Welcome to British Isles Friday! British Isles Friday is a weekly event for sharing all things British and Irish — reviews, photos, opinions, trip reports, guides, links, resources, personal stories, interviews, and research posts. Join us each Friday to link your British and Irish themed content and to see what others have to share. The link list is at the bottom of this post. Pour a cup of tea or lift a pint and join our link party!
Last week, I got a kick out of Google feeding me headlines about Idris Elba and Benedict Cumberbatch. Tina explored Mike’s terrific site, A Bit About Britain. Jean read a book of creepy stories that she picked up during her England trip. Sim’s virtual walk through London took her to the former site of the White City, home of the 1908 Franco-British Exposition. Becky read a collection of Ernie Pyle’s columns written while he visited Britain during the Blitz.
Last week’s book club selection was White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. I feel like I need to apologize for the title every time I say it. So, sorry. The purpose will be more clear by the end of this post, and I’ll discuss it more in my review on Sunday.
For British Isles Friday, I wanted to share Britain’s role in that 400-year history because there was a lot of it between the lost colony of Roanoke in 1587 and 1776. And, most of what my book club learned while reading White Trash is not at all what we learned in American history classes about that period. We Americans like to think of ourselves as a classless society, but the British shipped over their class system along with their people, most very low-class indeed.
The British saw the new American colonies as a great way to reduce their own economic problems by shipping surplus people across the ocean. They particularly focused on transporting people who caused problems: criminals, vagrants, and orphans.
American founding myths are about people who sought religious freedom or greater financial opportunity. The reality for most folks is that they were given very little choice about coming to America and even less opportunity when they got here.
To the English, America was a wasteland:
Wasteland meant undeveloped land, land that was outside the circulation of commercial exchange and apart from the understood rules of agricultural production. To lie in waste, in biblical language, meant to exist desolate and unattended; in agrarian terms, it was to be left fallow and unimproved. p. 19
How did sixteenth and seventeenth farmers transform wasteland into productive, agriculture land? With manure. This was seen metaphorically as well. The waste people of England would be the manure of the new world, their forced labor transforming it to a vast fecund field.
I was disappointed to learn that English philosopher, John Locke, who I associate with inspiring some of the soaring principles in our founding documents, had decidedly unenlightened ideas about the poor and the institution of slavery. From afar, he designed the constitution of Carolina, setting up the colony as “a semifeudalistic and wholly aristocratic society.” p. 44.
Of course, the British never thought of themselves as classless and had no illusions about the type of society that emerged in America. The pretty language about opportunity, equality, and American exceptionalism came from founding fathers like Thomas Paine who made the case for independence in the pamphlet Common Sense.
“…Paine was careful to downplay the distinction between the rich and the poor. He wanted his American readers to focus on distant kings, not local grandees. He wanted to break with the Crown, not to disturb the class order.” p. 82
So, that brings us to 1776 when Britain and the US part ways. Check back on Sunday for the rest of my review of White Trash.