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We Are More English Than We Know

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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.

  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. 

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