Author Interview: When London was the Capital of America

Very excited today to feature a guest interview.  Julie Flavell is the author of new book When London was the Capital of America and she’s been interviewed for GeorgianLondon by New York Times history blogger Jamie Malanowski.  Julie is a fellow independent scholar and writes mainly on the relationship between colonial American and Britain.  Jamie is lead writer of the Disunion series, about the months prior to the start of the American Civil War, for The New York Times; the series was presented with the 2010 Cliopatria Award. Jamie has been an editor at Spy, Time and Esquire, and is the author of the novels Mr. Stupid Goes to Washington and The Coup

Here in the States we always think of Great Britain as the place America separated itself from; what is wonderful about When London Was Capital of America is how Julie Flavell reminds us of how much Great Britain, most particularly London, was a place Americans were drawn to. In the years before the revolution, London was full of Americans: Southern plantation owners seeking culture, slaves hoping for a chance of freedom, Northern businessmen looking for profits. An American now living in Scotland, Flavell manages to recreate a moment when all Americans were loyal to the king, and made their contribution to the city’s color and excitement. Here she answers some questions about her book.

The thing I enjoyed most about your book is that by isolating this relationship at a particular moment, you remove it from the river of events, and let us see it fresh and on its own. In the mid-18th century, London was the center of government, commerce and culture that colonial Americans orbited. What were the some of the ways Americans were influenced by London? In return, what did London think of America, and how was it influenced?

The first thing to remember is that London was not a foreign city to colonial Americans. It was their capital city. They read about it constantly in the newspapers, bought London consumer goods, and conducted business with London traders. For colonial Americans it was also their only ‘big city’, because colonial cities were still really just towns by today’s standards.  The kinds of urban lifestyles found in Georgian London would not be seen in America until the nineteenth century –  slums, high crime rates, conspicuous wealth, artistic and literary groups.  London was also the financial and administrative capital of the English speaking world.  The United States has never had a city that combined all of these roles into one, so in that sense you could argue that London was the single most influential metropolis America ever had.

Historians have made much of the notion that colonial Americans in London felt like outsiders, because they could not live up to London society’s standards of fashion and good breeding.  It has been argued that this difference between London’s elegant, high-style  manners and the more democratic, provincial manners of the colonies marked the beginning of a distinct ‘American’ national character.

The reality is that before the Revolution, Americans reacted to the ‘London experience’ in very much the same way as English people from the country. Like characters in a Jane Austen novel, some English and American visitors fit in perfectly, and loved London so much they never wanted to leave. Others found it noisy, sordid, or just plain expensive.

It seems natural to think that just before American independence, we should be able to detect an embryonic American national identity emerging out of the reactions  of colonists staying in their original capital city, but that just wasn’t happening.  Some of the red-hot American patriots who lived in London, like Virginian Arthur Lee, loved London and had no thought of ever living anywhere else until the fighting started in 1775.  In other words, the American Revolution caused American nationalism, not the other way around.  And London continued to exert a powerful influence on American long after independence.

For Londoners, America seemed a far-away proposition, best known as a place where tobacco and sugar came from, and where British troops went to fight the French and Indians.  But in the years just before the Revolution they were becoming much more aware of their colonies on the other side of the Atlantic.

Some of the most interesting material in your book deals with the experiences of American slaves who accompanied their colonial masters to London.  What did you discover?

My favorite story in the book is the story of South Carolina slave Robert Scipio, who came to London with his master, Henry Laurens, in 1771.  A lot of American slaves were coming over to London as personal servants to white colonists, but Robert had his own ideas of what he’d do once he got there. He changed his name from Scipio – an obvious ‘slave name’ – to the very conventional English name Robert even before he reached England.  And once he got to London he challenged Henry’s authority in many ways, in general proving hard to control.  We can get most of Robert’s story from the published papers of Henry Laurens, right up to the point where he was arrested for a house burglary. Henry was hoping Robert would be sentenced to transportation to America, which would mean a return to the Laurens plantation.  I was able to find out what really happened, though,  and it was not at all what Henry expected. Instead of transportation, Robert was given a one-year jail sentence. Since Henry had to go back to America to participate in the American Revolution – he was a leading Patriot – Robert was effectively free. He and Henry never saw each other again.

Of course white colonists who championed American liberties while owning slaves were guilty of blatant hypocrisy, and Londoners were quick to point this out, especially once the Revolution got going.  But the mud stuck on the British as well, because English merchants had made a fortune out of the slave trade, and in London slaves were being openly bought and sold, even though English law did not explicitly recognize slavery. Few Londoners before the Revolution took the trouble to protest.  But the ugly sight of slavery in their streets was forcing British people to begin to question themselves and what their empire stood for.  The really big movement against slavery would get going in Britain after the American Revolution.

One of the things that was such a fresh revelation was the realization that the southern colonies had more in common with the West Indies—both being plantation- and slave-based economies—than the south did with New England. Were people in Britain able to make much of a distinction between the northern colonies and these southern plantation colonies?

It was not ‘north versus south’ that was the dividing line in the eighteenth century, but New England versus everyone else.  New England had a poor reputation in London as a region of underbred farmers and merchants, a place that was short on genteel types and  was tainted by Puritan fanaticism.  American colonists south of New England agreed with this. This negative stereotype persisted after the Revolution – in fact the character Ichabod Crane in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is the typical unlovely New Englander as seen by educated New Yorkers like Washington Irving in the early national period.  But in London there is no evidence that New Englanders could be spotted for what they were –there plenty of country bumpkin types coming into town from the English countryside, who looked much like New Englanders.  So New Englanders pretty much blended in when they visited their capital.

