The Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series – Professor Sarah Churchwell
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The Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series – Professor Sarah Churchwell


[music playing] Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening it’s
great pleasure to welcome you to this evenings Vice Chancellors distinguished
lecture. This as many of you know is a series of lectures which aims to bring
together the University and the wider community to reflect on major social
scientific cultural and policy issues of our time. Tonight it’s my great pleasure
to introduce Professor Sarah Churchwell professorial fellow in American
literature and chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities at the
School of Advanced Studies University of London. Professor Churchwell was born in
Virginia and grew up in the Midwest we were swapping stories about Chicago
beforehand where I went for holiday this summer. She studied at Vassar College and
Princeton University before relocating to the UK to become Professor of
American literature at the University of East Anglia. Now working out of the
University of London Sarah researches topics relating to American literature
culture and history across the long 20th century, by the way all centuries are
long now, with a particular focus on American myths and
icons. She has a wonderful gift for titles she is the author of Careless
People, Murder Mayhem and The Invention of the Great Gatsby and author of The
Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe This evening Sarah will be speaking on the
theme of America’s place in the world more specifically she’ll be drawing
on research from her most recent work Behold America which
follows the story of the American dream and what was once
seen as the countering phase America First through the
last century of American politics This latest book was described
by the Guardian as passionate well researched and comprehensive both a
document of our times and a thrilling survey of a half gotten and neglected
dimension of the American story. I’m sure there are some parallels that could be
drawn with the current state of affairs closer to home. In addition to being a
successful academic author Professor Churchwell is a true polymath
regularly commenting on arts culture and politics for television and radio
where appearances include Question Time News Night and the Review Show
Her impassioned yet eloquent views on politics have hit the headlines on more
than one occasion. She’s been a judge for the Booker Prize, The Women’s Prize
for Fiction and the David Cohen Prize for Literature and was herself the
co-winner of the Eccles British Library Writers Award. Her literary
journalism has appeared widely in newspapers including the New York Review
of Books, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Financial Times, The Times
Literary Supplement and the New York Times Book Review. If this were not
enough Sarah is also the director of The Being Human Festival a celebration of
humanities research through public engagement led by the School of Advanced
Study in the University of London in partnership with the AHRC and the British
Academy Being Human is the UK’s only national festival of the humanities
Established in 2014 and held in November each year the nationwide festival brings
together universities, museums, galleries libraries, community and commercial
partners to stage stimulating and engaging activities that make humanities
research accessible and relevant strengthen community identity and
increase understanding of the relevance of humanities to everyday life. Sarah’s
kindly agreed to take questions at the end of her lecture but now could you
please give her a warm welcome as she delivers her Vice-chancellors
Distinguished Lecture entitled America First and
The World Afterwards a cultural History of America. Ladies and
Gentlemen, Professor Sarah Churchwell [Applause] Thank You Vice Chancellor Eastwood very
much for that generous introduction and indeed for the generous invitation to
speak to you all here tonight and thank you all for coming it’s really an honour
to be asked to contribute to this series of distinguished lectures I feel
genuinely privileged to be here tonight and I thank you all for joining me
The original invitation asked me to speak about America and its place in the
world historically and in the present day this would always have been a vast
topic but today it is daunting to the point of being almost unanswerable
indeed for a while last week I was considering throwing out the entire
lecture that I’ve been working on and offering you instead of brief history of
presidential impeachment, I can do that later if you want but I think that the
political situation in America today is bewildering primarily because a certain
strand of American thought that has been present in the nation since its colonial
origins but especially since the Jackson presidency in the 1830s
is in ascendancy for the first time in a century and it’s in the white
house for the first time in history viewed out of historical context
American politics risks being decontextualised and deracinated to the
point of incomprehension, restoring history and cultural context won’t
explain everything but it can situate our thinking provide frames of reference
for events that can seem otherwise inexplicable. Much of what we take for
granted in cultural history our ideas that we inherited that we don’t even
think about or question they’ve been naturalised they seem
inevitable or inherent even biologically determined in some arguments and I’m
going to be talking about some of those tonight. But my position the
premise of this lecture lecture is that history is made
and that what is made can be unmade. So I want to talk to you
today about just a few of the ideas that were made in America mostly in fact out
