Why Is Dystopian Fiction Still Popular?

A reason for the popularity of dystopian works in English-speaking countries is culturally related and lies in their representation of unpleasant future worlds as a negative foil to Anglo-American values and ideas such as individual liberty.

Dystopian fiction sparks our interest. For quite some time, we have been fascinated, stirred and disturbed by the depiction of unpleasant imaginary future societies in novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four [1984], Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and / or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale. Film or TV series adaptations of these works and young adult (YA) dystopias like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy have also contributed to the genre’s popularity.

Broadly speaking, the term “dystopia” is the opposite of “utopia.” The latter comes from the early 16th century book Utopia, which was written in Latin by the famous English statesman, humanist writer and Roman Catholic saint Sir Thomas More.

Utopia vs Dystopia

As regards content, a traveller named Raphael Hythloday describes the island of Utopia, a city-state. Through his depiction the reader learns of its form of government, its people and its social, political and religious customs. What is remarkable is that, from our modern viewpoint, this fictional island city-state looks like a regimented, proto-communist society because there is, amongst other issues, no possession of private property.

Intriguingly, “utopia” is a pun on the Greek words for “good place” (i.e. “eutopia”) and for “no place” (i.e. “outopia”). Consequently, in connection to More’s book the term “utopia” implies a certain ambiguity.

On the one hand, the book, to a certain extent, portrays a “good place” or, to put it differently, an island society with lots of positive characteristics (, even though this city-state, apart from these features, has several negative aspects such as slavery and its practices of euthanasia and capital punishment). However, on the other hand, the island of Utopia does not exist in reality. It is just an imagined location.

Appropriately enough, the label or genre “utopian literature / fiction” is attributed to texts that are set in an imaginary ideal society, often in the future, whereas the genre “dystopian fiction / literature” includes works that present an unpleasant future world. Simply put, ‘dystopia’ (from Ancient Greek δυσ- or dus- and τόπος or tópos) means “bad place.”

Dystopias, by definition, depict, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, “a very bad or unfair society in which there is a lot of suffering, especially an imaginary society in the future, after something terrible has happened.” Moreover, in dystopian fiction present tendencies have deteriorated – from the recipient’s point of view – into terrible and oppressive conditions. Hence, the ills of the present reach their culmination.

Today, various people across the world – especially in the West – use dystopian texts, films and / or series as reference points to criticise alleged social problems and particular policies. Judging from public appearances and statements, we may think that, as far as political allegiance is concerned, both right- and left-leaning individuals refer to dystopian fiction.

Dystopian Works as Reference Points for (Almost) Everyone Regardless of Their Political Affiliation?

Female protesters in several countries, for example, have dressed as the brutally   subjugated handmaidens in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaiden’s Tale (1985) and its successful TV adaptation. By wearing scarlet cloaks with oversize white bonnets, they appear to raise awareness of the oppression of women in a subversive way.

With respect to their appearance on these occasions, the protesters support issues that are generally labelled as feminist and socially liberal or progressive. Needless to say, people in favour of progressive positions frequently identify as left-wingers. Yet, references to dystopian fiction are also made by right-wingers, conservatives and liberals or libertarians.

First of all, we should point out that the below-mentioned groups differ from one another. While conservatives as well as other right-leaning people usually aim to preserve the traditional social structures with its order, laws, principles and customs, classical liberals or libertarians are more interested in individual and economic liberty.

Despite the differences between them, individuals or parts of these political groups seemingly resort to references to dystopian worlds in novels and films. This prompts the question whether dystopian fiction provides reference points for (almost) everyone notwithstanding their political affiliation.

From a historical perspective, it is worth taking into consideration the criticism of utopian thinking since the end of the 19th century as Hans Ulrich Seeber in his article about the functions of dystopia in Anglo-American literature expounds. In political debates and discussions the term utopia has been employed pejoratively from a liberal and conservative standpoint.

Such critical attitude towards utopian thinking emerged against the backdrop of the growing socialist movement. Ever since, this criticism of utopian constructions has been intended to warn of the dangers of an authoritarian and collectivist state-socialist order that has threatened the freedom of the individual. During the 1920s the political debate intensified, when the opponents of (pluralistic) democracy came up with the concept of the totalitarian state. Thus, utopian visions have been suspected of promoting totalitarianism.

