Three books to understand the “Dark Matter” of American History

Grand theories of history often have less utility than the claims they make for themselves. Marxism is a classic example.

But that does not mean that theories of history are useless. And arguably, Marxism is a classic example in this case too. Material forces and class conflicts can’t explain all of history, but they do explain some of history. Chris Wickham’s magisterial Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 suffers from its excessive materialist and economistic thesis, but it also benefits from this perspective, because it captures part of the answer.

Moderation in all things, and due consideration to the importance of viewpoints in coloring perceptions, are the keys to comprehension in my opinion..

Today in some quarters it is fashionable to reduce all of history to the interplay between white supremacy and nonwhite peoples, who are depicted implicitly as nearly supine “noble savages,” existing in an Edenic state of nature before the intrusion of European peoples. This is a silly viewpoint from a scholarly perspective, and some of the ideological implications are ones which I object to most strongly.

And yet that begs the question, how does one understand the forces of history? In the American context, I think it is critical to understand the elementary regional folkways which congealed into these United States, and whose “cultural DNA” echoes down through the generations. Much of this is implicit and invisible culture because it is the culture of white English -speaking peoples of British provenance (though not all were Anglo, such as the French Canadians or Hispanos of the southwest).

Recently, Colin Woodward’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is the best example of this sort of work, which attempts to trace the historical dark matter the skeleton beneath the flesh. A more scholarly and narrow treatment can be found in David Hackett Fisher’s expansive Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Finally, perhaps the most underrated and overlooked offering in this genre is Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America.

While Woodward focuses on all of North America, and Fisher more narrowly on the four folkways which extend from New England to the Deep South, Phillips’ integrates an American history with a broader narrative that shows the connections to events and processes occurring in the British Isles, and in particular England. The peculiarities of New England culture and economics, and their love-hate relationship to the British elites of the late 18th and 19th century, are critical pieces of the puzzle in explaining how the United States diverged from the United Kingdom, and, how the United Kingdom diverged from the United States.

If an understanding of population genetics allows one to decompose evolution and broadly biological phenomena into tractable analytic units, so an understanding of the elementary units of American culture, and their historical antecedents, shines a whole new light upon contemporary developments.

11 thoughts on “Three books to understand the “Dark Matter” of American History

  1. another good one is “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.” I only did half of this one and skipped to the end as it was redundant after just reading Albion’s and A. Nations but I felt it was well written and pretty in depth.

  2. I’m a big fan of Albion’s Seed, and was pleased to see its typologies were in my daughter’s AP US History text book. The coverage was short, probably too short to be effective, but I think its a good framework to follow the currents of U.S. history, particularly in terms of the rise of political parties and movements.

    His follow-up, Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward movement, is also good for identifying the different groups in Virginia and their influence in westward expansion. In particular, the middling group of Virginians, neither Appalachian nor Tide-water, tend to get overlooked in their influence on the development of the Ohio River Valley, and the western (Clay) Whig culture.

  3. As descendant of the Philly-founding Quakers (my branch now secular for many generations with no conveyed memory of any practicing adherant), while growing up I received what I later came to suspect are likely stealthily persistent Quakerish family-culture behavioral/belief modalities, which, yes, especially after reading Albion’s Seed, I now perceive to have significantly influenced my outlook vis a vis the (lovably?) shambolic enterprise that is the current U.S.A. Prompted by this posting, I have a few observations (contentions?) I’d like to share with readers, later, once today’s pecuniary duties are dispensed with…Watch this space!

  4. Albion’s Seed is a uniquely bad book, at least as measured by the effect it has on Internet commenters who use it to explain every political difference in U.S. history. Scott Alexander read the book and it convinced him that the New Hampshire counties that went for Romney in 2012 had done so because a handful of Scotch-Irish settled there in the late 18th century. It makes smart people stupid.

    The real purpose of the book, I think, is to try and deny that successive waves of immigrants, Jews in particular, have changed American culture or politics in the slightest. Every immigrant group was swallowed up immediately by older English regional cultures and so there is no point in learning more about them. The Scotch Irish/Puritan dichotomy is the master key of U.S. history.

  5. It makes smart people stupid.

    like you? your comment is pretty stupid IMO. but what do i know?

    no book should be measured by the stupidity or ignorance of those who read it. otherwise all books would be bad.

    jews were not a major factor in american political life until after ww2, when they turned away from their alliance with catholics toward one where they aligned culturally with upper class WASPs (see *catholicism and american freedom* by mcgreevy).

