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When London Was Capital of America

When London Was Capital of America

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    When London Was Capital of America
    Book Description:

    Benjamin Franklin secretly loved London more than Philadelphia: it was simply the most exciting place to be in the British Empire. And in the decade before the outbreak of the American Revolution, thousands of his fellow colonists flocked to the Georgian city in its first big wave of American visitors. At the very point of political rupture, mother country and colonies were socially and culturally closer than ever before. In this first-ever portrait of eighteenth-century London as the capital of America, Julie M. Flavell re-creates the famous city's heyday as the center of an empire that encompassed North America and the West Indies. The momentous years before independence saw more colonial Americans than ever in London's streets: wealthy Southern plantation owners in quest of culture, slaves hoping for a chance of freedom, Yankee businessmen looking for opportunities in the city, even Ben Franklin seeking a second, more distinguished career. The stories of the colonials, no innocents abroad, vividly re-create a time when Americans saw London as their own and remind us of the complex, multiracial-at times even decadent-nature of America's colonial British heritage.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16819-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. PRELUDE An American City in Europe
    (pp. 1-6)

    It was early May 1810. Doctor Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia sat at his desk in his imposing brick house on South Fourth Street. In the garden it was almost spring; the scorching summers of Pennsylvania had not yet arrived, the tender green weeks of May lay ahead. But Benjamin Rush saw none of this because in his mind’s eye he was far away in time and space, harking back to his student days in London before the Revolution. His memory was stirred by the letter he was writing to his son James, who was about to follow in his father’s...

  6. CHAPTER ONE The London World of Henry Laurens
    (pp. 7-26)

    It was early April 1771 and the temperature in Charleston was poised to soar to the suffocating high of a South Carolina summer. Henry Laurens, rice planter, slave-keeper and transatlantic merchant was busy arranging the transportation of one small human across the ocean.

    Henry, forty-seven years of age, at the peak of his success, was used to moving people around the British trading empire that was his world. He had consigned cargoes of men, women and children from Africa’s west coast to his business associates in England and America. He had dispatched scores of male slaves to his remote plantations...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Upstairs, Downstairs: Master and Slave in Georgian London
    (pp. 27-62)

    ‘Saucy and impertinent’, ‘insolent, impertinent, saucy’, ‘idle, luxurious’, ‘impudence, discontent, extravagance’ – these were the sort of epithets that were applied daily to the servant class of Georgian London.¹ Some called their sturdiness English spirit, but most deplored it as a symptom of the decadent modern living that prevailed in the nation’s capital. ‘Servant trouble’ was the talk of the town, not only in aristocratic circles but among the middle classes. It was plain Ben Franklin who had complained that the metropolis was ‘spoiling servants’, however good.

    What was so bad about London servants, and was Robert susceptible to the...

  8. CHAPTER THREE English Lessons in London: A Tale of Two Teenagers
    (pp. 63-83)

    The warm afternoon sun sifted through the window upon the boy’s fair hair and the olive-green shell of the turtle. The boy was concentrating all his skill on the paper before him as he carefully sketched the lines and curves of the animal. The turtle was lethargic, trapped in surroundings where it had no glimpse of the slow-moving water and lush green foliage that was its home. Both were caught up in their separate American reveries, the boy of South Carolina’s unexplored natural world, the turtle of the Altamaha river snails and crayfish it craved after weeks at the mercy...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Young and Rich in Fleet Street: The Decadents Abroad
    (pp. 84-114)

    John Laurens returned to London from Geneva in August 1774. He had finally decided, in the most reluctant terms possible, to abandon medicine (‘my favorite’) and study law ‘considering that my dear Papa and the majority of our judicious friends give a preference to’ it. His letter was so half-hearted that Henry lectured him on it, reminding him that he only wanted his children’s happiness. He had already registered John’s name at the Middle Temple, but he could withdraw it if John preferred. The lad had only to say the word.¹ Like Robert Scipio and the Ansonborough ‘Town Negroes’ who...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE A Long Island Yankee in the City
    (pp. 115-142)

    Who has not heard the tale of Dick Whittington, the poor country boy who set out for London to make his fortune? There he became a servant in the house of a wealthy merchant until ill-usage and beatings obliged him to run away. When he reached the crest of Highgate Hill, he was stopped by the sound of the famous Bow Bells ringing a message to him to ‘turn again’, for he would one day be lord mayor of London. The fable ends with a rags-to-riches story of how Dick made his fortune by putting his cat in the hands...

  11. CHAPTER SIX ‘The Handsome Englishman’
    (pp. 143-164)

    ‘I can’t bear the thoughts of living in America or starving in England.’ For eight years this thought had led Stephen Sayre on like a pillar of cloud. Was his abiding ambition over? By no means, for by the time of Mr De Berdt’s death in 1770 he had another string to his bow through his association with the celebrated English political figure John Wilkes. In an age that was ripe for reform, Wilkes highlighted to the British public the shortcomings of their political system in a way that struck a chord with British subjects on the other side of...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN London’s American Landscape
    (pp. 165-188)

    ‘French Dog!’ ‘French Bastard!’ Such were the words that assailed the ears of French visitors as they walked the streets of London. The English were famous for their aversion to foreigners. The eighteenth century was a time when the notion of national character was very much in vogue in Europe, and intellectuals like Montesquieu and Voltaire devoted pages to uncovering national traits. But London’s vulgar herd needed no textbook. They already knew that the French were ‘over-dressed fawning rogues’, the Dutch were a swinish, beer-swilling people who were lazy except where their own self-interest was concerned, and the Italians were...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT Franklin and Son in London
    (pp. 189-208)

    Benjamin Franklin was not the most successful colonial American in London. That distinction must go to his friend Benjamin West, who came to London as a young artist, rose to the position of History Painter to the King, and remained a leading figure in the British art world despite his open support for the American rebellion. Nor was Franklin the most typical. Putting aside the unusual personal abilities that set him apart from others, demography was against him in Georgian London. A self-made Pennsylvanian man of business was very much a minority in a place where ever more black and...

  14. CHAPTER NINE ‘The most cautious man I have ever seen’: Ben Franklin’s London Career
    (pp. 209-234)

    Ben Franklin would be away from London for just two years, but they were years spent in the thick of Pennsylvanian politics. He spent six months touring Virginia and the northern colonies in his capacity as deputy postmaster general, only to find upon his return that John Penn had been installed as the new governor of Pennsylvania. There was of course little love lost between the two men, but Penn would soon come running to Franklin for help. In late 1763, angry frontiersmen who were threatened by Chief Pontiac’s uprising massacred a group of friendly Indians, and then headed for...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 235-248)

    Benjamin Franklin was the first of the American activists to leave London under the shadow of civil war. The others would only follow gradually. The start of the fighting at Lexington and Concord did not spark off an abrupt exodus. Its initial effect was the opposite. Crack British troops being chased back to Boston by a mob of farmers looked bad, and now General Gage and his regiments found themselves holed up in the little seaport of Boston. Some MPs thought Lord North’s administration would be brought down by the news and a pro-American government would take its place.¹ Arthur...

  16. Appendix
    (pp. 249-251)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 252-287)
  18. Further Reading
    (pp. 288-290)
  19. Index
    (pp. 291-306)