An ambitious, fittingly sized effort to distill the complex, contentious relations between Mother England and her unruly offspring in the New World.
A native Californian who has long lived in England, Burk (Modern and Contemporary History/University College London; Troublemaker: The Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor, 2001, etc.) is particularly well placed to document that relationship, which has ranged from enmity to mutual distrust to close friendship over the past 500 years. There is plenty deeply buried in British history that explains why things are the way they are in America—for instance, the old law of primogeniture, by which the eldest son inherited the estate and his siblings got nothing, and for which reason “nearly all of Virginia’s ruling families were founded by younger sons of eminent English families,” men forced to go abroad to seek their fortunes. Much of this deep history is explored by David Hackett Fischer in his now-standard Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989), which helps us understand, for instance, why so many Americans are grimly bent on religious fundamentalism (blame it on the Puritans). Burk adds materially to Fischer’s kindred work by extending her discussion a couple of hundred years to the present and pointing out the cultural gap between the two nations that has grown since, a “huge and insuperable barrier” that GIs and British civilians faced too often during the war years. Strained by imperial edicts and colonial resentments, Anglo-American relations have lately been buffeted by a shift in power relations, as the British Empire disintegrated and cowboy politics dominated; Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown have learned that, perhaps to their dismay. Now that the American Empire appears to be disintegrating, too, that asymmetrical relationship may shift—in which case a new chapter will need to be added to this long but always swiftly moving narrative.
Exemplary historical writing, to be read alongside Fischer, with Kevin Phillips’s The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, and the Triumph of Anglo-America (1998) thrown in for good measure.