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Feature essay

America in the Oxford DNB

Deborah, Lady Moody, was born in the mid-1580s. Her father, Walter Dunch, was a lawyer and sometime member of parliament for Dunwich in Suffolk.
  Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, 1778 Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, 1778
In 1606 she married a Wiltshire landowner, Henry Moody; together they had at least two children. About 1639, in middle age, and perhaps in protest at Archbishop Laud's reforms of the Anglican church, she emigrated to Massachusetts. But her rejection of infant baptism forced her to leave the commonwealth in 1643. She moved to Dutch New Netherland where she founded the settlement of Gravesend, now part of Brooklyn. She maintained the village as a haven where all might enjoy liberty of conscience, and she died there in the late 1650s. The governor of Massachusetts had called her a ‘dangerous woeman’; later admirers knew her as the ‘first Lady Liberty’.

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, the tenth and youngest son of a chandler. Trained as a printer, he made his reputation in mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia as a successful publisher, civic worthy, and natural philosopher famed for his research into electrical phenomena. He assisted in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, represented the new American nation in Paris during the War of Independence, and was a member of the federal convention that composed the American constitution in 1787. Franklin first visited England in the mid-1720s. He returned between 1757 and 1762 as agent for Pennsylvania, during which period he was awarded honorary degrees by Oxford and Edinburgh universities. From 1764 to 1775 he was again in London, representing several colonies, so that he was regarded as an ‘ambassador extraordinary’ for the Americans at large.

Josiah Henson, meanwhile, was born into slavery in Maryland in 1789. When he was a boy, his father was ‘sold down the river’ and was never seen again. Henson himself was treated brutally as a young man. He escaped to Canada in 1830 with his family and from there embarked on a career as an anti-slavery orator and activist. The narrative of his own life in slavery, published in 1849, was often taken to be the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). It formed the basis for the numerous anti-slavery lectures he gave in Britain, on the many visits he made across the Atlantic to raise consciousness and funds for the struggle against slavery. He regularly attracted audiences of thousands. He was a participant at the Great Exhibition in 1851—the only black man of any nation to exhibit at the Crystal Palace. In 1876 he was received by Queen Victoria at Windsor.

Each of these lives is bound up with British history in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, respectively; yet none was included in the first Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900). One of the most notable features of the new dictionary is the breadth of its coverage, so as to include the lives of many people born beyond the British Isles who nevertheless contributed to its national history, and the lives of those born in the British Isles whose achievements and reputations were made elsewhere. In this way a dictionary of national biography has a properly international context, documenting the interrelations between the peoples of the British Isles and those from overseas. No set of interrelations is more notable and consistent in the Oxford DNB than those linking Britain and America.

British Americans

The Oxford DNB includes over seven hundred new lives of colonial Americans who lived as subjects of the crown before 1776. There are entries on the founders of British settlement in North America, including the Virginia governor and colonial promoter John Smith, the founder of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, the governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop, and the dissident prophet Anne Hutchinson. The Salem witches of the 1690s are explored in a group article on the lives of those affected by this infamous case of supposed witchcraft and undoubted communal hysteria. The religious revivalists of the ‘first great awakening’, which was stimulated by the preaching of George Whitefield and John Wesley in the colonies during the 1730s, are also considered. There is wider and deeper coverage of the colonial governors, appointed and intermittently directed by London, who, like Thomas Hutchinson—a descendant of Anne Hutchinson and governor of Massachusetts—were placed in such unenviable positions by the gathering popular revolts of the 1760s and 1770s.

Alongside Benjamin Franklin there are entries on other ‘founding fathers’ of the United States including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. This is not only consistent with the dictionary's aim of including all those who made a significant contribution to British history, but also follows recent academic interpretations of the American War of Independence as an argument over the governance of the thirteen colonies and the rights of the colonists within a shared political discourse. The colonists used the logic and language of eighteenth-century whig ideology, as first developed in Britain, to build a case against the actions of George III and his ministers. And from that case they developed their own conceptions of collective government and personal liberty, which were enshrined in the American constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights.

