British Identity in Colonial America

Stories that Take You for the Ride of Your Life

April, 2015

British Identity in Colonial America

At the time my protagonists Finn and Gus arrive in America in The Rule of Ranging, the American colonial mindset still was very much British. At that time period, there were maybe 3 million Europeans living in the American colonies, all coming from different countries. Population of the original thirteen colonies with the large number of various native American tribes was literally a multi-cultural and multi-lingual melting pot. English was only one of dozens of languages spoken in the region. That was one of the challenges I faced while writing The Rule of Ranging.

In this review of the ‘Sons of Liberty’ miniseries on SFGate, David Wiegand writes that “You may find it slightly ironic that so many British actors have flattened their vowels to portray American colonists.”

From the onset, the colonial Americans in New England traced their roots to the British origin. The formative influence of British identity was also discernible in economic, military, legal, and cultural systems because of close ties with the Kingdom. Up north, the Canadians similarly had intimate ties with France and the area we know as Canada was called New France.

Colonial residents fought with the French as part of the British Empire in wars with or without a European background. However, the mighty Atlantic creating a 3,000-mile-wide physical distance allowed the colonial resident to have greater freedom and experiments that later led to the development of a distinct America identity. Aloofness by the governments in London encouraged it, and the American War of Independence ended the British identity of 13 colonies for good.

Most of the inhabitants in 13 American colonies had their origin in England, Welsh, Scotland, and Ireland, an indication of overwhelming British identity. The threat of French occupation and hostile attitude of native tribes forced the settlers to remain British subjects. Their cultural inheritances influenced the social customs, legal systems, economic arrangements, and political ideology. The names of cities and even the geographic name of New England given to the colonies until the mid-eighteenth century attested to their British identity.

According to a case study on English immigrants settled in and around Maryland entitled Dr. Alexander Hamilton and Tuesday Club of Annapolis, the mid-eighteenth century American settlers by and large considered themselves as major contributors to the British Empire and “fully enfranchised Britons.” Popular identification with the British mainland also led intellectual and political systems inheriting the English flavor for rights of individual and representative system of governments. No taxation without representation – the fundamental basis for American rebellion – was based on the argument that the taxes violated their rights as the British citizens granted under the 1689 Bill of Rights.

The British identity played a role in bringing together all 13 colonies and gave them a sense of unity that ultimately founded the edifice of American identity. Being the British settlers with common cultural threads, they united in their fight against the French and native Indians. They spoke in one voice while opposing the restrictive imperial laws and revolted demanding equality on a par with those living in the British Isles.

Toward the end of the 18th century, a new generation of thinkers emerged in America, demanding a separate identity in opposition to their second-grade British identity. Most notable among them was Noah Webster, well known for his American Dictionary, who urged the colonies to “create own identity, character; unshackle your minds and act like independent beings.”

Meanwhile, the “salutary neglect” policy of the British and their physical disability in enforcing systems on the colonies led many independent instructions to flourish at political, social, and economic levels. It provided the basis for America’s breaking off from the exclusive British identification.

Growing anger over Quartering Act, Stamp Act, Sugar Act, and other tyrannical measures and repressive British attitude reached the boiling point by the 1770s. The comprehensive defeat of the French in the Seven Years’ War freed the colonies from any impending threat of foreign aggression, and slackening British identification provided a fertile ground for independence call to grow and mature into a war.

(Image credits: Samuel Adams (played by British actor Ben Barnes) fights off redcoats in the History Channel “Sons of Liberty” miniseries.)

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