Proenza-Coles on Fischer, 'African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals'
David Hackett Fischer. African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022. Illustrations. 960 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-982145-09-5.
Reviewed by Christina Proenza-Coles (University of Virginia) Published on H-Early-America (March, 2023) Commissioned by Patrick Luck (Florida Polytechnic University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58300
David Hackett Fischer, professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University, is the author of numerous books, one of which, Washington’s Crossing, won a Pulitzer Prize in history and many of which were recognized in 2015 with the Pritzker Military Museum & Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. In 1989, Fischer published what he intended as the first book in a series on the foundations of US culture, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Albion’s Seed seeks to examine how the origins of regional white settler cultures in the mainland British colonies were embedded in distinctive cultures of the British Isles. Albion’s Seed describes how four groups—English Puritans in Massachusetts, British Royalist elites and indentured servants in Virginia, English and Welsh Quakers in the Delaware Valley, and the Scots-Irish in Appalachia—evidenced distinctive customs rooted in Britain that became the bedrock of our democratic culture. African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals, Fischer’s most recent publication and a companion to Albion’s Seed, seeks to shed light on the contributions of individuals from various ethnic groups from West and West Central Africa in nine different US regions and frontiers and to explain how their interactions with western Europeans inflected their cultural traditions to create something uniquely American.
African Founders joins a vast body of literature that grapples with the founding paradox of the United States as a nation born of slavery and freedom. This area of scholarship was developed by twentieth-century scholars like W. E. B. DuBois and Edmund Morgan with earlier roots among thinkers like Lemuel Haynes, David Walker, and Anna Julia Cooper whose work goes unexamined in African Founders. Fischer references and synthesizes a vast array of impeccable scholarship by more recent historians, including Ira Berlin, Graham Hodges, David Eltis, Linda Heywood, John Thornton, Jane Landers, Gary Nash, and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, among scores of others. The work Fischer cites is well established in academia, which makes his introductory remarks denouncing “hostility ... in our schools and universities where strident calls for ‘political correctness’” and “a growing disregard for the truth” resemble the performative us versus them polemic he attempts to disavow (p. 4).
The breadth of Fischer’s scope and attention to detail are impressive. Totaling almost one thousand pages, African Founders offers manifold details surrounding the development of nine US regions, an intricate web of micro and macro history, yet his central themes remain constant. Fischer continually asserts that people of African descent contributed to the development of these places in creative ways as they expanded traditions, especially in regard to “language and speech, music and dance, religion and ethics, folklore and material culture, agriculture and material arts, and much more” (p. 26). The contents of Fischer’s chapters offer much more indeed, including Black political leaders, intellectuals, litigants, veterans, rebels, and abolitionists who shaped the discourse and political trajectory of American freedom. Yet Fischer’s repeated framing of his core themes, the emphasis on Black people’s folkways and the vagueness of contributions identified as “their presence, acts and choices” or “enlarging the ethical traditions of their African heritage” and repeatedly as “strivers,” can sometimes read, at best, like an archaic acknowledgment of Black agency and, at worst, like paternalism (pp. 26, 34).
Fischer chronicles many of the myriad Black men and women who shaped early US history; however, the assumptions embedded in his interpretations of the significance of his African founders are often reductive. The hereditary English gentry who established the Chesapeake colonies are lauded for their business acumen and political skill, but when Fischer describes Mathias de Sousa, an Afro-Portuguese sailing captain who managed to escape servitude and get elected to the Maryland Assembly in 1641, Fischer bafflingly concludes, “Later he fell on hard times and lost most of his wealth, which was the downside of freedom” (p. 297). White Americans are the protagonists in this account while Black Americans play supporting roles. Numerous pages are dedicated to the founding achievements of William Penn, while the wide-ranging, intergenerational impact of civic leaders like James Forten and Absalom Jones (whose portrait is on the cover the book) is described in a few paragraphs. Pages are dedicated to the Carters, a well-known family of Virginia planters, whereas Gowan Pamphlet, an enslaved tavern worker who risked his life to preach equality and was ordained in Williamsburg in 1772, is absent. Counterintuitively, about half of the portraits included in African Founders depict white figures, such as Peter Stuyvesant, William Berkeley, and Andrew Jackson. I was struck that an image of the cowboy George McJunkin is subtitled “former slave who rose to ranch foreman and cattle savant” and fails to mention that McJunkin was a bilingual homesteader whose discovery of a fossil in Folsom, New Mexico, in 1908 revolutionized archaeology (p. 612).
