Pilgrims, Benjamin Franklin and the North Atlantic Triangle

By Stephen Bowman

In an effort to inject the early-twentieth century diplomatic British-American rapprochement with a shared meaning, elites on both sides of the Atlantic appropriated and reimagined the Britain’s and America’s pasts. Foremost amongst these elites was the Pilgrims Society, a dining club for politicians, diplomats, businessmen, lawyers and journalists, formed in London and New York in 1902. To solidify the rapprochement, they appealed to a set of English values and ideas which they believed characterised the Anglo-Saxonism that underpinned their conception of a shared British-American identity.

Some of this is best shown by considering a banquet held by the Pilgrims Society for the Governor-General of Canada, Northumberland’s 4th Earl Grey, at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in March 1906. This was part of good-will visit undertaken by Earl Grey as part of an effort to address some outstanding diplomatic differences between Canada and Britain and the United States, including disagreements over fishing rights in the North Atlantic. Earl Grey also used the Pilgrims’ dinner as an opportunity to publicly announce that he was returning a portrait of Benjamin Franklin that had been taken from Franklin’s house in Philadelphia by British forces during the American Revolution, and which Grey had inherited.

Like his fellow Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin has served as a symbol of American national identity in the centuries since his death. By the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth, American imperialism in places like Cuba and the Philippines, but also on the Western Frontier, meant that Franklin also acted as an icon of America’s expansion and civilising mission. This chimed with Anglo-Saxonist conceptions of imperialism, which was presented as a benign and improving influence upon the world, particularly through the exporting of the apparently unique English propensity for self-government. Earl Grey and the Pilgrims Society certainly subscribed to this notion. In so doing, they neatly forgot about the worst excesses of Anglo-Saxon imperialism, for instance the grubby incident at Chumik Shenko in Tibet in March 1904 when British imperial forces en route to Lhasa massacred 500 Tibetans, the suppression of the 1906 Zulu rebellion in Natal, or America’s brutal defeat of Filipino insurgents at the turn of the century.

Meanwhile, the renewed scholarly and literary interest in Franklin at the start of the twentieth century – which highlighted, for example, the essential Englishness of his writing and its absence of Americanisms – was an attempt by American elites to institutionalise him as a symbol of the supremacy of Anglo-American ideals.  It was this elite aspect of American national identity, and its affinity with Benjamin Franklin, to which Earl Grey appealed in an effort to foster British-American friendship.

Unlike some American newspapers, the Pilgrims Society ignored the fact that Earl Grey was simply returning a piece of loot which had been taken from America during a period of British-American acrimony. These difficult historical realities were circumnavigated by Anglo-Saxonism and by an appeal to a shared English identity. Indeed, even though official histories of the Pilgrims Society suggest that the club did not take its name from the Pilgrim Fathers, the society would occasionally evoke the spirit of America’s early modern English and European settlers.  The tables at the Earl Grey dinner in March 1906, for example, were decorated with ‘sprays of trailing arbutus’, chosen because that species of plant had purportedly been the first flower encountered by the Pilgrim Fathers when they landed at Plymouth Rock in the seventeenth century (Boston Daily Globe, 1 April 1906). Likewise, at the Pilgrims’ twenty-fifth anniversary dinner in 1928, James Sheffield – the US Ambassador to Mexico – spoke of the ‘fundamental principles of government’ which the Pilgrim Fathers had brought to America from England and that the ‘spirit’ of that pilgrimage ‘rests with us tonight’. Such sentiments concerning the Pilgrim Fathers were consistent with what Joseph Conforti, in his book Imagining New England: Explorations of Regional Identity from the Pilgrims to the Mid-Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), has termed a ‘new, politicized meaning’ to the word ‘Pilgrim’, which emerged in the early-nineteenth century. Largely distinct from religious connotations, ‘Pilgrim’, and the Pilgrim Fathers, ‘connoted the pioneering status of New England’s founders; the old comers were now imagined as the pioneers of civil and religious liberty in America.’

Thus the Anglo-Saxonism of the early-twentieth century – characterised by appeals to a shared British-American identity based on English ideas –  helped circumnavigate difficult historical and contemporary realities, including the memory of the Revolution, right up to recent British-American disagreements relating to Canada and Newfoundland. It also obscured some inconvenient truths about British and American imperial activity in Tibet, South Africa and the Philippines.