anglo saxonism definition
Historians use the term "Anglo-Saxonism" to describe a loose assembly of cultural assumptions that influenced Anglo-American political and intellectual life in varying ways from the seventeenth century into the twentieth century. In its most general form, Anglo-Saxonism extolled the traditions of the English people before the Norman conquest, who were themselves usually understood to be the descendants of old Germanic tribes of northern Europe: a people superior to others by virtue of their cultural possession of ethical values, legal principles, and governmental structures founded on a bedrock of liberty and democracy. Early American Anglo-Saxonists (like Thomas Jefferson, an enthusiastic student of old English language and law) invoked the attractive figure of the sturdy preconquest English yeoman, and Anglo-Saxonism thus connected itself readily to seminally American, antiaristocratic ideals of political and juridical localism and of the rights of small landholders. An Anglo-Saxon heritage, then, was from very early on one important component of America's conceptualizing of a national character, often invoked as a kind of ruggedly homespun counterpoint to the high classical culture derived from Greece and Rome.
THE RISE OF ANGLO-SAXONISM IN THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY
In the late nineteenth century Anglo-Saxonism attained a particularly prominent place in public or popular discourses of nation, for several reasons. First and perhaps most important, the century's proliferating racial theories in both Europe and the United States—generally taxonomic attempts at scientifically naturalizing the political histories of empire and slavery—shifted Anglo-Saxonism's terms, emphasizing the old English virtues as racial rather than localized in a cultural history. Seen through the lenses of Darwinian evolutionary thought and, in the early twentieth century, Mendelian genetics, these virtues seemed indisputably heritable as well; thus the moral characteristics of a people could perpetuate themselves in a bloodline—or dissipate through racial admixture.
Moreover, the tempting language of hierarchy and teleology entwined with Charles Darwin's evolutionary thought—a language of higher and lower, of success and failure—permitted the development, on both sides of the Atlantic, of a pervasive, powerful rhetoric of racial fitness and ultimate domination. This rhetoric in turn lent easy support to doctrines of imperial necessity in England, of Manifest Destiny in the United States. The Anglo-Saxons, in the popular terms of racial determinism, were naturally vigorous adventurers and leaders whose expansion over the face of the earth was a simple matter of biological inevitability. Such historical thinking, buttressed by an increasing fashionableness of "Teutonic" approaches to history in American universities, led by the 1880s to the vigorous apocalyptic language of the clergyman Josiah Strong, who wrote in his immensely popular Our Country (1885) of white Christendom's coming crisis: "the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled. . . . And can any one doubt that the result of this competition will be 'survival of the fittest?'" (p. 214). Citing Darwin's Descent of Man, Strong noted that the uncivilized non-Aryans of the world "are now disappearing before the allconquering Anglo-Saxons. . . . Whether the extinction of inferior races before the advancing Anglo-Saxon seems to the reader sad or otherwise, it certainly appears probable" (p. 215).
A few years later the young Theodore Roosevelt could write with similar extravagance (although without Strong's genocidal complacency) in the opening pages of The Winning of the West that "the day when the keels of the low Dutch sea-thieves first grated on the British coast was big with the doom of many nations. . . . The sons of the unknown Saxon, Anglian, and Friesic warriors now hold in their hands the fate of the coming years" (pp. 20–21). In his later political career, Roosevelt would come to see the hybrid American experience as an advance on the simple racial determinism implicit here, with "American-ness" itself—a political identification and allegiance rather than an immutable biological category—more telling than simpler racialized versions of Anglo-Saxonism. But in the 1880s, for Strong, Roosevelt, and others, the century's end seemed the fulfillment of humankind's greatest ethnic adventure, the flowering of racial strength and destiny that the American Sinophile and military writer Homer Lea would call, a generation later, simply "The Day of the Saxon."
Thinking of this kind, combining elements of white supremacy, optimistic progressivism, and a sense of impending crisis, had immediate psychic value for the historical circumstances of the United States in the years before and after the turn of the twentieth century. The new immigration of the 1890s created great (and unruly) "foreign" underclasses in the nation's major cities; the continental frontier "closed," in the historian Frederick Jackson Turner's famous formulation; the "Negro problem," unresolved by emancipation, haunted the exhausted agrarian South and the North's industrial centers. For all of these, the legend of a dominating, pioneering Anglo-Saxon race at the very core of the American experience provided a framing perspective that was also, for some anxious white Americans, a consolation. But the high-water mark of American Anglo-Saxonism coincided most clearly with the nation's own direct experiment in imperial expansion: the Spanish-American War of 1898, which also sealed the growing political rapprochement of Britain and the United States. In early 1899, in that war's aftermath, Rudyard Kipling issued his famous transatlantic poetic challenge (in the New York Sun, the New York Tribune, and McClure's Magazine) to a nation feeling its new international strength and the duties of its Anglo-Saxon heritage: "Take up the White Man's burden." The plea was at once both immediately political and deeply racial.