African Founders will introduce many readers to the fact that enslaved Africans preceded the British founders in most colonies (with the exception of Virginia, as Fischer notes). However, African Founders unintentionally reproduces the erasure it endeavors to rectify. A section titled “African Invention and Tradition in Maritime Communities” consists of Fischer’s observation that Black and white fishermen often lived apart but worked together as they “preserved their own distinct patterns of cultural heritage” through song (p. 670). There is no mention of any individuals, such as John Mashow, a formerly enslaved man from South Carolina who became a master shipbuilder and maritime architect in Massachusetts, or Lewis Temple, a blacksmith, inventor, shop owner, and self-liberated slave from Richmond, who fashioned a new type of harpoon in 1848 that came to be known as the Temple toggle and arguably the most important invention in the history of whaling. Chapter 8, “Maritime Frontiers,” foregrounds the details of different types of watercraft and includes very few people. While Black boat pilots abounded, none are identified. For example, Fischer does not mention Captain Mark Starlins who served courageously in the American Revolution yet remained enslaved in Virginia, nor does he mention Robert Smalls, the Civil War hero who liberated his family and several others from South Carolina via steamer and then served in the Union Navy and the House of Representatives. The contributions of Black mariners to the politics, practice, discourse, and defense of modern freedom were ubiquitous, well documented, and largely overlooked in African Founders.
Fischer acknowledges the profound violence of racial slavery and the centrality of resistance, but his emphasis on ethnicity and regional custom skates on an edge of cultural determinism that obfuscates the effects of political power and social structure. In an effort to celebrate our shared American history, he insists that racism was a bug, not a feature of the dominant culture. However, passive voice and abstract concepts obscure more than they illuminate. Fischer opens an important section in his chapter on the Hudson Valley, “Then, after fifty years of progress, things began to go wrong for African-Americans in New York in the middle decades of the nineteenth century,” and he observes repeatedly that “racism became stronger” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (pp. 196, 612). Critically, Fischer documents several instances of white supremacist violence; however, by depicting this violence as a “universal law” of backlash, he elides the politics, culture, and legacies of its progenitors and frames racism as a teleology (p. 87).
The overarching aim of African Founders, to recognize men and women of African descent as foundational to our nation’s development, is essential for a more accurate and complete understanding of US history. As for the subtitle—How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals—there are many scholars whose work puts Fischer’s conclusion into sharper relief. Fischer closes by proclaiming “that deep faith in American freedom in the thought and experience of African slaves and their posterity ... in the face of tyranny and oppression ... [is] one of the greatest African contributions to America and the world” (p. 749). As Paul Gilroy has observed in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, New World slavery and the racial oppression it engendered “was a powerful orientation to the ideologies of liberty and justice” for African descended people in the Americas. Numerous works center the ways Black Americans articulated, defined, and defended the principles of democracy and equality that we Americans hold dear, including those of John Saillant, Julie Winch, Richard S. Newman, Catherine Adams, Elizabeth H. Pleck, Vincent Caretta, and Chernoh M. Sesay. The particular historical synthesis provided in African Founders offers a comfortable entry point to many readers for thinking about our founding paradox of slavery and freedom; I hope these readers will expand their understanding of our African-descended American founders by seeking out Black intellectual, political, and military history.
. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 13.
. John Saillant, Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes, 1753-1833 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Richard S. Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, The AME Church and the Black Founding Fathers (New York: New York University Press, 2008); Catherine Adams and Elizabeth H. Pleck, Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens: University of Georgia, 2011); and Chernoh M. Sesay, “The Revolutionary Black Roots of Slavery's Abolition in Massachusetts," New England Quarterly 87, no. 1 (March 2014): 99-131.
Citation: Christina Proenza-Coles. Review of Fischer, David Hackett, African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58300This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.