Challenges Facing America and British Traditions
America and British Traditions
In the 18th and 19th centuries, a literary metaphor that was commonly used was a crucible, or melting pot, that described the combination of numerous cultures and ideas into one — just as one might put several different ingredients into a pot to make stew. This was a rather idealized tern that took the processes of immigration and colonization to the extreme — almost a utopian vision of a number of different nationalities, races, and cultures blended into one new community — all with the goal of making their new land the absolute best it could possibly be. In fact, in 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner used this metaphor of immigrants melting into one new American culture in his essay about the new Frontier. He saw this new western expanse as a way that individuals could move away from their previous cultural biases, cast off whether they were a northerner or southerner, and melt together in the great expanse of the American West (Turner). That being said, in every stew there is a main ingredient that makes it possible to include other products. Similarly, in the United States, the major ingredient for culture, law, and economics came from Great Britain.
The entire development of the United States has had two predominant features: British traditions, especially in those used to organize society, and the urge to take a new and original path. While there were colonial settlements from almost every European nation, it was the 17th century British colonists that became the most ingrained in the new land. Nationalistic views were popular in England, but so was the idea of immigrating to a new land in which religious freedom would be tolerated. Once the Eastern seaboard was explored and several exportable products found, there were practical considerations to bolster the Crown’s treasury in its ongoing fight with Spain to consider, as well as a place to dispense with undesirables, political and religious radicals, and those whom the government found unfavorable. The majority of British colonization, then, bringing language, culture and a clear tie with England, came during the 17th century. Jamestown, for instance, was established in 1607 and had various trials and tribulations. The Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony, and other Puritan groups came next, followed by more wealthy British settling in the Carolinas and Georgia to exploit agriculture. What is so important about these settlements is the way they eventually coalesced into the original 13 Colonies, but used English as the common language, legal doctrines from English Common Law, and a society patterned largely after that in Great Britain of the time (Ciment).
Despite the discontent with which the Colonies held for certain aspects of British governance, the basic structure and documents of the American Republic were still patterned off British legal tradition. Even after the split from England, and the subsequent War of 1812, there remained a strong tie with what many still considered to be “the Mother Country.” Despite numerous international and foreign policy disagreements over the next century or so, the philosophical leanings of America and Britain meshed during the great wars and political alignments of the 20th century (John Bull and Uncle Sam – Four Centuries of British-American Relations).
Of course, one of the most obvious traditions inherited from the British is the English language. This, even with a strong lobby to use German as the official language during the Constitutional Convention, set the stage for cultural relevancy. For with language, comes literature and with literature comes culture — even today, the native language of almost 85% of the population is English (The United States).
In fact, the famous writers of the 1800s were all schooled in British literature, many of them in England itself. It was their calling, they believed, to take the traditions learned from many of the British romantics and turn their own talents into something uniquely American. For instance, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edward Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau took a number of Briticisms and turned them into classical American styles. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson continued this tradition to the end of the 19th century. So alike yet distinct did these , that they are now required reading in British schools (Duquette).
In terms of religion, American culture emulated Britain less than many of the early settler were reactionary against British conservatism. Several of the original 13 Colonies were established by English, Irish, and Scottish settlers who were fleeing religious persecution. By 1787, in fact, the United States became one of the first countries to place a freedom of religion code into law, even if it was only at the Federal level (Gaustad).
Thankfully, America has a taste for more exotic foods and cuisine than the British, but if we think of many of the celebrated Holidays, they either derive from or are part of the British tradition. Thanksgiving, for instance, is now a traditional American holiday evolving from the Pilgrim’s plight during the first winter of their landing. Christmas, Easter, and Lent are Christian European holidays; St. Patrick’s Day a celebration of Irish Immigration; Independence Day (July 4th) celebrates the anniversary of America’s split with Britain; and Halloween is part of an ancient Druidic tradition, going back even before the Norman invasion of England.
In sports, America has taken soccer and rugby, and until recently, turned them into a frenetic fantasy for American football. Similarly, baseball is clearly all-American. In the visual arts, much like literature, there was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and tradition from Britain as well. Theater became distinctly American in the early part of the 20th century, but has imported a number of British musicals that have risen to the stratosphere in America (Cats, Evita, Phantom of the Opera, etc.). Similarly, America has its own musical tradition, and American Jazz, Pop, and Swing are very popular in Europe. But it was the British invasion that as the predominant new music of the late 1950s and 1960s. In fact, because of the shared language, exposure to American troops during and after World War II, and a shared youth subculture of the late 1950s, that caused a new revival of a music that would change history: the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, The Animals, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Moody Blues, and Cream — all developing out of American Rock and then back into American rock as the predominant British influence (The British Invasion).
It is interesting to note that when viewing the literature on American and British culture that a clear pattern emerges. First, British culture overwhelmed early American settlements and colonial times. Then, once America had her independence, Britain still exerted influences in literature, education, the arts, and even diplomacy. Then, as the British Empire pinnacled under Victoria, the entire political, social, and cultural makeup of the world changed. Two World Wars were fought, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and a of espionage and covert warfare with Britain and America aligned against the Soviet Union. During the 20th and into the 21st centuries, then, the British influence turned to more of a shared cultural heritage and use of the media to increase the speed and veracity of a sharing culture — both sides continually influencing one another in fashion, the arts, movies, entertainment, and now, even politics (Gienow-Hecht).
Ciment, J., ed. Colonial America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History. New York: Sharpe Reference, 2005.
Duquette, E. Loyal Subjects: Bonds of Nation, Race and Allegiance in 19th Century America. Trenton, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.
Gaustad, E. All the Land: A History of Church and State in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Gienow-Hecht, J. “A European Considers the Influence of American Culture.” 1 Febuary 2006. America.gov – Engaging the World. .
“John Bull and Uncle Sam – Four Centuries of British-American Relations.” 30 December 2005. Library of Congress. .
“The British Invasion.” 2010. All Music.com. .
“The United States.” 2010. CIA World Factbook. .
Turner, F.J. “The Frontier in American History.” 1009. Project Gutenberg. .
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