glyph 202: book ... David Hackett Fischer ... American history, origins ... how achieve dynamism conjoined with stability


Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer

origins of complex, dynamic, stable order

"Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?"
-Paul Gauguin, 1897

"In Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, not far from the place where English Puritans splashed ashore in 1630, there is a decidedly unpuritanical painting of bare-breasted Polynesian women by Paul Gauguin. The painting is set on a wooded riverbank. In the background is the ocean, and the shadowy outline of a distant land. The canvas is crowded with brooding figures in every condition of life—old and young, dark and fair. They are seen in a forest of symbols, as if part of a dream. In the corner, the artist has added an inscription: 'D'ou venons nous? Qui sommes nous? Ou allon nous?'

"That painting haunts the mind of this historian. He wonders how a Polynesian allegory found its way to a Puritan town which itself was set on a wooded riverbank, with the ocean in the background and the shadow of another land in the far distance. He observes the crowd of museumgoers who gather before the painting. They are Americans in every condition of life, young and old, dark and fair. Suddenly the great questions leap to life. Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?"

"The answers to these questions grow more puzzling the more one thinks about them. We Americans are a bundle of paradoxes. We are mixed in our origins, and yet we are one people. Nearly all of us support our republican system, but we argue passionately (sometimes violently) among ourselves about its meaning. Most of us subscribe to what Gunnar Myrdal called the American Creed, but that idea is a paradox in political theory. As Myrdal observed in 1942, America is 'conservative in fundamental principles ... but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.'

"We live in an open society which is organized on the principle of voluntary action, but the determinants of that system are exceptionally constraining. Our society is dynamic, changing profoundly in every period of American history; but it is also remarkably stable. The search for the origins of this system is the central problem in American history. It is also the subject of this book.

"The organizing question here is about what might be called the determinants of a voluntary society. The problem is to explain the origins and stability of a social system which for two centuries has remained stubbornly democratic in its politics, capitalist in its economy, libertarian in its laws, individualist in its society and pluralistic in its culture."

From "Albion's Seed," by David Hackett Fischer, the opening paragraphs. "The finest work of synthesis in early American history in more than fifty years." -Michael Kammen
entered before July 9, 2006

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