By L.D. Burnett / Special To The Washington Post
On April 16, the news broke that Trump loyalists in the House were planning to form an “America First” caucus to defend the nation’s purported “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” The news sparked immediate widespread condemnation from activists, scholars and even other Republican politicians; so much so that plans for the caucus have been scrapped.
The term “Anglo-Saxon” does some heavy lifting in the memo laying out the planned caucus’s creed, particularly because it appeared in the section on immigration policy implying that only some people are capable of appreciating, embracing or defending American ideas of self-governance. But anyone can hold ideas. If immigration imperils “Anglo-Saxon” traditions in the view of the memo’s authors, that could only be because they view those traditions not as abstract concepts but as heritable characteristics, not as political principles but as a particular reimagined ethnicity handed down from one’s ancestors.
And this sinister use of Anglo-Saxonism is nothing new. Beginning in the 19th century, mentions of “Anglo-Saxon” heritage, including invocations of Anglo-Saxon political traditions, ceased to have even an imagined grounding in supposed traditions of self-governance in Britain before the Norman conquest. Instead, mentions of Anglo-Saxon tradition and Anglo-Saxon blood commingled in the early 19th century to signify the purported racial and intellectual superiority of white Americans. This superiority not only entitled them to rule, but actually destined them to conquer and occupy the whole continent of North America after forcefully subduing all other races.
A decade-by-decade search in the Chronicling America database of the Library of Congress, a vast collection of fully digitized American newspapers, reveals that practically no one was discussing Anglo-Saxons or Anglo-Saxonism in the United States for the first few decades of the 19th century. In the decade between 1821 and 1830, for example, a total of 66 newspaper pages used the term. But between 1831 and 1840, the number of references to “Anglo-Saxon” soared, appearing more than 300 times in newspaper pages, with the vast majority of those mentions occurring after 1836.
This sudden explosion of interest in Anglo-Saxonism had two interrelated roots; both tied to white supremacy.
First, proslavery apologists increasingly had to contend with moral and political pressure from the abolitionist movement as the 19th century progressed.
For example, in January 1836, Sen. Benjamin Watkins Leigh, D-Va., rose in the well of the Senate to denounce a proposal to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia and warn of the dangers of abolitionism more generally. And what was the greatest danger of abolition, in Leigh’s telling? The violent reaction from the “Anglo-Saxon” race of men, by which he meant the whites who ruled the United States.
Leigh warned abolitionists that past white mobs in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and New York, who had “unaccountably incited against the very few free negroes living in those cities,” provided only a “a faint idea of the consequences” of abolition. Leigh considered bloodshed an inevitability, because the Anglo-Saxons had “never been contented to live in the same country with any other distinct race, upon terms of equality.” When confronting possible encounters with other peoples, Anglo-Saxons, he claimed, had “proceeded to exterminate or enslave the other race,” and if that failed, abandoned the country altogether.
With this appeal to racial determinism, Leigh not only excused racial violence against free Black citizens as a reflex reaction of white people — including himself — but also helped lay the rhetorical groundwork for the idea that white Americans were destined — “invariably” so — to dominate, exterminate or enslave “in some form or other” every other “race” on the North American continent. A decade before John L. O’Sullivan made famous the phrase “Manifest Destiny” to describe the United States’ divinely ordained right to rule the continent, many white Americans already viewed this conquest as their racial right.
This brings us to the second reason that discussions of Anglo-Saxon heritage and destiny began to take off in the mid-1830s: the Texas war for independence, which many white Americans viewed in racial terms.
In 1836, the Richmond Enquirer published an account of the defeat of Texan forces at the Alamo, quoting William B. Travis’s letter requesting reinforcements, before wondering whether “barbarian Mexicans” deserved to run one of “the finest countries in the world.” The author closed by questioning whether Mexicans could “subdue” the “brave and determined” Texans, “in whose veins runs the Anglo-Saxon blood.”
Never mind that many of the “Texians” or “Tejanos” fighting for independence from Mexico were themselves of Mexican descent. Later, the Enquirer hailed Sam Houston’s victory at the battle of San Jacinto as “the triumph of the anglo-Saxon [sic] race, over the Mestoes [Mestizos] and Mexican Creoles.”
In the aftermath of the Texas war, the editor of the New York Herald repeatedly expressed hope that tensions between the United States and Mexico over the fate of Texas would lead to war between the two countries. Such a war “would do no harm,” the newspaper proclaimed in 1837. “It would in a few years place all Mexico in precisely the same condition in which Texas is now —in the competent hands of the Anglo-Saxon race — a race which must yet possess the whole of this continent.” This was another early hint of the idea of “manifest destiny” and its inextricable ties to concepts of “Anglo-Saxon” racial superiority.
In 1839, the Herald extended this argument further. Anglo-Saxons were destined to dominate the entire Western hemisphere, because “good, stable, just, equal republican government will never exist in the Spanish republics until the Anglo-Saxon race shall have possession of the reins of government over all South America.” The newspaper saw “the gradual and complete subjugation of the whole Hispano-American republicans” as both inevitable and something that would “take place at no distant day.” Why? Because it was the destiny of the “Anglo-Saxon races” to establish “free governments, free institutions, and the highest order of civilization throughout the world.”
These newspapers’ vision makes clear that, by the mid-19th century, a term that had once been used to discuss the history or cultural heritage of a particular ethnic group (ancestors of the English, as distinct from the Scots, the Irish or the Welsh) had become divorced from its prior history. It was instead a generic expansive term to embrace all white Protestant English-speaking people, and them alone. Further, it had been broadly deployed in American culture to argue for conquest because of Anglo-Saxons’ purported racial superiority. Only they could impose the highest order of civilization, and that entitled them to conquer and subjugate all other races.
Seen in this historical light, the use of the term Anglo-Saxon today by Trump Republicans exposes their embrace of white supremacist nativism. It is yet another reminder of how Donald Trump’s America First movement has turned back the clock.
L.D. Burnett is a historian of American thought and culture. Her book-in-progress on Western Civilization and the culture wars in higher education is under contract with University of North Carolina Press. Burnett also edits The Mudsill, a twice-monthly magazine of commentary, criticism and creative work.