ANGLO-SAXONISM AND THE READING PUBLIC
For the American reading public, Anglo-Saxonism manifested itself in a number of ways, including a resurgent interest in Sir Walter Scott's chivalric romances and other medieval revivals, like Howard Pyle's illustrated children's fantasies. Kipling himself, England's self-aware literary spokesperson for Anglo-Saxonism and empire, married an American, lived in Vermont, and enjoyed remarkable American adulation in the 1890s and on into the new century. His famous poem "The White Man's Burden" provided the subtitle for the first of Thomas Dixon Jr.'s popular works, The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden 1865–1900 (1902), an openly racist romance of the post–Civil War South (remembered mainly as one of the sources for D. W. Griffith's epic 1915 film Birth of a Nation). Like Kipling and others, Dixon understood the late nineteenth century as a climactically decisive chapter in white racial history: "The future American must be an Anglo-Saxon or a Mulatto," says his senior protagonist, and "the future of the world depends on the future of this Republic" (p. 200). His novel's happy ending, a triumphal reassertion of racial separatism, is made possible by the Spanish-American War and a corresponding international rediscovery of Anglo-American race pride: "[The war's] sudden union of the English-speaking people in friendly alliance disturbed the equilibrium of the world, and confirmed the Anglo-Saxon in his title to the primacy of racial sway" (p. 412).
Rudyard Kipling's "The White Man's Burden," shown here in its first American periodical appearance in February 1899, clearly aligned Anglo-Saxonist sentiments with modern imperialism.
Other authors before and after the turn of the century deployed Anglo-Saxonism in various ways, although seldom with Dixon's single-minded enthusiasm. Frank Norris, for example, invoked racial destiny with a characteristically confusing mixture of irony and fervor at the end of The Octopus (1901), as the great wheat ship sails from California for India. "We'll carry our wheat into Asia yet," says the capitalist Cedarquist, "The Anglo-Saxon started from there at the beginning of everything and it's manifest destiny that he must circle the globe and fetch up where he began his march. . . . The irrepressible Yank is knocking at the doors" (p. 648). Some writers more or less openly satirized Anglo-Saxonism's simple nostalgia, like Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). Finley Peter Dunne, the Chicago humorist and celebrant of a distinctly non-Anglo-Saxon immigrant world, mocked the naïveté of rallying the polycultural, polyethnic United States around a myth of racial homogeneity. "I tell ye," his persona Mr. Dooley observed dryly in 1898:
whin th' Clan an' th' Sons iv Sweden an' th' Banana Club an' th' Circle Francaize an' th' Rooshian Sons of Dinnymite an' th' Benny Brith an' th' Coffee Clutch that Schwartzmeister r-runs an' th' Turrnd'ye-mind an' th' Holland society an' th' Afro-Americans an' th' other Anglo-Saxons begin f'r to raise their Anglo-Saxon battle-cry, it'll be all day with th' eight or nine people in th' wurruld that has th' misfortune iv not bein' brought up Anglo-Saxons. (P. 56)
JACK LONDON AND PROGRESSIVE RACISM
The American who came closest to rivaling Kipling as his nation's literary spokesperson for Anglo-Saxonism was his admirer Jack London, who famously peopled his work with masterful Nordic blonds enacting their violent destinies at the edges of the civilized world. London wrote vividly and explicitly about the non-Western challenges facing "our own great race adventure" in essays like his well-known 1904 piece on the Russo-Japanese War, "The Yellow Peril," and in stories like "The Unparalleled Invasion" (1907) and "The Inevitable White Man" (1908), whose aptly named protagonist Saxtorph murderously explores the proposition that "the white man's mission is to farm the world. . . . the white has to run the niggers whether he understands them or not. It's inevitable. It's fate" (p. 1558). In 1910 he vigorously led the openly racist call for Jim Jeffries, the "great white hope" of professional boxing, to take down Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion.
