Conventions

The British And The Americans: Beginnings

Having covered the French and the Americans in the previous post, I thought extracting some examples of the British and the Americans early on in their “relationship” (long before it was “special”) might make for an interesting post for today:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Conventions: The Garden At Paris is not just about France and the U.S. The British are a vital part in the story.

Some background. Until the early 1770s, most Americans had been an enthusiastic part of the British Empire. They had thought of themselves more or less as “overseas British.” As late as 1774, many colonial leaders still did not believe independence was necessary to resolve the grievances with the Crown.

[Main entrance. George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Virginia. Photo by me, 2011.]

Most lost that sense of Britishness within a decade – especially as London made it clear that as “colonials” they were not the equals of metropolitan British. Former Virginia militia colonel George Washington perhaps sensed independence was necessary before many others got there; yet even he had his doubts, and finally decided independence was the only choice upon learning during 1776 that London, rather than talking seriously to colonial leaders, had dispatched German mercenaries to America to help put down the growing revolt. Other Americans traveled much the same path in their own ways: however they each got there, they moved to seeing themselves as a distinctive people who should govern themselves.

[The 1775-1777 “Grand Union” flag. The first flag of the United States. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

Initially, much of the British public rallied to their Government’s call that the rebellion had to be put down – or Britain would be reduced to weakness and left at the mercy of the French. Early on, British commanders tried to fight a “soft war” and sought a quick settlement. (As if demonstrating the “civil war” nature of the conflict, Sir William Howe, Britain’s top general in America, was married to an American.) However, the terms they were empowered to offer were unacceptable to most Americans: they basically consisted of amnesty for “rebels,” but no further assurances on how governance in the Colonies would function thereafter.

Gradually, British public opinion shifted as it appeared that most Americans did indeed want independence; that it wasn’t just a “radical minority” stirring up trouble as the Government had maintained. British officers discovered they could “control” only the ground on which British – and German mercenary – soldiers stood, and naturally there were not enough of them on the planet to have stood on every foot of ground in America. When France finally allied itself with the Americans in early 1778, increasing numbers of British said the war had to be ended and a friendly relationship rebuilt with an independent United States – to save Britain from the French.

[Methodist church and open fields. Ashland, New York. Photo by me, 2016.]

With France’s help, the Americans held on. The British government recognized U.S. independence officially in 1783. Subsequently peaceful relations were established between what were now suddenly the two countries: Americans and British had moved from kinship to enemies to friendship again. Although the latter was still somewhat uneasy, as many Americans remained highly suspicious of the British government.

An aside to put the era in some additional context. As the American rebellion was breaking out in 1775, in England one Jane Austen was born that same year and lived until 1817. She would write her now immortal novels of the English gentry in the early 1800s – about a generation after British recognition of American independence.

Being age “28” in “1813” – the time of the Pride and Prejudice novel – would have put his birth in “1785,” thus meaning while he, “Fitzwilliam Darcy,” could not have, his father certainly could have served in British forces in the American War for Independence.

[Excerpt of Jane Austen’s “Pride And Prejudice,” on Kindle. Photo by me, 2017.]

We tend to know a lot about pre-independence and about the war itself. But the war’s immediate aftermath in the 1780s is fascinating in its own way as Americans and British sought a new way forward; at that time, most Americans of course recalled British rule. The first U.S. president actually to be born in an independent U.S. would be the 1782-born eighth president: Martin Van Buren.

[A view of President Martin van Buren’s Columbia County, New York home. Photo by me, 2014.]

Those who had never been to “the mother country” were often overwhelmed by it:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

To many British who had opposed the war, and also perhaps had lived in America and even served side by side with the Americans in the war with France from 1754-1763 in the pre-independence colonies…

[American reenactors in British uniforms, at the reconstructed Fort William Henry museum, Lake George, NY. Photo by me, 2013.]

…the 1775-1783 American war of independence had been a disaster. It often had also interrupted, or maybe forever ended, long-time friendships with Americans that were occasionally nearly familial:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Americans today often know of British member of parliament Edmund Burke’s outspoken opposition to the war. Less well known is how another anti-government MP, Charles James Fox, and his supporters, went so far in backing the Americans and demanding the King and his Government make peace with them, that they even took to wearing blue hats and blue clothing – the colors of Washington’s Continental Army soldiers – when they entered the House of Commons.

Even so, even friends of America in Britain often had their own take on George Washington:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Not every American desired independence, of course. Thousands who opposed it fled to Britain, including large numbers at the end of the war in 1783 and in the first years afterwards of peace. Many British also lamented the loss of what could have been:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Yet many British had also never met an American until they encountered Americans in Britain after the war:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

With peace, new relationships began to be forged. Young Americans in Europe often were unsure of themselves…

[Attributed to Alexandre-Jean Noël (French) (1751/2-1834). “A View of Place Louis XV”. About 1775-1787. Public Domain. Wikipedia.]

…even in Paris, amidst their independence war French allies:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Peace reminded both British and Americans that the war was not the end:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

And they learned from each other:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Americans in Britain, too, saw a new, but old, world. Some Americans had been raised by parents who had been to Britain and still had friends and relatives there…

[Chesham, Buckinghamshire. Photo by me, 2016.]

…so seeing Britain for themselves was often the experience of a lifetime:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Across the Channel together, in Paris, they could also find they shared travelers’ and expats’ commonality:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

With the French Revolution beginning in 1789, Americans in Britain could realize how close they still were to the British:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

And they could share humorous notes:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Naturally, they did not always see eye to eye on everything:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

In writing home to friends, family and even to their government officials in America, Americans in Europe could also be frank and outspoken about the British:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

But both could also be disturbed by what they saw in revolutionary France:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Amidst that revolution, they may have unexpectedly even found themselves once more on “the same side”:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Indeed, French too were often surprised that the former enemies could be friends:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

But governments being what they are, as we know, new difficulties arose:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

And, as it turned out, in 1783 the Americans and the British were not quite yet finished shooting at each other…

Fortunately, since 1814-15, the old enmities have been almost entirely forgotten and thankfully consigned to history.

I hope you enjoyed that, and have had a good weekend, wherever you are. 🙂