When you go to the cinema think of how often English legends such as Robin Hood are used by Americans. Reflect on how, until recently at least, American universities would give as a matter of course considerable time to the study of writers such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen. These things happen naturally and without self-consciousness because English culture and history is part of American history.
Despite the recent US appetite for Englishness on film they have a schizophrenic relationship with this country. They produce Anglophobe abortions such as Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot” – a film set in the American War of Independence which depicted the 18th Century British as Nazis – are vestigially paranoid about “King George” and constantly use the English in films as stage villains.
Overtly, Americans ignore their English origins. The most absurd example of this on celluloid I have come across occurred in the feature film length cartoon Pocohontas which dealt with the Jamestown settlement of 1607, the first permanent English settlement in North America. The leader of the expedition, John Smith, was given an American accent while the rest of the crew had English ones ranging from stage cockney to upper class cad.
The consequence of this denial of their origins makes America a very peculiar country in that it lacks a coherent foundation story. King George and the British are the villains and American colonists the heroes … and that’s about it. There is a great blank hole in American history, namely, where did they and their dominant culture come from? The answer of course is England.
Ultimately the USA is the child of England: no England, no United States. The nonexistence of the United States alone would have made a colossal difference to the history of the past two centuries and to the present day, not least because it is and has been for a century or more responsible for a tremendous proportion of global scientific discovery and technological development. If the English had done nothing more than lay the foundation of the United States it would have done a mighty thing.
At this point I can hear the cry of many: why the English not the British? Was not the United States formed as much by the Scots and Irish as by the English? There will even be those who will press the claims of the Germans. A little careful thought will show that no one but the English could have been responsible, although many peoples and cultures have subsequently added to the considerable variety of American life
The English were the numerically dominant settlers from the Jamestown settlement in 1607 until the Revolution. Moreover, and this is the vital matter, they were overwhelmingly the dominant settlers for the first one hundred years. Even in 1776 English descended settlers formed, according to the historical section of the American Bureau of Census, nearly sixty percent of the population and the majority of the rest of the white population was from the non-English parts of Britain.
This English predominance may not seem important at first glance because of the immense non-Anglo-Saxon immigration which occurred from the eighteenth century onwards. Would not, a reasonable man might ask, would not the later immigration swamp the earlier simply because of its greater scale? The answer is no – at least until the relaxation of immigration rules in the sixties – because the numbers of non-Anglo Saxons coming into America were always very small compared with the existing population of the USA.
When immigrants enter a country their descendents will generally adopt the social and cultural colouring of the native population. The only general exception to this well attested sociological fact is in a situation of conquest, although even there the invader if few in number will become integrated through intermarriage and the general pressure of the culture of the majority population working through the generations. Thus at any time in the development of the USA the bulk of the population were practisers of a general culture which strongly reflected that of the original colonisers, namely the English.
Immigrants were therefore inclined to adopt the same culture. America’s English origins spread throughout her culture. Her law is founded on English common law. The most famous of American law officers is the English office of sheriff. Congress imitates the eighteenth century British Constitution (President = King; Senate = Lords; House of Representatives = The House of Commons) with, of course, the difference of a codified constitution. (It would incidentally be truer to describe the British Constitution as uncodified rather than unwritten). It is an irony that their system of government has retained a large degree of the monarchical and aristocratic principles whilst that of Britain has removed power remorselessly from King and aristocracy and placed it resolutely in the hands of elected representatives who have no formal mandate beyond the representation of their constituents.
The Declaration of Independence is full of phrases and sentiments redolent of English liberty. The prime political texts of the American revolution were those of the Englishmen John Locke and Tom Paine. The American Constitution is designed to alleviate faults in the British Constitution not to abrogate it utterly. The first ten amendments which form the American Bill of Rights draw their inspiration from the English Bill of Rights granted by William of Orange. The American Revolution was conducted by men whose whole thought was in the English political tradition.
The English influence is written deeply into the American landscape. Take a map of the States and see how many of the place names are English, even outside the original thirteen colonies which formed the USA. Note that they are divided into parishes and counties.
Above all other cultural influences stands the English language. Bismarck thought that the fact that America spoke English was the most significant political fact of his time. I am inclined to agree with him. But at a more fundamental level, the simple fact that English is spoken by Americans as their first language means that their thought processes will be broadly similar to that of the English. Language is the ultimate colonisation of a people.
Moreover, the English spoken by the majority of Americans is still very much the English of their forebears. It is, for example, far less mutated than the English spoken in India. The English have little difficulty in understanding Americans whatever their regional origin. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to many Americans that the average Englishman probably finds it easier to understand most American forms of speech than some British accents and dialects. Americans often affect not to understand English accents, but it is amazing how well they can understand them when they need something. Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that “America and England are two countries divided by a common language” was witty but, as with so much of what he said, utterly at variance with reality.
The English heritage in America is far from spent, not merely in its language and institutions, but also in the fact that more Americans have some form of English lineage than any other group and even if the do not think of themselves as English by descent, the personality traits of the English in as far as they are genetically determined are passed on and reinforced by those extant cultural relics of Englishness.
There is a special relationship between England and America but it is not the one beloved of politicians. The special relationship is one of history and culture. American culture is an evolved Englishness, much added to superficially but still remarkably and recognisably English.
What applies to the USA, broadly applies also to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Even American actors go English . Those old enough to remember the classic age of Hollywood will recall the habit of American stars appearing in films with an English context to resolutely refuse to make any attempt to adopt an English accent. In recent years there has been a complete reversal of this. To list just a few big names: Johnny Depp (The Libertine, From Hell, Pirates of the Caribbean and Corpse Bride), Julianne Moore (The End of the Affair), John Malkhovitch (The Libertine), Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma and Sliding Doors), Reese Witherspoon (Vanity Fair), Danny Huston (The Constant Gardener), Liv Ulman, Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood and Sam Astin (all Lord of the Rings), Natalie Portman (V for Vendetta) . Non-American foreign actors have also been doing their bit. Russell Crowe (Master and Commander), Brendan Gleeson (Troy), Eric Bana (Troy), Cate Blanchett (The End of the Affair), Nicole Kidman (The Others), Natalie Portman (V for Vendetta).
The success of English films in America also gives the lie to the American’s frequent claim that they cannot understand what the English say because they “kinda talk funny”. This fantasy is mercilessly guyed in the film The Limey where Terrence Stamp plays a cockney gangster in America and the American characters constantly say they cannot understand him. In fact, as anyone who has had dealings with Americans will know they can all understand very well – when they want something.
It is perhaps not so surprising that films with RP speakers in it should be understood by Americans, but it is noteworthy that they also watched in large numbers the two Guy Ritchie mockney gangster films which were full of the cockney vernacular. They watched in even greater numbers Johnny Depp’s hilarious take off of Rolling Stone Keith Richard in Pirates of the Caribbean.