General American and the Particulars of Our Origins

There are two ways to look at history and cultures: the general and the particular.

In studying cultures, the focus can tend toward the general because ‘culture’ is a general concept, more about the group than the individual. But I’ve increasingly come to understand the central importance of specifics within cultures and within the forming of cultures. Specific cultures, after all, are made up of specific details.

An example of the importance of the particular is the founding effect. A particular group with a particular background has a particular impact in a particular place and time. It is the convergence of particulars that becomes focused on a single location. Only later can we speak of a general culture that formed from this particular starting point.

Then again, all those prior particulars also arose out of a field of generalized patterns.

 It is an ever-growing web of connections and relationships. Every cause being an effect of something else. And every effect being a cause in turn. The overview gives us a context for the specifics while the specifics give substance to the overview.

My focus has been on Quakers because of my living in the Midlands. Studying American history has made me realize how complicated it is to understand the origins and formation of regional cultures. This middle zone and cultural borderland of American society makes this clear.

Like most colonial ruling elites, Quakers were a small minority, often quite different from the general population, atypical both in England and in America. This unique starting point was magnified (and/or maybe distorted) because of the unique mass immigration of ethnic, religious, linguistic and socio-political diversity. This was intentionally promoted by the Quakers because of the tolerance inherent to their theology, a tolerance that was active rather than passive. In spite of this (or I’d argue because of this), Quakers were able to leave a permanent imprint on the politics and culture of the American Midlands, the area extending from Pennsylvania across the Lower Midwest.

Some keep the focus there on those who became the ruling elite and who supposedly had the founding effect. In seeing the Quakers as the origins of Midlands culture, they look to the origins of the Quakers themselves. The Quakers mostly came from Northern England, including much of the English Midlands, especially the North Midlands, and to a lesser extent Northeast Wales that borders the Midlands. With this focus, they look to the history of Wales, Mercia, Northumbria, Cumbria, Danelaw, etc. All of this is interesting and immensely complex. The historical and regional patterns of data, especially when mapped, seem to offer much potential insight.

However, there is a further complication within this larger complexity: self-sorting. Only a small percentage of people in this region became Quakers. Only a small percentage of these Quakers emigrated to the British colonies. And an even smaller percentage settled in Pennsylvania and became the ruling elite. This is a very select group of people who were swamped by the surrounding multicultural society of the Middle Colonies.

The devil is in the details and it can be hard to make sense of the details, especially when so many of the details are lost to the mists of history. There were no Quakers and then there were. Their emergence and the form it took couldn’t be exactly predicted. We can see the results of the self-sorting, just not the motivation behind it.

Let me really get down to the particulars. The level of individuals can get lost in the focus on the group. The trees sometimes can’t be seen for the forest.

Among the Quaker ruling elite, there were only a select few that had major impact on the entire Quaker community and specifically within Midlands culture. This has made me appreciate the value of sometimes taking very seriously the great man theory of history.

George Fox apparently is a more typical Quaker from the English Midlands who preached in and made many converts in North Midlands, and so he is maybe more representative of the larger pattern(s) behind the Quaker movement. William Penn, on the other hand, was a bit of a wild card in Quakerism and I suppose in English society as well. Without understanding Penn, there is no way of fully understanding how English Quakers helped create the American Midlands (the American Midlands is a far cry from the English Midlands, although both became the center of industrialization for both countries).

If William Penn helped shape American Quakerism and the American Midlands, what shaped his experience and identity?

William Penn was from Southern England. His father descended from Welsh and his mother was Dutch. As a youth, he spent many years in Ireland where he first learned of Quakerism. Also, as a young adult, he studied with a French Huguenot theologian at a French academy and was strongly influenced by French culture. Later on, he spent many years as a missionary in Germany.

