How the idea of America changed Britain

  • Themes: American Democracy

A land of promise, economic might, uncouth citizens and brutal slavery - there was no one image of America in 19th and early 20th century Britain.

This cartoon depicts a sorrowful Britannia laying a wreath on Abraham Lincoln's shrouded body. From Punch May 6, 1865
This cartoon depicts a sorrowful Britannia laying a wreath on Abraham Lincoln's shrouded body. From Punch May 6, 1865. Credit: The Cartoon Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

One consequence of the War of American Independence was the tearing apart of the concept, as well as the reality, of a transatlantic British identity. Here was the first new nation, one which had been created rather than having evolved: what was it like, how did it behave, what did it believe? The curiosity of many Britons was intense. If it was no longer British, what was it? In the 19th century, as at any time, both the curiosity and the answers came from many directions. One was from the writings of many of the hundreds of Britons who visited the US during the period. Another was based on reactions to events in the US, reactions often reflecting the particular political beliefs of those who reacted. A third was based on the private motives of Britons, particularly on their estimates of life chances in the US versus those in Britain. A fourth was based on the perceived usefulness of the US to Britain in its struggle to remain the predominant international power. And, finally, there was a general vision of what America should and did stand for, summed up by the concept of the American dream. In short, during the 19th century, the image of the US was based on what it was. As we move into the 20th century, it can be argued, America’s image in Britain was, for some, based on what it did.

A country of tailors and tinkers

What is especially interesting is the reaction of many of the middle-class and upper middle-class English visitors who visited the country to find out what was the American, this new man? This question was formulated in these terms in 1784 by a Frenchman, J Hector St John de Crèvecœur, who lived in America for much of his adult life, but it summed up the quest for many others. A significant number of them wrote up their experiences, and sales of their memoirs at least imply that their descriptions and conclusions found fertile soil. One of the most influential, at least in terms of both sales and longevity – it is still in print as a Penguin Classic – was The Domestic Manners of the Americans by Mrs Fanny Trollope, mother of the more famous Anthony. In late 1827, she sailed to America, where she remained for several years, hoping to start a business and rebuild the family finances (her husband was a somewhat ineffectual, querulous and failing lawyer). In these terms, her journey was a failure, but upon her return to England in 1831, she turned her saga into a book, which sold thousands on both sides of the Atlantic. She discusses several of the points made by many visitors: democracy and equality, slavery, religion, and the personal habits of Americans.

One important point to be made is that one’s image of America depended on whether or not one favoured democracy and the rise of the lower orders. Mrs Trollope, along with many others in Britain, saw democracy as a threat. The political focus in the early 1830s in Britain was the movement for franchise reform, which culminated in the Great Reform Bill of 1832, the first of a series which established the conditions required for voting, and widened the franchise. Her goal was ‘to show how greatly the advantage is on the side of those who are governed by the few, instead of the many.’ The chief object she had in view was to encourage her countrymen to hold fast by a constitution that ensured ‘all the blessings which flow from established habits and solid principles’. For Mrs Trollope, the evidence she obtained in America was that democratic politics was characterised by corruption and ignorance, and by the absence of both ability and stability. This was partly the fault of the better sort, who ‘rather supinely’ left politics ‘to their tailors and tinkers’. Indeed, she is rather contemptuous of her fellow countrymen, who spoke of what they did not know: ‘The theory of equality may be very daintily discussed by English gentlemen in a London dining-room, where the servant, having placed a fresh bottle of cool wine on the table, respectfully shuts the door, and leaves them to their walnuts and their wisdom; but it will be found less palatable when it presents itself in the shape of a hard greasy paw, and is claimed in accents that breathe less of freedom than of onions and whisky. Strong, indeed, must be the love of equality in an English breast, if it can survive a tour through the Union.’

What did she, and many others, find in the US? What she probably hated the most was the lack of deference, the assumption of equality. She was mortified at having to share a coach; she disliked shopkeepers dressing and acting as though they were aristocrats at a ball; she found the rude indifference of American children repellent. As for the demeanour of a self-defined ‘lady’ in Virginia: ‘To say she addressed us in a tone of equality will give no adequate idea of her manner; I am persuaded that no misgiving on the subject ever entered her head.’ Not surprisingly she – and virtually every other British visitor, including Charles Dickens – thoroughly detested the incessant and nearly universal habit of chewing tobacco, referring to ‘the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses.’ (Dickens remarks in his American Notes of 1842 that the habit extended even to Congress, where dozens of spittoons were scattered around the building.) These particular traits of the Americans, as described by dozens of writers, made numerous appearances in British political cartoons for decades.

