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how british is american culture

When Russell Kirk wrote America’s British Culture it was as a necessary corrective to frequent claims that ours is a polyglot culture, a “multi culture” held together solely by certain abstract political principles, generally summed up in a phrase from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal,” with “inalienable rights”). Kirk’s is, indeed, a good and useful book, pointing to the cultural origins of American traditions of thought and action in the British Isles. But one should not take Kirk’s book, or any truly conservative work on the roots of American order, as an endorsement of the fantasy that America, or at any rate conservative America, is some kind of cheap copy of high Anglican English culture, with its highly-mannered ethos and its rejection of political principle in favor of “muddling through” at all costs. Conservatives do not, or at least should not, simply adopt customs not their own, or accept full identification with a narrowly defined culture with which they share only a limited number of common sources and living traditions. Such a path may have been appropriate for T.S. Eliot. But the reasons for this ex-patriot poet’s English conversion had more to do with the primacy of his mind and the timeless art he produced than with the capacity of peoples to pursue a good life in concrete, historical circumstances.

America’s British culture is not purely English, let alone Anglican—thank goodness. Our culture’s grounding in dissenting traditions and the customs of a mix of enterprising and spiritual settlers shaped its growth from the beginning toward a strong republicanism and principled religiosity that allowed our nation, until quite recently, to avoid the worst degradations of ideological politics long dominant in the United Kingdom. It is to this culture, and to neither English high Anglicanism nor any mythic ideological individualism that Americans should look in working to renew our embattled way of life.

America’s culture has its roots in somewhat divergent sets of early immigrants, but immigrants who rather quickly came to share a common view of the proper nature of private character and public life. For example, the Puritans who founded the northern colonies of New England certainly were no effete, aristocratic Anglicans. Calvinists to the core, they had for many decades, even before leaving Great Britain, joined in close-knit communities through “church covenants,” whereby they agreed, before God, to govern themselves in political, economic, religious, and even legal dealings separate from the established, Anglican Church. Known as Dissenters, these settlers brought with them a version of the English constitutional tradition that emphasized the rights of local communities to govern themselves, as they had sought to do under the thumb of the established Church of England. And they did so without lords, let alone bishops.

As David Hackett Fischer shows in his highly important Albion’s Seed, there were other settlers with other cultural characteristics and practices (or “folkways”) as well. And these settlers formed homogeneous communities in different, to begin with quite isolated, parts of the American colonies. They maintained their own character even as, over time, their interactions shaped a broader common culture. These groups included highly individualistic settlers from the border regions between England and Scotland, Quakers from England’s North Midlands, and a rather small and limited kind of aristocratic element centered in Virginia and made up of younger sons of southern English nobles. The Puritans and Quakers would exercise cultural, intellectual, and constitutional influence beyond their numbers, particularly through their capacity to draft important documents and to succeed in economic life. Further south, adventurers separate from America’s religious foundations had not fared well in the early days, but their borderland successors became aggressive settlers of a new back country and anchored the more aristocratic elements of their region, literally swamping any attempt to establish an Anglican hierarchy. Indeed, English talk of sending a bishop to America was as frightening to many southerners as to their northern counterparts. And newer sects, particularly the Anabaptists (today’s Baptists) gained significant sway, there.

ColonialistsNone of this is to say that there were not truly aristocratic elements present in the American colonies. There were; they were called loyalists or Tories, and the vast majority of them left after their side lost the War for Independence. (It would take decades for a substantial “aristocracy” of slaveholding planters to develop.) Ancestry is not destiny, of course. Moreover, it has proven all too easy for observers to mistake the republicanism of America for a democratic culture in the contemporary sense. When Tocqueville wrote of Democracy in America, he was comparing American society with the hereditary aristocracies of Europe, among which even British culture was considered rather egalitarian on account of class intermarriage and the susceptibility of English nobles to taxation. There was only a remnant or rump of an inherited aristocracy in the New World—that in Virginia, headed by a small number of younger sons of lesser nobles. But there was a common commitment to an ordered society, by which was meant a society consisting of differing orders of persons, with some ranking higher than others.