Roughly speaking, totalitarianism can be defined as a form of government which seeks to exert total power and control over its citizens. Undeniably, this notion contrasts with the constitutionally-based principles and rights in most of the Western world and particularly in English-speaking countries. Here we may ask the question whether the popularity of dystopian works in English-speaking countries lies in their representation of unpleasant future scenarios because these dystopian “visions” can function as a warning by challenging Anglo-American ideas.

The Dystopian World as a Negative Foil to Anglo-American Concepts and Individual Liberty

There is no denying the fact that dystopian novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four [1984] (1949) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) are literary classics. Nowadays, young adult (YA) dystopian fiction has gained in popularity across the English-speaking world as the reception of novels  such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993) or Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series (2008-2010), their film adaptations and the aforementioned series The Handmaiden’s Tale (2017-present) show.

Several commentators have identified some reasons for why these works are so popular among young people. For instance, these novels or films mostly focus on adolescent characters and present breakout roles, which allow young readers or viewers in the uncertain times of today’s world to experience an alternate universe and to relate themselves to the protagonists.

Besides, these texts and films commonly end on a positive note. Accordingly, they point to signs of hope as opposed to the endings of dystopian classics like 1984. But why are these classics also still popular and why do people keep referring to these novels, when they comment on current problems?

Arguably, another reason for the general popularity of dystopian fiction – including the wildly discussed classics – in the West and, in particular, the English-speaking world is culturally related. In this context, it is useful to quote from the introduction of James C. Bennett’s “An Anglosphere Primer”:

“Over the past several years, a new term, Anglosphere, has crept into political and social discussion in the English-speaking world. This term, which can be defined briefly as the set of English-speaking, Common Law nations, implies far more than merely the sum of all persons who employ English as a first or second language. To be part of the Anglosphere requires adherence to the fundamental customs and values that form the core of English-speaking cultures. These include individualism, rule of law, honoring contracts and covenants, and the elevation of freedom to the first rank of political and cultural values.”

To this we should add the idea of democratic or representative government.

Although most of these “customs and values”, up to a certain degree, can be seen as “Western values”, distinctive features of the Anglosphere need to be emphasized at this point. One of them is the importance of individual liberty. Correspondingly, the continuous evocation of liberty seems to constitute a kind of founding myth of the U.S.A. Furthermore, the concept of liberty is a cornerstone of  American civil religion.

Nonetheless, dystopian fiction serves as a negative foil to Anglo-American ideas, values or concepts. More precisely, the recently published and released American dystopian stories as well as the above mentioned classics of English/American dystopian literature usually represent worlds in the future with powerful governments, technologically equipped police states and/or planned societies where personal liberty is confined. Instead, collectivism (or sameness) is promoted.

By contrast, an individual character, the protagonist and/or groups create, in the words of Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan, “counter-narrative[s] of resistance” (5) by trying to rebel against their conditions or distancing themselves from the society and its order. Interestingly enough, Ewan Morrison states as follows in The Guardian:

“These books [i.e. The Giver, Divergent and The Hunger Games trilogy] propose a laissez-faire existence, with heroic individuals who are guided by the innate forces of human nature against evil social planners.”

All in all, the represented societies in the dystopian classics in addition to the modern versions of dystopian fiction challenge Anglo-American ideas and the concept of personal/individual freedom, which is embodied by the protagonists.

Sources (alongside the Linked Ones)

Baccolini, Raffaella, and Tom Moylan. “Introduction: Dystopia and Histories.” Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. Eds. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan. New York: Routledge, 2003. 1-12.

Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 8th ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999.

Rüb, Matthias. “Freedom Isn’t Free: Amerikas quicklebendiger Gründungsmythos: Freiheit.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ulrike Ackermann. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2007. 287-302.

Seeber, Hans Ulrich. “Präventives statt konstruktives Handeln: Zu den Funktionen der Dystopie in der anglo-amerikanischen Literatur.” Möglichkeitsdenken: Utopie und Dystopie in der Gegenwart. Eds. Wilhelm Voßkamp, Günter Blamberger, and Martin Roussel. München: Fink, 2013. 185-205.

