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Atlantic Mirrors

By Samuel Rubinstein


In 1982, the German writer Peter Schneider tried to capture the strangeness of divided Berlin. His book Der Mauerspringer compiles impressions of Cold War life, some written in a sober journalistic tone and others bearing a hint of magical realism. One line from near the beginning has stuck with me ever since I first read it, and not just because I had to memorise it for my A-Level German exam. “Westgesichter staren in Ostgesichter, wie Menschen Menschenaffen betrachten”: West German faces stared into East German ones, the way human beings look at great apes.

This line often springs to mind whenever I find myself speaking with Americans about politics. One could probably do a lot worse than itin summing up Anglo-American relations. Of course, the divide between Britain and America is much less extreme than that which used to prevail in Germany. There is no significant contrast in state ideology or international allegiances, nor any barbed wire or watchtowers stitched across the Atlantic. The economic chasm is also less stark, at least for the time being. Yet with Britain stagnating and America’s growth continuing apace, a “Two Germanies” outcome, exacerbated by the British brain-drain that would surely accompany it, is far from inconceivable.

  In making Schneider’s simian metaphor work for Britain and America, though, it has to be appended with a “vice versa”. The condescension, in this instance, goes both ways . Many Britons, myself included, feel a slight smugness whenever Donald Trump is on the news. A certain type of American may have experienced something similar while beholding the theatrics of His Majesty’s coronation last year – or, perhaps with greater justification, regarding Liz Truss’s brief stint in Downing Street or the latest round of glum statistics about the British economy.

But what makes the simile work isn’t just the sense of superiority that it implies. It also has something to do with divergent evolution. Long before Darwin, people looked to the great apes with confused and fascinated familiarity. Rousseau, in a note to his Second Discourse (1755), even wondered whether orangutans literally belonged to our own species. Such a hypothesis could only be tested by “experiment”, by which he meant having humans mate with orangutans, to determine whether they would produce fertile offspring.  

Luckily, we now possess pleasanter means of acquiring scientific knowledge. Thanks to Darwin we know how it is possible for us to have a real, biological kinship with the orangutans without it meaning that we are of the same species. In language, customs, politics and so much else, Britain and America, like humans and orangutans, share a recent common ancestor. The allure of gazing across the Atlantic, from whichever side, is that it provides us with a sense of what happens along the developmental road not taken: we get to see, in real time, the counterfactual playing out.



Today’s America is as much a child of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain as today’s Britain is. Yet only one side is fully conscious of the common ancestor. Americans nowadays don’t tend to think of, say, Alfred the Great or Henry VIII as a link in the chain of their own history. This was not always so, and probably would have surprised America’s founding generation. Men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson saw themselves as the heirs to ancient English political traditions, and never tired of mentioning it. Indeed, they felt themselves to be making good on an inheritance that the apes over in the metropole had squandered.

  Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies fancied themselves as the final stage in the great westward expansion of English liberty. They were a latter-day Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chieftains who, according to tradition, began the Germanic conquest of lowland Britain at the dawn of the Middle Ages. Jefferson, himself a keen Anglo-Saxonist, proposed shortly after the Declaration of Independence that the Great Seal of the United States depict Hengist and Horsa, “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we assumed”. Unfortunately, his suggestion was not accepted.

  Jefferson’s identification with Hengist and Horsa carried a political charge. When the Saxons came to Britain in the fifth century, filling the vacuum left by the Romans, they were not bound by any obligations to their kinsmen, the Old Saxons, who remained in the forests of Germany. They did not have laws dictated to them from the continent; nor did they have to send their tax-money there. It would be preposterous, as Franklin suggested in his satirical ‘Edict by the King of Prussia’ , for the present-day king of Prussia to lay claim to sovereignty over England on the basis that England had been founded by settlers from his territory. Jefferson made this argument explicit in his Summary View of the Rights of British America, in order to assert that the government of George III in London had no authority over North America.

