Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Ben Franklin on my people
Heh. I totally agree. Those are my people. There's a line of dialogue from the Cinemax show The Quarry (which I haven't seen and only just barely heard of; but I've seen this line quoted) from one of my people (from Memphis, actually) which sums up our culture, both it's strength and its weaknesses, quite well: "Oh honey, our people don't die of gunshot wounds. Our people die of alcoholism and heart disease."
David Hackett Fischer's book Albion's Seed is quite good, and I think he's really on to something with the four "folkways" or culturally discrete units that emigrated from the British Isles to America. However, I think he's most on to something with three of the four. The Puritan settling of New England is undisputed, and descendants of them, the stereotypical Yankees for the most part. While they've spread pretty far from their original haunts, including to much of the upper Midwest, the Left Coast and—in a move that isn't often recognized—the settling of much of the far Western states, especially Utah, is a development of a kind of diverse branch of Puritans, the early Mormons. While allied for many reasons with the Evangelicals and other Protestant Christians of the South much moreso than the secular and progressive New Englanders of today, their common cultural roots and common cultural attitudes are easy enough to discern, especially for someone who belongs to the religious tradition, but not the most common cultural tradition among them (that person being myself.) My mother is a descendant of these Puritan-Yankee Mormon settlers of Utah, with an Old Roots American introduction comfortably in the 1600s. But culturally, I'm a product of the family of my father, not my mother. Their strengths are quite obvious; they are highly organized, extremely industrious, and the industrial might and economic clout of America is largely build on their ambition and industry. The cost of this, of course, is that civic order is a much higher priority than individual liberty. At its more derived version, this weakness (which we're seeing a marked increase of in recent decades) devolves into a nannying, bullying, totalitarianism and tyranny, an obliteration of individualism or respect for the individual, and an acceptance—even happily—of what to me is little more than a slave life. It's no surprise that the Progressive ideology percolated here.
The second group is the formation of southern plantation culture by settlers of the gentry; cavaliers who were not due to inherit in Merry Olde England, and came here for opportunity instead, etc. While we think in particular of the more southern Gentleman type iteration of this folkway, it also encompasses the indentured servants and other lower class support system that they brought with them. This is the source of much of the lowland and coastal Deep South today, although some of this group eventually made their way into the West as well. This folkway has been in decline for many decades. It brought to us some of the most American of institutions; the Founding Fathers were to a high degree Southern Americans, and much of the compromises and anti-Federalist position that reigned in the government take-over of the Constitution itself comes from their desire to maintain federal limits. Most of the anti-Federalist intellectual movement comes from these guys: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc. were all notable examples. Of course, they were also individually quite elitist, and they laid the stage for the break-up of America 1.0 and it's transformation into the American Empire; America 2.0, following the Civil War. While they were economically very powerful as well, on an agrarian rather than industrial basis, their reliance on cheap labor was their undoing. Had there never been African slaves in America, we might yet still enjoy the fruits of America 1.0 and the kind of freedom that I, and my parents' generation, and even my grandparents' generation have never known.
The third group is my people from my father's side: the borderlanders, or Borderers. Sometimes called Scots-Irish, although that's a shorthand for a specific subset of this group; the Ulster Scots and Brits who lived in British North Ireland, it properly contains anyone who lived in the border regions between Scotland and England, and later those same borderers who were transplanted into North Ireland. The homeland of these people had been a contested frontier region for centuries; millennia, even: between the Romans and the Brythonic Celts, between the Brythons and the Gaelic invaders of Dal Riata, between the Celts and the Anglo-Saxon, who reached about this far and no farther for many years, between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, between the emerging Scottish and English nations, etc. Finally in the early 1600s, the Tudor kings ended up pacifying the region. The biggest influx of my people into America came only a few decades before the Revolutionary War began, but my family had a head-start, having come to South Carolina in the late 1600s, and making their way, as did most of my people, into the frontier highlands of Georgia, and later Tennessee, Kentucky, etc. Much of the south, and even moreso the West was populated by these folks. Texas was almost completely a colony of Tennessee borderers, for instance. They are quite distinct from the elitist Deep South cavalier plantation culture, although they picked up some ticks from them. Mostly, though, they are characterized by their own sense of honor, fair play, and individual freedom. Fractious and feisty, our weaknesses are our hot tempers, our stubbornness, our lack of communal organization, and often our lack of discipline and self-control. We tend to have little filter and no particular aversion to conflict or confrontation. On the other hand, we were more enthusiastic and committed to American independence than any other group, we pushed the frontier ever onward, and as Jim Webb alludes to in his book Born Fighting, we are in many ways the bedrock of American exceptionalism.
The fourth folkway is more defined by what it isn't than by what it is; namely, that it isn't any of the former three. Although supposedly made up of Quakers and Low Germans... and Dutch, and Huguenots and who knows what else, it's better seen in most respects as a grab bag of anyone in the Colonies who didn't fit into the above three categories very well.
Colin Woodard added a number of more groups, but they either are not descendants of the original English colonists (because they are culturally descended from French or Spanish colonists) or they are more derived descendants of one of the other groups already mentioned; i.e. his splitting of the Left Coast as a new development of Yankees rather than merely being an offshot of Yankeedom. He also makes a distinction between two groups of cavalier cultures; the more genteel "Tidewater" culture that came directly from England vs. those who came via other English colonies such as Barbados. I'm not sure I agree that that particular distinction merits taxonomic splitting myself, and the two intermingled too much to think that a strong founder effect was maintained by either.