Rediscovering Britain

by Susan Lindsey Lively
Harvard University

On February 2, 1766, forty-one days after his ship had left Boston's harbor, the Indian Samson Occom recorded in his diary, "About 10 in the morning, we discovered the land of England." Almost three centuries after Columbus had brought news of the existence of a New World to Europe, a descendant of the people who had met the explorer on its shores had embarked on his own voyage of discovery. However, by the mid-eighteenth century, Indians were not the only North Americans for whom Britain was a strange and distant land. Although emigration to the colonies continued to be an important factor in the rapid growth of North America throughout the eighteenth century, after 1700 the birth-rate was by far the most significant element in the spectacular rise in population among white colonists. Thus, by the time of the American Revolution few colonists had actually ever seen Britain.

This does not mean that they did not have distinct opinions about what the mother country was like. Britain was, after all, the political, social, economic, and cultural center of the American colonies. Americans modeled their political institutions on British institutions; they strove to imitate British social practices; they depended on the British to buy their raw materials, extend them credit, and protect their ships. Like their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic, the colonists exalted in the achievements of Britain, closely following the accounts of military victories throughout the empire and enthusiastically participating in the rapidly expanding spheres of trade. In fact, during the eighteenth century the majority of the people who populated the North American colonies considered themselves to be Britons. At the close of the French and Indian War (1754-1760), Benjamin Franklin wrote, "No one can more sincerely rejoice than I do on the reduction of Canada; and this is not merely as I am a colonist, but as I am a Briton." Five years later Francis Hopkinson, a future revolutionary, argued, "We in America are in all respects Englishmen, notwithstanding that the Atlantic rolls her waves between us and the throne to which we all owe our allegiance." Even in 1775 the South Carolinian Ralph Izard was able to assure a friend in England, "I can solemnly vouch that the colonists look upon their descent from Englishmen, and their connection with England, as their greatest glory and honor."

As much as the majority of the people who populated the North American colonies identified with the mother country, however, the British saw the colonists as strange and primitive. After all, what were the colonies but a society planted in the midst of a wilderness; populated by a bewildering mix of Europeans, transported criminals, Indians, and slaves; unable to supply itself with most of the manufactured goods taken for granted in England; and culturally handicapped by the lack of a leisure class dedicated to the cultivation of polite society, political leadership, and the support of the arts and sciences? Given these circumstances, the British could not understand why they should consider the colonists to be their equals.

This attitude became apparent to the colonists in a number of unpleasant ways. During the French and Indian War, for example, the British soldiers sent to the colonies to fight the French showed little respect for their American allies. Indeed, John Carlyle of Alexandria, Virginia, complained that the British troops "by some means or another came in so prejudiced against us [and] our Country . . . that they used us like an enemy country and took everything they wanted and paid nothing, or very little, for it. And when complaints [were] made to the commanding officers, they [cursed] the country and inhabitants, calling us the spawn of convicts the sweepings of the gaols . . . which made their company very disagreeable." In 1773, John Ewing, the future provost of the University of Pennsylvania, found that even Dr. Samuel Johnson held derogatory views of Americans. While attending a dinner in London, Ewing became entangled in a heated argument with Johnson about the state of affairs in the colonies. At one point Johnson demanded of Ewing, "Sir, what do you know in America? You never read. You have no books there." Although Ewing insisted that the colonists did indeed own books, Johnson refused to be convinced of this until Ewing quoted from Johnson's own works.

Other Americans who came in contact with Britons found themselves to be the objects of curiosity. When the New Jersey Quaker Daniel Stanton traveled to Dorsetshire, England to address his co-religionists in 1751, he found advance notice of his arrival had caused an unusually large crowd to gather. Upon inquiry, he was informed that when the people had heard that he was from America, they assumed that he was an Indian. On the other hand, Susannah Johnson, a native of Charlestown, New Hampshire, discovered that merely having lived among the Indians for a short time was enough to make her the object of intense curiosity in England. At the beginning of the French and Indian War, Johnson (who was nine months pregnant at the time) and her family were taken captive by a party of Abeneki Indians. After giving birth in the forest during the forced walk north to Canada and then being held prisoner at the Indian village of St. Francis, Johnson was eventually turned over to the French in Montreal. In 1757 Johnson was able to convince the governor of Quebec to allow her, her sister, and two of her daughters to sail to Plymouth, England, to be exchanged for French prisoners of war. Johnson later recorded in her narrative of her captivity, "We tarried in Plymouth but a fortnight, during which time I received much attention and had to gratify many an inquisitive friend with the history of my sufferings." Her story was so exotic that even when she and her family were on the verge of sailing out of the harbor on their way back to America, "a good lady, with her son, came to make me a visit; her curiosity to see a person of my description was not abated by my being on my passage; she said she could not sleep till she had seen the person who had suffered such hard fortune."

Combined with the increasing political tensions between Britain and the colonies during the 1760s and 70s, such treatment inevitably led the colonists to question their identity as Britons. While traveling in the mother country, John Dickinson wrote, "I don't know how, but I don't seem to have any connections with this country; I think myself only a traveler, and England is but an inn." Abigail Adams echoed this sentiment when she wrote to her cousin, "From my infancy I have always felt a great inclination to visit the mother country . . . and had nature formed me of the other sex, I should certainly have been a rover." As time passed, however, Adams found that "this desire has greatly diminished owing partly I believe to maturer years, but more to the unnatural treatment which this our poor America has received from her. Adams continued, "Don't you think this little Spot of ours better calculated for happiness than any other you have yet seen or read of? Would you exchange it for England, France, Spain, or Italy? Are not the people here more upon an equality in point of knowledge and of circumstances---there being none so immensely rich as to Lord it over us, neither any so abjectly poor as to suffer for the necessaries of life."

Over the course of the eighteenth century, American colonists who once assumed they too were Britons and thus had a stake in the welfare and achievements of Britain found instead that they were considered to be peripheral outsiders, second-class citizens in an empire they themselves had been fundamental in forming. By the revolutionary period, the cultural chasm that had opened up between Britain and America was so wide that the colonists and the British seemed as foreign and incomprehensible to each other as Samson Occom's ancestors had once seemed to the colonies' British settlers. As contact and conflict increased between the colonists and the British over the course of the 1760s and 70s, the once willing, even enthusiastic, subjects of the first British empire became convinced that they had more in common with each other than they did with their brethren on the other side of Atlantic. By the time war broke out in 1775, a powerful, even revolutionary, American identity had been born.

[Bibliographic note: For more information on colonial American provincialism, see Bernard Bailyn, The Peopling of British North America (New York: Random House, 1988); for an analysis of the relationship between British and American soldiers during the French and Indian War, see Fred Anderson, A Peoples Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984); on the experiences of American colonists in Britain, see Susan Lindsey Lively, "Going Home: Americans in Britain, 1740-1776" (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1997).]
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