A Clash of Patriotisms


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.


6 thoughts on “A Clash of Patriotisms

  1. I think you would be hard pressed to find any Texans around you who have the foggiest clue that after the repeat of the Stamp Act, a statue was commission of George III and erected in NYC in 1770. It was only pulled down after the war started. But for a while, George was in quite favourable sentiment. Even in American schools we get quite a…biased?…and watered down overview of the Revolution. Lots of grandiose “the evil redcoats” and pretty much zilch “this is what else was happening in the world in comparison.” Which is why Americans as a whole have such a skewed view of the historical significance of the colonial relationship with Britain. Most folks think we went to war over British tyranny and oppression, when really it was a war over Parliamentary representation and self-governance. And for some reason everyone thinks George III was this looming insane monster, when really the argument was with the leaders in Parliament. I think you’d be equally hard pressed to find an American around you who knows anything at all about George III. It’s refreshing to live outside the states and in the Commonwealth now…far away from the overblown Patriotism and skewed recollection of history.

    • In some ways I find the unashamed patriotism of Americans refreshing, Shannon. Brits (especially the English) tend to have such a complex over our legacy of colonialism that we tend to feel like we have to squelch any displays of national feeling that aren’t sports-related. I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea.
      And it’s not like we don’t have our own half-remembered half-truths from school history lessons.

      • Well, true. But mainly what I’m glad to be away from is the “patriotic” attitude that the USA is better than anywhere else, so surely everyone else in the world wants to be American, and if you’re an American you’re insane for wanting to live abroad. It’s fine to be proud of the traditions and pioneer roots — both sides of my family, McColleys included, have been in the states since at least the mid-1700s — so there’s a lot of pretty awesome American history there and I am certainly proud to be a product of that. But in some ways I think the patriotism has gone to an arrogant extreme, and it’s that I find refreshing to escape But then again I spent all of my formative years surrounded by that environment, so I expect it’s different coming in as an outsider experiencing it as an adult. The first time I lived abroad I felt like the GO USA blinders were pulled off my face and it was incredibly liberating. The grass is always greener, eh? New Zealand is rather like most commonwealth countries in that it isn’t overly patriotic, but I’m not sure how much of that is the colonial British attitude (the colony was self-governing only 12 years after founding) and how much is just the lack of cohesive national history. Before the Europeans came the Maori had a meagre 500 years of constant inter-tribal warfare and cannibalism. Not much to pull them together there. I find a lot of national pride here (don’t ever accuse Kiwis of being Australians), but not the pro-NZ everything that my American-filtered expectation of patriotism tends to be. Now, if the All Blacks are playing…that’s a different matter. 🙂

      • Ah yes, indeed. I sometimes half joke that all the energy that used to go into building and sustaining the Empire has now been channelled into sports fandom. 🙂
        I agree; it’s a very different outworking to the national pride. Americans go around telling everyone how great their country is. We Brits just expect you to _know_.

    • When it comes to the day itself, I’ll probably watch the fireworks and enjoy them. I just have a tendency to work myself into a conflicted lather in the run-up.
      Britain had more than a few politicians who supported the American colonists in the run-up to the War. I’m not sure what they did once hostilities broke out.

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