of British heirlooms and considers some of their consequences. Everyone in this
room tonight was born into the world of the PAX Americana in which America as
a global superpower presided over a peaceful post-war settlement of liberal
democracy geopolitical stability was safeguarded by economic interdependence
and American military superiority which kept markets and
communication open emphasising mutual benefit and
enlightened self-interest over nationalistic competition this was the
world we were all born into whatever you thought of it you didn’t have to like it
but that was the liberal post-war order to the extent that people like Francis
Fukuyama famously declared history had ended in 1989 but as we’re all
relearning the hard way history is just one damn thing after another and it
definitely is not over yet. In 2009 an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times predicted
that the reverberations of the financial crash would bring down the Pax
Americana it ended the coming era of de-globalisation will be defined by rising
nationalism and mercantilism this is in 2009 geopolitical instability and great
power competition in other words having enjoyed a long holiday from history
under the Pax Americana international politics will be headed back to the
future, ten years later how prescient that seems. The idea of a post-war Pax
Americana was mooted almost immediately by at least 1951 Americans were
declaring that it had arrived while warning that debasing the level of
public discourse about foreign policy in the United States would lead inevitably
back to war and disaster so this is an article warning Americans to keep their
debates about foreign policy at a high level and not to let them become driven
by party politics I think we can agree that that warning went unheeded
but it’s also worth remembering that in 1951 when these claims about the Pax
Americana were being made America had just embroiled itself in another war in
Korea which Truman euphemistically called a police action so that nobody
would notice it was actually a war but in 1951 adult Americans would have
remembered all too clearly the question from only a decade earlier about whether
America would enter the Second World War a question that had remained hotly
contested until the moment Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and
one of the basic things that I want to do today is to remind us all that when
we look at history through decades we tend to forget that the same people were
alive across a lot of those decades and that they were aware of
the conversations as they went across time people in 1951 remembered
very clearly what had happened in 1941 just ten years earlier and until then it
had seemed that a movement called America First might carry the day
The America First committee was a non-interventionist coalition that
included pacifist, socialists conscientious objectors, capitalists and
corporatists as well as self-styled American fascists who sympathised with
the Axis powers America first leaders preached appeasement and isolationism at
its height in 1940 the America First committee had 800,000 members. Today it’s
recalled primarily as a group headed by Charles Lindbergh although he didn’t
found it and was only its official spokesman for about six months but he
became its most famous proponent he led America First rallies around the country
including several in Madison Square Garden with capacity crowds of 20,000
and 12,000 thousand more overflowing into the streets which is
that third image there on the right of the overflow. Lindbergh routinely claimed
in his speeches that British propaganda was leading America into war
insisting that the country must consider America First and
not in his words fight against hopeless odds while observers noted in the first
two clippings they’re were I’ve underlined that anti-British sentiment
seemed to be animating Lindbergh and the crowd in fact anti-British sentiment was
one of the primary reasons that America stayed out of the First World War as
long as it did and it had a great deal to do with popular arguments about
keeping out of the second, in other words don’t kid yourself about the
special relationship the original logic of America First was
driven in large part by animus against Britain specifically. These America first
rallies were coming hard on the heels of other rallies at Madison Square
Garden held just a year too earlier by a group originally known as the Friends of
the Hitler Movement before it realised that wasn’t a very PR friendly name and
changed it to the Friends of New Germany before changing that name to the German
American Bund which became its best known name it had been founded as
the official American offshoot of the Nazi Party at the beginning Hitler gave
it permission and Rudolf Hess helped set it up so it was very much an official
branch. At these rallies, this is Madison Square Garden this is not a
Nuremberg rally the stars and stripes hung next to swastikas while uniformed
stormtroopers filled the aisles of Madison Square Garden speakers routinely
named prominent Jewish politicians in the Roosevelt administration to loud
boos and jeers from the crowd and they referred to Roosevelt as a Rosenfeld or
they did this all the time it was a trope over and over and over again
Rosenfeld Rosenfeld implying not only that he was Jewish, he wasn’t but also
that his administration was in thrall to a Jewish cabal of Financiers the
Rothschild conspiracy theory from the anti-semitic fraudulent tract the
protocols of the Elders of Zion and of course if we’re thinking
about going back to the future we have other theories about
Jewish global cabal’s of Financiers today in fact one of them was mentioned
in the Houses of Parliament just last weekThe accusation that Roosevelt was
Jewish coloured his depiction by such groups including in this depiction in