 

Albion’s Seed of Liberty in America – The Basic Personal Rights of Englishmen and Freedom from Arbitrary Power

English concepts of natural rights popularised the idea of personal liberty and freedom from governmental power in U.S. America.

Individual liberty represents one of the defining precepts of Western civilisation. We primarily associate this principle with a concept the Russian-British philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin (1909-1997) calls negative liberty or freedom from coercion. Accordingly, the individual human being should be as free as possible from constraint, outside interferences or coercive state interventions. Berlin’s notion of positive liberty, on the contrary, amounts to freedom to self-realisation / self-determination (i.e. to be in control of oneself or to rule oneself).   

The idea of personal liberty, however, is not equally valued everywhere across the globe today. Various countries or their authorities highly restrict individual freedom in addition to violating basic individual human rights. By contrast, Western countries grant these human rights, even though several governmental agencies and / or organisations there also regulate, for example, economic activities and freedom of speech.

For many people, such regulations pose serious threats to liberty in general. Especially a lot of U.S. Americans regard the concept of (individual) liberty as sacred. This attitude has historical reasons which can be traced back to the colonial societies in British America during the 17th and 18th centuries and the U.S.A.’s founding in the latter part of the 18th-century.

In this context, we need to focus on the English / British impact on its (former) North American colonies or, with reference to the title of a book by the historian David Hackett Fisher, on Albion’s seed of liberty in America. We will start with Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) because it gives an overview of the basic personal rights in English law.   

The Englishman’s (Natural) Rights to Life, Liberty and Property

Blackstone (1723-1780) was a seventeenth-century English legal scholar and a practicing lawyer. His Commentaries was among the most well-known works in 18th-century British North America, as one of America’s founding fathers, James Madison (1751-1836), indicated by remarking that the Commentaries was “in every man’s hand.” The first chapter of this work Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals contains notable aspects concerning the rights of Englishmen.   

Alongside other features, Blackstone presented basic individual liberties or the rights of the people of England in three major categories. These are the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty as well as the right of private property. While the right of personal security guarantees protection for a person’s life, physical integrity, health and reputation, the right of personal liberty ensures a person’s freedom of movement and an individual’s freedom from unlawful imprisonment. Furthermore, the right of private property, in principle, allows for the free use and disposition of one’s own property.

Blackstone basically defined what summarizing analyses of his Commentaries called – with the help of his own words – “[t]he absolute rights or civil liberties of Englishmen.” Nevertheless, he did not mention anything unfamiliar to British Americans. As early as the 17thcentury, the liberties of Englishmen had been guaranteed in several charters across the American colonies.   

Similar ideas had also been stated by the famous English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) in his Two Treatises of Government (1689):

“Man being born…with a title to perfect freedom…hath by nature a power…to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men…”

We usually sum up Locke’s natural rights in the often-quoted slogan life, liberty and property.

Appropriately enough, Locke’s Two Treatises provided philosophical inspirations for the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). Although the famous document’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), altered the phrase “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the changed phrase did not exclude the idea of the security of private property since property was synonymous with liberty for many 18th-century Britons and Americans. 

A Source of Liberty – The Vital Importance of the Security of Property  

Liberty required the security of property to exist, while, at the same time, liberty was a necessity for personal property to be secure. Consequently, the survival and enjoyment of liberty depended on the security of property.

Besides the mutual interdependence of liberty and the security of property, what is noteworthy is that in 18th-century English political thought liberty was interconnected with security in general. Of course, the protection of property was vitally important.

But the concept of security also included the protection of the person. Locke, for instance, in his Two Treatises saw the state’s primary purpose as protecting persons, their property and property rights. Interestingly enough, his use of the term property not only encompasses material possessions, estate and land but also an individual person and his/her labour.      

As is the case today, private property and / or material goods in the 18th-century constituted a means of survival as well as a standard of well-being. However, it was more viewed as a source of liberty, rather than a kind of capital resource for economic development. We can infer from this that the concept of property then carried a certain immaterial value or ideal and was, thus, not only restricted to the physical or material.

