We Are More English Than We Know

Private Collection
Benjamin West: The Cricketers (also known as Ralph Izard and His Friends), 1764

In the Strand, in Georgian London, the big-haired prostitutes grind their hips and sing ditties about their trade. Young blades cram into the cockpit in St. James’s Park to bet on fighting roosters with silver spurs. Coffeehouses around the Bank and Royal Exchange resound with clinking cups, clacking dice, and chatter. Dr. Johnson sits in the Turk’s Head coffeehouse, grumbling witticisms over his port. The king and queen go to the opera, painted, powdered, and swathed in twinkling finery. Somewhere a stagecoach stops and lets out a family of blinking newcomers, freshly inoculated against smallpox and protected, they hope, against the surprises this great city may hold.

It’s just another day in London for the figures who pass through Julie Flavell’s When London Was Capital of America. And it’s a largely familiar scene for anyone who has encountered this bustling, bawdy era in Hogarth, Hollywood, or a generation’s worth of brilliant social histories from Roy Porter’s jaunty classic English Society in the Eighteenth Century (1982) to Amanda Vickery’s outstandingly original Behind Closed Doors (2009). For all Flavell’s ambition to restore “a missing chapter in the history of the Great City,” the London of this book is largely of the common, pleasure- garden variety. Its claim to novelty rests, instead, on the people who fill it: colonial Americans who visited the imperial capital in the fifteen years or so before the American Revolution.

However impressive Americans in the 1760s fancied their biggest towns, Philadelphia (pop. 25,000), New York (pop. 21,000), and Boston (pop. 16,000) were provincial nothings compared to London (pop. 750,000), the largest city in the West. London so dominated the British world that one in six English adults resided there at some point in their lives, while in “a trend that ran counter to the widening political rift over Britain’s right to tax the colonies,” what Flavell calls “the first American tourists” began coming to London in the 1760s and 1770s, in search of diversion, polish, education, and fortune. With about one thousand privileged Americans in the city at any given time, well-off New Englanders and Carolinians were more likely to cross paths in London than in Boston or Charleston. London was their playground, replete with social ladders and swings and slides.

Flavell singles out three people to follow through the city. South Carolina planter Henry Laurens had first lived in London as a teenaged merchant’s apprentice, the start of his swift climb from saddler’s son to one of the richest men in the South. He returned in 1771 to prime his sons for greatness by placing them in carefully selected schools, and propelled the eldest, John, into a legal career. Flavell’s second main character, Stephen Sayre, came to London to promote himself. A farmer’s son from Long Island, Sayre scrambled up from rural obscurity via the College of New Jersey (Princeton) and the army, before wooing and schmoozing his way into London society. “I can’t bear the thoughts of living in America or starving in England,” he insisted.

The book concludes with the most famous American in London, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had also crossed the Atlantic decades earlier as a printer’s apprentice; he came back in 1757 determined to give his (illegitimate) son William the gentlemanly education he himself had never had. While Benjamin (who lived in London on and off until 1775) earned celebrity in intellectual circles, William won the formal prestige Benjamin craved for him by being appointed governor of New Jersey in 1762.

The adventures of a provincial newcomer in the metropolis is one of the great plots of modern Anglo-American history and literature. One could only wish that Flavell (or her characters, at least as she quotes them) told it with a bit more Boswellian élan. (She repeats Sayre’s line about living in America and starving in England five times. It doesn’t deserve it.) Nevertheless, their careers pose an important question. What made the white American experience in London any different from that of other Anglophone newcomers to the capital? Nothing much—and that is Flavell’s central point. In the temporal geography of the day, “the far-flung ports of the British Isles were as remote from London as were Massachusetts and Barbados.” Colonial Americans participated with their metropolitan British counterparts in an interconnected world of trade, culture, and politics. The lack of distinctive accents rendered Americans no more foreign to the ear than Yorkshiremen or Scots, to whom they were frequently compared. All things considered, Flavell notes, “the collective experiences of white colonists in London were akin to those of a person moving from the country to the city, rather than those of a foreigner abroad.”