So, by the time he founded Pennsylvania, he was quite modern in his cosmopolitanism. In fact, he was already cosmopolitan even before converting to Quakerism. It seems he brought cosmopolitanism to his Quaker faith and conformed his Quakerism to his already established identify as a cosmopolitan. It should be unsurprising that he attempted to create a cosmopolitan pluralist utopia, rather than a mere ethnocentric English colony or an exclusionary Quaker haven. He transformed Quaker pacifism and religious tolerance into something even greater still. He took a regional religion that emerged from a semi-clannish culture and put a universalist spin on it.

This maybe had less to do with Quakerism by itself and a lot more to do with William Penn. Yes, Pennsylvania Quakers had a major impact on the American Midlands. But before that could happen, William Penn had a major impact on Pennsylvania Quakers. He created a Quaker community unlike anything found back in England, unlike anything before seen in the world: a civil society striving to self-govern according to the golden rule. Considering the centrality of the golden rule to Jesus’ teachings, it is odd that no organized Christian leadership ever before (or maybe since) seriously attempted to use the golden rule as the guiding policy of political governance. We are so used to religious hypocrisy that principled religiosity seems almost alien.

I’ve been wondering if this could be part of the French Huguenot influence.

The Quakers had inherited proto-democratic self-governance from Northern English culture. But proto-democratic tendencies were also found among the French Huguenots. Many people had been influenced by the French Huguenots, especially by the Camisards. Their demand for religious freedom was heard by people all across the Western world and their persecution became symbolic of the persecution many other groups experienced.

Because of this persecution, there was a major Huguenot diaspora. Some went to nearby Germany and Netherlands. Many others went to the British Isles, one of the relatively largest immigrations to occur there involving a single ethnic group. Outside of London, a concentration of Huguenots was centered in Northern Ireland such as in Dublin and Ulster.

Also, a large number of Huguenots settled in America. They first came to Florida long before the founding of any of the British colonies. There they had the first Protestant Thanksgiving in America (see here and here). But they were massacred by the Spanish and the survivors returned to France where the violent persecution continued there. They had a hard time escaping the Catholics no matter where they went.

The Dutch and the English, as Protestants, were much more welcoming. So, many settled in the colonies, some in New York and Virginia. There was an entire French Huguenot settlement in Pennsylvania, but they eventually assimilated mostly with the Germans in Germantown. Most Huguenots assimilated wherever they settled which is what made them so representative of what was becoming of American culture. This also is what allowed them to be so influential. One of the few places their culture survived was in the Carolinas, specifically Charleston where is located the only continuously operating Huguenot church. But even there it was never dominant.

It was through this diaspora that many of the colonial elite became familiar with Huguenot theology and practice.

Many Puritans, similar to William Penn, were in contact with and inspired by Huguenots or else were otherwise influenced (for example, Cotton Mather). The German Pietists claimed to have been inspired by Camisards, and German Pietists were a large part of the Pennsylvania immigrant population (the German Pietists in their turn having great influence on colonial leaders, preachers and intellectuals). This Huguenot impact was widespread (From a Far Country: Camisards and Huguenots in the Atlantic World, Catharine Randall, Kindle Locations 104-116):

The story of French Protestantism is both Continental and American in that the Camisards and Huguenots created connections and cross-pollinations among the varieties of religious expressions they encountered or fostered, both in America and abroad. The Philadelphia movement in London responded directly to Camisard apocalypticism; the Shakers acknowledged the Camisards as their progenitors in faith; George Whitefield, John Wesley, and the Moravian Pietists all had contact with them and were moved by their plight, persuaded by their ecstasy, and awakened by their prophecies. Again, the story stretches across the Atlantic. Like the Camisards in France, the Quakers both in England and in the New World placed primary importance on the working of the Holy Spirit, spoke of imminent apocalypticism, as did the Camisard inspires and the French Prophets, and appealed to the lower and working classes, consistent with the Camisards’ origins in a poor, disenfranchised peasantry. In England, the Shakers of Manchester derived “inspiration and nurture from the French Prophets,” and once in America, they acknowledged direct descent from the Camisards on the very first page of Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message, their institutional autobiography.16 Both groups had female preachers who experienced “Ecstatick Fits.” Again, similar to the analphabetic Camisards, the Shakers, in the first “Opening of the Shaker Gospel” (May 19, 1789), professed distrust for the written word and stated a preference for oral testimony and “witnessing.” [ . . . ]