  Jefferson, conventionally characterised as the most “Anglophobic” of the Founding Fathers, made common cause with the British radicals of his day, and sometimes tried to communicate with them in what remained of their shared political language. His 1824 correspondence with Britain’s ‘Father of Reform’, Major John Cartwright, is illuminating in this respect. Cartwright had sent to Jefferson (and also to Jefferson’s friend, sparring partner, and predecessor as President, John Adams) a copy of his book The English Constitution. Both Jefferson and Cartwright were old men by this point. “Your age of eighty-four, and mine of eighty-one years, ensure us a speedy meeting”, Jefferson joked morbidly. “We may then commune at leisure, and more fully, on the good and evil, which in the course of our long lives, we have both witnessed.”

  Cartwright’s book on The English Constitution was a classic of English historiography of the whiggish variety. Jefferson proudly hitched his colours to the same political mast. “It has ever appeared to me that the difference between the whig and tory of England”, he wrote, “is that the whig deduces his rights from the Anglo-Saxon source, and the tory from the Norman.” He praised Cartwright for tracing English libertyto its “rightful root”, the Anglo-Saxon constitution; for “although this constitution was violated and set at naught by Norman force, yet force cannot change right”. The Revolution that Jefferson himself had waged half a century earlier was the final step in the long, agonising process of shaking off the Norman Yoke, the last of the “pullings and haulings for these antient rights, between the nation, and its kings". Jefferson wholeheartedly supported Cartwright’s proposals for constitutionalreform, which he hoped would push Britain down a more liberal, republican, and therefore more American track.   

  Anglo-Saxonism was a commonplace of the whig discourse of the age, but it also had its critics. Cartwright’s historically-grounded radicalism was at odds with the universalist and rationalist strain classically propounded by Thomas Paine – and, at other times, by Jefferson himself. John Wade, a Paineite who drifted into the Utilitarian circle of Francis Place and Jeremy Bentham, criticised Cartwright’s tendencies towards quaint, Gothic medievalism:

We really think we cannot better advance the cause of Reform than by excluding from the consideration of the subject, all allusions to a former state of society… [Can the Reformers] bring nothing to bear against the old rotten-borough-mongering system but musty parchment, black letter, and Latin quotations?

Wade’s preoccupation with “mustiness" was typical of the Enlightenment critique of historical precedent. Such antiquarianism was held to be intellectually, as well as practically, ineffectual; it would be more rigorous and rousing to speak in the register of “self-evident truths” and “unalienable rights”. When the revolutionaries set out to justify 1776, they proceeded from this axiom. Jefferson – who, as we have seen, was sometimes partial to precedent-hunting – would also inveigh against Cartwright-style “mustiness”. The American Revolution, he wrote to Cartwright, had

[…] presented us an album on which we were free to write what we pleased. We had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.

Influence is ever tricky to prove, but it seems likely that Jeffersonwas echoing a remark of his slain rival Alexander Hamilton. At the very least, the two had enough in common, all their celebrated disagreements notwithstanding, to arrive at such similar formulations independently. In The Farmer Refuted, Hamilton declared that appeals to English history, to ancient and lost liberties, was no substitute for philosophical deductions from universal first principles:

The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.

Anglo-Saxonism, of course, retained something of a hold over American discourse. As the nineteenth century progressed, it was linked to racialism and imperialism.  Appeals to English liberty offered a blunt weapon to be wielded at once against the Mexicans and freed slaves to the south, and against the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Slavs streaming through Ellis Island. The liberal-radical type of Anglo-Saxonism persisted nonetheless. On the centenary of the Declaration of Independence – I doubt that this was a coincidence – a troupe of Harvard bigwigs, representing some of America’s most prominent political families, published a collection of essays on Anglo-Saxon law. The thrust of all these essays was that the Anglo-Saxon constitution had been uniquely disposed towards liberty, that the Norman Conquest had not succeeded in uprooting it completely, and that the creation of the United States represented its ultimate triumph.

But this volume may have been the last hurrah in America for appeals to the rights of Englishmen and other such musty things. Jefferson’s talk of the “album on which we were free to write what we pleased”, and Hamilton’s appeals to universal rights, provide a much more representative sample of the mainstream of American thought, especially as the United States’ territory and population moved away from their colonial origins. A rupture in time had indeed occurred. And so we see the ways already parting.