This portrayal squares with a large body of scholarship that has demonstrated a convergence of taste and outlook between Britons and their white American subjects in this period. Though these were the very years in which colonial political protest took on the forms and slogans that would inspire the Revolution, they were also—according to John M. Murrin, Jack P. Greene, and T.H. Breen among others—a period of increasing Anglicization in American culture and society.

Even colonial political protest, Flavell rightly stresses, had important transatlantic ties. Stephen Sayre was one of many Americans captivated by the English radical John Wilkes, whose calls for “liberty” in the face of abuse of power resonated with reform-hungry colonists. Their objective in the 1760s was not separatist, but rather to implement a purer, truer version of English liberties in the colonies. Of course such sympathies for Wilkes’s ideas turned suspect once Britain and the colonies went to war; in the fall of 1775, Sayre was jailed for his role in a phony plot to kidnap the king. Still, though he did end up advocating American independence, his passion for London trumped patriotism at least to the extent that he continued struggling to stay there. When Sayre retired to New Jersey his neighbors called him (doubtless to his satisfaction) “the handsome Englishman.” (Wilkesite radicalism, meanwhile, would acquire a distinctively American twist some decades later in the hands of a distant Wilkes descendant, John Wilkes Booth.)

For a contemporary picture of this colonial elite, comfortably ensconced in the imperial capital, one can turn to the work of another American in London, the Pennsylvanian painter Benjamin West. West turned up in London in 1763, aged twenty-four, to launch his career just as the Treaty of Paris confirmed Britain’s great imperial gains in the Seven Years’ War. Bliss was it to be young in the triumphant capital, and to be American was very heaven.

Within weeks of his arrival, West was commissioned by the South Carolina expat (and Laurens associate) Ralph Izard to paint a conversation piece of Izard and his friends. It shows five colonial youths—from South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Jamaica (which was part of “America” in eighteenth-century parlance)—idling outdoors, plump with the confidence of those born into privilege. Izard, an old Etonian and Cambridge graduate, cuts the most graceful figure in a two-toned frock coat and smartly pitched tricorne, hands folded over the butt of what could be a musket—but turns out to be a cricket bat. Known as The Cricketers, this “attractive illustration of…cross-colony sociability” sums up a moment when Americans felt at home in the heart of their empire, untroubled by any thought that they ever might not.

But there is something wrong with this picture, and it begins with the anomaly of an American with a cricket bat. For cricket didn’t stick in America—and that was because the colonies didn’t stick either. “Eleven years after they sat for the picture,” Flavell remarks, “these five colonists would part company over the American rebellion.” The coming of the American Revolution tore apart the transatlantic elite. Friends split, partnerships collapsed. Metaphors of family rupture abounded, of separated lovers and prodigal sons. The Revolution divided Americans in London, and the tourist traffic gave way to a different kind of sojourner, American loyalists seeking asylum.

How did the sociable comfort of The Cricketers devolve into conflict? The question, though Flavell doesn’t pose it, hovers awkwardly around the picture. Consider an alternate interpretation of the colonial American experience in London, one that offsets Flavell’s emphasis on Anglo-American similarity with an emerging perception of difference. It was no accident that by the time of the Revolution, the thirteen colonies were routinely personified in British iconography as an American Indian—a dark-skinned, half-naked shorthand for colonial “otherness.” Colonists themselves sometimes embraced that particular identity (witness the “Mohawks” at the Boston Tea Party) as a self-conscious expression of American distinctiveness. They invariably cringed, though, at the apparently widespread British misconception that all Americans were actually black. “Mie God! The awnimal is wheete,” exclaimed a Scottish woman on seeing an American guest of her husband’s.