Further, the story stretches a narrative thread from France, Switzerland, England, Germany, and the Low Countries over to the American colonies by virtue of the common theme of freedom of conscience. Camisard beliefs included “the light of conscience;’ the action of the Holy Spirit within, and freedom of conscience in regard to matters without; in important and admirable ways, these convictions conformed to Enlightenment notions of freedom of conscience, despite the rather paradoxical vehicle for it that the Camisards, often unlettered, glossolalic peasants, presented.

In the face of dire persecution, torture, and royal antipathy, this small subculture asserted its right both to be loyal citizens and to dissent religiously. All of Europe-and the colonies-heard their message loud and clear.

With our Anglocentric lense, we forget how interconnected the Western world was during the colonial era, the beginning of modern globalization. William Penn wasn’t all that unusual, at least among the upper classes, in how much he traveled.

Take the example of the Puritans who were a major force of religious dissent that preceded the Quakers. The Puritans were Marian Exiles who had escaped to Europe where they picked up Calvinist influences and then later brought them back to England. The German Moravians, coming out of the Pietist tradition, as international evangelical missionaries helped incite some of the Puritan controversy.

The Moravians also later had great impact in the colonies. John Wesley was a fellow traveler of the Moravians, literally a fellow traveler in first meeting them as passengers on the same ship to the colonies. Many Moravians settled among the Quakers in Pennsylvania, just like many other German religious groups such as Pietists, Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites and Amish. Many of the followers of these religions were pacifists who practiced civil disobedience, refusing to join the military and refusing to take oaths. This is why they tended to settle among the Quakers in the Midlands where there was more tolerance. The Mennonites were the closest to Quakers and the first to settle in Pennsylvania:

Persecution and the search for employment forced Mennonites out of the Netherlands eastward to Germany in the 17th century. As Quaker Evangelists moved into Germany they received a sympathetic audience among the larger of these Dutch-Mennonite congregations around Krefeld, Altona-Hamburg, Gronau and Emden.[18] It was among this group of Quakers and Mennonites, living under ongoing discrimination, that William Penn solicited settlers for his new colony. The first permanent settlement of Mennonites in the American colonies consisted of one Mennonite family and twelve Mennonite-Quaker[19] families of Dutch extraction who arrived from Krefeld, Germany, in 1683 and settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Among these early settlers wasWilliam Rittenhouse, a lay minister and owner of the first American paper millJacob Gottschalk was the first bishop of this Germantown congregation. This early group of Mennonites and Mennonite-Quakers wrote the first formal protest against slavery in the United States. The treatise was addressed to slave-holding Quakers in an effort to persuade them to change their ways.[20]

In the early 18th century, 100,000 Germans from the Palatinate emigrated to Pennsylvania, where they became known collectively as the Pennsylvania Dutch (from the Anglicization of Deutsch or German.) The area had been repeatedly overrun by the French in religious wars, and Queen Anne had invited the Germans to go to the British colonies. Of these immigrants, around 2,500 were Mennonites and 500 were Amish.[21] This group settled farther west than the first group, choosing less expensive land in the Lancaster area. The oldest Mennonite meetinghouse in the United States is the Hans Herr House in West Lampeter Township.[22] A member of this second group, Christopher Dock, authored Pedagogy, the first American monograph on education. Today, Mennonites also reside in Kishacoquillas Valley (also known as Big Valley), a valley in Huntingdonand Mifflin counties in Pennsylvania.

During the Colonial period, Mennonites were distinguished from other Pennsylvania Germans in three ways:[23] their opposition to the American Revolutionary War, which other Germans participated in on the side of the rebels; resistance to public education; and disapproval of religious revivalism. Contributions of Mennonites during this period include the idea of separation of church and state, and opposition to slavery.

