Home  »  Modern Essays  »  Harry Morgan Ayres

Christopher Morley, ed. (1890–1957). Modern Essays. 1921.

America and the English Tradition

Harry Morgan Ayres

  • This admirable summary of Anglo-American history first appeared (February, 1920) as an editorial in the Weekly Review. It seemed to me then, and still does, as a model in that form of writing, perfect in lucidity, temperance and good sense. Mr. Ayres is a member of the faculty of Columbia University (Department of English) and also one of the editors of the Weekly Review. Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Seneca seem to be his favorite hobbies.
  • To sum up the gist of Anglo-American relations in half a dozen pages, as Mr. Ayres does here, is surely a remarkable achievement.

  • THE RECENTLY established chair in the history, literature, and institutions of the United States which is to be shared among the several universities of Great Britain, is quite different from the exchange professorships of sometimes unhappy memory. It is not at all the idea to carry over one of our professors each year and indoctrinate him with the true culture at its source. The occupant of the chair will be, if the announced intention is carried out, quite as often British as American, and quite as likely a public man as a professor. The chief object is to bring to England a better knowledge of the United States, and a purpose more laudable can scarcely be imagined. Peace and prosperity will endure in the world in some very precise relation to the extent to which England succeeds in understanding us.

    It is not an illusion to suppose that our understanding of the British is on the whole better than theirs of us. The British Empire is a large and comparatively simple fact, now conspicuously before the world for a long time. The United States was, in British eyes, until recently, a comparatively insignificant fact, yet vastly more complicated than they imagined. Each, of course, perfectly knew the faults of the other, assessed with an unerring cousinly eye. The American bragged in a nasal whine, the Briton patronized in a throaty burble. Whoever among the struggling nations of the world might win, England saw to it that she never lost; your Yankee was content with the more ignoble triumphs of merchandising, willing to cheapen life if he could only add to his dollars. But the excellence of English political institutions and methods, the charm of English life, the tremendous power of the Empire for promoting freedom and civilization in the world, these are things which Americans have long recognized and in a way understood. Anything like an equivalent British appreciation of America in the large seems confined to a very few honorable exceptions among them. Admiration for Niagara, which is half British anyway, or enthusiasm for the “Wild West”—your better-class Englishman always thrills to the frontier—is no step at all toward rightly appreciating America.

    To no inconsiderable extent this is America’s own fault. She does not present to the world a record that is easily read. It is obvious, for instance—and so obvious that it is not often enough stated—that America has and will continue to have a fundamentally English civilization. English law is the basis of her law. English speech is her speech, and if with a difference, it is a difference that the philologist, all things considered, finds amazingly small. English literature is her literature—Chaucer and Shakespeare hers because her blood then coursed indistinguishably through the English heart they knew so well; Milton, Dryden, and the Queen Anne men hers, because she was still a part of England; the later men hers by virtue of affectionate acquaintanceship and a generous and not inconsiderable rivalry. English history, in short, is her history. The struggles of the thirteenth century through which law and parliament came into being, the struggles of the seventeenth century through which law and parliament came to rule, are America’s struggles upon which she can look back with the satisfaction that some things that have been done in the world need never be undone or done over again, whatever the room for improvement may still be. Americans, no less than British, recognize that independence was largely an accidental result of a war which sprang out of a false theory of economics, but whose conclusion carried with it a lesson in the management of empire which subsequent history shows the British to have learned thoroughly and for the benefit of all concerned. American independence, however, once established, pointed a way to democratic freedom which England hastened to follow. This we know. And yet—

    And yet we allow these obvious and fundamental considerations to become marvelously obscured. We allow England’s failure to solve an insoluble Irish problem to arouse in us an attitude of mind possibly excusable in some Irishmen, but wholly inexcusable in any American. We allow a sentimental regard for some immigrant from Eastern Europe, who comes to us with a philosophy born of conditions that in English-speaking lands ceased to be centuries ago, to make us pretend to see in him the true expression of America’s traditional ideals. We allow ourselves to be far too easy with the phrase, “He is not pro-German, he is merely anti-British.” Why are they anti-British? Why should they be permitted to make it falsely appear that recognition of the English basis of America involves approval of everything that England in her history may or may not have done? Why should they be allowed to pretend that disapproval of some particular act of England justifies repudiation of most of the things by virtue of which we are what we are? America from the first has been part of the great English experiment—great because it is capable of learning from experience.

    The world has put a big investment in blood and treasure, and all that they imply, into the education of England. It is satisfied—the world’s response to Geermany’ insolent challenge is the proof of it—that its pains have been well bestowed. England is more nearly fit than any other nation to wield the power that is hers. That is not to deny the peculiar virtues of other nations; indeed, these virtues have largely contributed to the result. Italy has educated her; France has educated her; we have done something; and Germany. In result, she is not perfect—the English would perhaps least of all assert that—but she has learned a great deal and held herself steady while she learned it. It is a bigger job than the world cares to undertake to teach any other nation so much. Nor would it be at all likely to succeed so well. For what England has to offer the world in return is not simply her institutions; it is not merely a formula for the effective discharge of police duty throughout the world; it is the English freeman, whether he hail from Canada, Australia, Africa, or the uttermost isles of the sea.

    A most adaptable fellow, this freeman, doing all sorts of work everywhere, and with tremendous powers of assimilation. Consider him in his origins. He began by assimilating fully his own weight in Danes, while remaining an English freeman. He then perforce accepted a Norman King, as he had accepted a Danish one, hoping, as always, that the kind would not trouble him too much. But when Norman William, who was very ill-informed about the breed, killed off most of his natural leaders and harried the rest into villainy, how did he manage in a small matter of two hundred years or so to make an English gentleman not only of himself but of all the rag-tag of adventurers who had come over with William and since? How did he contrive, out of a band of exiles fleeing from an Egypt of ecclesiastical tyranny, broken younger sons, artisans out of a job, speculators, bondmen, Swedes, Dutchmen, and what not, to make America? Is he one likely to lose his bearings when in his America the age-old problem again heaves in view? This is a job he has been working at pretty successfully for more than a thousand years. Grant him a moment to realize himself afresh in the face of it. Don’t expect him to stop and give a coherent explanation of what he is doing. He wouldn’t be the true son of the English tradition that he is if he could do that. Perhaps the occupants of the new chair can do something of the sort for him.