Thomas Russell Wingate
When the British Empire and the United States most formally and most finally parted ways in 1783, not everyone shifted mental gears.
The idea was permitted to linger that Great Britain, especially England, was the mother country, deserving of affection.
It goes almost unnoticed how readily, how easily the American Revolution united its states around the un-English proposition that no king must ever arise or return.
Debated and written constitutions legitimized and amendable by the self-continuing PEOPLE of each state, and by the self-continuing PEOPLE of the United States, replaced written but revocable charters granted by a monarch.
This practical and liberating device is still un-British. Americans are defined by it. They are famously resolved that it shall not perish.
As Thomas Paine put it: “In America the law is king.”
We conduct our quarrels—even the Civil War—around the question “what shall the law be?” and not “who shall the king be?”
The British flag never flew over Texas.
The British flag never flew over California.
The British flag never flew over Missouri.
The British flag never flew over New Mexico.
The British flag never flew over Alaska.
In colonial times, the British flag did not always fly over New York or New Jersey.
Is it not strange, bizarre, inappropriate that Americans might permit a reference to “the mother country” to pass unchallenged and unresented?
“Wicked stepmother country” would be a better analogy. The colonists came at their own expense across the Atlantic to escape London’s policies, not to further them.
They voted with their sails.
Ah, yes, the language imported from the sceptered isle.
Americans devised two impressive deviations.
Spelling was altered by Noah Webster’s dictionary (1828), which prevailed by utility alone.
Nowhere else in the English-speaking world was this done. Ever. Not even in Ireland.
And the 1611 Bible¹ was remodeled.
Americans stopped calling it the Authorized Version. The translators’ letter to “the most high and mighty prince James, by the grace of God king of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith” vanished from American printings. An internal state document of the Stuart monarchy was impertinent here.
Acts of Parliament gave copyright to the Authorized Version to the “privileged presses” of the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford . Go ahead, inspect any British printing.
In the United States, the King James Version is in the public domain. American printers cashed in on the cultural requirements of the citizenry.
And they did so with Noah Webster’s spellings. Go ahead, inspect nearly any American printing.
David Gelertner is right:
In this nation’s history you rarely have to dig very deep to find the Bible, even in places where you don’t expect it. America is a shining beach on the edge of an ocean of Bible. Dig anywhere on the beach and you will find the Bible welling up.
The American Republic emblemized itself as an unfinished pyramid under the all-seeing eye of God—a work in progress, destined to endure forever. NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM—New Order of the Ages.
There is nothing about a “mother country” in any of this.
American citizens of British lineage and sympathy have stressed our country’s British roots.²
The American revolutionaries presented themselves as “more deeply and authentically English” than the Hanoverian king and his ministers in foggy London. This was shrewd. It worked. (Other arguments were used in Paris to sway a more foreign king.)
Our twenty-first century federal republic is not (in computer lingo) British Empire 2.0. Nor is the European Union U.S.A. 2.0.
“Yankee” is of Dutch colonial origin. It came to mean American—Protestant—from the Northeast. Southerners came to use the term loosely to mean any white Northerner (including Lincoln, a Kentucky native of Virginian-English descent).
The term expanded. Americans of all origins find themselves called by it (or its affectionate diminutive “Yank.”)
Yanqui is considered a pejorative in Latin America.³
“Anglo” is an amputation of “Anglo-Saxon” or “Anglo-Celtic” or both. It is usually used neutrally, as are “Hispanic” and “Latino.”
In England a tenth-generation Hungarian might become a British subject but no one would consider him an Englishman. In California he would be called an Anglo even if his English was poor. Let us not look for anything crystalline here.
No one needs to be told that controversy over “roots” and their meaning embroils all of Europe, all of the United States, and all of Canada.
I confine myself here to the cautious hope that all this may not be as bad it often looks.
History is longer and stronger than we suspect or remember.
1 See Bits of English on website.
2 See Magna Carta on website.
3 “Yankee Doodle,” now used in all patriotic events, began as a defamation.
Print This Page