- Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation by Kariann Akemi Yokota
Envisaging the history of the early American republic in terms of the problems faced by other societies emerging from imperial domination is a project that fulfills the current imperative to refute claims to American “exceptionalism.” The new America can be shown to have been beset by the travails of an emerging postcolonial society as many others were later to be. Yet, as the rich material presented by Yokota and the probing questions that she raises abundantly demonstrate, the American case does not fit easily into such a mold. Why should people who had prided themselves so far on their Britishness wish to unbecome British after 1783? There was of course an obvious answer: British governments from the 1760s had tried to exert what was seen as an undue authority over autonomous communities of British people and had finally waged a brutal war against them. Americans had therefore been left with no alternative but to assert their political independence.
Cultural and intellectual independence was yet another aspiration of many in the new national elite, but it tended to take a distinctive form. The culture that Americans shared with the British Isles was their culture too, and they sought to establish a dominant position within it rather than reject it. Recent events had proved to them that they were better guardians of the inheritance of English liberties than the degenerate British political class that had tried to subjugate them. Their new political arrangements reflected that view. The British version of high culture in the arts and sciences common to all of Western Europe was their inheritance too. For the time being, they would accept tuition in matters of taste and learning from London or Edinburgh, but the future lay with them as the progress of civilization inevitably migrated from east to west. English letters and English learning would flourish in America as they declined across the Atlantic. In short, many of America’s leaders envisaged their future as a Britain purged of the corruptions that were dragging down the contemporary British Isles, not as a distinctive new creation. An elite that continues to mimic the values of its former rulers is a commonplace of postcolonial societies. An elite that aspires to displace them as the upholders of those values is unusual, even perhaps a little exceptional. [End Page 560]
P. J. Marshall is professor emeritus of history at King’s College London. A former president of the Royal Historical Society, he is the author of The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India and America, c. 1750 to 1783; Remaking the British Atlantic: The United States and the British Empire after American Independence; and (as editor) volume 2 (The Eighteenth Century) of the Oxford History of the British Empire.