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 …