"The Old Plantation," South Carolina, about 1790. This famous painting shows Gullah slaves dancing and playing musical instruments derived from Africa. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thirty-three years ago, David Hackett Fischer resuscitated the effort to develop a historical narrative of the United States with a book called Albion’s Seed, a sweeping account of the separate foundings of four regional American cultures in the 17th and early 18th centuries and how their ideological, ethnographic, and spiritual differences shaped our history.

African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals
By David Hackett Fischer
Simon and Schuster, 960 pp.

Writing at a time when many in his profession were arguing that the past was a foreign country, that the colonial period had little bearing on our own, and that trying to create an integrated story of the nation’s origins and development was a fool’s errand, the Brandeis University historian produced a work that showed how developments in our distant past created our present and are shaping our future. “What I am trying to do is to argue that what happened in the past is fundamentally a part of our being today,” he told an interviewer at the turn of the millennium. “I don’t think many academic historians have that sense of their subject.”

Albion’s Seed laid out an argument that would have been broadly familiar to 19th-century readers: that the rival colonial projects on the Eastern Seaboard of North America had been separate countries before 1776 and remained so in many respects even after the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. Unlike his predecessors, Fischer marshaled mountains of evidence to back up his assertions, empirically demonstrating that Puritan-founded New England, the aristocratic Chesapeake country, the Quaker-founded Delaware Valley, and the Scots-Irish backcountry had distinct and lasting ethnographic, religious, and political characteristics. Its influence has reached far and wide, including helping inform parts of my own American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

When critics complained of the 800-page book’s focus on white British settlers, Fischer could point to the introduction, where it was identified as but the first installment of a five-volume cultural history of the United States. A second volume promised to focus on the cultural consequences of the meeting of Africans and Europeans in the colonies, with additional tomes covering the evolution of his regional cultures through the end of the Civil War. In 2004 he announced that there would instead be four volumes organized thematically, with his new book on the regional iconography of liberty and freedom presented as the third part in the series. Instead, Fischer wrote a beautiful book on the legacy of New France (Champlain’s Dream), a Pulitzer Prize winner on George Washington at Valley Forge (Washington’s Crossing), and excellent works on Paul Revere’s famous ride, the expansion of colonial Virginia, price revolutions, and New Zealanders’ ideas about freedom. Many came to wonder if his book on Africans in early America would ever see the light of day.

African Founders tells many remarkable and little-known stories from our history from which readers will learn a great deal. But even after decades of work, Fischer hasn’t been able to answer some of the most important questions he set out to answer.

Now it finally has. African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals is a sweeping work that attempts to reconstruct the cultural origins of those brought to this continent in slavery, the interplay between these peoples and each of the Euro-American regional enslaver cultures, and the lasting effects this cultural collision has had on American freedom. It’s a work of staggering scope and ambition, not least because the slave system separated people from their children, spouses, and grandparents, disrupting cultural memory. It succeeds in laying out a vast amount of empirical evidence and tells a great many remarkable and little-known stories from our history from which readers will learn a great deal. But even after decades of work (and multiple trips to West and Central Africa), Fischer hasn’t been able to answer some of the most important questions he set out to answer. And in a few cases it is because he failed to follow the lines of inquiry that made Albion’s Seed so successful in probing the origins and legacies of the Euro-American settler-colonizer cultures.

Fischer’s broadest themes will be familiar to anyone with a basic understanding of U.S. history. People of African descent often played a central role in fighting for and saving the American Experiment in liberal democracy for the rest of us. Africans brought musical and linguistic gifts and innovations to this continent that created new musical genres and languages, like Gullah in the coastal Carolinas and Gombo in Louisiana. Nineteenth-century African American leaders asserted that humans had free souls even when in bondage—“the soul that is within me [that] no man can degrade,” in Frederick Douglass’s words—a powerful weapon to wield against authoritarian ethnonationalists then and now. The direct experience of being enslaved allowed leaders like Douglass to champion the Declaration of Independence’s principles of liberty and freedom based not on intellectual abstractions but on what Fischer calls the “material details of injustice which they had witnessed on a daily basis.”