From 1812 to 1860, another wave of Mennonite immigrants settled farther west in OhioIndianaIllinois and Missouri. These Swiss-German speaking Mennonites, along with Amish, came from Switzerland and the Alsace-Lorraine area. These immigrants, along with the Amish of northern New York State, formed the nucleus of the Apostolic Christian Church in the United States.

The Quakers, like the Puritans, were influenced by Calvinists. But the Quakers were just as influenced by Anabaptists. These are two very different traditions which demonstrates the theological diversity behind Quakerism.

Quakers were also influenced by religious dissenters such as the German Familists: “They held that no man should be put to death for his opinions, and apparently, like the later Quakers, they objected to the carrying of arms and to anything like an oath [ . . . ]. The Quakers, Baptists and Unitarians may have derived some of their ideas from the “Family.””

The Quakers were even more influenced by the English Seekers: “Arguably, they are best thought of as forerunners of the Quakers, with whom many of them subsequently merged.” The Seekers in turn were influenced by the likes of Roger Williams back in the colonies and Roger Williams had his worldview entirely transformed by his regularly living among and learning from Native Americans, of which he wrote about in texts that were popular back in Britain.

We easily forget how mind-blowing was this early European contact with Native Americans. To the average colonial-era Westerner, native North America was an entirely foreign world with a disconcertingly strange worldview.

Many intellectuals and political elites argued that liberty inevitably leads to anarchy. The localized and oftentimes rather democratic-like self-governance of many Native American tribes put the lie to this claim. Radical thinkers like Thomas Morton, Roger Williams and William Penn sometimes went so far as to declare the Native Americans as more civilized than their fellow colonists. Also, these radical thinkers all had popular writings read in Britain where they themselves traveled back to, and when in England they all had close ties to and discourse with many of the influential Englishmen of their day.

(See: Errands into the Metropolis: New England Dissidents in Revolutionary London by Jonathan Beecher Field, The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England by Matt Cohen, and Atlantic Cousins: Benjamin Franklin and His Visionary Friends by Jack Fruchtman jr.)

The New World became a screen onto which new social visions could be collectively imagined and a place where new social experiments could be tried. The contact with Native Americans and their societies, in challenging Western assumptions, helped shape English religious dissent and the English Revolution. The same radicals questioning religious establishment and slavery were also criticizing the cruel, unfair and dishonest treatment of Native Americans. They were able to see the commonality between the oppression of one group of people and the oppression of all people.

This international and cross-continental web of influence continued for the entire history of the colonies and into the revolutionary era. The early and late colonial eras weren’t that far apart. When William Penn died, Benjamin Franklin was around 12 years old living a little north of Pennsylvania where he would later consider his home. It was at age 12 when Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed to a printer, the profession that would define his entire life.

Some of the founding fathers looked to the Basque republicanism for inspiration in seeking American independence:

Referring to the historical ties that existed between the Basque Country and the United States, some authors stress the admiration felt by John Adams, second president of the US, for the Basques’ historical form of government. Adams, who on his tour of Europe visited Biscay, was impressed. He cited the Basques as an example in A defense of the Constitution of the United States, as he wrote in 1786:

“In a research like this, after those people in Europe who have had the skill, courage, and fortune, to preserve a voice in the government, Biscay, in Spain, ought by no means to be omitted. While their neighbours have long since resigned all their pretensions into the hands of kings and priests, this extraordinary people have preserved their ancient language, genius, laws, government, and manners, without innovation, longer than any other nation of Europe. Of Celtic extraction, they once inhabited some of the finest parts of the ancient Boetica; but their love of liberty, and unconquerable aversion to a foreign servitude, made them retire, when invaded and overpowered in their ancient feats, into these mountainous countries, called by the ancients Cantabria…”

“…It is a republic; and one of the privileges they have most insisted on, is not to have a king: another was, that every new lord, at his accession, should come into the country in person, with one of his legs bare, and take an oath to preserve the privileges of the lordship”.[1]

Authors such as Navascues, and the Basque-American Pete T. Cenarrusa, former Secretary of the State of Idaho, agree in stressing the influence of the Forua of Biscay on some parts of the US Constitution. John Adams traveled in 1779 to Europe to study and compare the various forms of government then found on the Old Continent. The American Constitution was approved by the first thirteen states on 17 September 1787.