American aristocracy would be “natural” aristocracy. Talent, industry and in some places perceived godliness would constitute valid claims to high status. The roots of this aristocracy lay in the practices of religious communities and the practical habits born of adventurous and commercial lives. The “better sort” would be highly educated by any standard. Their fundamentally British education would encompass the classics of Greek and Roman politics and letters. The culture of the mind, as it were, would be in some ways more British than that of the English themselves, for it would be more widespread and take in sources on the periphery of the English imagination, for example various Calvinist writings. There also would be immigration throughout the colonial era. Scots in particular would help shape the mind of the colonies and new nation as they brought elements of the Scottish Enlightenment and common sense philosophy to these shores.

All this is to say that the roots of our culture are undeniably British, but also republican and Calvinist. The Protestantism of American culture is filtered through the communalist, localist lens of local religious self-government, and there was scant room for aristocracy in the true sense, here. As to other religions, American culture from the beginning was relatively tolerant (banishing more than hanging). But bearers of this culture had no qualms about asserting their cultural hegemony. Catholics in particular had to work for many decades to even begin to enrich this culture’s mind and, alas, would not fully succeed before their own educational establishment crumbled. And this brings to mind the contemporary cultural challenge for those who would renew our traditions and way of life.

The deeper roots of contemporary rights, duties, and understandings lay within traditions still relatively unknown to the dominant culture. They have their origins in the Middle Ages, in the Church’s battles with kings and nobles, in the formation of the canon law and, from it, the western legal tradition, and through this to both Catholic and Protestant city-states and federations that sought to uphold piety, liberty, and self-government. These roots must be re-discovered and renewed among both Protestants and Catholics if we are to maintain the tree of ordered liberty and constitutional self-government they support.

63580Given the character of American culture, it is not surprising that Catholics and evangelicals have so much in common yet have so much trouble cooperating for common ends. Tocqueville noted that an American township resembled a medieval French village as something live resembles the same thing after death. Catholics struggle to revive the practical groundings of their faith in the midst of institutional breakdown and subservient clericalism. At the same time, however, Protestants, especially of the serious Calvinist bent, struggle to communicate to themselves as well as others the concrete grounds for the way of life they know in their bones instantiates the permanent goods of mankind.

Whatever the status of today’s “clash of civilizations,” within the United States the so-called culture war is not being fought primarily among people of differing faiths, but rather between people of faith and people who seek to drive faith from the public square. Sadly, this is a decades-old struggle, still not fully recognized. But such recognition should cause all people of faith to work with one another, despite theological differences, to the extent that they support and seek to renew our common culture. I leave for another post discussion of how far such a common culture extends in regard to immigrant groups. It clearly extends to Jews, whose faith has had such influence on our own faith and culture, both historically and through cultural cross-pollenization in America. Where members of other faiths are concerned, the issue is not one of theology primarily, but of sustained commitment to a way of life.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Republican and Calvinist? Oh yes, by the bucketload. British? Definitely not. 🙂

    From Britain, America is vaguely ‘British’ to the degree its cultural imperialism has wheedled itself into our consciousness through those here who watch hours of its programmes (‘shows’) on our TV channels and its films (‘movies’), but not by nature. In other words, we have come to understand America through being sold American cultural products, not that we understood it already. Last year, when I was in America, a relation of mine – American born and bred, but spent a lot of time ‘over here’ – said he was ashamed to admit it, ‘But the majority of Americans are so up their own backside and don’t see just how parochial they are’, as he put it.

    Why turn to Chesterton, Belloc, Lewis, and Tolkein (as well as most Authors of American publishing houses like ‘Tan Books’ being British or European)? Is it because all America has seems to be Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, et al.: the fathers of New Age, Relativistic, Psychobabble from their Protestant/subjectivist roots?