which FDR is scaring a little boy with exaggerated horror stories a fascist
seeking to destroy religion so that’s what the pamphlet says that he’s holding
it says that, it’s saying that the fascists are going to take down all
religion and then the little boy responds by saying “gee that’s awful now
tell me the story about Uncle Joe” and the point is that FDR at the time was
politically courting Stalin Uncle Joe and so the cartoon is implying that FDR
was both scare mongering and saying that the fascist would come after religion
and that he was being hypocritical but really what I want to note here is the
dark tinge the cartoonist has given FDR compared to the very blonde little boy
suggesting not so subtly through a time-worn American system of colour
coding that Roosevelt was un-American and if you think that’s a leap from
dark skin to un-American I see why you might think that but I’m pretty
confident that by the end of my remarks tonight you will no longer think that
that is a leap. We should also note the leverage being applied by Christianity
the importance of Christian nationalism to American political arguments is
something that has been under appreciated historically speaking and we are
arguably paying the price for that misreading right now. The dangers that a
Lindbergh Presidency might represent to non-christian non-white Americans was
all too clear so much so that some have imagined alternative histories had world
events shifted even slightly many of you will know Philip Roth’s chilling
portrait of a fascist America in which the isolationist and notoriously
anti-semitic Lindbergh becomes President on the back of the America First
campaign and keeps the United Statesout of the Second World War there
are also stories imagining what the world might look like if the allies had
lost the war many of you will have seen Amazon’s adaptation of The Man in the
High Castle for example which imagines the world if the allies had lost but I’m
not aware of any stories imagining what might have happened if America had
joined the war on the side of the fascists Liberal democracy remains
presumptive in our ideas about America but homegrown fascism or as they often
called it native fascism was very much on the minds of many Americans during
the 1930s as they watched its rise in Europe. Historians later accused them of
hysterically overreacting describing the exaggerated fears of American fascism in
the 1930s as a brown scare like the red scare in the 1950s and indeed the one in
1919 but we now might think that recent history has opened the question of
whether they were exaggerating their fears of American fascism or not right
up again. Long before Roth another influential American writer had imagined
what a homegrown American fascism might look like that is obviously the cover
image of It Can’t Happen Here from the first edition and the photo on
the right is one I took two weeks ago I was at Yale and the
Beinecke Library is their rare books library and they’re doing construction
there and they have these very classy hoardings and they had done their
hoardings they had this replica of Sinclair Lewis which I’ve been working
on for a long time so I was very happy to see that there and to see him getting
some some traction. At the beginning of It Can’t Happen Here Lewis’s protagonist
launches into a tirade at the idea that America is insulated from fascism by
democracy what we call American exceptionalism right, that America has
this exceptional future in history and and destiny and that it will not be
subject to the same forces as other nations that it’s protected and blessed
this idea really irritated Louis and he has his protagonist who’s his mouthpiece
launch into a tirade against the idea that fascism couldn’t happen in America
The speech goes on for pages I’ve cut it way down but I think it’s still worth
quoting at some length he says now these are all references he’s making in 1935
more or less recent American history and I’ll gloss a couple of them in case
they’re not clear. There’s no country in the world he says that can get more
hysterical yes or more obsequious than America look how Huey Long became
absolute monarch over Louisiana, Long was often called an American fascist in the
1930s many people thought he was going to become the first fascist president
and Donald Trump has often been compared to Huey Long since he took office listen
to Father Coughlin on the radio who was a notorious and incredibly popular
anti-semite remember how casually most Americans have accepted tammany grafting
that’s political grafting, tammany grafting and Chicago gangs and the
crookedness of so many of President Harding’s appointees I love that one
notice how many Americans have casually accepted the crookedness of the
president and his cabinet, extraordinary remember our war hysteria when we called
sauerkraut liberty cabbage some of you might remember freedom fries even and
wartime censorship of honest papers remember our red scares and our
Catholics scares when all well-informed people knew that the OGPU which
was the precursor to the KGB were hiding out in Oskaloosa and
the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith who was the New York Democrat
told the Carolina Mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimate their
children, remember when the Hick legislators in obedience to William
Jennings Bryan who learned his biology from his pious old grandma set up shop
as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding
the teaching of evolution and that of course is a reference to the Scopes
Monkey Trial of 1925 trying to stop evolution because of creationism,
again something that’s you know long gone in history we don’t have that
argument in America anymore. He says remember the Kentucky nightriders
that’s the KKK, remember how train loads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings
that is not an exaggeration train loads of people went to enjoy the Klan
lynching human beings which did not just include hanging them in the woods in the
1920s and 1930s it included and in the teens as well it included burning people alive
at the stake and it included acts of torture and dismemberment that I’m not
going to describe here tonight that’s what he’s talking about and train loads
of people went to go see them, not happen here why we’re in all history has there
ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours. Five years after
Lewis wrote this book the America First committee was formed and to many people’s
surprised Sinclair Lewis joined it not everyone in America First was
pro-fascist by any stretch but fascist groups attach themselves to it making
for unpleasant company more than one observer noted that the America First
movement represented precisely what Lewis had powerfully castigated in
It Can’t Happen Here equating America First with native fascism. 70 years later when
Donald Trump pulled America First from decades of obscurity the media was
quick to note its associations with Lindbergh and the Second World War but its
meanings go back much further than that the phrase America First accrued
connotations in the United States over the course of decades until it
functioned as a cultural and political code a shorthand and we can’t decode it
properly if we don’t understand those contexts so that’s what I want to do
tonight is to give us the context to help us decode it. As a political slogan
America First goes back at least to 1884 these are the earliest examples I found
though there may be earlier. In the 1880s and 1890s the Republicans ran on a
platform of economic protectionism and white Anglo-Saxon populism sound familiar
should, America First the world afterward as fate would have it our friends at
Google have created a fascinating device for tracking the prevalence of certain
terms in cultural discourse which some of you will know it’s called the Ngram
Viewer I’m going to use it a lot tonight because I find it rather irresistible
It maps the occurrence of a given term across all the books that have been
digitised in a given corpus now that makes the sample both random and
incomplete as obviously not all books have been digitised and as we all know
digitising techniques are still imperfect so there’s of noise and there’s
lots of error in it and it’s random it depends on copyright and
all kinds of other things about which books get digitised so it’s not
complete, it’s not comprehensive but it is indicative the other thing is that it
only reads books not newspapers and in the pre-digital age the newspapers are
our major mass archive for these kinds of cultural and political conversations
even more so than books or at least we would want to be able to do them
together and most of what I’m going to do tonight is going to draw both
newspaper research and Ngram Viewer but basically the newspapers as with these
examples give us micros specific instances and the Google Ngram Viewer
gives us a macro mapping of trends so this is what it looks like and here is
America First in an indicative sampling of American English, you can
specify whether you’re looking at American English, British English or
other languages in the 20th Century As you can see its largest spike was in
1922 and I’m going to spend most of this lecture explaining why that was and why
it matters but I also want to quickly touch on these other peaks
1938 is the run-up to that conversation in 1940 in 1941
it also spikes in Google Books because there was a book called Save America
First, How to Make our Democracy Work which got a lot of coverage that year
and which New York Times described as a plea for economic isolation. It spiked
again in 1944 because that year the US Government prosecuted some former
members of the America First group first edition and also that year in 1944 a
man named Gerald LK Smith who enjoyed the dubious honour of being America’s
most notorious anti-semite formed an America First party and ran for
President putting it back in the news but it’s particularly those first two
spikes 1916 and 1922 that I want to look at America First vaulted into the
cultural conversation when President Woodrow Wilson used it in a speech in
1915 to respond to a debate about the loyalty of so called hyphenated
Americans recent immigrants German Americans, Irish Americans, Italian
Americans, hyphenate Americans accused of higher loyalties to their former
countries and also in the case of Catholics like Italian Americans and
Irish Americans higher loyalty to the Pope, it was an accusation of dual
loyalty right just as Jews have historically been accused of
having dual loyalties it’s an ancient xenophobic slur
insinuating duplicity disloyalty inauthenticity implying that these
people are not true citizens that they should go back home where
they came from. The phrase America First became an instant sensation so
popular that Wilson used it as his campaign slogan for re-election in 1916
indeed the expression was so very popular that his Republican opponent used it too
in the same election so in 1916 you could vote for America First or you could
vote for America First those are your options the phrase soon reclaimed its economic
protectionist roots which is clearly an intuitive meaning of the phrase America
First in a political context and it remains so popular that William Randolph
Hearst and Henry Cabot Lodge made America First the slogan for their
successful efforts to keep the US out of the League of Nations in 1919 and for
several years afterwards their fight to keep America also out of the
World Court. Then Republican Warren G Harding used it for his
campaign slogan in 1920. For the best part of a decade every single election
was an America First election the phrase was drummed into people’s heads as this
1923 column makes clear how often have we heard of it she’s sick of this phrase