For numerous 18th-century Britons and Americans, property as a source of liberty opened the door to independence from arbitrary power. Such a power was not necessarily abuse of authority. Instead, it epitomized power without restraint and could appear in any form of government – whether democratic, parliamentarian, republican, monarchical or oligarchical.   

Freedom from Arbitrary Government

With respect to the prevailing idea of liberty in 18th-century Anglo-American thought, liberty epitomized a defense against arbitrary governmental power, which was conceived of as liberty’s antithesis. Because the 18th-century notion of liberty entailed freedom from arbitrary government, from today’s perspective, it tends to correspond to Berlin’s concept of negative liberty. Likewise, from today’s viewpoint, Locke’s rights are, first and foremost, negative.

Sources

Ackermann, Ulrike: “Freiheitsliebe – Einleitung.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ibid. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 7-25.

Audi,  Robert. Ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nded. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (CUP), 1999.

Berlin, Isaiah: “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Four Essays On Liberty. Ed. Ibid.  Oxford: Oxford University Press (OUP), 1969.

Blackburn, Simon. Ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nded. Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. (1765-1769; see link).

Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. Rev. ed. Oxford: OUP, 2009.

Dahrendorf, Ralf: “Freiheit – eine Definition.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ulrike Ackermann. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 26-39.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: OUP, 1989.

Hannan, Daniel. How We Invented Freedom& Why It Matters. London: Head of Zeus, 2013.  

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. (Written during the 1670s; see link).

Loughlin, Martin. The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2013.

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

McDonald, Forrest: “The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers.” Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes. Eds. Ibid., and Ellen S. McDonald. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. 1-22. 

Reid, John Phillip. The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Rüb, Matthias: “Freedom Isn’t Free. Amerikas quicklebendiger Gründungsmythos: Freiheit.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ulrike Ackermann. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 287-302.

Vincent, Nicholas. Magna Carta. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2012. 

 

 

 

 

When Colonial America Rose from Albion’s Seed – The British Roots of the U.S.A.

During the colonial period in the 17th and 18th centuries, North America was predominantly shaped by four major waves of migration from England or Britain.

The United States of America is commonly considered a nation of immigrants. For a few centuries countless people from various different countries have been streaming into the U.S.A. to leave their old lives behind and to live the American dream. Indeed, from the point of view of many immigrants, this land of opportunity has always been an object of desire.

Because of the coexistence of several groups from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds, some well-known ideas have emerged over time. One of them, in particular, stands out – namely the idea of the melting pot. With respect to this notion, the U.S.A. is – in the words of the online dictionary Merriam Webster – “a place where a variety of races, cultures, or individuals assimilate into a cohesive whole.”

But both this idea (or myth) of the melting pot and the aforementioned commonly used phrase ‘nation of immigrants’ may distort that in the 17th and 18th centuries North America was predominantly settled by people from Britain (mostly from England) as well as their descendants. Their traditions and views, to a high extent, proved influential in shaping colonial American culture.

The historical impact of the British or English on America is described in detail by the American historian David Hackett Fischer in his book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989). According to Fischer, the first of the four waves of British migration roughly started in 1629.

Prior to that, some people from England, needless to say, had already come to the Americas. By, in metaphorical terms, slowly planting Albion’s Seed in the New World, they laid the foundations for the four major migration waves from Britain.

Albion’s Seed Was Slowly Planted – The Early English Ventures and Attempts at Settlement in the New World

After Christopher Columbus had ‘discovered’ America in 1492, English ships occasionally embarked on voyages to the New World. Despite these early voyages of explorations, there was apparently not so much enthusiasm for oversea expeditions to the Americas in the first years of the 16th century. However, during the second half of the 16th century England decided to venture into the New World, where the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists had found gold and silver.

Especially English merchants were interested in breaking the Spanish overseas monopoly since the vast land of America provided important resources and goods like sugar, tobacco, timber or tropical fruits. The merchants‘ efforts received support from the English crown under Queen Elizabeth I (b.1533, 1558-1603).

Moreover, Queen Elizabeth commissioned the famous English sea captain and privateer Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-1596) to attack Spanish ships and Spanish settlements at America’s Pacific coast. It should be added here that Drake as well as the English naval commander Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595) engaged in the slave trade during this period.

