December 05, 2005

WW0@1903 - The Anglo-Saxon Century

The Anglo-Saxon Century and the Unification of the English-Speaking Peoples
John R. Dos Passos New York 1903

This book is fascinating for a number of reasons. Written shortly after the Spanish-American and Boer Wars, it reflects the rapid and very public improvement of relations between the United States and the British Empire after decades of irritability and occasional hostility. The behind-the-scenes calculations of politicians, diplomats, generals, and admirals form no part of this book. The book was also published before the appearance of Germany, Russia and Japan on the oceans (Tsushima Straits was several years in the future).

Download 520K Microsoft Word e-book file here

In a sense, then, it was a brief period of unipolarity – British unipolarity. The Pax Britannica was under stress but regnant, and the United States was rapidly becoming de facto proxy for British interests in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The construction of the Panama Canal by American interests was to begin within a year, and all European powers were imagining what an expanding, newly confident America, bound efficiently coast-to-coast by water, would mean for global politics.

The tariffs of the McKinley era (1893) were the first signs that the free trade era encouraged by British investment was coming to an end. Economic liberalism was similarly under pressure. It is important to remember at the point when AngloSaxon Century was written, only Canada was self-governing. Its foreign policy was still effectively administered from Westminster, and its boundaries were still under dispute with the US. Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and South Africa were still establishing modern infrastructure, were not yet fully settled, and were essentially colonies. The western US was settled however. American eyes and hands encompassed Hawaii and Puerto Rico. The United States was looking outward.

Out of this unique period in history, comes John Dos Passos, corporate lawyer. His argument, like his book, is set out with clarity. He says there are two new great conditions in the world: (1) there are no more great regions to explore and colonize and therefore (2) all nations are now effectively neighbours. In this context, growth would need to come from co-operation not territorial expansion.

Dos Passos, echoing British Foreign Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, claimed that the ties between the British Empire (and its dominions) and the United States were based on three things: sentiment (i.e., natural affection), self-interest (mutual interests), and duty (to promulgate Christianity and civilization). The Anglo-Saxon Century continues as an expanded discussion of these three foundations for unity between the English-speaking peoples, and the practical steps that should be taken to fulfill that unification.

Under the natural or sentimental ties of unity, Dos Passos first reviews the history of England and the British Isles highlighting for the reader just how much American sensibilities are dictated by events from British history ... Christianization, Magna Carta, the 1688 Bill of Rights. He then proceeds to note that the English-speaking peoples, wherever they are, share ancestry, and if not ancestry then immigrants quickly adopt the speech and values drawn from the British Isles. Amidst the same language, same literature, and same political institutions, similar values are nurtured and the intellectual and practical links between nations are built. The same "laws, legal customs, and general modes of judicial procedure" were particularly interesting to him because of his legal background. Further, the English-speaking peoples share the same "tendencies and methods of religious thought and worship" with a trend to disestablished churches. Personal ties between the nations were supported by intermarriage and commerce. And there were a multitude of lesser ways in which the peoples of America and the far-flung empire shared habits of living: sports, drama, pastimes, etc. The new technology of the time supported an increasing level of interchange.

Modern readers must also keep in mind that immigration to America in the last half of the 19th century still reflected the serious prejudices of the time. Japanese, Chinese and south Asian immigrants were excluded. English-speaking Catholic immigrants (generally Irish) were subject to general disdain and mistrust. White non-English speakers such as the Germans and Scandinavians were steered to rural communities, where pressure to assimilate was constant. A century ago, American culture was Caucasian, Protestant, and English-speaking to a degree inconceivable today. Talking about an Anglo-Saxon Century and shared values with Britain and its colonies in 1903 was therefore not a mere figure of speech.

Dos Passos turns to the selfish reasons which would provoke a unification of sorts between these peoples. Of these, a significant factor is the long- standing commercial and financial ties between the United Kingdom and America. American development was partly funded by British capital and with the advent of steam ships, the scale of trade between the United Kingdom and America at the end of 19th century was greater than that between the UK and all of Europe. Effectively, Dos Passos notes, the two countries were one giant mercantile community. The ties were so large, elaborate and dependable that a stable relationship between the two was in everyone's self-interest.

At a second level was the interest in self-preservation and the need for protection. While America could see no danger in the near-term, its experience in the Spanish-American War, where Britain subtly discouraged any additional European involvement was an example the author found compelling. As Dos Passos noted, "[a]re not our motions as a nation jealously and eagerly watched by the European powers?" The crumbling of the Pax Britannica meant that Britain was looking for assistance and should it not come from "her own offspring"? Self-preservation of American values, per the previous argument of sentiment, was effectively then preservation of Anglo-Saxon values across the regions of the English-speaking peoples.

This final point naturally led Dos Passos to a consideration of duty, and the self-confidence of the era that asserted Christianity and "the best and noblest conceptions of the origin and purpose of social existence" were to be extended everywhere. "We claim to lead," Dos Passos writes, "[but] is this assumption justified?" "If we are actuated by pure motives, which are made clear and are understood, we shall emerge from the struggle as the race always has, in victory."

