- Unfinished Revolution: The Early American Republic in a British World by Samuel W. Haynes
Great Britain, James K. Polk, Expansionism, Anglophobia
(Editors’ Note: Every so often, a significant book slips through the cracks and fails to receive a timely review. This 2010 title is such a book.)
As the title suggests, Samuel W. Haynes argues that the United States did not truly slip from its colonial past until the mid-nineteenth century. Long after independence, Americans continued to have a conflicted love/hate relationship with the former mother country. Great Britain was the standard in virtually all aspects of American life, as citizens consciously emulated and compared themselves with the British. It was, however, hard to escape the sometimes-contemptuous condescension of the British toward the Americans, who found it hard to admit to feelings of inferiority.
In the post-War of 1812 years, American pride was affronted in several ways. British visitors often published critical writings of life in the United States. Frances Trollope and others wounded American feelings with their descriptions of crude behavior, which, truthfully, were not far off the mark. The American response was a mixture of hostility and counterclaims that the British envied the new republic’s growing wealth and power. In fact, Haynes argues, it led Americans “from a deep-seated sense of cultural inferiority to a bold, if self-conscious declaration of their own exceptionalism” (43). A British reviewer wrote in the Edinburgh Review in 1820, asking who read an American book, watched an American play, or looked at American art or sculpture, and it aroused a firestorm of protest in the United States. Forced to admit some validity in the observation, American intellectuals responded by pointing out rising literary artists such as James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. [End Page 123]
As for American theater, Haynes, in one of his most interesting chapters, relates the sad state of the American stage. Virtually all of the leading actors were British. While the audience was largely upper crust, urban laborers often expressed class antagonism by protesting against arrogant British actors and those who fawned over them. Taking their lead from newspapers that cited some insult by a British actor, theater riots were fairly common in larger cities. Haynes connects these urban riots of the 1830s and 1840s to the perceived British influence over the antislavery movement. In fact, the worst riot in the antebellum era, the Astor Place riot in New York City in 1849, began as a dispute between American actor Edwin Forrest and his British rival William Charles Macready. Anti-British sentiment and the humbling of a British actor might have been the ostensible cause, but class conflict and anti-abolitionist hysteria was at the root of the riot, which killed twenty-two people.
America’s deep sense of inferiority was most obvious in the political arena. Anti-British sentiment seeped into virtually every aspect of American political life. Exploiting Anglophobia for political advantage was ever-present as both major parties hurled charges against the other of being a tool of the British. Henry Clay’s American System, for example, was attacked as a British system in disguise. Andrew Jackson’s anti-British animus was well known and, according to Haynes, a significant part of his allure among followers. Jackson’s fear-mongering during the Bank War incorporated an Anglophobia shared by many. The collapse of the American economy in the late 1830s was blamed on too much dependence on British banking houses. There was some humiliating validity to the charge, but the British also served as a convenient scapegoat.
The slavery issue stirred conflicted emotions regarding the British. Individuals in both North and South regarded the British as hypocrites, and blamed them for introducing the institution of slavery into the colonies. Yet many American reformers applauded the British for their success in banishing slavery across their empire and sought to emulate their success. William Lloyd Garrison openly admired British efforts to extend their crusade against slavery to the United...