- When London Was the Capital of America
In the mid eighteenth century many British colonial North Americans loved London and managed to live there. Julie Flavell tells their story in this enjoyable though somewhat limited book. Along the way she introduces us to social climbers, cads, intriguers, radicals, and the greatest metropolis of the early modern Western world.
Flavell organizes her book around a series of characters, Americans from the thirteen colonies who lived in London for extended periods during the twenty-five years before 1775. The principal figures include the South Carolina planter Henry Laurens, his children, and their slave Scipio, who once in London changed his name to Robert. In addition, we come to know Stephen Sayre of Long Island, Arthur Lee of Virginia, Benjamin West, and Benjamin and William Franklin, [End Page 202] among others. Together all of these characters, a southern planter, a slave, a young man on the make seeking his commercial fortune, a sometime scholar matriculating at the Inns at Court, a highly successful artist, and two, at least for a time, reasonably successful "empire men," are broadly representative of perhaps as many as two thousand colonials who lived in London in the decades just before the American Revolution.
Flavell is a skillful storyteller. Through the experience of the Laurens family we learn that the most visible Americans in London were absentee planters, primarily from the West Indies and South Carolina. Indeed, many Londoners were surprised that there were nonslaveholding regions in the colonies. The Laurens family found a community of colonial slaveholders in London but Scipio-turned-Robert also found opportunities to broaden his horizons and join in the general dissatisfactions expressed by freeborn Englishmen who were also servants. Robert lived in a London where, as Flavell shows, self-representation was fluid and where the bold and creative could make a play to radically transform their circumstances. Some from well below the ranks of the gentry became so good at imitating them that they made decent livings selling their services as character references for servants seeking to move to better situations. In London Robert was enslaved in a great city with a population of fifteen thousand blacks, many of them free. His residence coincided with the Somerset case and with the public mocking of colonial concerns about liberty. Robert lived in proximity to conversations such as the one Laurens's eldest son had with his friend Thomas Day. Day informed John Laurens that "if there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot signing resolutions of independence with one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves" (p. 133). John Laurens turned against slavery, and the heady atmosphere of London allowed Robert to do what Scipio had not. When the Laurens family left London Robert had long since disappeared; city air had made him free.
Flavell's best story introduces the grasping social climber and rake Stephen Sayre, a cross between Mr. Lovelace and Barry Lyndon. Sayre, the son of a Long Island tanner, managed to get an education at a local Presbyterian school and then a gentleman's finishing at Princeton (a fairly common trajectory similar to that of the famous diarist Philip Vickers Fithian). His rise fed an insatiable ambition, and Sayre came to London in the 1760s determined to get all that he could. He attached himself to the merchant House of De Berdt headed by Dennis De Berdt, who was also the colonial agent for Massachusetts. Sayre insinuated [End Page 203] himself thoroughly into the family, assuming that "the old codger must soon pop off" (p. 134). De Berdt kept up his end but went bankrupt at the same time. Sayre, who had anticipated and made arrangements, quickly moved on to become the lover and quite likely the pimp of a beautiful but aging actress, Sophia Baddeley. He managed to seduce her by bribing her fortune-teller to predict that she would meet a tall, handsome stranger wearing a gold chain in St. James Park...