With this, Dos Passos concludes his discussion of why a unification is desirable. He now turns to how that union can be created and maintained. He looks, he says, for some medium conservative ground between a sentimental entente and a written alliance. He outlines three possible methods: union into one nation, establishing a federation, and binding treaty regulating relations towards each other (America and the British Empire) but not toward foreign nations.

As for union into one nation, while Dos Passos considered it possible, he felt that "there is nothing in existing conditions which requires such a radical and revolutionary step." He makes passing reference here to the late 19th century effort toward "Imperial Federation." As for a federation between Great Britain and her colonies and America and her colonies, Dos Passos again says that it is impracticable. The nature of federation requires the surrender of at least some national individuality and the placement of members on equal footing. Disparities of population, territory, and prestige made such surrender very unlikely.

As a third option, Dos Passos suggests a treaty which establishes rules for relations between Great Britain, America, and the various colonies. The treaty would have no scope beyond the domestic. Relations with foreign nations were to be untouched by the treaty which should be "created by a written instrument , and attested by a legal, constitutional, and binding treaty between all of the English and American powers and colonies." Dos Passos considers this a conservative option ... a compromise somewhere between federation and "mere verbal" expressions of goodwill.

Having set the scope of what he feels is a practical form of union of the English-speaking peoples, he then identifies five initiatives or features of such a union.

1. The Dominion of Canada to reorganize into appropriately-sized states and join the United States.

2. Establishment of a common citizenship for citizens of the United States and the British Empire.

3. Absolute freedom of commercial intercourse and relations between the countries involved (similar in nature to interstate commerce in the United States).

4. Uniform metal coinage by value, interchangeable across the union, with insignia varying in appearance from country to country as desired.

5. Formation of an arbitration tribunal to decide issues arising under the treaty.

Of these five, the first is the most surprising to modern eyes but Dos Passos makes his case diffidently in full awareness of the sentimental ties to Great Britain and the Canadian national pride that would stand in its way. He bases his case on the benefits to all three parties ... greater security and prosperity for the United States and Canada, and the elimination of the cost of defending Canada for Great Britain. It's worth noting that at the time that Dos Passos was writing, the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta had not been created, and border or resource disputes between the United States, Canada and Great Britain were still active. So at a time when the antagonism between America and Great Britain was first falling away, Dos Passos made a dramatic proposition on very rational terms. The post-Cold War elaboration of NAFTA, and the recent initiatives toward unified continental security may be offered as practical examples of what Dos Passos saw in 1903. To quote Dos Passos: "[a]s long as we remain apart, are not tensions, discords, and differences imminent?" While a century later, war between the nations is a laughable idea, it is also true that the United States has yet to call upon Canada for any significant, even proportionate, contribution to the security or prosperity of the continent. And relations between the two nations often take the form of a younger, petulant brother ... envious of the elder's success and resentful of a perceived lack of attention. A Great White Waste of Time to use British journalism's epithet.

The fourth Dos Passos proposition, of metal coinage, is no longer of much cogency in the modern world, as capital flow, commerce, and trade is no longer constrained by the coins of precious metals minted by the English-speaking nations.

But of the other propositions ... for a unified citizenship, freedom of commerce, and an arbitration tribunal stretching across the English-speaking world ... these ideas must certainly strike the reader with force if they are familiar with Jim Bennett's writing in the Anglosphere Challenge.

And it can hardly be by chance, to my mind, that Dos Passos would be the man, and 1903 would be the year, in which such ideas would come to the fore in publication. Ten years earlier, Dos Passos' book would have been unthinkable. The most imaginative form of political thinking was British “imperial federation.” Ten years later, as we shall see, the tone of the times was dramatically different ... and would stay so until the end of the 20th century. Is it too much to say that the arguments presented in The Anglo-Saxon Century reflect a confidence and generosity of spirit that translate well into our own time? A potential union of the great Anglosphere pillars of the time (the British Empire and the United States) had suddenly become feasible and Dos Passos made the case. Now we stand in a different time, with the well-established nations of the Anglosphere fit to make their own judgments about association ... while their citizenry make a judgment every day with their feet: in tourism, in education, in trade and business. In some sense then, within clear limits, the vision of John Dos Passos has come to pass.

Or to quote the man himself from a century ago: "... when the curtain of the twenty-first century is raised, may the successful anglicisation of the world be revealed; may the real spirit of our institutions and laws prevail everywhere, and the English language have become the universal dialect of mankind.”

Posted by jmccormick at December 5, 2005 06:01 PM

I suppose this would be the radical-socialist-turned-neocon's father, then? Interesting.

Posted by: Mitch H. at December 8, 2005 03:50 PM

After Dos Passon became an anti-Com, he faded into oblivion in the , then-pink, literary world - Type his name into the NY Times all-inclusive database. you will notice an interesting history of ideology in America.

Speakin of the Boer War - coincidently - we just posted a comment about that above.

Best = thanks/

Posted by: Gotham Image at December 9, 2005 04:31 PM
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