When London Was Capital of America by Julie Flavell. Yale University Press, 2011 paper.

When London Was Capital of America by Julie Flavell. Yale University Press, 2011 paper.

            In the decades of the 1750s and 1760s London was a city of nearly 750,000 souls. Julie Flavell speaks of the city as the capital of America because the original thirteen colonies along the eastern seaboard had in varying ways made London their metropolis and, despite the long sea passage, flocked to its urban environment.

Most New Englanders that came to London did so on business. London was the banking center for the American colonies; it financed the triangular trade between Britain, West Africa, and the North American and Caribbean colonies. The major commodities traded were sugar, tobacco, and leather (later cotton) in exchange for what Flavell calls consumer goods. The American colonies remained Britain’s major trading partner until after the American War Of Independence.

Colonials looked to Britain for their “higher” education. The Inns of Court for the legal profession and the several teaching hospitals in London for medicine, eventually Edinburgh University. The more politically ambitious came to seek positions in the elaborate Imperial governing structure, the Franklin’s for example.

And they also came for the entertainments that London had to offer, London theater, then as now. Some of the available entertainments were considered to be unsavory. There were prostitutes and street brawls to make study breaks more interesting. Many of these North Americans sought the persona of the ‘macaroni’ a mid-eighteenth-century Englishman who dressed and spoke in the fashion of the day. The more politically inclined young man might take up the cause of John Wilkes and the radicals. Easy to understand why American parents were reluctant to set their sons loose in London.  

The colonials sought out their own kind in the coffee houses they chose to patronize. New Englanders were particularly clickish. They tended to live apart from visitors from the middle colonies who were a mixed Dutch, German, French, Irish, and African. Those from the American South wished not to be mistaken for provincial Englishmen.

Thrifty American planters often brought a slave or two with them to avoid having to hire out of the urban servant class who in Georgian London could shop around for the best position; they had options. They were determined to preserve the modest privileges of the serving class in the presence of New World slavery. They were not controlled by the whip. Unthinkable! The colonials thought them “spoiled” by American standards. The city’s serving class was disinclined to associate with the “Blackamoors” from the New World


The British slave trade, financed through London credit, was not prohibited until 1807. It was a profitable business for the British merchant marine. However a court decision in 1772 had held that no slave, once domiciled in England for a period of time, could be sent back to the colonies. Except as a free man. The decision effectively ended slavery in England, Scotland and Wales.  T

The American slave also benefited for a domicile in London. It gave him what he considered to be an urban polish. And his own ideas about his status as a piece of property.   

Flavell makes use of the correspondence between Benjamin Franklin and William Franklin, Ben’s acknowledged illegitimate son, to describe the patronage system that brought colonials to London to seek positions. William, at the elder Franklin’s instance, was appointed the Governor of New Jersey. Ben Franklin took advantage of the patronage system. He was the Deputy Postmaster General, appointed by the Crown. He served as the London agent for Pennsylvania and three other colonies. His knowing the right people in London also allowed Ben to speculate in western land.

Father and son eventually split over the conflict between the British Empire and the American colonies. William, remaining loyal to the Crown, continued to hold the New Jersey Governor’s office until American independence.

The American Revolution resulted in the exit of most Americans then living in London. On the other hand an estimated 7,000 of the 60,000 to 80,000 colonial royalists fled to London during the Revolution.

Would that we could journey back to a London when it was the Capital of America to understand better the character of the First British Empire. Julie Flavell’s book might be the next best thing.  




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