Images of religion and slavery

There were two elements of American life that attracted comments or analysis by nearly all writers, and these were religion and slavery. All agreed that religion was a fundamental part of American life and always had been: Puritans and Quakers and Catholics had emigrated to America in the 17th century to find religious freedom. Indeed, notable episodes were the periodic Protestant evangelical crusades which swept over the states and territories in the 18th and 19th centuries. For the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America of 1835 and 1840 is arguably still the single best work ever written on either democracy or America, religion helped to knit a diverse population together. Mrs Trollope, on the other hand, emphasised its unbridled and ignorant nature, describing one of her encounters: ‘Two or three of the priests walked down from the tribune and going, one to the right and the other to the left, began whispering to the poor tremblers seated there. These whispers were inaudible to us, but the sobs and groans increased to a frightful excess. Young creatures, with features pale and distorted, fell on their knees on the pavement and soon sunk forward on their faces; the most violent cries and shrieks followed, while from time to time a voice was heard in convulsive accents, exclaiming ‘O Lord!’ ‘O Lord Jesus!’ ‘Help me, Jesus!’ and the like.’ It should be noted that other writers linked these religious meetings with social engagement and entertainment in that, out in the rural areas, they provided a reason for meeting and fellowship. Most of the American denominations had close links with their English brethren, with the evangelical pathways primarily followed by the Baptists and Methodists, but the English churches found it difficult to emulate the American evangelical approach: it often seemed to emphasise quick conversion rather than stability of belief, and it was all rather embarrassing. The image of American religion, and of American devotion to it, was also smeared by the unwillingness of the churches in the South to condemn slavery, and of the churches in the North to break with them over the issue, which seemed to condone it.

‘A foreign, though a friendly, land’

Slavery, not surprisingly, was the single most damaging element in American institutional and social life for the British. (Great Britain had abolished the slave trade within the Empire in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.) It went against all of the claims of Americans that their country was the home of freedom and equality – as one English commentator, Sydney Smith, put it in 1820: ‘under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a Slave, whom his fellow-creatures may buy and sell and torture?’ All could condemn it, but some of the more thoughtful writers wondered how it could be ended: was the country to be flooded with millions of uneducated, unemployed, and probably helpless black people? There would be violence and possibly war. But to many Britons viewing the United States, this was the blot on America, the element that undercut all that the country claimed to represent. As one who very much supported the democratic experiment was to exclaim, ‘I am, like many others, almost in despair for the great Republic.’

But for many workers, skilled and unskilled, the great Republic was the land where the workingman had a chance to make his way, where his birth would not hold him back. The largely working-class Chartist Movement in Britain in 1834 called for many of the same rights already established in the United States, such as manhood suffrage, voting by ballot, and the payment of legislators; and the US for most of the century retained its glow of an American dream. It gave hope to multitudes that, if only they could get to America, they too could better themselves. This was the attraction – unique in all the world – of the concept that all men are created equal. Here Abraham Lincoln played his part as a ‘man of the people’, proof that a man could rise from humble origins to the highest office in the land. It was the energy of the country, the feeling that obstacles could be overcome, that goals could be reached, that at the end of your life you would be better off than your father had been and, perhaps, that your children would be better off than you. The British were hardly alone in feeling this attraction – think of the Irish, who went for survival – but because of the earlier common history, many felt a kinship that other countries could not feel. However, one should also consider a comment by Alexander Mackay in his book The Western World, published in 1849: ‘There is every thing to connect the past in mournful interest with the present and the future. English names are plentiful around you, and many objects within view have an English look about them. Yet, when the Englishman steps ashore, it is on a foreign, though a friendly land.’

Other aspects of American life and culture produced unfavourable impressions. One was the uniformity of American culture. As Matthew Arnold, author of Civilisation in the United States, published in 1888, wrote: ‘what really dissatisfies in American civilisation is the want of the interesting.’ Many writers, including De Tocqueville, emphasised the lack of freedom of speech, that once the generality had agreed on something, it could be dangerous to stray outside the boundaries. Those against slavery in the South were effectively silenced, and for many years abolitionists in the North suffered the same threat. In short, the tyranny of the majority in America was an image pervasive among the English middle classes, who were in a minority in their own country. This was unlikely to worry the working classes, who could interpret it as a welcome element of democracy.

