Albion’s Seed

I first saw reference to David Hacket Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America in a post on DailyKos by Dana Houle that made reference to some of the maps that I had made of the Democratic primary election that was underway in concert with Fischer’s work to explain a particular pattern of results in Appalachia.

In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary election, what started as a three-way race between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards quickly became a protracted campaign battle between the first two candidates.  While there were momentum shifts, the race was pretty steady.  Thanks to the persistence of the Clinton campaign until the very end, I was able to make a map of the results at the county level that showed a broad pattern that cut across state lines rather than ending at them:

Democratic Primary map (RGB)

This exposed a region of anomalously strong Clinton support (shown in red as opposed to Obama’s blue†) in Appalachia.  Houle argued that this trend resulted from the unique subculture that came to settle that region early in America’s history, as laid out in Fischer’s Albion’s Seed.  Since then, I have seen the book referenced several times by a variety of sources.  However, I didn’t get around to reading it myself until this year.

Two of the most striking themes of Albion’s Seed are its narratives of regionalism and continuity.  The book argues that American culture (or perhaps more properly, cultures) has (have) been shaped in a large part by four great migrations from the British Isles prior to American independence.  The source of these migrations is nicely summed up in the book’s table of contents:

The Exodus of the English Puritans 1629-42

Distressed Cavaliers and Indentured Servants 1642-75

The Friend’s Migration 1675-1725

The Flight from North Britain 1717-1775

The migration most pertinent to Houle’s point was the fourth one, which settled the highlands inland from the east coast, which we now call Appalachia.  However, I found that the book covered the cultures of all four migrations and their cultural contribution to modern America with great richness and detail, also noting how the colonists saw each other and how the persistence of cultural attitudes and differences continues to shape American history and politics.

As an American myself, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in familiarity I felt with the cultures of each of the four migrations.  I’m not well-acquainted with my entire family history, but I know that my maternal grandfather traces his maternal grandfather’s family to Methodist lead miners who moved to southwestern Wisconsin from Gunnerside in northwestern Yorkshire, which is within the area that many of the Quakers who with German pietists formed the third migration listed above to the Delaware valley.

My maternal grandmother’s roots go back to a mix of Norwegians, Swedes, Germans, and British ancestors who converged on the northern tip of Wisconsin around the fishing town of Bayfield.  Both these areas were settled predominantly by settlers originating in the Delaware valley.  However, after getting married, they moved eastward to Sheboygan, which sits on Lake Michigan.

I was born in Milwaukee and when I was 6, my family moved to its current dwelling of Neenah.  These areas were settled with more of a bias toward settlers of New England origin and during my childhood in Neenah, I attended a United Church of Christ, which draws its roots in the the Puritan’s Congregationalist tradition.  Because of this, I found the descriptions of the third migration to the Delaware and to a lesser extent, the first migration to New England to have the most cultural familiarity.  I am a Northerner through and through.

Ultimately, more than just explaining political patterns and giving context for my own cultural background, I found Albion’s Seed to be a very thought-provoking account of an aspect of American history that is largely glossed over in primary and secondary education and really offers a depth of knowledge about the early cultures of America’s settlers that I have not seen elsewhere.


†The colors on the map are determined by multiple factors.  The brightness of each county is logarithmically proportional to the weight of votes per square mile (weight of votes was determined by the number of state delegates divided into each county’s contribution of votes to its state’s results) and the color is determined by the ratio of votes between the candidates such that the ratio of the hex values rr:gg:bb accords with Clinton:Edwards:Obama for each county.

I am well aware that this is a very imperfect way of displaying the results because of the nature of the human visual system.  We tend to focus on areas where a color’s hue is most intense, which makes cities like Minneapolis and Kansas City, which went overwhelmingly for Obama, look disproportionately important, and massive cities like New York and Los Angeles, where the results were more mixed look disproportionately unimportant.

Regardless, my coloration method does do a good job of emphasizing both the rural-urban and regional divides a map that merely shows vote ratios without regard to vote density does not:

Unweighted map (RGB)


About Meng Bomin

Real name Benjamin Main, I am a graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in Biological Chemistry.
This entry was posted in Politics, Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Albion’s Seed

  1. Hail says:

    Excellent work.

    The “Appalachia” storyline was one of many interesting storylines to emerge from 2008. (Another was that McCain — the most wildly pro-Hispanic Senator in history — lost the Hispanic vote by more than two to one.).

    I need not point out that the map — in states that belonged to the CSA and border states — is almost identical to a “black population by county” graph. Appalachia “stands out” less because of an Albion’s Seed storyline (which is still valid and interesting) than the fact that the great majority of Southern white Democrats supported Clinton but were outvoted (sometimes vastly outvoted) in the Lowland South by blacks.

    Nevertheless, rural Kansas has even fewer blacks but is “blue” (Obama). Why is that?

    This topic was best summed up in the instructive article: “The Race Chasm” from 2008. The authors prepared a graph showing Obama’s win/loss percentage. In sum: He won two groups of states: Those states with almost no blacks (Kansas, etc.) and those states with lots of blacks.

    It was very instructive that even white liberals (a fair label for Democratic primary voters, I’d think) with most exposure to blacks voted against Obama. Those without exposure to blacks voted for him.

    This is a running theme in U.S. sociopolitical affairs. It reminds one of the school integration efforts of the ’60s and ’70s. Our leaders implemented the crazy policy of busing-in black inner-city kids to nearby suburban white schools. Furious was “Group of whites A” : Those with kids in integrating schools. Lukewarm support came from “Group of whites B”: Those living a hundred miles or more from any black inner-city [or those paying private-school tuition, but that is another issue].

    That was well over a generation ago now. Yet the two groups were still identifiable in 2008: “A” was white Clinton voters. “B” was white Obama voters in Kansas and Idaho and so on.