Britons, Flavell suggests, increasingly lumped Americans into three groups—planter, slave, and Yankee—each as foreign as the next. Americans in turn often commented on their sense of alienation in their supposed mother country. One could easily write a history of Americans in London that stressed these less comfortable attitudes, and interpreted cross-colonial sociability as fostering a sense of distinctive American identity.1 After all, Ralph Izard’s depicted friends were American to a man—despite having been embedded for years among the British-born elite.

Still, as Flavell justly notes, Anglo-American ties survived the Revolution and flourished into the nineteenth century. Especially for the privileged class she focuses on, London remained a cultural capital long after US independence. (Meanwhile, the United States remained the premier destination for British emigrants, and was woven much more tightly into the British world than Americans conventionally recognize.) So one shouldn’t overstate the depth or persistence of disaffection, at least for a select profile of American. Nevertheless, the wind of the 1770s was blowing the Anglo-American relationship onto the shoals. It may be unfair to suggest extending this account into the war years, with its own unique contours and characters (admirably described in Mary Beth Norton’s 1974 book The British-Americans). But given that the very men Flavell focuses on in this book went on to play leading revolutionary roles, it seems almost perverse not to inspect more closely the connection between their pre-war experiences and their wartime allegiances. Following Henry Laurens and Benjamin Franklin into the 1780s provides an eye-opening postscript to Flavell’s narrative.

Henry Laurens arrived in London again in 1780, this time in circumstances that were as unexpected as his 1771 visit had been planned. By then the boys he had brought to be educated had grown in unexpected directions, the darling eldest especially. John had stayed in London as a law student, but been seduced along the way by two causes, both troubling to his father. One was abolitionism, an idea on the rise in 1770s Britain, which led John to question the morality of slavery—the institution on which his father’s fortune had been built. The other was the heady rights talk of fellow expats, which turned him into a romantic revolutionary, bent on going to war. Resisting his father’s injunction to stick to his books (and out of harm’s way), John Laurens joined the Continental Army in 1777.

Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum
Benjamin West: Signers for Peace, from a planned series of paintings on the American Revolution, circa 1783. From left to right are the Americans involved in the preliminary peace conference between Britain and America in Paris in 1782: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. Their British counterparts would have been shown on the unfinished side.

Henry Laurens was meanwhile becoming a leading member of the Continental Congress. In 1780 he set off for Europe to negotiate a loan for the US from Holland. But off the coast of Newfoundland, the Royal Navy intercepted his ship. So it was that Laurens returned to London as an enemy of the state, charged with treason, and was locked up in the Tower. The guards taunted him by playing “The Tune of Yankee Doodle…I suppose in derision of me”—though good patriot that he had become, the song filled Laurens with “a sublime contempt” for his prison-warders “& rather made me chearful.”2 After fifteen months of close, uncomfortable confinement, he finally secured his release thanks in part to the lobbying and bail money of his old British friends.

If Laurens’s 1771 voyage to London showed his determination to fashion his sons into Anglo-American gentlemen, the unexpected detour of 1780 laid bare the tensions implicit in those aspirations. With so many British friends, associates, and London-based family members, Henry Laurens was the last person one would expect to be marked out as a traitor and cultural “other”—just as the Carolina-born and London-bred John was the last American one would fancy becoming an abolitionist and a front-line patriot with a dangerous penchant for hurling himself into action.

Benjamin Franklin’s later years in London see another shadow length- ening over a once-bright scene. Agent to four colonies, fellow of the Royal Society, honorary doctor of laws, Franklin seemed as well ensconced in London as one could be, until even this cautious sage ended up wrong-footed by the vicissitudes of Anglo-American affairs. In 1773, he committed a most ungentlemanly act by leaking to the American press politically sensitive letters in which the governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts urged London to restrict the colonists’ rights. Publicly humiliated, stripped of a lucrative office, discredited, and disenchanted, Franklin left London for America a month before the first shots of the Revolution were fired. There would be no looking back; he was (to bend Gordon S. Wood’s phrase) “Americanized” now.