    Would this be necessary if ‘Britishness’ was inherent in the culture in the first place? I’m not fascinated by those British writers because they’re already part of my ‘cultural wallpaper’. I can hop on a train and be in Oxford in no time and have a pint in the ‘Eagle and Child’, in which Lewis and Tolkein sat, chatting.

    So as Chesterton, et al. – expressions of British cultural thought – formed British Christianity, have Emerson, Thoreau, etc., formed American Christianity – the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ sort?
    For, by reading what they write, it seems their ideas have had a strong influence. But also, another reason I surmise this is because, when it was too expensive to ship American mass-market ‘Evangelical Christian’ paperbacks and merchandise to our country our Christianity was very Traditional all over. But as ‘Christian Bookshops’ started opening in England in the early 1980s selling 99% American Christian ‘stuff’, our Churches started splitting and ‘house churches’ and independents started springing up.

    It seemed like we were merely beginning to mimic the American ‘non-denominational’ scene in the Churches which, up until then, had been only 3 denominations, and Catholics. So, American Christianity arrives on our shores, and Churches start splitting and turning to individualistic spirituality. Hmmm. Strange coincidence? Bible Alone, Faith Alone, Everything Alone…?

    In other words, I’m not sure how much ‘Britishness’ is intrinsic, or something ‘imported’, too. Is it something America has only by ‘ressourcement’ or research, not something implicit in its cultural life? Is it that independence, unintentionally, threw the baby out with the bathwater and, in a sense you want the baby back?

    In a nutshell, might it be that the American Church suffers from Americanism, whilst the European Church suffers from Modernism? Are they distinctly different, but have overlaps as they share the ideas of people like Locke, Paine, et al.?

    I find these ideas we’ve been importing since the 1980s from America toxic because they’ve done a lot of damage to our Church. They are alien ideas and, being alien ideas, are so clearly visible as they spread through our culture and Churches, like septicaemia, destroying communities which end up looking little different from American non-denominationals.

    Just ‘sharing’ a language is not a sign of being culturally similar, yet it is assumed by many that it is. Australians are culturally different to the English, as are even the Welsh, Irish, and Scots (who are Scottish, not ‘Scotch’ (Scotch is Whisky, without an ‘e’). 🙂

    For us in Britain, it seems it is more like this (below), and that American Christianity/Catholicism are not paradigms or blueprints for the rest of the world, but only one, limited, expression with its own problems, a lesson I think it finds hard to learn…

    And, while I’m at it, I am not ‘in the UK’, I am in England. England is not a state, it is a country. 🙂

  2. “America’s culture has its roots in somewhat divergent sets of early immigrants. . .”

    Immigrants? The people who left Britain and Ireland for America were British subjects moving from one British territory to another. They were not “immigrants”, but colonists and conquerors. The only way they would have been “immigrants” would have been if they had come over the Atlantic to become part of Indian societies–Mohawk or Powhatan or whatever. Instead, they subjugated those societies, extending their own British (mainly English) society to a new area, like their distant ancestors who came from the north German regions to the island of Britain in the fifth century, conquering the island and establishing the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms there. They were not immigrants, either, but conquerors like their 17th-century descendants in America.

    There were some immigrants to colonial America, mainly Germans in Pennsylvania, but the rest were colonists, not immigrants. The notion that we are “a nation of immigrants” is ill-considered and wrong.

    • The reason people argue for immigration by saying “we’re a nation of immigrants” I think is because most of them are middle or working class and are descendants of Irish,Italians,Germans,Poles
      Etc, the WASPs have long been a minority. But the have have kept Yankee values which I think is not a good thing, for various reasons.

  3. Mr. Frohnen has set up a straw man in a strange article, which has many good points, but in which he makes some dubious assertions about the history.

    It is one thing to say that America’s culture is British, or even English, at its roots. It is entirely another to say that it is “Anglican,” and I don’t believe that there is any serious historical argument to be made that it was [or is], or that there are any significant historians who have made that argument. No one really thinks that T.S. Eliot has any relevance to an assessment of the roots of American culture, especially its political culture [Eliot’s birth in St. Louis almost seems incidental to his work and outlook, and, besides took place long after the roots of American culture were laid down by much earlier generations of Englishmen].