The Queen also granted the explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c.1539-1583) a patent to plant overseas colonies. Eventually, in 1583 he claimed Newfoundland for England. Therefore, Newfoundland became the first English possession in North America. Nevertheless, his attempt at colonization finally failed because he and his ships were lost at sea on the return journey.

Later, another famous Englishman, the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (c.1554-1618), Gilbert’s half-brother, established an English settlement on Roanoke Island in 1585, which is today part of the U.S. state of North Carolina. Historical sources point out that this new area was named Virginia in honour of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Ultimately, the settlement only lasted a few years.

Although England’s early attempts to colonize parts of the New World failed, thirty English settlements were set up from 1580 to 1630. Among them was the first permanent  one in North America at Jamestown (in present-day Virginia), which was founded in 1607.

This English population in the New World constituted only one of several groups there.  However, these English people paved the way for England’s future settlements and the migration waves from Britain. Metaphorically speaking, they slowly planted Albion’s Seed.

Albion’s Seed Began to Grow and Developed into A City upon a Hill – The English Pilgrim Fathers and the Puritans

Quite a few textbooks about American history usually emphasize the Puritans, Reformed English Protestants. As their name indicates, they intended to purify the Church of England from – in their view – ‘papist’ (i.e. Roman Catholic) practices. Their migration from the eastern counties of England took place between about 1629 and 1640. Subsequently, the Puritans settled Massachusetts Bay.

We should not equate these Puritans with the Pilgrim Fathers, as they were called, even though the latter also held Puritan beliefs. In general, the Pilgrim Fathers were religious Separatists who broke away from the English state church, the Church of England. Hence, their main aim was to gain religious freedom.

Roughly speaking, they had exiled themselves to the Netherlands, before they sailed on the ship Mayflower to America. Finally, they arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 – that is, prior to the start of the above mentioned Puritan migration wave. By the way, the first Thanksgiving can be traced back to the feast or harvest meal, which was given by the Plymouth settlers in 1621. Yet, in regards to this event, myths, legends and facts blur.

At any rate, the Puritans, by contrast, were still members of the Church of England. Only during the reign of King Charles I did they leave England in masses. From their viewpoint, the King felt attracted to the Catholic rites they hated. Alongside social and economic issues, his attitude towards religion certainly was a contributing factor for the Puritan migration to America.

Adhering to the doctrines of Reformed Protestant Calvinist Orthodoxy and the belief in predestination, the Puritans were determined to establish a deeply religious and God-fearing community without interferences by outsiders. Furthermore, they strove to create a new Zion. To achieve their goal, the people in Massachusetts (or other parts of New England) followed strict religious rules as well as codes of law and order. Within the community,  the law was supposed to reflect biblical principles.

One of the leading figures of the English Puritan community, John Winthrop (1588-1649), alluded to the determination to establish a new Zion in Massachusetts by mentioning for the first time the well-known phrase “city upon a hill” in his sermon A Model of Christian Charity:

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us…” (This quotation is derived from a few passages from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew 5. 14-16.)

Winthrop, a longterm governor of Massachusetts Bay, wanted the Christian colony to serve as a model of order and morality for humanity.

Ever since, the phrase has been referred to the U.S.A. as a whole. It is an example of expressions of American exceptionalism. Unsurprisingly, several US politicians / Presidents have employed this phrase in their speeches.

If we use our metaphor again, through the migrations of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Puritans Albion’s Seed began to grow. Until the end of the 18th century it continued to grow because of three other waves of British migrants.

Albion’s Seed Kept Growing, or the Other Major Migration Waves from Britain – The Aristocrats, the Quakers and the Immigrants from the British Borderlands

On the one hand, when the English Civil War(s) commenced in 1642, a number of  Puritans retuned to England to support the Parliamentarians in the fight against Charles I and the Royalists. On the other hand, a second major migration wave to America occurred from roughly 1642 to 1675. This wave carried royalist aristocrats and gentlemen mainly from England’s south and west. Most of them were younger sons of English aristocratic families.