Transatlantic exchanges: freedom and opportunity

  Allan Pinkerton (1819–1884) by Alexander Gardner, 1862 Allan Pinkerton (1819–1884) by Alexander Gardner, 1862
The dictionary also includes many hundreds of subjects with an Anglo-American flavour from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These may be broken down into two categories: those from Britain whose lives and careers were developed in the United States, and those who left America to live in Britain. Their analysis uncovers interesting patterns in social and cultural history.

The attractions of American political freedom, religious tolerance, and social equality have drawn many radical figures from Britain. Thomas Paine was perhaps the most notable of these emigrants. His arrival in the colonies in 1774, followed soon after by the publication of his pamphlet Common Sense, electrified American readers and encouraged them to seek political independence from the mother country. Joseph Priestley, the radical theologian and the discoverer of oxygen, escaped a ‘Church and King’ mob in Birmingham in 1791 and eventually sought refuge in the United States in 1794, settling in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where he resided until his death. In 1825 the cotton manufacturer, socialist, and utopian, Robert Owen, established his famous Owenite community at New Harmony in Indiana, then only sparsely populated. This experiment in communal living on the frontier did not last long but set a model for many more ‘backwoods utopias’ before the civil war. The father of Andrew Carnegie had been a Chartist in the 1830s and 1840s, campaigning for manhood suffrage and the reform of parliament in Britain. He emigrated from Scotland along with hundreds of other members of the movement, following its demise in 1848. His son, the steelmaker and philanthropist, took advantage of the remarkable opportunities in industrializing America to build one of the greatest commercial empires in modern history. The future detective Allan Pinkerton was another Chartist who left his native Glasgow after a warrant was issued for his arrest in the early 1840s. Described by his Oxford DNB biographer as ‘an archetypal barefoot immigrant’, Pinkerton subsequently established himself as a private detective and agency chief in Illinois.

For a generation of mid-Victorian liberal intellectuals, American democracy and pluralism made an appealing contrast to the situation in Britain and provided a model for future British development. These so-called ‘lights of liberalism’ took the part of the North in the American Civil War. They included the first editor of the old DNB, Leslie Stephen, who made a lengthy trip to the United States in 1863 in the midst of the war and published a critique of the manner in which the conflict had been reported by The Times on his return. Soon after it was over, the former regius professor of modern history in Oxford, Goldwin Smith, another university liberal, accepted an invitation to become the first professor of history at the newly founded Cornell University in 1868.

In the twentieth century, however, political emigrants have sometimes moved in the opposite direction. The McCarthyite purges of the 1940s and 1950s drove film directors, script writers, actors, and entertainers across the Atlantic, and brought to Britain the talents of Sam Wanamaker, the actor, director, and founder of the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London, and the remarkable bass voice of that great singer Paul Robeson. Robeson had lived and worked in Britain before the Second World War, and his liberal views on politics and race led him to seek sanctuary across the Atlantic during the 1950s. Yet these were certainly not the first American popular entertainers to make the journey.
  Elizabeth Rayner Parkes (1829–1925) by Constantin, early 1860s Elizabeth Rayner Parkes (1829–1925) by Constantin, early 1860s
In the 1890s London audiences had thrilled to the sights and sounds of the ‘Wild West’ in spectacular demonstrations of horsemanship, fancy rifle shooting, and buffalo hunting, as practised by the entertainer and pioneering aviator Samuel Franklin Cody, in his Klondyke Nugget show. Contemporary musical performers in Britain included the Ohio-born choirmaster Frederick J. Loudin and the New Orleans singer and dancer Belle Davis, while Carroll Gibbons and Roy Fox later brought the big-band sound to inter-war London.

