I think maybe this year I’m actually mentally ready for the Fourth of July.
I can never quite tell until the day itself, of course. There have been other years during the almost 9 years I’ve lived in the States when I’ve thought I was prepared and then found myself getting uncomfortable. This year, perhaps it’ll be different.
The Fourth of July isn’t Independence Day for me so much as Day of Feeling Weird About My Country.
It’s not anything anyone does, or says, really. Some of my friends will make jokes about it, but if the situations were reversed I’d almost certainly do the same. Some good-natured teasing isn’t going to kill me or harm my country.
No, my problems are almost entirely internal. It’s that it’s a very weird and slightly uncomfortable thing to be a Brit in America on Independence Day.
The American Revolution never even registered on the history I learned at school, but pure mental self-defence has meant that I’ve had to learn about it since coming to the US.
The Revolutionary War looms large in American popular culture. There’s probably no comparable historical event in British popular culture that everyone will immediately gravitate to (World War Two and the Battle of Britain, perhaps, but not even that has the same overwhelming prominence in British national sentiment). What this means is that the war is part of American founding mythology (not in the sense of “untrue” but in the sense of “powerful story”) and consequently is surrounded by a lot of populism, half-remembered facts and lazy thinking.
Being a Brit, and a Brit with some knowledge of my country’s history, I hear some of the American assumed knowledge about the War of Independence and I question. It doesn’t seem to add up.
To give you some examples:
“British tyranny” said like it’s a universally-acknowledged fact. I know what you’ve been told, but it’s difficult to see my country as a tyranny in that period when we have pre-revolutionary France to compare it with.
George III. I’m probably the only one who can still remember the 10-second scene in The Patriot, close to the beginning of the film, in which you see the colonials burning an effigy of King George III. A blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment entirely incidental to the plot, but I can still remember my visceral shock and distaste. That’s my king you’re burning in effigy. I guess this is the reaction of most good Americans to seeing someone burn the Stars and Stripes.
Yes, monarchism really does run that deep in me. And George III is far from the worst king we’ve ever saddled ourselves with. I’d accept the “tyrant” label for a number of others, including Henry VIII, but George III looks more like Good King George than the monster of American myth, even stacked up against some of his contemporaries (Robespierre and the last of the Louises of France show us the true face of tyranny).
My country, the Bad Guys. Ahem. From the perspective of British history, 1776 is a lot closer to 2014 than it is to 1066, and that’s discounting everything prior to William the Conqueror. We could just as easily go back to Julius Caesar’s landing in 50BC as “the start of British history”. By 1776, just about every national institution of government was in place, and in a recogniseably modern form. You don’t think we’re evil bad guys now (Hollywood aside. To them, the English are the only nationality it’s permissible to hate). What changed?
“We Put An End To The British Empire”. This is just lazy thinking. Actually, most of what became the British Empire wasn’t annexed until after the loss of the Thirteen Colonies, and some have seen their loss as providing some of the impetus behind the rise of empire. America didn’t put an end to the Empire. We did that ourselves after World War Two.
Hey, I can’t even hear the US National Anthem without being aware that the “rockets’ red glare” illuminating the Flag came from unguided missiles fired from one of my country’s warships.
Suffice it to say, even without anyone saying anything, it makes the Fourth of July rather interesting inside my head.
I love my country, and I love America too. Most of the time these two loves coexist peacefully, if not in active cooperation. We are, after all, staunch allies, having a close partnership that Britain calls “the Special Relationship”.
And yet at least once a year I’m reminded that we were once enemies.
In purely historical terms, from the American perspective I can understand how George III looks bad. Britain in her imperial days seemed at times to have a peculiar genius for selecting precisely the worst possible people to be colonial administrators, and this was often the case in the American colonies. When all you know about the King is the manner of people he selects as his representatives, well… The rest is history.
Similarly, compared to the situation in France, or even mainland Britain, the American colonials had it pretty good, with an abundance of freedom and relatively low tax burden. But they weren’t comparing their situation with France or the motherland, they were comparing it with the distracted days of the wars with France, during which time the British government didn’t much care what the Americans did as long as they flew a British flag and not a French one. In those days, laws were winked at as often as not, and it’s all too easy to see their subsequent actual enforcement as a crackdown.
I get this intellectually, but it hasn’t helped so far with my emotional reactions to the Fourth of July.
This year may be different. I may yet forgive the city of Boston for its criminal waste of perfectly good tea and come to a place of peace. But when so much of American popular patriotism references the Revolutionary War, it’s difficult to put down my crown loyalist defensiveness and enter in.