  6. I’m not measuring the book by the stupidity or ignorance of the people who choose to read it in the first place; Scott Alexander is not stupid. I’m saying that those who do end with a less accurate picture of American political divisions than if they had read nothing at all. These misunderstandings are encouraged by Fischer, who never bothers to tell his readers that the descendants of Puritans are a small minority of today’s New Englanders or that the Scotch-Irish were never 20% of the population of any U.S. state.

    If you only read one book on the ethnocultural basis of voting in the US it should be this one:

    “jews were not a major factor in american political life until after ww2, when they turned away from their alliance with catholics toward one where they aligned culturally with upper class WASPs (see *catholicism and american freedom* by mcgreevy)”

    This is sort of a non-sequitur to the general point of immigrant influence on the US, but it’s still wrong. Jews aligned culturally with upper class WASPS by voting against them in a diametrically opposite way? This is how WASP and Jewish academics were voting in 1968:

    In 1949 the Boston Social Register sent out a survey to Brahmin ladies in the city and 81 percent of them identified as Republican.

  7. In terms of empirical basis, Fisher’s book faces many problems, e.g. the areas of America with the highest quantity of Scots-Irish settlement by percentage are in the Northeast, New England and Yankeedom of all places. Comparatively Appalachia is in no way especially Scots-Irish… We have actual figures for immigrant rates and all.

    The thing is cultural transmission is affected by institutional background, e.g. % Scots-Irish only correlates with homicide rates in the South, not the North, and the correlation also disappears in counties with high increases in urbanisation, in towns with early incorporation, early appearance of town newspapers, etc.

    Likewise presence of medieval Jewish pogroms in German towns only predicts increased % voting Nazi and increased Jewish deportation in towns that stayed relatively small or isolated from trade. Institutional factors matter for Fisherian cultural geography, which cannot be just the total number of genealogical contributions from people of each folkway.

  8. The Scot-Irish aspect gets overplayed because of the recent political aspects of working class whites leaving the Democratic party.

    But Fischer doesn’t discuss Scots-Irish specifically, he categorizes a population surge from Northern England, the Scottish lowlands and Ulster Ireland in the mid 18th century, long after other groups had established cultural hegemony, major cities and institutions. These North Britons (the term I think he mostly uses) arrive and head to the backcountry (or were pushed there). Many Germany Palantines would join and be assimilated to the mixture of British Border and American Frontier culture.

  9. I have long felt that one of the single most useful books that could possibly be published would be an Albion’s Seed dive into Chinese culture, demographics, and history.

  10. Jews aligned culturally with upper class WASPS by voting against them in a diametrically opposite way? This is how WASP and Jewish academics were voting in 1968:

    i am aware new england wasps remained republican for a long time. but they were never cultural conservatives in the post ww2 era. the cultural alignment of parties dates to the 1970s and later, at which point upper class whites in new england became less republican.

  11. I perceive from my Quaker inheritance a disdain for any notion of automatic obeisance or fealty. Crucially, this includes disdain for tribal identity. There is ultimately no recourse to tribe. One never allows oneself to be made prostrate to tribal demand. There is only the individual quietly beseeching for an understanding of what’s the most humble peaceful way forward in the face of each and every exigency.

    It’s a ton of work, to be constantly phoning home to one’s conscience at all times, at every pass, at every moment, and then to issue a mild, well-considered behavior. This is why there’s basically no Quakers left. It’s no fun. It’s all a huge hormone-suppression regimen. You don’t get to be reflexively angry and sexy and flamboyantly hypocritical like rednecks and dancers and musicians. You don’t then get to be a drama queen who has to wear sack-cloth and ashes for consequent displays of dramatic episodic self-hatred. No, your flamboyance must consist of quietly wearing the clean grey wool of your own inner conscience.

    This belief in the power and rightness of quiet, meditative, non-tribal self-regulation became centrally codified into America’s ideals: Hackett: “In respect to liberty of conscience, trial by jury, the rights of property, the rule of representation, and race slavery, Quakers genuinely believed that every liberty demanded for oneself should also be extended to others.”

    But, it seems that, reverting to the human mean, hormone-driven baboonery is winning the day. Angry non-thinking seems to be increasingly ascendant. The crucial 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments are being alarmingly diminished. One can’t help but fear that the Quaker-American “Liberty and Justice for All” project is probably toast.

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