But for his son William, who had become the Anglicized gentleman of Benjamin’s pre-war dreams, conflict initiated a reverse journey. Remaining loyal to the king while governing New Jersey, William Franklin was jailed by the patriots, and in 1782 traveled as an exile to London, where he would spend the rest of his long life. War frosted over relations between father and son; they would never be reconciled. (Though Flavell devotes a chapter to “Franklin and Son in London,” their fateful divergence earns one spare paragraph.)

Both Franklin and Laurens had gone to London in the pre-war years thinking it would advance their sons in the Anglo-American world. Instead it strained and divided them. If Henry Laurens had seen London tempt his eldest son in undesirable directions, Benjamin Franklin watched loyalty to Britain turn his son against him. Those experiences had a consequence, when Laurens and Franklin joined forces in Paris in 1782 to negotiate peace between Britain and the United States. The document they drafted would formally define a new Anglo-American relationship for the future—and both men managed to insert thoroughly self-interested clauses. Laurens, the planter, was especially concerned with protecting American slaveowners. At his suggestion, the treaty explicitly prevented British forces from “carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American inhabitants” from the United States. Did he think of John, the budding abolitionist, when he proposed it? If so, it must have been with a wrench—for just weeks earlier, John had been killed in an unnecessary skirmish, his daredevil antics getting the better of him in the end.

Franklin had an equally determined point to add. Smarting from his own son’s betrayal, he refused to allow any compensation to loyalists for their wartime losses—surprising even his colleague John Adams with his adamance. At his insistence, the treaty made no official provision for loyalist losses, dashing the hopes of thousands—and anticipating Franklin’s more targeted vengeance, when he wrote William largely out of his will.

Thus it was that these two statesmen, imprinted by their time as fathers in London, contradicted the very impulses their sons had absorbed there.

Why did it matter that London was capital of America? To follow The Cricketers, and much of the rest of Flavell’s argument, you might reply that it served as an elite finishing school, and that American people and products enhanced London’s cosmopolitanism in turn. To follow Laurens and Franklin, you could argue further, and more substantially, that it was every bit as significant as colonial Philadelphia or Boston for the fashioning and testing of ideas about what it was to be an American. But following a different group of Americans in London you would discover the most convincing and far-reaching answer of all. For despite Flavell’s primary focus on the wealthy tourist class, the most suggestive portion of her book investigates the experiences of one emphatically nonelite group of Americans who voyaged to London—as their masters’ slaves.

Looking over Henry Laurens’s shoulder, one catches sight of Scipio, the body servant who accompanied the Laurens family to London in 1771. Many rich Southern families brought a slave or two with them, a habit that didn’t make much financial sense: it was less expensive to hire a manservant there. But then, one couldn’t boss around a white British servant with quite the same ease that slaveowners enjoyed back home. The increasingly common sight of Americans shadowed by black retainers encouraged Britons to lump together all Americans, regardless of region or status, as “Negro-drivers.” One reason Flavell proposes for why Britons expected Americans to be black was that they were primed to associate Americans with slavery, a clumsy recognition that “the American colonies were a place where slavery was central to the way of life…and the Americans themselves were a colonial, multi-racial people.”

For American slaves, though, coming to Britain meant joining a society of some 15,000 blacks, many of them free, in which race did not automatically spell enslavement (even if it usually did mean subservience). Scipio, for one, recognized that coming to Britain meant entering a new realm of possibilities when he let it be known that he wanted henceforth to be called Robert Laurens—renouncing the telltale slave name he had been assigned back home. And he could not have landed at a more propitious time for black self-assertion.

Just as the Laurenses arrived, another slave brought from America, James Somerset, ran away from his master. Unfortunately for Somerset, he was recaptured and bundled onto a West India–bound ship to be resold. Fortunately, his fate came to the attention of the noted abolitionist Granville Sharp. Sharp had successfully liberated one kidnapped slave already on a writ of habeas corpus, and Somerset gave him a chance to make a case for black freedom again, with greater impact. Sharp engaged lawyers who argued that Somerset could not be moved and sold against his will, on the grounds that colonial laws upholding slavery should not obtain in England. “Have the laws of Virginia any more influence, power, or authority in this country, than those of Japan?” the lawyers asked. “Either all the laws of Virginia are to attach upon him here—or none.”3 The Chief Justice delivered his decision in language that was notoriously hedged and blurred, but the verdict itself was clear: Somerset’s freedom was confirmed.

