Some years ago Will got a book entitled ” When London was the Capital of America” by Julie Flavell. The book is the story of colonial America and though we forget it prior to 1776 London was the Imperial Capital of all British North America, it included the 13 original colonies and the territories south, after 1763 it also included all of Canada which had passed from French domination to British after the end of the Seven Year War and the Treaty of Paris.
Flavell debunks a lot of myths about America before 1776 and its white colonists. It was the practice for American colonists especially those with money to send their sons and daughters to London or Geneva for a proper education and to learn manners and etiquette and to become proper gentleman and ladies. This was very important for social status in the American colonies, you could not be considered educated if you did not have a British education. Geneva on the other hand provided a good Calvinist upbringing and had no vice like London.
American colonists in London lived in fashionable neighbourhoods in and around Temple Bar and Westminster and St-James Palace. Most of them were prosperous merchants and Plantation owners, arriving in London with their African slaves from Virginia and the Carolinas.
Those slaves who only knew of life on a plantation suddenly discovered that in London they had a great deal of liberty and that many white people were in fact living in horrible poverty and neglect. The only whites they had encountered in America had better lives than they did, in London these African slaves lived and worked in genteel surroundings in great houses, they also saw that in England there was lots of white servants and they were equal to them. The African slaves invented the expression ” White trash” to speak of all those poor whites living on the streets of London. This is how their white masters saw all the poor below them socially.
African slaves who arrived regularly and in large numbers from America with their masters were dressed in elegant livery and since no slavery laws existed in England could go about society since their masters had little leverage over them in this foreign environment. London ladies found those Africans handsome and took them as lovers and even married them, which cause no end of distress and disgust among plantation owners visiting London with their families, in America the strict segregation of races was in force but not so in England. Some Slaves being enterprising would set themselves up in business after leaving their American masters who were powerless to enforce rights they had in America. In fact the Londoners would look down on those American colonists for their treatment of slaves, it cause quite a lot of social friction.
The book also shows that there was no American archetype prior to 1776, the so called mythological American hero challenging England. American colonists were in manners and speech just like the British in London, even Benjamin Franklin was very much trying to emulate Londoners and the English gentlemen. The American in London telling off the Londoners with speeches about democracy and freedom is nothing more than an elaborate myth.
The entire period from 1720 onward was also one of reform in England socially and politically, the issues were the same, the Westminster Parliament was controlled by the Aristocracy and the Court around the King. The British were no happier with this situation than the American colonists. In England the Government of Lord North was very unpopular and in America the ham fisted response to events like the Boston Tea Party was seen as a provocation by the colonists. However when the revolution started in 1776 many American colonists simply packed their bags and left for England or Canada, thousands did so. Selling their property and moving, the revolution was not embraced by all and it had little to do with Freedom and more with political reform which was coming in England. In America it was more a question of poor handling of a political situation and the arrogance of the Aristocracy thinking it could use the British army against colonists at will.
The book follows real people like the Henry Laurens family of South Carolina, wealthy plantation owners who spend a lot of time in England and in Geneva educating their children. This family will play a prominent role in the revolution and in the new republic. The author gives us through her research in family letters and journals a very clear picture of who they were and is also able to give us a portrait of the family slave Robert Scipio Laurens who will leave his master and make a new life for himself in England. She also devotes chapters to others like John Laurens son of Henry who after brilliant education in London will die in one of the last battles of the American revolution in 1783. John Allen from Pennsylvania, Ralph Izard and many others also get their stories told, they all lived in the same area in London and knew each other well.
The book is a fascinating look at America and London as its capital and how society functioned something that is too often overlooked. I highly recommend this easy to read and well researched book.