American sins

It will probably not come as a surprise to learn that the British upper classes were not overly keen on the US. From early on, they feared this democracy, a fear and contempt articulated in the 1840s by the future Marquis of Salisbury who, ironically, was to be brought down as foreign secretary by a diplomatic conflict with the US in 1896. Amusingly, there was a special group of Americans whom the upper classes, and especially the women, feared and often hated in the final third of the century, and these were rich heiresses. As Oscar Wilde described them in 1887 in the Court and Society Review: ‘American women are bright, clever, and wonderfully cosmopolitan… They insist on being paid compliments and have almost succeeded in making Englishmen eloquent. For our aristocracy they have an ardent admiration; they adore titles and are a permanent blow to Republican principles… Her sense of humour keeps her from the tragedy of a grande passion and, as there is neither romance nor humility in her love, she makes an excellent wife.’ The primary attraction was the money, of course, and since the landed aristocracy was in a deep and growing economic depression, the British upper-class girl found it difficult to compete. By the end of the century, one-third of the daughters of the upper classes were spinsters. But there was something else: those Americans who married Englishmen did not breed as they should, and many of these marriages were childless. The suspicion was that they practised birth control, which many called the ‘American sin’. So for both personal and political reasons, many disdained the US and at least some of its inhabitants. This was to change as the century came to an end, but it would be overwhelmingly for reasons of power.

Immigrant nation

Indeed, the image of the US began to evolve after the end of the Civil War in 1865. For one thing, the US was clearly going to survive as a country, which many ascribed to Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War. Furthermore, the institutional structures of the country were obviously able to contain the more threatening elements of democracy. Indeed, just as elements of the working classes were beginning to question the desirability of the American way of life because of evidence of the suppression of trade unions and the very bad working conditions in many industries, other Britons began to view the US in a much more favourable light. It was, it was discovered, part of the Anglo-Saxon race, and thus undoubtedly a country which shared British ideals and views of the world. Relatively few in Great Britain seem to have noticed that the United States was increasingly becoming the home of immigrants from all over Europe if not the world, and most persisted in perceiving it as a branch of the British tree. Anthony Trollope referred to the Americans as ‘these children of our own’; they were ‘our American cousins’, according to the journalist WE Adams; even Matthew Arnold, he of the condemnation of the US as boring beyond belief, referred to ‘the English people on the other side of the Atlantic’. This idea that the two countries shared principles and interests, even if the ideas of an Anglo-Saxon race were dismissed, became an increasingly important one among the British political and military elites.

There were powerful reasons for this. Even though the British Empire girdled the globe, even though the pound sterling was the international transaction and reserve currency and the City of London the financial centre of the world, even though the Royal Navy ruled the waves, by the turn of the century Great Britain was feeling increasingly threatened. Pre-eminently, the combination of the French and Russian Empires was an increasing danger to the British Empire, in China, in Africa and especially in Central Asia and India. Furthermore, the European Continent was heating up. Indeed, Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of Germany until he was dismissed by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890, thought that Britain was no longer a great power because it did not have the military forces to fight on the Continent. As he commented, if the British army landed on the German coast, he would send the local police force to arrest it.

Towards great power status

Where did the US fit in here? Those in the British political elite who paid close attention to the United States were aware that its habitual perception of Great Britain was that it remained the hereditary enemy. Certainly in America, there was a widespread view that wherever America looked, especially commercially, there stood Britain, limiting its opportunities. But why should American dislike of Britain matter? It mattered because many in the British government feared that if they became involved in a war with any of their European enemies, a contingency which was not wholly unlikely, the US would join these enemies and might well help to defeat Great Britain. In other words, the image of the US for those who had governing responsibility in the UK was that of an increasingly powerful country which shared British ideals, but whose mistaken ideas of contemporary Great Britain might lead it to fail to support Britain if the latter came under attack. Furthermore, possibly less threatening but certainly frustrating, the US refused on the whole to take on the responsibilities of its great power.

Indeed, during the first half of the 20th century, this became a mantra. Consider the war debts. During 1917–1918 the US government loaned to Great Britain nearly $5 billion in order to enable it to continue fighting the war; Britain itself, however, loaned considerably more to its allies, France, Russia, Italy, Belgium, Romania and Greece, to enable them to continue to fight. Once the war was over, Britain hoped that all the debts would be cancelled, given that the European countries had suffered while the US had grown rich. The US refused, with President Calvin Coolidge commenting: ‘They hired the money, didn’t they?’ In response, the title of ‘Uncle Shylock’ for the US began to spread over the newspapers, and the image of the US as a selfish country took a strong hold. Or, during the 1930s, consider the Far East. Neither in the 1931 Manchurian crisis, nor in the 1937 Panay crisis in China, when a Japanese aeroplane attacked both an American gunboat, machine gunning in the water those who tried to escape, and two Royal Navy riverboats, would the US react forcefully as the British had hoped. The response of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, was: ‘It is always best and safest to count on nothing from the Americans except words,’ and this was the general view of the US held by the British political and military elite.

