A report that one of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisors criticized President Obama for failing to appreciate the “Anglo-Saxon heritage” that the United States shares with Britain is causing a minor stir today. Several bloggers have accused the advisor of playing to suspicions that the Obama is not a real American. The Romney campaign distanced itself from the remark, asserting that, “If anyone said that, they weren’t reflecting the views of Governor Romney or anyone inside the campaign.” Speculation has settled on Nile Gardiner, a British journalist who’s on Romney’s working group for European issues, as the likely source. A roundup of all these developments by the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent is here.
As far as electoral politics goes, this is a non-issue. Most voters simply don’t care about this kind of stuff–and they’re right not to. But the remark raises questions that are likely to be of interest to many readers of this blog. Are there enduring cultural connections between the United States and its erstwhile mother country?
Waves of immigration have transformed the United States since the Revolution, and Britain since the 1960s. Nevertheless, there’s reason to think that some of the original connections endure. As David Hackett Fischer demonstrated in the masterful Albion’s Seed, many aspects of America’s distinctive regional cultures can be traced back to the British origins of their original settlers. These are not necessarily continuities of blood: my great grandparents came to Massachusetts by steamship from Hamburg, not on the Mayflower. Nevertheless, it’s possible to recognize the old Puritan heritage in the New England liberalism of most of their descendants.
But it’s misleading to describe the folkways and political traditions that Americans inherited from Britain as “Anglo-Saxon”. For the most part, they date back no further than the 16th century, when British life was redefined by the Reformation and the beginnings of capitalism.
The Anglo-Saxons, on the other hand, were Germanic tribes who lived in Britain after about the 5th century. Although not eliminated, their language (Old English) and political institutions were transformed by the Norman conquest in 1066. Calling the early modern traditions that connected the United States and Britain in the colonial period “Anglo-Saxon” is a little like calling the calling the Pope the pontifex maximus. There’s a sense in which it’s true, but too much history separates the two eras for the comparison to be useful.
Now, there is a tradition of Whig political thought that attributed English liberty to a pre-Norman “ancient constitution”. The definitive response is David Hume’s History of England. Hume argued that the ancient constitution was first heard of in the 17th century. Not coincidentally, that’s also the initial period of British migration to the American colonies. If some Americans have thought of themselves as possessing an Anglo-Saxon pedigree, it’s partly because their ancestors left Britain right at the moment when it was being dreamed up.
For the most part, however, such references have disappeared from public conversation. In addition to being historically misleading, they don’t go down well with the large majority of Americans who aren’t WASPs. In France, however, the world’s problems are sometimes blamed on the perfidy of les anglo-saxons. Could Mitt Romney be planning a special relationship…with the French?