America's Black Founders: David Hackett Fischer demonstrates the centrality of people of African descent in shaping this country's regional cultures.

AuthorWoodard, Colin
PositionAfrican Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals

African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals

by David Hackett Fischer Simon and Schuster, 960 pp.

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.

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 19thcentury 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 Reveres 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.

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...

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