Their American destination was Virginia. Here the aristocrats and gentlemen formed an elitist and hierarchically organized society. They also had particular ideas of liberty and government such as the concept of freedom as a condition of independence and the notions of minimal government and self-government. After all, during the founding period of the U.S.A. at the end of the 18th century, several descendants of these gentlemen or, more precisely, their ideas exerted a huge influence on the U.S. Constitution.

Other characteristics of this society encompassed an allegiance to the Anglican faith and a strong sense of honour. Interestingly enough, the majority of the white population in Virginia consisted of indentured servants as well as landless or poor people.

Afterwards, two additional major migration waves from Britain brought many English Quakers and a high number of immigrants from the Northern British borderlands to America. From about 1675 to 1715 the Quakers – who had lived in England’s North Midlands before their migration – resided in the Delaware Valley (around Philadelphia), while later, from roughly 1717 to 1775, the people from the borderlands of northern Britain moved to the Appalachian backcountry.

For instance, the Quaker community was founded on a remarkable work ethic, a notion of spiritual equality and a pluralistic idea of reciprocal liberty. Particularly the latter two were Christian concepts, embracing all humanity.

‘Reciprocal liberty’ entailed religious freedom or “liberty of conscience,” as the Quakers‘ most prominent member, William Penn (1644-1718), worded it. Notably, for the Quakers, liberty of conscience even applied to ideas they believed to be false. Suffice it to say, in this context, that these conceptions have still been influential in American society.

As a result of the other migration waves from Britain to America, Albion’s Seed, so to speak, kept growing besides, for example, other migrants from Britain and Ireland, German Pietists in today’s state of Pennsylvania, Dutch settlers in New Netherland (i.e. areas of the present-day states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut as well as Delaware in addition to outposts on Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania), French Huguenots and African slaves. Yet, trouble loomed among the British colonists.

Big Trouble among the British in Colonial America

Undeniably, these groups of colonists shared striking characteristics. That is, they migrated from Britain, spoke English and were Christians. In spite of these shared features and their familiarity with traditional English rights such as trial by jury, the protection of property rights and the right of representative government, the British groups of migrants were culturally different from one another. Each of them highly influenced the cultural identity of the respective settlement region.

Nonetheless, even within the settlement regions internal crises arose occasionally. Apart from these internal crises, the major cultures in British America did not get on with each other from the beginning. We may infer the early British colonists‘ hostile attitude towards one another from the following statements:

In 1651, a Puritan judged Virginians: “I think they are the farthest from conscience and moral honesty of any such number together in the world.”

Many years later, in 1736, a Virginian, William Byrd II, viewed Puritans with contempt, as some passages in one of his letters show: “They have a great dexterity in palliating a perjury so as to leave no taste of it in the mouth, nor can any people like them slip through a penal statute…A watchful eye must be kept on these foul traders.”

Judging from the Puritans‘ and the Virginians‘ stated opinions, they hated the Quakers who were said to “pray for their fellow men one day a week, and on them the other six.”

The Quakers, in turn, despised the Puritans in New England. At the end of the 18th century, a Pennsylvanian Quaker labled them as “the flock of Cain.”

Additionally, the Quakers, Puritans and Virginians alike expressed their dislike of the Borderers from the north of Britain by calling them savages, barbarians, “Vandals of America,” an “unlearned and uncivilized part of the human race” and “a spurious race of mortals.” Similarly, the settlers of the backcountry disdained the aforementioned groups.

(These statements can be found in Fischer’s Albion’s Seed.)

All in all, there was high potential for big trouble.

On many occasions, their mutual antagonism deteriorated into violent regional conflicts. Correspondingly, as far as the regional cultures of British America were concerned, during the colonial period America neither resembled a cultural melting pot nor a United States, even though the migrants came from the same part of the world and had striking characteristics in common. Regardless of these conflicts, the British roots of what became the U.S.A. are indisputable.

Sources and Further Reading

Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York, and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Gerber, David A. American Immigration: A Very Short Introduction. New York, and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 

Hannan, Daniel. How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters. London: Head of Zeus, 2013.

Marriott, Emma. Bad History: How We Got the Past Wrong. London: Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 2011. 

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Unger, Irwin. These United States: The Questions of Our Past. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.

Woods, Thomas E. The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2004.