In June 1921, George Washington, the victor of Yorktown, arrived in London. His journey across the storm-tossed Atlantic had not been without difficulty, and when he landed on British shores there were some concerns over his condition. But after a careful check and a clean bill of health he was able to proceed to the capital where his anticipated presence had already provoked engaged comment. Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, was amongst those keen to extend a warm welcome (Curzon was married to an American heiress). But others were less sure. Indeed, when news of his imminent arrival became public some Britons expressed clear displeasure. One angrily declared that:
George Washington was a rebel against the Crown, the slayer of thousands of British troops, the cause of ruin to hundreds of loyalists . . . to excite national feeling by putting up a statue of such a person is an act of official dementia.
Despite such comments, the ceremony accompanying the president’s arrival went ahead as planned, and on June 30 he was officially installed in a prestigious spot overlooking Trafalgar Square, within sight of another famous military hero of the eighteenth century: Admiral Horatio Nelson. Washington stands there still today, gazing out across the capital of the nation he so humbled, the result of an enduring British fascination with the first president that reaches right back to the Revolution itself.
A Hero of the Ages: The British view of General Washington
The outbreak of the American Revolution did not instantly rent asunder all transatlantic ties, and in some quarters British sympathies lay firmly with the colonists, perceived as fighting for the time-honored rights of Englishmen. In fact, for some commentators (including Thomas Jefferson), the American rebellion against the “tyranny” of George III was inspired by those English Barons who similarly held to account King John at Runnymede in 1215. Little wonder that many English Dissenters asserted a “profound sympathy” for their American brethren, whilst elsewhere some prominent Britons—most famously Edmund Burke—even actively advocated on their behalf. In 1775, Burke went so far as to call for the “repeal of all legislation offensive to the Americans” in the hope that this might avert the impending crisis.
Nonetheless, once hostilities commenced opinion in Britain hardened, and several of the Revolution’s leaders were duly identified as villains and vagabonds. Thomas Paine, for instance, whose fiery words did so much to sustain the Continental Army during the savage winter of 1777-78, became the subject of sustained British scorn. By the 1790s, he was widely ridiculed in Britain as “Mad Tom,” with one pamphleteer remarking that the author of Common Sense was “an enemy to his king and country, a traitor, a swindler, equally destitute of principles and abilities.” John Paul Jones, the father of the United States Navy—made infamous by his 1778 attack on the northern English port of Whitehaven—similarly met with British opprobrium for his afront to the nation’s security and sovereignty. News of his death in 1792 did little to assuage such sentiment, and the London press took every opportunity to slander. In one report, Jones was dismissed as “a man of mean birth” who was “savage and cruel, to a degree of barbarity.”
And then there was the rebel-in-chief himself, Gen. George Washington, initially seen by some in Britain as the commander of a “despised” and “undisciplined rabble” and a man whose treatment of the Loyalist community long remained a sore point in London. Washington’s military qualities likewise provoked occasional British comment, with his previous record in the King’s colonial militia, especially his 1754 surrender to the French, a particular focus of attention. Here, claimed at least one British periodical, was proof of his martial failings, for the surrender was due to a basic tactical error: the “want of a good-look-out.” Later, Washington’s 1780 execution of the British spy, Maj. John André, also drew censure in the British press.
In the long term, however, pointed press criticism of Washington proved unsustainable because it could not accommodate a clear and indisputable fact: if Washington really was no battlefield commander, and if the troops he led were indeed little more than a rabble, then how was it that he and they kept winning against a British Army widely touted in Parliament has amongst the best ever put into the field? It was in response to this rather awkward question that British views of Washington shifted, and for much of the conflict he was in fact portrayed as a “model of citizen virtue and an ideal military leader.”
For instance, one issue to garner attention in the London press was the courteous and respectful manner in which Washington treated captured British officers. Following his victory at Yorktown, he allowed them to retain their side arms and personal baggage, and he happily entertained to dinner defeated British Gen. Charles O’Hara, Lord Cornwallis’s designated deputy. Such actions were used by some Britons to assert the fundamental decency of the colonists in cause and conduct. Here was clear evidence of Washington the Officer and Gentleman, a natural “aristocrat” and “commander on the European model” who had previously been proud of his English identity (at one point he had been destined for an education there). As Troy Bickham has shown, two key themes thus developed in British depictions of Washington. The first asserted his status as a “quintessential English-American gentleman.” The second further affirmed this by identifying him as a “paragon of Republican virtue.” And crucially, these were not partisan views. In 1776, for example, even a Tory paper well-known for being hostile to the American cause declared Washington to be “The Flower of American Chivalry.”