Mustiness, held in disdain by the Founding Fathers, is an intellectual quality that some of their would-be successors have tried to resurrect. Perhaps the most prominent of these is Yoram Hazony, the Israeli-American philosopher and mind behind “National Conservatism.” In his book Conservatism: A Rediscovery (2022), and many related papers and articles, Hazony presents himself as recovering a long-lost intellectual tradition, which he dubs “Anglo-American conservatism.”

Hazony has scoured many musty parchments to furnish this tradition with its very own pantheon. The brightest lights are men like John Fortescue, Richard Hooker, and Edmund Burke. John Selden looms especially large, enthroned as “perhaps the most important figure in Anglo-American conservatism”. This strikes me as a bold claim, given Selden’s relative obscurity among laypeople. It is scarcely justified in the book itself, where Selden appears as one of many voices raised against arbitrary royal prerogative.

  Hazony’s account of English political thought has its eccentricities, but it falters most severely in its treatment of American history. Hazony does not only depict the Constitution as closely based on the British model, he presents it as altogether superseding the Declaration. Thus Hazony laments that the story of the American founding was rewritten in the twentieth century, with Jefferson – ever the villain of the piece – supposedly supplanting Washington as father of the nation, and ideological liberalism rather than English liberty becoming enshrined as “the state ideology”.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Hazony is simply an old-fashioned British conservative, cursed to intellectual inconsistency by  American preeminence. He does not appear to like America very much, at least as it actually exists. Whatever promise America had at its founding was snatched away when the Democratic-Republicans outfoxed the Federalists. Even if “Anglo-American conservatism” did not disappear altogether or immediately, it seems that it has been in retreat since the early 19th century.       

  In America, appeals to shared traditions with England have a conservative flavor. In Britain, however, the search for common ground with America is associated with the left. Hazony rejects the notion that the American Revolution was a rupture in time, and envies Britain’s historical continuity. Britain’s modern constitutional reformers, meanwhile, cringe over their country’s unruptured past, its Gothic bequests, and wish to right those wrongs by aping the American example.

  This group has been relatively successful, to the extent that Britain is now constitutionally more alike America than it used to be. Devolution in Scotland and Wales has given Britain, once a unitary state, a quasi-federal structure. Prime Ministers seem in the meantime to have taken on a more presidential demeanour. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom came into existence in 2009: perhaps on account of its lofty name and the American parallel that it automatically invites, it seems to play a far greater role in public discourse than its predecessor, the Law Lords, ever did. The trends seem to be away from the principle of parliamentary sovereignty that radical whigs once traced back to the Saxon witenagemot, and towards a more rigid, consciously designed system bearing the imprint of Enlightenment reason. There are even calls for Britain to adopt America’s signature deviation from ancestral models—a written constitution. Although the proposal was removed from the party manifesto, some Labour activists even hope to replace the House of Lords with an elected “senate."

Perhaps, then, the future promises a new convergence. Such convergence would, however, require concessions and distortions from both sides. As biological evolution shows, the existence of a common ancestor does mean that species remain the same over time. In the 21st century, an Anglo-American politics that neglects the important differences between national traditions would be a mutant or chimera.

But we are not there yet. British conservatives stand, if they stand for anything, for Westminster sovereignty. American conservatives, on the other hand, stand for  the written word of the Constitution. There can be no equivalent to originalism in British conservatism; and nor could there be anything so repugnant to the principled British conservative (or liberal) as the spectacle of a Supreme Court settling major political questions without obtaining popular or parliamentary consent.

There is similarity between these two movements. But it is the resemblances of cousins—to use an old-fashioned metaphor—not of siblings, let alone twins. The political traditions of the two countries diverged perhaps as long ago as 1776.  Efforts to synthesise them, whether from the right or the left, have as much chance of immediate success, and for similar reasons, as Rousseau’s orangutan experiment. 


Samuel Rubinstein is a postgraduate historian and writer.




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