The Basque are a people whose homeland straddles the borderland of Spain and France, the two countries that were the enemies of England during the revolutionary era. It is interesting that English-descended colonial leaders would look outside of England for a worthy example of a free people that had successfully resisted outside oppression and domination.

Ironically, many of the hispanics of the former Northern Mexico and present Southwest were and are Basque-descended. The Basque fought for their independence in Spain and then later at the frontier of the Spanish Empire (yet another borderland), but they were finally conquered by the Americans who they earlier had inspired toward independence. The sad part of it was that these Basque-descended hispanics even fought at the Alamo and then after Anglo-Americans took over they lost much of their property and political influence. For them, it turned out not to be a revolution that gained independence.

Anyway, the point being that the founding fathers weren’t ethnocentric and xenophobic provincials.

Many of the founders traveled to foreign countries throughout their lives and regularly interacted with diverse people. America wasn’t just England transplanted to the North American continent. The first Bible published in America was written in a Native American language (Algonquian). Benjamin Franklin, in Philadelphia, published the first German language newspaper in America, but it only lasted a year because four other German language newspapers quickly came into competition with it.

This colonial multiculturalism was most strongly centered in the Middle Colonies. In the Middle Colonies, it was most strongly centered in Pennsylvania. And in Pennsylvania, it was most strongly centered in Philadelphia.

This is also where progressive radicalism was strongly centered. Germantown was located in Philadelphia. It was in Germantown near which John Dickinson had a home and where Anthony Benezet taught at a school. It was four of the early German Quakers who put forth the first public declaration against slavery. In Philadelphia, Anthony Benezet founded the first anti-slavery society in America (Thomas Paine was a founding member); also, he founded the first public school for girls and a school for blacks.

Anthony Benezet is a good example of the type of complication that gets overlooked or purposely omitted. His life doesn’t fit into the Anglo-American narrative. Sadly but predictably, I read some conservative Christian websites that mention this anti-slavery society as being founded by Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush when all they did was later reestablish it and, of course, there was no mention of the Frenchman who originally founded it.

Benezet was born in a French Huguenot family. His family left France because of persecution and he ended up as a young man living in England. He joined the Quakers and came to Philadelphia. Benezet was a major player among the founding fathers. If not for people like him advocating for the ending of slavery, the abolition movement wouldn’t have taken such a strong hold with Quakers and in Pennsylvania. It was because of this constant pressure that was behind Benjamin Franklin and John Dickinson freeing their slaves, the only founding fathers to do so.

I just recently discovered this entire French Huguenot angle. It was maybe a year or two ago when I first noticed Catharine Randall’s From a Far Country, and I only now got around to getting a copy of it and have started reading it.

It isn’t the type of thing you learn about in school. You’d be hard-pressed to find many popular historical books that give much space for discussion of these people and their influence on American society, that is if they are mentioned at all. It usually is treated as an incidental detail or side issue at best. It took me a whole lot of studying about Quakers and the Midlands to even begin to grasp why the Huguenots were so important.

Many Huguenots and their descendants played significant roles in American society. Anthony Benezet is just one example. From a Far Country discusses all of this in greater detail, specifically focused on three individuals — from the blurb:

Gabriel Bernon, who led a Huguenot exodus to Massachusetts and moved among the commercial elite; Ezechiel Carre, a Camisard who influenced Cotton Mather’s theology; and Elie Neau, a Camisard-influenced writer and escaped galley slave who established North America’s first school for blacks.