by 1923. As both Vice President and President Calvin Coolidge
also liked to use it 1921 1926 it just keeps popping
up wherever you look and the slogan spiked again in 1928 that’s one
of the Ngram spikes when the mayor of Chicago my hometown started an America
First campaign to purge state schools of British propaganda, there was no British
propaganda in Chicago state schools in 1928 but he had this whole campaign
about how the British were coming for us you guys were going to recolonise us
you heard it here first and as and as I said anti-British sentiment has
long been central to the idea of America First. By 1940 in other words when the
America First committee was formed the expression was a 25 year old catchphrase
everybody knew what it meant and it had acquired all kinds of connotations but
you’ll notice I’ve skipped to the biggest spike which is 1922 because that’s the
one that takes the most explanation and requires a deeper dive into history
1915 wasn’t merely the year in which Wilson inadvertently launched the America First
craze it was also the year in which DW Griffith released The Birth of a Nation
the film that changed cinematic history and the first film screened in the White
House by none other than President Wilson himself, he also appears in the
film quoted in the titles, it was silent of course, before he became President
Wilson was a historian and Griffith quotes him in the titles as in this
example here. Wilson was also born in the South in 1856 five years before the
start of the American Civil War to a slaveholding family the man grew up with
slaves and Wilson was an active segregationist and white supremacists
we think of him now as the great liberal internationalist but he grew up in a
slaveholding family and he was a white supremacist. Griffith the director of
Birth of a Nation was the son of a Confederate colonel he grew up listening
to stories of the noble chivalric lost cause of the plantation South. The Birth
of a Nation as many of you will know is very possibly the most racist movie ever
made it tells the highly mythologised story of the birth of the first Ku Klux
Klan in 1866 in response to the emancipation of black Americans, the Klan
justified itself as an organisation protecting white people from the
violence of black people when of course the reality was precisely the opposite
the Klan was a terrorist organisation using violence to keep black
Americans in their places which is to say enslaved in all but name the
first Klan lasted only about five years never growing beyond a scattering of
murderous groups across the South into an organised political entity but it’s
mythology endured. 45 years later Griffith made this movie glorifying
white violence against black Americans as the defence of a noble way of life
Griffith said he hoped the film would “create a feeling of abhorrence in
white people especially white women against coloured men” that it did
fomenting racial violence around the country. Six months later a young Jewish
man named Leo Frank who had been wrongfully convicted of murdering a
young girl was taken from an Atlanta jail and lynched that Thanksgiving 15
men gathered on the summit of nearby Stone Mountain lit a fiery cross and
declared the Ku Klux Klan reborn Have you ever wondered why the Klan burns
crosses or why if they’re Klan they have knights instead of highlanders or why do
they have grand wizards, it’s a clan there’s a reason for that
and it’s probably surprising the name Ku Klux Klan comes from kýklos
the Greek for circle and the Klan comes from the writings of
Sir Walter Scott who was wildly popular in 19th century America. Scott was so
central to the way the antebellum south saw itself that Mark Twain who grew up
in Missouri during the 1840s in this period called it the Sir Walter disease
and said that Walter Scott did measureless harm more real and
lasting harm perhaps than any other individual that ever wrote and he’s only
half-kidding, Scott’s romances Twain said filled southerners heads with the sham
grandeur as sham gods and sham chivalry’s of a brainless and worthless
long vanished society in fact Sir Walter had so large a hand in making southern
character as it existed before the war that he is in a great measure
responsible for the Civil War, it’s a little unfair but he sort of had a point
The knights of the Ku Klux Klan were an outgrowth from decades of the Sir Walter
disease beyond the Klans imagery Scott also endowed the postbellum south with
its defining myth of the lost cause the nobility of remaining loyal to a
defeated ideal which is so central to many of Scott’s works in
Scott’s Lady of the Lake a tale of highlanders struggling for
power against James V and the the play instantly inspired, sorry the
poem instantly inspired a hit London play which transferred
swiftly to America the play included a song set to
Scott’s verse, hail to the chief who in triumph advances at an 1815 celebration
of the Peace of Ghent ending the war of 1812 that was a war against Britain
Hail to the chief was played for the first time in honour of the American
President and a tradition was born In 1838 an escaped slave named Frederick
Bailey adopted the name of one of the poems folk heroes the black Douglas
because he liked its associations with the free hills of old Scotland and so
Frederick Bailey became Frederick Douglass the great abolitionist. Lady of
the Lake also included a scene in which a chieftain likes a cross to signal an
uprising against the King a scene that later gave a rag tag group of
white supremacists in Tennessee the image of a Klansmen
burning a fiery cross as a sign of political insurgence and call to arms
against a tyrannical invading authority and that is why the Klan burns crosses
and then there was Ivanhoe. Set in twelfth century England Ivanhoe is a
historical romance about a Saxon knight whose personal loyalty to the Norman