The feminist movements in both countries emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and learnt from each other. Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 where the patronizing treatment she received as a woman emboldened her to conceive of a women's movement in America. In the other direction, the first feminist campaign in Britain in the 1850s for a law that would allow women to continue to own property after marriage—led by the ‘Langham Place circle’ of women under Barbara Bodichon and Elizabeth (Bessie) Parkes—took its examples from several north-eastern states where such legislation had already been passed. Each national women's movement was aware of the other's progress. Both reached some sort of climacteric at the end of the First World War when the fourth Reform Act and the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States constitution granted women's suffrage. With the success of the women's campaign in Britain the militant sufragette Christabel Pankhurst, a founder in 1903 of the Women's Social and Political Union, settled in California in the 1940s.

In a similar fashion, the religious freedom and diversity that has always characterized the United States attracted the British founders of new denominations and cults. Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ, William O'Bryan, founder of the Bible Christians or Bryanites, and John Alexander Dowie, founder of Zion's Tabernacles, chose America as the fertile soil of their movements. In the opposite direction, America has sent to Britain the exponents of more traditional Christianity and more intellectualized religion. Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey, the evangelists of the late nineteenth century, inspired and converted thousands of Britons on their many visits as mass preachers. Meanwhile Moncure Conway and Stanton Coit were leading figures in the ‘ethical movement’ of the same period, which appealed to a more educated audience who had lost their conventional Christian faith but who nevertheless sought spiritual solace and moral uplift.

The modern relationship: culture, science, and war

  (Eileen Evelyn) Greer Garson (1904–1996) by unknown photographer (Eileen Evelyn) Greer Garson (1904–1996) by unknown photographer
The American genius for popular culture has drawn British performers of stage and screen throughout the past century. Charlie Chaplin, the most famous of British actors to have appeared in American motion pictures, was followed by a host of talent propelled to stardom by American cinema. Many British actors came and went; some, including Tyrone Power, Sydney Greenstreet, Stan Laurel, Ronald Colman, Raymond Massey, Gertrude Lawrence, Cary Grant, and Greer Garson settled in the United States. Alfred Hitchcock made some of the most memorable films in cinematic history in England and then, after 1939, in Hollywood. Born in London, he became an American citizen in 1955. The director Stanley Kubrick moved to England in the early 1960s to secure greater artistic control over his films.

On the other side of the country to Hollywood, that other great centre of American popular culture, New York, was a similar draw. Over five hundred subjects in the Oxford DNB lived for part of their lives in the ‘Big Apple’. The changing character of its residents encapsulates the transatlantic relationship's shifting nature: from religious nonconformists like Anne Hutchinson and Dorothea Gotherson in the seventeenth century to revolutionaries and politicians such as Philip Schuyler in the eighteenth, and Irish nationalists including Thomas Meagher in the nineteenth. In the late twentieth century, the writer and performer Quentin Crisp found refuge in New York City while Sid Vicious, of the punk rock band the Sex Pistols, died of an overdose in Greenwich Village in 1979; John Lennon was murdered there a year later. Meanwhile Jimi Hendrix, born in Seattle, was spotted while living in New York and moved to London in 1966. As these biographies remind us, actors, directors, musicians, and singers have crossed the Atlantic since the nineteenth century. Cinema and music have encouraged a remarkable sharing of popular experiences and taste in the two nations.

British writers were read by millions of nineteenth-century Americans in pirated editions of their novels. When Charles Dickens made his trips across the Atlantic he was lionized and admired as never before. Herbert Spencer, the sociologist and philosopher, found a far more sympathetic audience for the social Darwinism he espoused in the hectic economic and social competition of ‘gilded age’ America than in Britain in the 1870s. Meanwhile American authors made their pilgrimages to the old country. Some came to meet their heroes and then returned to develop their own authentic voices: thus Ralph Waldo Emerson met the historian and biographer Thomas Carlyle at Craigenputtoch, Scotland, in 1833. Others, like that formidable trio of modernist writers, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, preferred the more traditional and deferential society that was Britain to their native America and stayed, though Pound infamously moved on to fascist Italy.