There are quite a few famous Americans with Huguenot ancestry, including among frontiersmen. Because of the Ulster Scots connection, some Scots-Irish Americans are their descendants:

The term is somewhat unclear because some of the Scotch-Irish have little or no Scottish ancestry at all, as a large number of dissenter families had also been transplanted to Ulster from northern England. Smaller numbers of migrants also came from Wales and the southeast of England, and others still from Flanders, the German Palatinate, and France (such as the French Huguenot ancestors of Davy Crockett).

The example of Davy Crockett is interesting as he is so symbolic of America and yet his very surname is French in origin:

Crockett was of IrishEnglishScottish, and FrenchHuguenot ancestry,[4] the family name being derived from Monsieur de la Croquetagne, a captain in the Royal Guard of French King Louis XIV.[5] The family converted to Protestantism and, as Huguenots, fled persecution in 17th-century France to settle in Ireland. His great-grandparents Joseph Louis Crockett and Sarah Stewart Crockett immigrated to New York from Ireland c1708. Their son David and his wife, killed by Native Americans in North Carolina, had three sons named James, Joseph and John.[6]

Here are some other examples:

Paul Revere was descended from Huguenot refugees, as was Henry Laurens, who signed the Articles of Confederation for South Carolina; Jack Jouett, who made the ride from Cuckoo Tavern to warn Thomas Jefferson and others that Tarleton and his men were on their way to arrest him for crimes against the king; Francis Marion, and a number of other leaders of the American Revolution and later statesmen.

John Jay is yet another early American of Huguenot ancestry. In fact, he is one of the founding fathers.

The part of the Huguenots history that interest me the most, of course, is where it merges with Quaker history. As I’ve argued before, the Quaker-originated Midlands has come to define America. The reason it defines America is because it embodies so many different influences, Huguenots being one among many.

It isn’t just a matter of the Quakers founding effect as a starting point. There were multiple starting points, strands that began separately but which were braided together. Unlike other colonial ruling elites, the Quakers realized they needed many allies to help them with their many enemies and competitors. But it was more than that.

William Penn and the Quakers couldn’t have known what they were creating. I doubt Penn realized what all of the influences in his life were adding up to. He probably wasn’t trying to make the Quaker religion into some greater regional culture and social vision. He simply acted according to the understanding that his life experiences provided. Quakerism could have become many things, but with Penn it led to something beyond religion and ethnicity.

The particulars of life can seem as mere accidents. Their significance may not be seen even by those involved. It is only history that offers the context that can appear as a linear narrative with an inevitable conclusion. We get caught up in the world that has become that we can’t see the past for what it was for those who lived it. People live with particular experiences, not in generalities.

It would be unwise to dismiss the particulars of the present for the romanticized generalizations of what never was. We forget the complexity of the past at our own peril. Maybe we should take more seriously the radical visions of the best men among the colonial leaders and the founding fathers. In many ways, they faced greater problems, conflicts and uncertainties than we are confronted with now. I suspect we could learn something about the particulars of world today by looking back at the particulars of how America came to be.

Other books of interest:

Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
by David Hackett Fischer

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
by Colin Woodard

American Colonies: The Settling of North America
by Alan Taylor

The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction
by Bernard Bailyn

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America–The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675
by Bernard Bailyn

Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution
by Bernard Bailyn

The Cousin’s Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph of Anglo-America
by Kevin Phillips

The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America
by Chris Beneke  and Christopher S. Grenda

The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State
by Nicholas P. Miller

Crossroads of Empire: The Middle Colonies in British North America
by Ned C. Landsman

At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763
by Jane T. Merritt

A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania
by Patrick Erben

Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century
by Meredith Baldwin Weddle

Quakers and the American Family: British Settlement in the Delaware Valley
by Barry Levy

Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment
by Kevin Kenny

Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson
by Jane E. Calvert

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty
by John M. Barry

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