No wonder therefore that British Arms had been bested on the field of battle: His Majesty’s Redcoats had been conquered by one of their own who had led to victory an army of free-born Englishmen (at least, so went the theory). When this American Cincinnatus was subsequently elevated to the presidency many British liberals and dissenters happily declared their warm approval. After all, the system of government chosen by the Americans was pleasingly familiar in essential form albeit with an important improvement: the addition of a chief executive chosen on merit rather than by the accident of birth. Washington’s subsequent conduct in office secured him still further British plaudits, and so too did his efforts to re-establish diplomatic ties with the Empire.
It is thus notable that in 1797, at the end of his presidential career, the dinner Washington hosted for close friends and colleagues included the resident British minister—Sir Robert Liston—whose wife, also in attendance, was famously overcome by tears at the first president’s impending retirement. Two years later, when Washington passed away, the Empire’s capital went into mourning. A memorial service for those American sailors then in London was held in St. John’s Church, Wapping, whilst the British Fleet, busy blockading the French channel ports, lowered the White Ensign to half-mast as a mark of respect. In the London press, meanwhile, Washington was eulogized as a man of “genius, integrity and genuine patriotism” who acted “from the purest principle” and who was nothing less than a “hero of the ages.”
The Anglo-American Rapprochement
In the years that followed the esteem in which Washington was held in Britain only intensified, a development which now turned attention towards the question of his lineage. This was something in which Washington himself had always evinced little interest, not least because the Revolution was a rejection of established ideas of birth and status. Pursuing his English ancestry was thus not a good “look” for a man simultaneously intent on severing political ties with London. As a result, when questioned about his “pedigree” in the 1790s Washington could only reply that he believed his family “came from some one of the northern counties of England; but whether from Lancashire, Yorkshire, or one still more northerly, I do not precisely remember.”
For others, however, such uncertainty demanded further research, and in due course the subject of the Washington family line, especially the precise location of its English “roots,” drew engaged interest. Leading the way was Sir Isaac Heard, a heraldic “officer at arms,” whose energetic pursuit of Washington’s ancestry again reveals the first president’s high standing in Britain. This pursuit continued across the nineteenth century, being taken up in the 1860s by the pioneering American genealogist Joseph Lemuel Chester, and then by Henry Waters in the 1880s. As the latter put it in 1889:
On the American side of the water we had a complete chain running back from the President to the first settler of the name. There the chain, like the vast majority of American pedigrees, was broken short off, at the water’s edge.
By the end of the century, however, and as a result of the efforts of Heard, Chester, and Waters, this “chain” had at last been re-connected, and the Washington line was traced to four specific corners of England: Washington (County Durham), Sulgrave (Northamptonshire), Warton (Lancashire), and Purleigh (Essex). Even so, as the twentieth century approached the letters pages of the London Times still often bore witness to claim and counter-claim regarding some of the fine details.
Crucially, such engaged British interest was shaped and sustained by the various assumptions then informing the so-called “Great Rapprochement.” First identified by the historian Bradford Perkins, this was an era in which politicians and diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic enthusiastically celebrated the “ties that bind,” a development prompted by shifting geo-political realities as well as contemporary obsessions regarding the imagined unities of the “Anglo-Saxon” race. As another scholar has succinctly put it, by the turn of the twentieth century “articulate Englishmen and Americans at all levels of society declaimed about the supposed racial affinity of their two countries and described Great Britain and the United States as natural allies because of the racial bond.”
This represented a marked change from the state of Anglo-American relations over much of the preceding century. The Revolution itself was of course something of a nadir, but even in its aftermath lingering disagreements remained, not least over the continued British presence in North America. Amongst other things, this fact was behind persistent Anglo-American disputes regarding the future of the Empire’s still loyal northern provinces (Canada) as well over the rights to settling the vast tracts of the Pacific north-west. To this extent, the War of 1812—which famously led to the burning of the White House by British troops—was merely a very public expression of some of the underlying tensions straining the relationship between London and Washington and which persisted long into the post-Revolution period.
The Treaty of Ghent, signed in 1814 by Baron Gambier and John Quincy Adams, resolved some of the outstanding issues, although there were still occasional flare-ups (perhaps most famously the 1861 Trent Affair). But by the 1890s many of the lingering points of contention—especially regarding the British presence in the western hemisphere—had at last been settled. The stage was thus set for a new era of close Anglo-American connection, cultural as much as political and diplomatic. And, as such, the stage was also set for the celebration of Washington’s English ancestry, for how better to assert the idea of a deep-rooted transatlantic “racial” connection than by proclaiming the “Englishness” of George Washington?