Scholars and scientists have crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic in similar fashion, most notably since the 1960s when the so-called ‘brain drain’ has taken many from Britain to universities in the United States. But the most significant Anglo-American technical and intellectual collaboration occurred during the Second World War in the Manhattan project to build the atomic bomb. The work of Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch at the University of Birmingham in 1939–40 gave proof that an atomic weapon was feasible and could be built. After Anglo-American collaboration began in 1943, they were joined at the project's headquarters at Los Alamos in New Mexico, and in other associated laboratories, by a small group of talented British scientists including James Chadwick, Samuel Curran, Frank Kearton, the Australian-born Harrie Massey, Philip Moon, Mark Oliphant, William Penney, and Cyril Smith. Klaus Fuchs, an assistant to Peierls who also accompanied him to America, was later unmasked as a spy for the Soviet Union and imprisoned in Britain in the 1950s.

To generations who have grown up in the confident security of the ‘special relationship’ since the Second World War, and who have become accustomed to a common Anglo-American approach to foreign affairs for good or ill, it may come as a surprise that Britain and America were often at odds in the century between the Revolution and the American Civil War. The biographies of the various British generals during the Revolutionary War—Thomas Gage, William Howe, Henry Clinton, Charles Cornwallis, and ‘Gentleman Johnny’ Burgoyne with his splendid wardrobe and crates of champagne—tell us much about the reasons why the colonists emerged victorious at Yorktown in 1781. And at New Orleans in January 1815, Andrew Jackson, later the seventh president of the United States, famously defeated a British army under the command of the brother-in-law of the duke of Wellington, Sir Edward Pakenham, who showed how (yet again) otherwise distinguished British commanders could be overcome by military incompetence when fighting in America. Yet even when in alliance, the United States and Great Britain have had their military differences. The Oxford DNB life of Bernard Montgomery provides a trenchant rebuttal of American criticisms of the field marshal's handling of allied armies in France and Germany in 1944–5. It is unlikely to end a prolonged controversy. And the Oxford DNB life of the post-war British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden, later first earl of Avon, details the opposition of the Eisenhower administration to British actions at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956, the most notable moment of post-war Anglo-American discord.

A changing relationship

Over time these Anglo-American relationships have changed in their nature. The Atlantic biographies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reflect a colonial relationship and are dominated by projectors of settlement, settlers themselves, colonial officials, and American anti-colonials. In the nineteenth-century ‘age of reform’ the subjects covered by the Oxford DNB include more moral and social reformers, animated by their opposition to slavery or desire for international peace, their commitment to sobriety and Christian piety. In the twentieth century the full complexity of the special relationship takes hold: alongside the popular entertainers, film stars, and directors who moved to both destinations, there are lives that tell the story of two nations brought into alliance by world wars and cold war. Statesmen, diplomats, generals, and international officials take the place of ministers of religion and moral reformers. Whether this latest trend will continue in future online releases—which will systematically add the lives of recently deceased subjects—depends on the nature of the Anglo-American relationship itself, bound up as it will be with changing American and British interests and alliances, and alterations to the national identities of both.

That there should have been such interaction between two maritime nations on either side of the Atlantic, who shared a language and a common political and legal heritage, is hardly surprising. But that this relationship should have continued to develop beyond the point of political separation at the end of the eighteenth century, and that it should have affected almost every aspect of culture, high and low, is intrinsically interesting. Through many hundreds of lives in the Oxford DNB it is possible to trace the different types, and the degree, of Anglo-American interactions, and appreciate the full dimensions of the American presence in British history.

Lawrence Goldman


J. S. Duplessis, portrait, 1778, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Benjamin Franklin [see illus.] · Constantin, photograph, 1860–64, Girton Cam.; Elizabeth Rayner Parkes [see illus.] · A. Gardner, photograph, 1862, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, National Portrait Gallery; Allan Pinkerton [see illus.] · photograph, Rex Features Ltd., London; Greer Garson [see illus.]