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Summer 2012: When London was Capital of America

Reviewed by: Paul Husbands, Wellington, New Zealand

Julie Flavell. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010. 336 pp. £25 (hardback).

When London Was Capital of America chronicles what its author describes as ‘a missing chapter’ both in the history of ‘the great city’ itself and that of what was to become the United States of America. Focusing particularly upon the period between the end of the Seven Years War (when Britain’s North American empire reached its apogee following the conquest of French Canada) and the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, the book traces the paths of some of the many Americans who made their way to London during this time of ‘a new, heightened movement of people throughout the British Atlantic.’ During this brief period, London was not only the political capital of the thirteen colonies but also its business hub and cultural centre. It was the place where ‘wealthy Americans from all over the empire were most likely to meet’ in business as well as pleasure. It was also the chosen destination for many of their less well-to-do but highly ambitious countrymen who saw in the city the means to advance their political careers, improve or make their fortunes and elevate their social standing. London was also the place where Americans – including those of African descent who had been brought to the city as slaves – might taste new freedoms and be exposed to new and radical ideas.

Julie Flavell organises her lively and interesting account around the stories of a selection of Americans who were drawn to London during the years of her study. Amongst the characters we are introduced to are Henry Laurens, the South Carolina rice planter, merchant and slave owner who ‘at the age of forty-seven’ joined ‘the galaxy of wealthy South Carolina planters who were living as absentees in London.’ We also meet Laurens’ slave and body servant who used his arrival in London as the occasion to change his name from Scipio to Robert Laurens and found in the streets and servants’ quarters of the city the means of escaping his master’s control. Henry Laurens’ son John is another character in Flavell’s story. Sent to the city to complete his education at the Inns of Court, the future aide to George Washington came to see his ‘native province through London eyes,’ developing in the process a keen and lasting opposition to the institution of slavery. Outside of the Laurens’ household, we learn the story of Stephen Sayre, a Long Island farmer’s son who came to London to make his fortune, married an heiress and became ‘the first ever American to be imprisoned in the Tower of London.’ The final two chapters of When London Was Capital of America are devoted to the seventeen years Benjamin Franklin – the most famous American to live in the city between the Seven Years War and the Revolution – spent in London.

While recounting the stories of each of these American characters, Flavell is particularly good at reconstructing the geography of London as each of them would have experienced it. Over the course of the book we follow Robert Laurens on his errands around the ‘great city.’ We are also introduced to ‘the many tiny courts and alleyways that criss-crossed the old City of London’ and constituted ‘the very heart of its business district. It was here that Stephen Sayre, Henry Laurens and Benjamin Franklin all conducted business, frequenting the various colonial coffee houses that had been established for that purpose, including the New England Coffee House on the corner of Old Broad and Threadneedle Streets, and the Pennsylvania and Carolina coffee houses in Birchin Lane. In addition, Flavell takes us to the genteel new developments ‘in the West End and Oxford Street’ preferred by the South Carolina planters when in London, as well as to the ‘conveniently central’ Craven Street in Westminister where Benjamin Franklin created ‘a home away from home,’ within easy walking distance of the government offices of Whitehall.

As well as showing how London shaped and transformed the Americans who came there, Flavell also devotes a chapter to the ways in which America changed the great city itself. The influence of the New World was evident not only in the sugar and tobacco that was traded and consumed by the city’s inhabitants but also by the plants and trees that occupied many of London’s ‘beautiful gardens,’ including ‘black walnuts, magnolias, and American honey locusts.’ These trees, we are told, had an important impact on what has been called ‘the remaking of the English landscape.’ They also left a lasting legacy, with the London plane tree – ‘a hybrid of the American sycamore and the Oriental plane tree’ – being ‘one of the many surviving American aspects of London’ that date from this period.

Highly engaging as it most certainly is, Flavell’s method of reconstructing the history of Americans in London through the stories of a small number of individuals is somewhat problematic. Most obviously, it means that while the contribution of prominent planters and famous political agents – along with some of those who were connected to them – are too well represented, other less-well documented groups are necessarily neglected. Such is especially the case with regards to the many thousands of sailors ‘both black and white’ who helped tie Britain and America into ‘one great trading network,’ and must have contributed substantially to the city’s American population. Recognizing the significance of this problem, Flavell does her best to recover the fates of a few of the least fortunate through the records of the Old Bailey, but is obliged to admit that the ‘presence’ of most ‘is almost irrecoverable now.’ In emphasizing the undeniable attractions that drew individuals like Henry Laurens to London, Flavell also underestimates the factors that pushed wealthy planters of his kind towards the capital city. Particularly pressing for many must have been an intimate knowledge of the disease environments they had left behind in colonies such as South Carolina. As Vincent Brown has so brilliantly shown for colonial Jamaica, exceedingly high levels of mortality amongst slave and slaveholder alike encouraged those who were able to make their fortunes ‘as quickly as possible’ before retiring to a more healthy locale.[1]  Although itself not the healthiest place within the British Empire, London served this purpose for many successful rice and sugar planters.

These criticisms notwithstanding, When London was Capital of America adds an important component to our knowledge of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, the central place of London in it, and the rich fabric of human interactions and connections that tied Britain and what was soon to become the United States of America to each other at a crucial moment in each nation’s history.

[1] Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 16.

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