  2. Meng Bomin says:

    I noticed that the graph that you linked to was a bit sparse, so I ran the data myself. Here’s a scatter plot with Obama’s margin over Clinton on the vertical axis and the percentage of a state or district’s population that is black on the horizontal axis:
    Obama-Clinton vs. state population percent black
    One can certainly see a similar pattern, though it’s not quite as clear-cut. Obviously there are some special cases that you may have good reason to exclude. The point that has a 15% black population with a 30% margin for Obama is Illinois. The state with the greatest margin for Clinton is Arkansas, which was a “home state” in that Bill Clinton had been governor there before his run for President in 1992.

    One of the states that’s interesting is West Virginia. It doesn’t fit the conjecture, since the black population is only 3.7% of the state and yet Clinton’s margin was over 40%. Edwards even managed to win 7% of the votes even though he had dropped out of the race months beforehand. Kentucky, which has a higher black population gave clinton a 35% margin. Those two states could be said to have an additional “Appalachian effect”.

    It should be noted that while Arkansas is not part of Appalachia, the parts of the state that went most heavily for Clinton share a dialect with the parts of Kentucky that went most heavily for Clinton and to reference back to Albion’s Seed, were mostly settled by those whose ancestors had migrated from the British borderlands.

  3. Hail says:

    Great work, MB.

    Tossing out the outliers as you discuss, and remembering that this dataset is necessarily foggy because different states voted at different times (early states include Edwards votes, the latest states voted after Clinton dropped out, those in the middle voted in varying political climates and not in a vacuum, e.g. in some open-primary states many Democrats voted in the Republican primaries for tactical reasons, and other factors) the trend described above holds quite firm.

    It is reasonable to conclude that Obama’s white supporters were those whites with the least experience living around blacks.

    One thing to remember about West Virginia (and to some extent Appalachia generally) is how different politics is there. In most of the rest of the USA, white social-conservatives long ago abandoned the Democrats. But in West-Virginia politics is — in some ways — where it was a century ago. The anachronistic figure Robert Byrd represented this well. In other words, in WV, a lot of people who in, say, Ohio or Oklahoma would have defected to the Republicans decades ago, are still Democrats. WV is one of the whitest states but also one of the highest in “Democrat” party-identification.

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  5. Hail says:

    Meng Bomin,
    I was reminded of this post today when I saw the etymology of ‘Cracker’

    From the entry:
    Southern U.S. derogatory term for “poor, white trash” (1766), probably from mid-15c. crack “to boast” (e.g. not what it’s cracked up to be), originally a Scottish word. Cf. L. crepare “to rattle, crack, creak,” with a secondary figurative sense of “boast of, prattle, make ado about.”

    I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode. [1766, G. Cochrane]


  6. Meng Bomin says:

    Interestingly enough, that very 1766 quote is cited in Albion’s Seed on page 758, which also includes explanations of how the words “hoosier” and “redneck” also find their origins in the English-Scottish borderlands.

  7. Hail says:

    Well copy them on here!

    “Redneck” seems pretty generic (any North-European working outdoors every day will get a “red” neck), but maybe there is more too it than it seems.

    Some folk-etymologies I’d heard for “Cracker”:
    — From “the one who cracks the whip” (plantation overseer) — does not not fit because it’s always been a term for poor whites.
    — From the term for low-quality foodstuff (In the Civil War, Grant opened what they called the “Cracker Line” to feed trapped Union soldiers) — this one fits better, and at least probably reinforced the usage of the 1700s-word. Crackers, the food, are typically “white” and “of low-quality”.

  8. Meng Bomin says:

    Starting at the end of Page 756 (757 is an illustrated page):
    Everitt Dick writes that

    before it was used to designate the citizens of Indiana, the term “Hoosier”was used in the South to describe a rough or uncouth person….the name “hoosier” was often applied to these backwoodsmen even as far south as northern Louisiana and southern Arkansas. Everywhere the general characteristics of this tribe with re same, east to Georgia and from Mississippi and Alabama north to Illinois and Indiana

    The word hoosier comes from hoozer or hoozier in the old Cumberland dialect, which meant something or someone who was unusually large and rough–in W. J. Cash’s phrase, “a hell of a fellow.” After coming to America in the eighteenth century, the noun migrated north to Indiana with so much of backcountry culture, andwas attached to the citizens of that state to distinguish them from their Yankee neighbors.

    Another term for this rural proletariat was redneck, which was originally applied to the backsettlers because of their religion. The earliest American example known to this historian was recorded in North Carolina by Anne Royall in 1830, who noted that “red-neck” was “a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians.” It had long been a slang word for religious dissenters in the north of England.

    The third word for this rural proletariat which also came from Britain was cracker, which derived from an English pejorative for a low and vulgar braggart. In 1766, an informant wrote the Earl of Dartmouth about the American backcountry,

    I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their abode.

    This distinctive backcountry underclass was in being by the mid-eighteenth century. Its call names had originated in North Britain. So also had its character and culture, which still survive today.

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  10. R C Douglas says:

    Care to comment on Obama-Biden/Romeny-Ryan in view of Albion’s Seed?

  11. Meng Bomin says:

    Obama gained votes in the coastal southern states of Virginia and North Carolina to the extent that he was able to win them relative to the performance of Democrats in past elections. However, he did manage to lose quite a bit of ground in Appalachia. I suspect that during this election, the patterns would be similar. Romney was born in Michigan, governed Massachusetts, and comes from a Mormon line, with Mormons originating in the Northeast, but the Republican Party is well entrenched in the South and voters opinions in this election are more reflective of their attitudes toward the incumbent than the challenger, so I expect this election to look relatively similar to that of 2008 on a geographical basis.

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