of rights, swept through the Western world and everywhere heightened reform aspirations.” Republicanism and revolution flowed back and forth across the Atlantic, with each wave shaped by the last and influencing the next.[5]

The story of the Atlantic slave trade provides horrific counterpart to this happy story of freedom’s spread. As Bailyn puts it the “Atlantic world can be conceived of as, in effect, an immensely complex and regionally differentiated Euro-Afro-American labor system” where “from Africa that by far the largest number of workers were drawn.” Slavery devastated and reshaped West African and provided the labor force and fueled the economies of British North America, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Even Atlantic societies that did not see the large-scale importation of African slaves were influenced by and, often, took part in the trade – as providers of ships, supplies, and credit.[6] For example the wealth derived from the slave trade helped power the early British industrial revolution.

On the surface, David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed is an example of Atlantic history. Fischer traces four groups of Britons – Cavaliers, Puritans, “backcountry”, and Quakers – who immigrated to British North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and brought their “folkways” with them.[7] Like works of Atlantic History, Fischer’s Albion’s Seed chronicles the movement of peoples across the Atlantic, challenges traditional chronological boundaries, and focuses on the ‘longue durée’. An example of this focus on the ‘longue durée’ is how Fischer argues that Virginian ideas about slavery are drawn from slavery in the south of England as introduced by the Danes in the medieval period.[8] Yet, when one moves beyond the surface, Fischer’s work is in many ways the opposite of Atlantic History and provides a challenge to its framework.

Albion’s Seed is missing two elements of Atlantic History, as outlined above. Fischer’s story is one of transplantation, not change and exchange as in Atlantic History. As Gordon Wood notes, Fischer is stressing “continuity” in history with Albion’s Seed.[9] Fischer argues that whatever modern Americans’ ethnic origins “in a cultural sense most Americans are Albion’s seed.”[10] For Fischer, whatever changes wrought by the journey across the Atlantic or the effect new American landscape had on the culture these Britons brought with them was minimal and their “folkways” endured strongly overtime. In Fischer’s telling the each group of British immigrants were culturally coherent people. Unlike in Atlantic History, there is no room for multiple origins in Fischer’s argument. For Fischer, there isn’t even room for other Britons to influence these groups. Each set of “folkways” is a closed cultural system with a specific geographic origin that transplanted itself nearly wholesale in America.

An example of this is Fischer’s telling of the Puritan migration. In his argument, the story of the great Puritan migration (1629-1675) is one of a comprehensive transplantation of East Anglican culture to Massachusetts Bay. Although some Puritans came from other parts of England, they “did not long remain in the Bay Colony.”[11] Thus the East Anglicans were able to recreate a new East Anglia in Massachusetts. Fischer makes a similar argument about the Chesapeake and its Cavalier ‘founders’. In a telling anecdote, Fischer notes that as a “historian who was born and raised in Maryland” he “feels strangely at home when walking the country lanes of south-western England.”[12] The story of Albion’s Seed is not one of a new society formed out the exchange between Europe, the Americas, and African. Fischer is, instead, describing a old European society reforming itself almost wholesale.

The presence of Native Americans or the importation of African slaves does not affect Fischer’s story. Indians do not affect the fate of these British “folkways” in America. When mentioned by Fischer they exist in the margins of the narrative. Slavery is treated the same way, even for Fischer’s discussion of Virginia and the Chesapeake. For Fischer, “slavery did not create the culture of the tidewater Virginia; that culture created slavery.”[13] Non-Europeans, actually all non-Britons, are a non-entity in the cultural development of British North America in Fischer’s telling. The contrast with Atlantic History could not be starker.

The sort of understanding of the transatlantic nature of ideas about freedom, as described by Bailyn, is not present in Fischer’s understanding of the origin of American ideology. Instead each group – Quaker, backcountry, Puritan, or Cavalier – had a distinct its own “freedom way,” which “preserves its separate existence in the United States” through to today.[14] There is no flowing back and forth over the ocean with the American Revolution influencing the French and the French influencing Latin American revolutionaries, as in Bailyn’s telling, but instead four distinctly and sometimes opposed notions of freedom with origins in the social and cultural arrangements of four particular areas of the British Isles. The freedom that Fischer is describing is not transnational or transatlantic but fundamentally British and thus later American. Again, the contrast with Bailyn’s Atlantic perspective could not be starker.

Put bluntly, for Atlantic Historians the development of American culture was a swirl of influences creating a new society; for Fischer it was a straight line of an old culture reproducing itself in a new guise. The cultural systems described by Fischer are fundamentally closed. Each set of “folkways” has its own separate history and origin, in the South of England or East Anglia. The role of other Britons, much less other Europeans or non-Europeans, in the development of each system is minimal. The cultural systems described by Atlantic History are fundamentally open. Each society along the Atlantic was influenced by the other through trade, cultural collision, migration, and labor exploitation. Influences were multiple and diverse. Thus fundamentally, Albion’s Seed is not Atlantic History, but something that it is very much its opposite.

Looked at starkly, the sort of histories presented by Bailyn and other historians schooled in Atlantic History are superior to Fischer’s recast “germ theory.”[15] There is far more room for the sort of changes created by the collision of so many cultures – Native American, European, and African – over so much time and space. There is simply more room for diversity – reflecting the diversity of our own day and that of the past – in a ocean-wide viewpoint than in a framework that seeks out narrow particulars to explain a multifaceted society.

However, Fischer’s prospective provides a critique of Atlantic History that historians should learn from. Models that stress change and exchange – such as Atlantic History – often over look the sort of continuities stressed by Fischer. Despite all of the change overtime, many practices and experiences do persevere in a variety of forms throughout human experience – someone being glib could mention death and taxes, someone being a bit more serious could mention patriarchy and other forms of exploitation. Fischer’s understanding of continuity in history is, perhaps, at once too overreaching (did these four “freedom ways” really persevere so fully over American history?) and too constrained (it is really so easy to locate, almost to the zip code, the origins of American culture?) but Fischer is wise to be sensitive to such continuities, whatever the deep flaws in Albion’s Seed are. The best of sort of historical framework is one that masters the creative tension between the sort of continuity that Fischer is so sensitive to and the diversity of the origins and influences that Atlantic History stresses.


[1] Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press, 2005), 111.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[4] Bailyn quotes Pietschmann in: Bailyn, Atlantic History, 59.

[5] Bailyn discusses this ‘flow of ideas’ in: Ibid, 101- 111. The quotes are on 107.

[6] Bailyn discusses the slave trade in: Ibid, 89-95. The quotes are on 92-93 and 94.

[7] Because of the assigned class readings this paper will focus mostly on Fischer’s discussion of the Puritan and Cavalier “folkways”. See: David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folks in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 3-418

[8] Ibid, 241-243.

[9] Gordon Wood, “Continuity in History,” in The Purpose of the Past: Reflections of the Uses of History, 73-84 (New York: Penguin Press, 2008).

[10] Fischer, Albion’s Seed, 6.

[11] Fischer describes the demographic origins of Massachusetts in: Ibid, 25-36. The quote is on 34.

[12] Ibid, 246.

[13] Ibid, 256. To be fair to Fischer, he states that his full discussion of slavery will be found in his second volume, American Plantation. This volume has yet to appear.

[14] For Fischer’s description of how these four “freedom ways” persevered over time and maintained separate identities see: Ibid, 783-898 esp. 897-898. The quote is on 898.

[15] For Fischer’s defense of the “germ theory” see: Ibid, 5.

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Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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