Wealthy southern colonists were different – they looked and sounded like affluent Englishmen to a great extent, but their slaves set them apart.  And Londoners sometimes claimed – with what truth it is hard to say – that West Indian and southern plantation owners acted ‘high and haughty’, and had a proclivity to beat underlings. This may have been just a stereotype – beating servants was certainly not an exclusively American activity. Englishmen still sometimes inflicted beatings on their servants in the eighteenth century, even beat them to death in a few notorious cases.  But the existence of the stereotype shows that Londoners were very aware of the American plantation owners who were coming into the city in fairly large numbers just before the Revolution.  Also, because Londoners were so much more aware of southerners than northerners, they regarded Americans as a mixed race people, something some white colonists didn’t like. But the fact was that whether slave or free, people of African descent were part of the British empire, and their presence was a challenge to the concept of liberty on both sides of the Atlantic, whether it could be something bigger than just a safeguard for white Britons and Americans.

It was interesting to read that many rich Americans came to London to get an education, but many parents were concerned about giving their sons too much exposure to London. Please explain.

In some ways London was the Las Vegas of the eighteenth century.  It had every sort of amusement one could think of, and for young men in town on their own, there were all sorts of temptations.  London had the dubious distinction of having more prostitutes than any other city in Europe.  And it was unusual for its size – at 750,000 people, it was the biggest city in the western world.  Scotsman James Boswell said that one of the attractions of London for him when he was a young man was that he could do whatever he wanted without the fear of being seen by someone who knew him. We take that kind of anonymity for granted in today’s big cities, but for a colonial youth coming to London for his education it would have been a total novelty, and probably one that would give him a fantastic sense of freedom.  So sending your son to London for school or university had a risky side to it. This was something colonial parents shared with English parents – it was not just a colonial worry.

This is just an impression, but it seems that for all the powerful influence that Britain had on America, there was not a deep emotional attachment—at least not the deep attachment that seems to exist between Britain and some other places that had been part of its empire, such as India. Is that a fair reading? Certainly the British government was loathe to see America win its independence, but was this view widely held?

It’s a matter of degree, but eighteenth century Britons were not as aware of their empire outside of the British Isles, and of themselves as a great imperial power, as they would be in the nineteenth century.  Even when there was fighting in America, for example in the French and Indian War, the average Englishman tended to see it as an extension of the wars with France rather than a war for empire. Even so, colonial Americans were generally accepted as fellow British subjects, and there were many everyday ties with America, which was much closer geographically than would be the imperial dominions of the nineteenth century.  And you have to remember that the American Revolution was a civil war. It’s been said that if the American Civil War divided thousands of families, the American Revolution divided hundreds of thousands.  Many of those families were transatlantic – my book tells about some of them. I think there was a far more pervasive private sense of loss after the American Revolution, both in Britain and America, than we appreciate today. It is a legacy neither side wished to hang on to.

Benjamin Franklin is probably the most famous of all the American colonists whose stories are told in your book.  Why was his story told last? 

The story of Franklin’s sojourn in London has long been taken as epitomizing the colonial American experience there before the Revolution – he was lionized as a scientist, then gradually lost influence in government circles because of his support for American resistance. The final act was his public humiliation before the Privy Council when he presented a petition from Massachusetts asking for the removal of their hated Governor Hutchinson.  The War of Independence began not long after, and Franklin returned home. All this makes for a good story, and one that progresses naturally to American independence.

The chapters on Franklin came last in my book so that his experiences could be understood in the context of the experiences of many other colonists in London.  He was a great man who tried to help solve the conflict between Britain and the colonies, and drew some fire upon himself in the process, but he also had personal limitations that account for some of his social difficulties in London.

>Franklin, although famous, wasn’t typical at all, and neither was his experience.  The ‘typical’ Americans in the eyes of Georgian Londoners were white plantation owners and their black slaves.  When the Revolution began, many of them assumed the conflict would be short-lived, and that the colonies would remain part of the empire in some terms or other. The personal rejection experienced by Franklin just before he left London was not experienced by many of these southerners in London, even those who sympathized with the rebellion.

In my book, I examine how colonial Americans looked through the eyes of Georgian Londoners, instead of how London looked through the eyes of a national hero like Ben Franklin. Seen through London eyes, America’s British heritage is much more than a simple story of Anglo-Saxon roots. The colonists were a very diverse people who came from all parts of the Eighteenth century British empire, including Africa. And London’s world view was being challenged by the influx of its exotic and multiracial fellow subjects from the New World.

Thanks to Julie and to Jamie.  The book is already receiving great reviews and you can purchase it here.  Have a lovely weekend everybody.

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3 thoughts on “Author Interview: When London was the Capital of America

  1. Rebecca Stauffer

    Lucy and Jamie, thank you for this post and such a wonderful interview with the author! i’ve been wanting to read this book for sometime and am excited to learn more about it.

  2. JDWP

    Really loved this – Abigail Adams delayed leaving their new London home, hoping the crowd would disperse, until she realised “it was normal”. The Adamses (John was first American Minister to the Court of St James) loved London, John’s time in Europe influenced his political thought greatly – reinforced his scepticism of abstract French thought and renewed his respect for the philosophy behind the balance of the British Constitution. Found London very expensive though, something Congress refused to appreciate!

  3. belleaukitchen

    Just wanted to stop by and say hi… I notice you’re going to be at the Fire and Knives event on Saturday, which i’ll be attending. I write a food blog based from my kitchen in Lincolnshire… thought you might like to pop over and view… see you Saturday, Dom x

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