The Americanisation of the world

But the general public held different images of the US from the late 19th century, and here one can look at technology, Buffalo Bill and Hollywood as three of the catalysts. Looking at technology, the portents were there with the American exhibition at the fabled 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, reaching its apotheosis at the 1900 Universal Paris Exhibition. As the historians Robert W Rydell and Rob Kroes have written in Buffalo Bill in Bologna: The Americanisation of the World, 1869–1922: ‘American exhibitors knocked British government officials, industrialists and the broader public back on their heels in 1851 with displays of Colt revolvers and McCormick reapers.’ These exhibitions demonstrated that the US had a technological future of inventiveness and power. The visit of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show gave the British another view of American civilisation. The troupe travelled to London in 1887, preceded by a publicity campaign in the newspapers and via posters plastered everywhere. The upper classes were entranced, and both the Prince of Wales and the Queen attended performances. Even had the show not sounded unmissable, where royalty led, the public tended to follow. It made it clear that the US had a past of its own, one not at all connected to Great Britain.

During the 20th century, Great Britain was a bit overwhelmed by the American way of life as represented by, for example, affordable cars, labour-saving devices for the kitchen, gramophone records by American singers, films and myriad other products that widened experience or even transformed lives. This was American ‘mass culture’, a term which came into use in the 1930s. Of very great importance in conveying this version of the American dream was Hollywood. By 1917, American films made up 73 per cent of the British market and, during the 1920s, Hollywood films outnumbered British films shown in the UK by 17 to one. According to the Daily Express newspaper of March 18, 1927, the picturegoers ‘go to see American stars. They have been brought up on American publicity. They talk America, think America, and dream America. We have several million people, mostly women, who, to all intent and purpose, are temporary American citizens.’ The British government tried to fight back, but with only limited success. To the pleasure of the British public, the films illuminated America as the home of the eponymous dream. The political and the military officer classes may have despaired of the American lack of desire to act as a Great Power in aid both of Great Britain and itself, but this was not a concern of the general British public – at least, not until 1939.

America as a land of promise

So what may we conclude about the image of America in Great Britain during the 19th and early 20th centuries? First of all, a comment banal but true: there was no one image. What many 19th-century Britons did share was the conviction that the US had made a bad mistake in cutting itself off from the fount of civilisation by the Declaration of Independence. But there were certain images which predominated, although whether or not one approved of these often depended on class, occupation, education and aspirations. Overwhelmingly important was the image of the US as a democracy: some saw this as a threat, others as a promise. There was also the vision of the US as the land of equality, but this was undercut by the institution of slavery, an horrific blot until after the end of the Civil War in 1865. It was a land of promise for all, where birth did not prevent a man’s improving his lot in life, providing that he was willing to work hard and sometimes take chances. It was a land of space and of freedom. It was, in short, virtually mythical, but there was enough truth in these images to keep them vibrant.

Increasingly, it was a land of raw and growing power, of seemingly unbridled capitalism. On the one hand, American economic power would at some point become a threat. As the joint permanent secretary to the Treasury wrote in 1901: ‘Our commercial supremacy has to go sooner or later; of that I feel no doubt; but we don’t want to accelerate its departure across the Atlantic.’ On the other hand, there was the growing American potential for world, not just regional, power. Here the British Foreign Office saw the US as an adolescent which it was their duty to guide into the right ways of thinking and acting. (Even after 1945, this idea was still expressed by a few in the Foreign Office.) This was an America which, on the whole, was seen as sharing British assumptions and interests. This vision of America, it is safe to say, was to be unfulfilled time and again, to the repeated bemusement and often anger of the British government. One example was American quiescence in the face of growing international peril in the 1930s. Another concerned the Empire. Many in Britain thought that once the US gained its own empire in 1898, it would look more kindly upon the British Empire. They did not understand the American capacity for denial. Bringing the benefits of American control to the Philippines after 1898 was, of course, not imperialism: it was helping lesser breeds to become civilised. The US did not support the British Empire until after the Second World War, when it was seen as providing the West with strategic advantages. For one thing, territory occupied by Britain was less likely to be taken over by communists. And for another, as it was put by Frank Wisner, head of covert operations for the CIA: ‘whenever there is somewhere we want to destabilise, the British have an island nearby.’

By the 20th century, it was American economic and popular culture which provided most images of the United States, images which were, on the whole, benign. Slavery was long gone – it is likely that many Britons only vaguely knew that it had once existed. Democracy was desirable for everyone now. American freedom and equality were taken for granted. Abraham Lincoln, the man of the people, was now a hero to all classes in Britain, not just the working classes, to the extent that in 1920 a statue of Lincoln was erected in Parliament Square across from the House of Commons. The US was rich and the fount of products which made life easier and more interesting, although this image dimmed a bit during the Depression in the 1930s. The US was not a threat. You could pick what images you liked – or did not like – about America, and the variety and abundance of the country could supply them for you. It was a supermarket of images.

This essay was originally published in On The Idea of America – Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2009.


Kathleen Burk