“From the American Revolution and the American Civil War, to the many challenges of the late twentieth century, and the troubles in the early twenty-first, Africans both slave and free have long reflected on a deep moral paradox in America,” Fischer concludes, “between the continuing horror of race slavery and persistence of racial injustice on the one hand, and the hope of expanding ideals of human rights, social justice, the rule of law, and dreams of liberty and freedom.” All of this is absolutely true and has been of enormous consequence in the evolution and survival of our liberal democracy, but it’s not news to those who have been following along in the decades since Fischer embarked on the writing of this book.

But if the forest looks familiar, the trees themselves are so numerous and eclectic as to make the journey worthwhile. There are tales of largely forgotten slave rebellions; of African American horse whisperers able to earn the trust of the wildest mustangs of the Texas frontier; of Maroon communities that survived, hidden deep in the swamps and bayous outside New Orleans, from the Louisiana slave revolt of 1811 to the end of the Civil War more than half a century later. We follow the exploits of Afro-Seminole warriors fighting to maintain their freedom as Spanish Florida fell to American slave lords and an Afro-Pennsylvanian story-telling matriarch, said to have been born to the colony’s first slaves in 1686, who regaled listeners until her death in 1802. Throughout, African Founders organizes its material along regional grounds, from Puritan New England to Spanish Texas, which is the only way to make sense of historical experiences on a continent settled by rival cultures.

One of Albion’s Seed’s key shortcomings—the assertion that there were only four major regional cultures in what became the 13 colonies—is remedied in this book. Whereas previously Fischer had dismissed the English West Indies–modeled society of the Deep Southern lowlands as having “never developed into a major cultural hearth,” in African Founders he finally gives it its due as one of the most powerful folkways of all. In Albion’s Seed, Fischer passed over Dutch-founded New Netherland because it wasn’t able to expand westward (even though this was also true of the folkways founded in the Chesapeake country) and because not many people were Dutch by 1790 (this despite the fact that the New Netherland Company’s settlement model was pluralistic). African Founders rightly gives it as much attention as Greater New England and the Quaker-founded Delaware Valley, a recognition essential to understanding the geography of the Underground Railroad or the antebellum slavery debate. The new account also examines New France’s enclave in southern Louisiana as a distinct regional culture with its own understanding of the rights of the enslaved, who could hold property and testify in court against masters and whose families were legally protected from separation, sexual abuse, and neglect in old age.

One of the incredible contributions of both Albion’s Seed and Champlain’s Dream was their meticulous and methodical analysis of the distinct regional cultures they examined. The spiritual values, architectural traditions, child-rearing practices, power structures, sexual customs, and political ideologies of Puritan New England, the Scots-Irish backcountry, the French project in Quebec and Acadia, and other cultures were carefully parsed. Continuities with their cultures of origin on the other side of the Atlantic were identified and traced through time. Adaptations to New World realities were revealed, helping readers understand how many present customs, institutions, and regional conflicts came to be. Unfortunately, African Founders doesn’t deliver these goods in a coherent way, either for the European-controlled regional cultures Fischer had not previously dissected or for the myriad cultures of origin of the enslaved African Americans who are the central subjects of the book.

Take the Deep South, for example. Fischer correctly notes the overwhelming influence of English slave lords from Barbados and the English West Indies who founded the original cultural hearth in South Carolina and eventually came to control lowland Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and northern Florida. Inexplicably, he doesn’t then probe the cultural origins of these brutal men back on Barbados, where the cruel chain gang form of slavery was perfected before being exported to the subtropical lowlands of the North American continent. Their ideology, moral ideas, and economic interests are essential to understanding why Deep Southern slavery was so different from that of its Chesapeake rivals in the late 17thcentury and how it came to be imitated by Virginians and Marylanders in the early 18th. The late Richard S. Dunn did the legwork in his landmark 1972 book Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713, which is still in print, which makes its absence surprising. Dunn’s work also makes it clear that the founders of what was then called “Carolina in the West Indies” brought large numbers of enslaved people with them from their plantations on Barbados and the Leeward Islands in the 1670s to 1690s. The cultural legacy of this substantial original wave of African Americans is absent in Fischer’s analysis, which relies on data sets commencing in the early 18th century, when the vast majority of slaves were being imported directly from Angola, Congo, Senegambia, and West Africa’s Windward Coast.