King Richard catalyses the story’s conflict it helped bring Robin Hood and
Friar Tuck and King Arthur and the Round Table back into popular memory and
it played a major part in a wider medievalist revival, soon in both Britain
and America popular culture was full of this historically incoherent gallery of
knights and ladies and jousts and wizards and minstrels and Saxons and Normans and
King Arthur and Robin Hood and highlanders in the occasional Don Quixote
wandering in because he was a knight to, all kind of jostling for space
In England it inspired the pre-raphaelites now preserved in a
superb collection in your very own Birmingham Art Museum and it also
strengthened the myth that a Greek Christian martyr from the fourth
century called Saint George was a medieval knight and ideal of English
masculinity. The cult of medievalism is also why itinerant American musicians in
blackface became known as minstrels and as in this example one of the
most popular minstrel songs was called Jim Crow
Jump Jim Crow and as many of you will know Jim Crow became the common
name for America’s segregationist policies all of these terms have
contexts and histories they don’t come from nowhere. As the evolution of the
word minstrel suggests American appropriations of medieval imagery would
acquire increasingly racialised meanings Scott himself was drawing
on archaic mythologies to engage with evolving ideas
about nationalism and identity and he was drawing in part on Sharon
Turner’s popular history of the Anglo-Saxons which was published at the
turn of the 19th century. Interestingly the Saxons originated at least in part
in ideological debates in the 17th and 18th Centuries over constitutional
monarchism which claimed from the distant past of Saxon England an ancient
constitution of heritable liberty that was suspended in 1066 when the
conquering Normans forced feudalism upon free people trapping them beneath a
Norman yoke right. So the story is that if you want to assert your liberty you
harken back to the ancient Saxon constitution before the Normans came and
ruined everything and feudalism is then seen as this French import that the
British had really nothing to do with and if you search for Saxon and Anglo-
Saxon constitution in Ngram Viewer you see two big and revealing spikes, the
first is right at the English Civil War 1642 to 1650 because the Saxon
constitution was being invoked by revolutionaries to legitimate the
radical act of executing a King The second is in the Revolutionary period
of the late 18th Century including the highest peak in 1776 which is just as
America was declaring its constitutional independence. These same traditions about
the ancient Saxon constitution and heritable liberty travelled to the
American colonies with English immigrants in the 17th Century when
American insurrectionists came to fight their own constitutional battles the
myth of Saxon liberty offered an obvious political justification. The revolutionary
generation in America saw themselves as the legitimate political
heirs to this tradition and if you look at the occurrences in, so this is British
English if you look at the occurrences in American English you see it spikes at
different but overlapping points, in 1789 the year that the United States ratified
its constitution in 1791 when it ratified the Bill of Rights and my
absolute favourite in 1767 which is really for American history nerds does
anybody know what happened in 1767? That was the year that Britain
past the Townshend Acts the ones that placed taxes on tea. The Americans got a
little annoyed about those and so guess what they started talking about the
Saxon constitution complaining about the ways in which their ancient traditions
of liberty were being infringed upon by British Parliament and indeed this is
what sparked the argument that there should be no taxation
without representation which was at the heart of the American
Revolution and no I do not say American War of Independence any more than
you say French War of Independence it was a revolution God damn it,
sorry I didn’t mean to swear I just got very American there for a
second. By no coincidence Thomas Jefferson was one of America’s
foremost proponents of Saxonism although he actually stopped halfway
through Ivanhoe declaring it the driest reading he had ever experienced and I
sympathise. Jefferson traced America’s right to independence back to our Saxon
ancestors and indeed he proposed that Hengist and Horsa the mythical tribal chiefs
said to have founded Saxon England from whom we had claimed the honour of being descended
he wanted to put them on the Great Seal of the United States these mythical
Saxon sheets and say that America was a Saxon nation, now one of the most
interesting things about Ngram Viewer from my point of view is that it
has a wildcard function and I think this is really
important for research because it lets us avoid experimental bias rather
than seeking for the terms we think we’re looking for the wildcard function
which is just an asterisk lets Ngram Viewer reveal to you the most popular
terms in a given rubric or in a given association so if you actually just
search for Saxon what you find is that one of the most prevalent instances was
Saxon ancestors at exactly this time people were thinking and writing and
talking about the idea of Saxon ancestors because Americans were
claiming that the legal right to reject the authority of King George had
descended naturally from their Saxon heritage now of course King George was
himself a Saxon literally the Elector of Saxony that was his title but this kind
of mystic nationalism always liberates itself from the tyranny of facts
These assertions of natural heritable political rights derived from traditions
of Anglo-Saxon heritage soon mutated into assertions of the natural
superiority of Anglo-Saxon heritage per se, as modern forms of imperialism,
