London is an odd place for an American to spend the Fourth of July, but the way the schedule worked out this summer, this happened to be the best time for me to make a quick trip. I’ve been putting some ideas together about Anglo-American relations, the decline and fall of great powers and the influence of religion, culture and intellectuals on foreign policy and political institutions. Those of you who stick with this blog will be reading about them going forward.
But for an American in London on the Fourth of July it’s hard to avoid reflecting on the break. History has a way of jumping out at you here; walking out of St. Paul’s after evensong today I passed under the baleful gaze of a heroic statue of Lord Cornwallis. But aside from the odd discordant note, the evidence of the special relationship between the United States and Britain is thick on the ground on what was an extraordinary and glorious Fourth here today — sunny and slightly cool, with fresh breezes gusting along the river and through the parks.
It’s amazing how deep the connections run. Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, where British writers are buried or commemorated on plaques near the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer, honors a startlingly large number of American writers. Not only does the National Portrait Gallery have a portrait of Washington, but Benjamin West and John Singer Sargent are strongly represented among the paintings there.
More than three thousand bodies lie buried in Westminster Abbey, including Elizabeth I and Henry V; the one grave over which nobody is allowed to walk, and which even royal coronation processions must swerve to avoid, is the tomb of an unknown soldier from World War One. Carefully displayed nearby is the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded by the United States to the unknown hero. (America’s unknown soldier was awarded the Victoria Cross in return; no decorations by any of Britain’s other wartime allies are on display.)
Outside of the Abbey, a brooding statue of Abraham Lincoln overlooks a “Peace Village” where a scattering of Afghan and Iraq war protesters huddle under banners proclaiming that capitalism isn’t working and that British and American soldiers are committing war crimes. Around the corner is the Churchill Museum in the bunker where the British high command and War Cabinet met during the Blitz; the museum highlights Churchill’s lifelong connection with the country in which his mother was born. The highest tech equipment in the British government’s wartime nerve center were the secure telephone lines permitting the British to confer in real time with their American counterparts in the States. The world’s first ‘hot line’ was there, specifically so Churchill could get through to FDR.
A short walk from the Churchill Museum is the modest townhouse on Craven Street where Benjamin Franklin lived from 1757 to 1775. Nobody believed in the special relationship more than Franklin; he was proud of his status as an Englishman, visited the town from which his father had emigrated to the colonies, considered repurchasing the old family estate, and in many ways seemed happier in London than in Philadelphia. He got to know Joseph Priestly the chemist and Unitarian theologian, formed a friendship with Adam Smith, and generally became a valued member of the enlightened and scientific elite in the leading city of the most advanced empire of its day. At least at the beginning, he was a patriotic and loyal English subject who only hoped to strengthen the British Empire. By the end of his tenure he was convinced that parting was inevitable; he would break off all relations with his own son when the younger man remained loyal to King George.
Part of what drove Franklin away was politics. He was always closer to the Whigs — and especially to William Pitt the elder, architect of Britain’s stunning victories over France in the Seven Years War and a constant friend to the American colonies. George III favored the Tories and wanted to turn the loose British Empire into a much tighter and more centralized state. The British Whigs didn’t like what that did at home or abroad: they argued that the Crown was regaining too much power from Parliament and were sympathetic to American arguments that the King was usurping the rights of the colonial assemblies.
This difference remains, I think, an important factor in Anglo-American relations today. The British see their history after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as the successful construction of a strong central government that made the country respected abroad and prosperous at home. In the 19th century, the middle classes wrested control of this strong state from the aristocracy, squeezed much of the corruption out of it and began to use it for purposes of social uplift. With the emergence of the Labor Party the workers got their share as well; while there are some people in the UK who sympathize with the idea of small government (and while the British are less statist than, for example, the French), on the whole the center of gravity in British politics favors a significant social role for a strong state.
The British are less religious these days than Americans are (although both the Anglican and the Catholic churches I saw this Sunday had quite large congregations), but the persistence of an established church has something to do with this feeling that the state is and should be an important moral agent in the life of the nation. The church, supporting and supported by the state, projects values into society and all good people are expected to rally around. (A Puritan version of this vision made it over into the New England states; the desire of many American liberals to use government to reshape society ultimately traces back to this English sense of the union of throne and altar.) In America, there were always too many sectarians who saw these attempts to unify the moral and the political as a form of tyranny, and in the US the ‘great and the good’ have had a harder time imposing a unified moral vision on society as a whole.
There are other ways in which the British are more comfortable with centralization than Americans are. We have no city like London: it is Britain’s New York, Washington and Los Angeles rolled up into one. The American founders debated keeping the capital in Philadelphia or New York, but decided to place it out in the boondocks. (In the same way many American states deliberately chose to establish their political capitals in smaller towns.) We don’t want too much power flowing to a single city and we don’t want the members of the elite to get too clubby and know each other too well; the rest of the country is suspicious of anyone who works on Wall Street or inside the Beltway. We don’t think America would be a better place if Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue got closer together.
America is too big, too diverse and too disputatious to settle down with one social model and one big establishment the way Britain has. This has its costs; ever since Franklin’s time Americans have looked with envy on British governance that often seems more effective, organized and, since the middle classes nudged the aristocrats out, more honest and competent than our own raggedy system. But although over time we have built a stronger and more effective central government, somehow we never quite go all the way. Thomas Jefferson and his allies ultimately defeated Alexander Hamilton’s effort to model our financial and political systems on Britain’s. Daniel Webster, Nicholas Biddle and Henry Clay were beaten by Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk.
In that sense, the forces that drove the American Revolution are still coursing through our politics now. While a significant number of Americans (usually relatively affluent and well educated) want a transformational government acting in the service of a coherent moral vision, larger numbers of Americans start getting nervous when they see too much movement in that direction.
The Tea Party movement’s choice of revolutionary imagery makes a lot of sense from this perspective. Tea Partiers see themselves as resisting liberal efforts to centralize power and impose a single moral vision on the United States — very much in the tradition of those who threw the tea into Boston Harbor. As always, an upsurge in American populism brings out the fruit bats and the conspiracy nuts — during the Revolution there were people who identified George III as the Antichrist. The Anti-Masons and the Know Nothings surged until the rise of the Republican Party refocused these energies in a more positive and effective way. There was much more anti-Semitism, racism and all around crackpot thinking among American Populists than progressive historians generally like to remember.
It is much too soon to predict how the Tea Party movement will develop. The metamorphosis from decentralized protests to a political force that can govern can be tough, and leadership makes a big difference. But it’s interesting to note that Benjamin Franklin, welcomed into the British establishment and living the (fairly) high life on Craven Street, knew America well enough to know that the London program of centralization wasn’t going to work. No American had better reason to know Britain’s power and fear the determination of its rulers, but Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence and went to Paris to negotiate a treaty of alliance with Britain’s oldest and most hated foe.
Benjamin Franklin’s old house on Craven Street has only recently been restored and opened to the public. The folks running it could use your support. Any American who wants to understand our politics and culture needs to understand Britain and the complex relationship between two similar countries on such different paths. Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to live the tension between the two cultures and the two ways of life; visiting Number 36 Craven Street will give you new food for thought.