London’s Washington statue is an expression of this idea. An exact replica of the one by Antoine Houdon in the State Legislature at Richmond, it was a gift of the Commonwealth of Virginia intended to mark an important occasion: the Centennial of the Treaty of Ghent. Transatlantic plans for this anniversary first emerged in 1911, and by 1914 a full schedule of pageants and ceremonies had been devised, culminating with a grand ball to be hosted in Ghent itself shortly before Christmas 1914. But the outbreak of war in Europe intervened and so all was put on hold for the duration of the conflict.
It was only after the Armistice, therefore, that some of the original projects were finally realized, amongst which was the London statue of Washington. To be sure, the subject of where exactly it should be erected certainly drew lively discussion, with some outspoken Britons—like the one quoted above—revealing that the first president’s “traitorous” rebellion against Crown and Empire had neither been forgotten nor forgiven. But such views were always in the minority, and a prominent location outside the National Gallery was soon approved by King George V, namesake and great-grandson of the man who had “lost” the American colonies in the 1780s.
Washington was unveiled before an applauding crowd and with some soaring oratory in June 1921. For many of those in attendance, the first president’s English ancestry clearly revealed the underlying unities which bound Americans and Britons into a single family. As Dr. Smith of Washington and Lee University put it:
our universal Anglo-Saxon instinct for justice and passion for liberty, our common recognition of the imperative of conscience, the rights of the individual, the fatherhood of God, and the essential brotherhood of man—with these multiplied and mighty bonds, so recently softened in the furnace of common suffering and welded anew on the hard anvil of war, this is a world of friendship that has come to stay, and may the God of England and America doom to speedy destruction every effort and agency that attempts to weaken or undermine it.
Lord Curzon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and a Trustee of the National Gallery, clearly agreed, remarking in reply that the “very fact of setting up this statue here was a sign that the two great branches of the English-speaking race were now indissolubly one.” Curzon concluded his short address with a final flourish, declaring that he was happy to “gratefully and proudly accept this wonderful statue of a great Englishman.”
Notably, the very same sentiment was apparent just a few days earlier at the dedication of Washington’s ancestral home—Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire—as an Anglo-American “shrine.” Much like the statue, the origins of this endeavor also lay in the years shortly before the First World War and indeed involved a similar cast of Anglo-American luminaries, including Viscount Byrce (a former British Ambassador to the United States) and Walter Hines Page (Ambassador to the Court of St. James from 1913-1918). The dedication was a suitably grand occasion and included a procession from the parish church as well as the unveiling of a bust of the first president under the branches of a large walnut tree on the manor’s lawn. All those who spoke took the opportunity to identify Washington’s “English” roots as expressive of the deep ties joining Americans and Britons.
Today, a century later, the language used to describe the Anglo-American relationship has of course changed and simplistic and reductive appeals to “racial” connections are—very rightly—beyond the pale. But the details of Washington’s English connections nonetheless continue to draw interest across the pond. His ancestral home at Sulgrave remains a memorial to the Anglo-American relationship; the grave of the last Washington of Warton in Lancashire still draws American pilgrims; and various other English communities—from Durham in the north to Purleigh in the south—continue to celebrate proudly their links to the man who so roundly defeated the British Empire all those years ago.
C.L. Hales to the Office of Works, May 19, 1921, Works 20/123, The National Archives, Kew, UK. At one point there was talk of the statue being placed in or near Westminster Abbey, but this too provoked an angry repost. See “Washington Not Wanted in Westminster Abbey,” Literary Digest (March 28, 1914), 689-690.
C.C. Bonwick, “English Dissenters and the American Revolution” in H.C. Allen and Roger Thompson (ed.), Contrast and Connection: Bicentennial Essays in Anglo-American History (London: G. Bell & Sons Ltd., 1976), 88. See also T. Bickham, “Sympathizing with Sedition? George Washington, the British Press, and British Attitudes during the American War of Independence,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 59, 1, (2002), 101-122.
“Death of Paul Jones,” Evening Mail, July 27, 1792. See also R. Hornick, What Remains: Searching for the Memory and Lost Grave of John Paul Jones (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), 46-47, 56-61.
George Washington to Sir Isaac Heard, May 2, 1792. Quoted in A. B. Hart, “The English Ancestry of George Washington,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 63 (October 1929 – January 1930), 3.
For some further details, see S. Edwards, “A Great Englishman”: George Washington and Anglo-American Memory Diplomacy, c.1890-1925 in R.M. Hendershot and S. Marsh, eds., Culture Matters: Anglo-American Relations and the Intangibles of “specialness” (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021), 158-188; S. Edwards, “Warton, George Washington, and the Lancashire Roots of the Anglo-American Special Relationship, c1880-1976,” Northern History 55:2 (2018), 206-234.