The Somerset decision did not free all slaves in England. But by acknowledging that runaways could not be recaptured, it did make slave ownership there effectively unenforceable—and was immediately recognized as a landmark victory for the abolitionist cause. Word quickly circulated among blacks in Britain and beyond, and was regularly cited by slaves claiming freedom. As for the new Robert Laurens, though he said (according to Henry) “that Negroes that want to be free here, are fools,” he went on to express his autonomy in further ways, sliding out of Laurens’s service and ultimately possession, taking on new jobs, another new name, and perhaps a white wife before disappearing from the record.

If there was one reason it mattered that London—not Boston, not Charleston, not New York—was the capital of America, the Somerset case was it. Not only did it highlight a divergence between metropolitan and colonial practices on a sensitive issue that was increasingly significant (at least in Britain) in showing divergent ideas about liberty more generally. It also recorded that difference in law. As such it enhanced a separation between legal regimes, playing into the patriots’ emerging argument against British rule: that London power brokers should not be able unilaterally to dictate terms to the colonies.

For at least fifteen years, historians of early America have been stretching their canvases on an Atlantic frame, to incorporate precisely these kinds of transnational issues. When London Was Capital of America testifies to Atlantic history’s success at becoming a new orthodoxy. But it also demonstrates its limits. For London wasn’t just the capital of America. It was, as colonial Americans inescapably realized, the capital of a rapidly expanding global empire. The very same 1763 peace that brought these American tourists to London added vast tracts of North America to the British Empire, a controlling stake in India, and strategic ports in Grenada, Senegal, and Minorca.

All those measures that so incensed colonists could be read as British efforts, however misdirected, to meet the widened empire’s needs. The Proclamation of 1763 and the Stamp Act (1765) sought to address the defense costs of the enlarged North American dominion. The Sugar Act (1764) halved but enforced a frequently dodged duty on molasses, seeking to satisfy West Indian planters without unduly burdening North American consumers. The infamous Tea Act (1773) actually lowered the price of tea in an analogous attempt to support the East India Company and its colonial customers.

But none of that appears in these pages—or in most American works on the founding era. One closes this book with a creeping sense of fatigue: its characters are largely known, its analysis half-developed, its sources decidedly thin. Instead and at its best, When London Was Capital of America provokes tougher questions about how to shape a more capacious, connective, international account of the American past—the kind that recognizes that Indians in America shared an imperial world with Indians in Asia, that what happened in China or Cuba had repercussions for Connecticut or Georgia, and that ours is not the only national history marked by apparently “exceptional” qualities. (To be sure, this is as much an injunction for readers as for writers, since as a cynical bibliographer will note, the rise of Atlantic history and other international approaches in the academy has corresponded to the hunger among general readers for inward-turning concentration on “the founders.”)

Because the historical profession came of age in tandem with the modern nation-state, it is not surprising that history should remain deeply implicated in national concerns. But the beauty of America’s national history is that it has always been a transnational affair. So we might start—as Flavell reminds us the founders did—by looking out as much as we look in. We may well export books on Benjamin Franklin to Beijing, but let’s also import some oblique, unfamiliar perspectives on ourselves.

  1. 1

    This is the argument advanced by a comprehensive treatment of the same topic: Susan Lindsey Lively, “Going Home: Americans in London, 1740–1776,” Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1996. 

  2. 2

    Henry Laurens, “Journal of Voyage, Capture, and Confinement,” New York Public Library. 

  3. 3

    Prince Hoare, Memoirs of Granville Sharp (London: Henry Colburn, 1820), pp. 76–77.