colonialism and slavery took hold those benefiting from such systems
increasingly sought theories that would justify their dominance and over the
course of the 19th Century they advanced many ideas that would argue for the
natural supremacy of Anglo-Saxons laying the foundations for British imperialism
and American exceptionalism including expansionist ideologies such as The
Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny before long Anglo-Saxon rights were no
longer justified on the basis of a shared political tradition but rather by
shared tribal bloodlines thus for example in 1836 a Vermont newspaper
declared to our precious Saxon blood we are indebted for our laws our Liberty
our civilisation not to the wisdom of our ancestors but to our blood
it specifically repudiates the idea that the wisdom of your ancestors meant that
you inherited an advanced political system and says it’s not the wisdom of
our ancestors it’s literally in the blood, if Anglo-Saxons were naturally free
in the north their preeminence led with equal ease to chattel slavery in the
south an argument advanced in the same year against emancipation it is peculiar
to the character of this Anglo-Saxon race of men to which we belong that it
has never been contented to live in the same country with any other distinct
race upon terms of equality it has invariably when placed in that situation
proceeded to exterminate or enslave the other race or failing in that to abandon
the country, don’t blame us for slavery and genocide we’re just Anglo-Saxon
That is biological determinism and it lays the foundation for scientific racism
which would build over the 19th Century now a wildcard search on
Anglo-Saxon itself, I love this one again because it doesn’t presuppose what
we’re going to find this is in British English and look at that spike on
Anglo-Saxon England in recent decades that should be the subject of a lecture
on its own, why has there been such a sudden rise in recent decades of
conversations about Anglo-Saxon England I leave that to you answers on postcards
please but if you compare that to American English you get a very
different picture over the same period so you can see that Anglo-Saxon England
has nothing like that same rise over the same period and it stays as a fairly low
instance of interest and you may be wondering what is that red one that is
peaking at the top that has so much interest in American English and
obviously you don’t have anything that looks like that in the British English
corpus but there’s something there that Americans are really interested in and
guess what it is, Anglo-Saxon race that’s what Americans are talking about over
the course of the 19th Century and even though it drops into the 20th Century
there on the right going down the graph it still remains at the top of instances
of Anglo-Saxon so the idea that the conversations around Anglo Saxon
become less prevalent but when it’s mentioned it’s still Anglo-Saxon race
not Anglo Saxon poetry or Anglo-Saxon England or Anglo Saxon anything else
that’s what Americans are going to talk about and I just wanted to show also
here you can see that Anglo-Saxon race and British English similarly in the
19th Century does go to the top of the interest but then it drops right down
again. Before long the idea of a modern Anglo-Saxon race as they began to put it
emerged in the early decades of the 19th Century Anglo Saxons were this ancient
tribe from whom these rights descended but white Americans did not
identify themselves as Anglo-Saxons they were an ancient tribe, indeed today’s
ubiquitous American category of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant or WASP
which is very much taken as an inherited term in America people never think about
its origins they’re always talking about its death the decline of the WASP but
never about its birth and its birth is actually much more interesting
the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant has no purchase in the 19th century
at all the simple newspaper databases search doesn’t turn
up a single instance you can try all different spellings it doesn’t matter it
doesn’t turn up a single instance and Ngram Viewer confirms nothing until when
until the 1960s why the 1960s well I would put it that the term white
Anglo-Saxon Protestant articulated itself in relationship to the rise of
civil rights, in the 1960s the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant becomes a way to
articulate hegemonic white power and until then it has no traction as a
phrase, now having said that and as I said I can’t find a single instance of
it across the 19th Century, there may be one right or two I can’t find any
doesn’t mean there aren’t any but doesn’t have many there are earlier ones
the 1960 which I have found and I’m going to finish with that but we have to
work our way back to that because we still need a little more Scott to make
sense of it all. In absorbing Scott and other medievalist writers into their
mythology’s Americans mapped this history of the Anglo-Saxon back through
the English Civil War so that new England settlers in the North of America
became Puritan Saxons and southerners became Cavalier Normans indeed white
southerners before the Civil War were much more likely to describe themselves
as Anglo-Norman than as Anglo-Saxon as in this rather extraordinary article
congratulating three million Africans for divine providence rescuing them from
the barbarous savagery of Africa and delivering them unto the joy of
being enslaved by Anglo-Norman it’s literally what that article says
Scott’s writings rapidly became a national mania in America, towns across
across the country changed their names to Ivanhoe and Waverly while a invoke for
jousting tournaments sprang up it’s actually started here among English
aristocrats but soon as with anything it made its way to America and this fad for