Readers come away with an even fuzzier sense of the key African cultural areas from which so many of America’s enslaved people came. Following Albion’s Seed, one would expect a systematic inquiry into what these places were like in the 17th and 18th centuries, what distinguished each cultural region from the others, and how the coming of the transatlantic slave trade had shaped the world that would-be American slaves had come from. Did they have different ideas about freedom, bondage, and resistance? About how families and communities should be structured? About how to worship, grow food, build buildings, or fight wars? Instead we learn about these cultures in a sporadic way, with observations about one or another of them scattered through the book, usually relying on the testimony of period slaveholders and slave traders rather than the work of anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians who specialize in these regions. Fischer takes us on a tour of the North American regional cultures in which we learn the proportions of, say, Senegambian or Angolan or Akan or Guinean people imported as slaves in a given region and time period; yet only sometimes is it clear what the implications of these facts might be, and other times the necessary information isn’t revealed until hundreds of pages later. 

Nineteenth-century African American leaders asserted that humans had free souls even when in bondage—“the soul that is within me [that] no man can degrade,” in Frederick Douglass’s words—a powerful weapon to wield against authoritarian ethnonationalists then and now.

Occasionally Fischer infers links without a lot of evidence. There’s a long section suggesting that West Indies periaguas, Chesapeake log canoes, and other dugout watercraft had West African origins, an assertion that would be cool if true, but requires us to ignore similar, multi-millennia dugout traditions among Native Americans, Europeans, and others. An argument that cowboy culture links back to the practices of Fulani herdsmen looks weak in comparison with the massive evidence tying it back to southern Spain via Tejano vaqueros, right down to the origin of familiar terms, technologies, and practices like rodeos, lariats (la reata), lassos (lazo), broncos, stampedes (estampida), and ranches (ranchos). Fischer also posits that African American leaders from the Chesapeake country like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman modeled themselves on the enlightened aristocratic gentlemen who ruled that region. “They built on a great but deeply flawed Chesapeake tradition, and made it greater and less flawed … preserved its virtues and corrected its vices,” he argues. Douglass and Tubman were indeed exceptional leaders who helped push this country closer to its ideals, but neither had any admiration or respect for the region’s master class, which is why both backed John Brown’s dream of launching a massive uprising to wipe them out. They fought for the ideals in the Declaration of Independence, but that doesn’t mean that they were all that keen about Thomas Jefferson himself, a hypocrite slaveholder.

Fischer tells of largely forgotten slave rebellions, of African American horse whisperers able to earn the trust of the wildest mustangs of the Texas frontier, of Maroon communities that survived, hidden deep in the swamps and bayous outside New Orleans.

African Founders does make it clear that slavery was horrid everywhere, but experienced very differently in the various regional cultures, each of which had its own moral, economic, and ethical stance toward slavery and race. New England’s Puritans—a people who believed themselves in a special covenant with God—were obsessed with moral issues, which prompted them to undertake the impossible task of creating “humane slavery,” with time limits on enslavement and the rights of slaves to acquire and sell property and intermarry across racial lines (until the 18th century). In profit-obsessed New Netherland, slaves had access to courts and the right of petition and could negotiate all sorts of business deals with their masters, so long as the latter saw marginal benefit, leading to various kinds of what was called “half freedom.” On the massive plantations of coastal South Carolina, most slaves often had little or no contact with their masters and mistresses, but the latter often spent their childhoods around their enslaved nannies and playmates and by adulthood “combined the manners and dress of the European aristocracy with the Gullah speechways of their slaves,” as Fischer writes. “The result was a very peculiar institution indeed—a system where white masters became partly African in their culture, and slaves carved out a cultural space for their African heritage, which was deeper and stronger in the lowcountry than in other regions of early North America.”

That’s the broadest theme of African Founders, and the thesis it most succeeds in defending—how the forced encounter between Africans and Europeans on the Atlantic and Gulf shores of North America generated something new, something genuinely American.

Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard is the director of the Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. He is the author of six books, including American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. Follow him on Twitter @WoodardColin.