London's case is instructive in its complexity, suggesting Anglo-Saxonism's protean functioning in the intellectual currents of his time. He saw himself as (and in most senses was) a politically progressive or radical thinker and an activist for human justice. Largely self-educated, he drew his politics from voracious reading in social theory and philosophy, from Darwin and Karl Marx to Friedrich Nietzsche but with special attention to Herbert Spencer, the father of Social Darwinism, who had wholeheartedly adapted evolutionism to social and historical analysis. London enthusiastically endorsed the utopian possibilities of modern "scientific" thought (as fantasies like "Goliah" and "The Unparalleled Invasion" attest) and aligned himself sympathetically with the culture of manly vigor espoused by imperialists like Roosevelt and Kipling, with the international eugenics movement, and with world socialism. By his mid-twenties he had also shipped as a sailor to Asia, hoboed across the United States, run as a Socialist-Labor candidate in the Oakland, California, municipal elections, joined the great Klondike gold rush, and explored urban industrial poverty in the slums of London. Thus London's version of Anglo-Saxonism, again something like Roosevelt's or Kipling's, is probably best understood as one expression of naively progressive, internationalist thinking—based in old ideas of Manifest Destiny, modernized by a simple "scientific" determinism, drawing its vocabulary from the racial discourse of the preceding fifty years, and made theatrical by an appeal to popular Orientalism. For London (as for Kipling and other great British imperialists) the brotherhood of man and the white man's burden, progressivism and racism, could and did coexist in a single political philosophy.
THE WANING OF ANGLO-SAXONISM IN THE MODERNIST WORLD
But even at the peak of Anglo-Saxonist optimism, such a philosophy seemed to many Americans willfully blind to its own brutal underpinnings. Along with its accolades, for example, "The White Man's Burden" elicited an immediate scattering of counterresponses in the United States, like William Walker's sardonic March 1899 Life cartoon, where brown and black bearers struggle beneath the imperial bulk of Uncle Sam and John Bull. And through the 1910s and 1920s, as the American racial, economic, and international experiences grew more complicated, the triumphant myth of the Anglo-Saxon available to Josiah Strong and Teddy Roosevelt in the 1880s seemed to most serious writers not only doomed to disappointment but in fact also comically inadequate to the modern world and its cultural ironies. By 1925 a social theorist like Lothrop Stoddard, whose The Rising Tide of Color (1920) gloomily announced the international triumph of black, yellow, red, and brown, could be satirically dismissed as a crank by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby (1&25); in 1929 William Faulkner (in The Sound and the Fury) similarly mocked Jason Compson's hayseed, all-American anti-Semitism. These high modernist white writers (and others like Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Willa Cather) were themselves hardly freer of their culture's deeply entrenched racial attitudes than had been their predecessors. It can be powerfully argued, in fact, that high modernism's nostalgic neoclassicism, its formalism, and its frequent appeals to myth carried forward in a subtler form the raw expression of white power that energized the Anglo-Saxonism of the previous generation. But the innocent exuberance of Roosevelt, London, and the early Kipling, their simple confidence in Anglo-Saxon culture, virtue, and progress, disappeared almost without a trace into the complications of post–World War I America.
Dixon, Thomas, Jr. The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden 1865–1900. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1902.
Dunne, Finley Peter. "On the Anglo-Saxon." In his Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1899.
Kipling, Rudyard. "The White Man's Burden." McClure's Magazine, February 1899.
London, Jack. The Complete Short Stories of Jack London. Edited by Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.
London, Jack. "The Yellow Peril." In his Revolution and Other Essays. New York: Macmillan, 1910.
Norris, Frank. The Octopus. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1901.
Roosevelt, Theodore. The Winning of the West. Vol. 1. New York: Putnam, 1889.
Strong, Josiah. Our Country. 1885. Edited by Jurgen Herbst. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.
Anderson, Stuart. Race and Rapprochement: Anglo-Saxonism and Anglo-American Relations, 1895–1904. East Brunswick, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1981.
Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
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Definition of Anglo-Saxonism in English:
1 A word, phrase, or idiom of Old English origin; (hence) an Anglicism.
2 Originally US. A word that is regarded as vulgar, considered (especially humorously) to be of traditional Anglo-Saxon origin, with allusion to the idea of an earlier, uncomplicated era of language and culture; a swear word.
3 Identification with, or belief in the superiority of, England (or Britain), the English-speaking peoples, their civilization, culture, etc.
Early 19th century; earliest use found in The Quarterly Review. From Anglo-Saxon + -ism.
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018.
A is an Anglo-Saxonism for in or on; as a'board, a'going, &c.
In American colonization, Anglo-Saxonism was but a drop in the bucket.
Anglo-Saxonism is a very good thing; simplicity and common sense are very good things too.
With due allowance for her Anglo-Saxonism and honesty, she was the type of woman to whom “things happen.”
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- A characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon race; especially, a word or an idiom of the Anglo-Saxon tongue.
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