tournaments particularly captivated the confederate south where it lasted for
decades and there are many examples like this and this one invokes Ivanhoe at the
end there with its mention of Lady Rowena and this is where all of the knights
wandering around the confederate south started to come from young men
would dress up in like velvet tunics with braided trim and ostrich feathers
in their caps and go joust and they would affect these titles
Knights of Kingtree and Knights of the Golden Lance and so there were
Knights everywhere in the confederate imagination but it was something more
than mere play-acting these troupes became an active part of how the
confederate south defined itself against an increasingly despised north and it
provided the south with a scaffolding to uphold its conservative pastoral
nostalgia most important the aggressive feudalism of these pageants
sentimentalised plantation slavery rewriting black slaves as
loyal serfs bound by devotion to the land and the family they serve
it also reinforced the cult of southern white womanhood their purity defended by
gallant white knights and then came the civil war and brought all of that
crashing down after the war as the white south nursed the bitterness of its
defeat seething against the enfranchisement of freed blacks the old
romantic idea of a local white knight defending the southern way of life took
a far more vicious turn. This is why the Klan always insists on chivalry because
of the cult of medievalism and you’ll notice here also the cross of Saint George
as part of their iconography to invoke Anglo-Saxonism, although the first
Klan only lasted for five years As I said it’s mythology endured
and in 1905 Thomas Dixon published a novel called the Klansmen a wildly
popular Genesis myth for the first Klan that actively draws on Walter Scott as
in this illustration from the original edition that shows him lighting the
fiery cross and this got the iconography going again it re-stimulated the
imagery, Dixon wasn’t just popular in the south he was popular across America and
his novels helped reinforce the white south’s fantasies not only
of their innocence but of a kind of sentimentalised version
of masculine white supremacy that swept across America and it was so enduring
all of this imagery and iconography was so enduring that it informs many details
that we see and don’t even think about or necessarily know how to interpret
how many of you have read To Kill a Mockingbird? Yeah I figured most people
have, so you might remember that Jem Finch gets punished in it for
destroying Mrs DuBose’s flowers and he has to read to her and what does
she make him read to her Ivanhoe it’s a code for the lost cause it’s a
code for white supremacism and it was the Klansmen the novel that Griffith
adapted into The Birth of America in 1915 which sparked the rebirth of the
Klan. I’m winding up don’t worry but I want to show you a couple of other
things, by the early 1920s Klan membership was skyrocketing and so was
the identity that it purported to defend if you search just for Anglo-Saxon you
see far and away its highest used in American English in the 1920s when the
second Klan was also at its height and guess what else happened, at this precise
moment the discourse about Anglo-Saxonism and white supremacy merged with our
old friend America First in 1922 Louisiana Klansmen carried banners
reading America First 100% American white supremacy race purity
here’s an ad, it was a recruiting ad also from 1920 to using the
same language at the same time they acquired another name which I could give
a whole different lecture on they also called themselves Nordic which many of
you will know the history of Nordicism it was used synonymously with
Anglo-Saxon but basically in the same way that Hitler used Aryan and indeed
the word Nordic was popularised by a writer called Madison Grant who gave the
world the phrase Master Race that was a very useful contribution to world
history and Hitler called Madison Grant’s book of my Bible and based the Nuremberg
Race Laws of 1935 on America’s race laws from the confederate south and across
America and in fact. Oh sorry, so then in 1922 also this is just the other
example of America First the Klan published a pamphlet declaring its
ABCs that is you know its basics its fundamentals and A stood for America
First. When you look at the, so I said a minute ago that there’s no instances
that I can find of the phrase white Anglo-Saxon Protestant across the 19th
century and we saw that spike in the 1960s when it gains traction but I have
found specific instances and if you go into again this is just a basic
newspapers archive but if you just search for the oldest, just the oldest
first these are the first three that you get 1920 to 1923 and 1924 of the phrase
White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and every single one of them is in the context of
the Klan down there, right. So each of them is an article about the clan the clan
elicits this phrase White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, within a few years the Klan
had achieved its greatest influence not in the old south but in the Midwest where
nativist ideas about Anglo-Saxonism retained tremendous pull in 1923 and
Indiana newspaper argued in highly typical terms that the Klan would not
allow the country to be overrun by a set of people from foreign countries or to
have their children intermarry with those of other races than the
Anglo-Saxon race. The Klan was for America First and would ensure that a
flag would float from every schoolhouse and a Bible would be on every school
desk a mythical identity had willed itself into political existence and
continues to shape American and world history to this day. So where does all of
this end, I don’t know like I said history is just one damn thing after
another, Thank you [Applause]

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