    The roots of American culture are most emphatically English, but not, of course, the English culture of the 19th or 20th centuries. The Puritan movement of the early 17th century, which generated the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was also part of the force behind the English Civil War (and, in fact, migration to New England slowed dramatically during Cromwell’s rule—English Puritans during that decade did not feel as urgent a need to remove themselves from the active reach of the Church of England). Pennsylvania, of course, started as an experiment under the aegis of the Quaker movement, another particularly English phenomenon. The southern colonies were initially established by Englishmen, and the home-grown aristocracy that dominated the plantation economy looked directly to England for virtually all of their trade, selling their cash crops (e.g., tobacco) directly to London factors (it is simply not true to claim that a substantial aristocracy of slaveholding planters developed only in the decades after independence, as Mr. Frohnen implies—the position of families such as the Randolphs and the Lees in Virginia was well established by then).

    The North American colonies governed themselves according to English common law, and their colonial governments looked to England as the source of their authority. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Seven Years War, in response to the ham-handed way in which the King and his ministers tried to raise revenue out of the colonies, that the colonists started to contemplate the possibility of being something other than Englishmen. And, while much of the political thinking in the late colonial period owed much to the Scottish Enlightenment, that movement in turn owed something to English thinkers, e.g. Locke.

    Yes, as the 18th century unfolded, notable numbers of Scots came to the colonies, particularly to the mid-Atlantic and southern colonies. But, their access to the colonies was at least in part a result of the Act of Union at the beginning of the century (a Union in which England was dominant), and the very concept of “Britishness” was still being worked out. In the meantime, the underlying English framework of American institutions remained intact, particularly as the political power (and wealth) remained concentrated on the coasts. Germans also came, and settled in the interior, but it would be an exaggeration to state that German culture played a significant part in the political and cultural foundations of the U.S. (the real cultural impact of German immigration came later).

    That is not to say that American culture “is some kind of cheap copy of high Anglican English culture.” I’m not even sure what Mr. Frohnen means by such a statement, but I suspect more than whiff of anachronism. The term “high Anglican” generally refers to a style and manner that developed with a conscious (or even self-conscious) adoption of some of the forms of the Roman rite in the 19th century. I don’t think it was applicable in the 18th or early 19th, and a look at the architecture of some Anglican churches from the colonial period should be enough evidence of that. Mr. Frohnen also fails to account for the very real evangelical fervor that swept the Church of England at the time. George Whitfield and preached in both England and the colonies. John Wesley and Charles Wesley both remained in the Anglican church throughout their lives, and the separation of the Methodist movement from the C of E took place over the following decades. If Mr. Frohnen, by “high Anglican” means something like St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, or St. Thomas Church on Fifth Ave. in New York City, he should recognize that those institutions are products of the late 19th or early 20th centuries, and have little to do with the English roots of American culture—they are a later gloss.

    In addition, Mr. Frohnen resorts to silly stereotypes, some of which contradict each other. After all, if English culture (or Anglican—Frohnen appears to be confused about what he really means when he says either) has a “highly-mannered ethos and [a] rejection of political principle in favor of ‘muddling through’ at all costs,” how is it also the case that the United Kingdom was also dominated by “the worst degradations of ideological politics”? In fact, 18th century British politics was profoundly non-ideological, but instead appears to have been largely motivated by faction based on interest and no small whiff of corruption.

    It’s a shame, because, towards the end of the piece, Mr. Frohnen articulates some questions that are worth pondering, and some problems worth addressing. But his somewhat sloppy conflation of the terms “English” and “Anglican” makes his argument harder to assess.

  4. It’s further worth remembering that until 1965, immigration was allowed primarily to those who could best assimilate to the ideal of overseas Britishness, i.e, to those of Northwestern European ancestry with a smattering of Eastern and Southern Europeans.

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