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When London Was Capital of America Hardcover – June 29, 2010

3.9 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Before the Revolutionary War, England had a complex relationship with its colonial properties, but one truth always held: London was the center of the British Empire and therefore, the center of the world, politically, culturally, and intellectually. As such, it drew students, merchants, intellectuals, and fortune hunters from all over the empire. Flavell's comprehensive examination of London's lure to colonists focuses on specific individuals, including a wealthy merchant, his scientist son, the slave who makes a gamble on freedom, and Benjamin Franklin. Through these sketches readers begin to derive a complex understanding of London's role in the Empire and its influence over colonial styles, affiliations, and racial attitudes. Having poured through manuscripts from the time, Flavell argues that the American colonies were a far more multicultural place than American history books tend to depict, and that the British perception of the colonies was not as simplistic as we've been led to believe. Flavell writes in a compelling and succinct style, and history fans will be intrigued by his interpretation of a tumultuous time that shaped the fate of nations.
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"Ambitious . . . lively. . . . Beautifully reimagining a city that was a distant but integral part of American life, Flavell's book is essential reading for anyone interested in the colonial period."—Andrea Wulf, New York Times Book Review
(Andrea Wulf New York Times Book Review)

"A wonderful evocation of the full panorama and panoply of life in eighteenth-century London.”—Andrew O’Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided
(Andrew O'Shaughnessy)

"With clarity and sure authority, Julie Flavell tells us challenging things that will cast new light on the many readers' commonly-held beliefs. This is a splendid book."—Peter Marshall

(Peter Marshall)

"A fascinating account of Americans in London in the 1760s and 1770s. Julie Flavell ingeniously weaves together the experiences of the Laurens family of South Carolina, Stephen Sayre of Long Island, and Benjamin Franklin, plus many other colonists, to reveal the rich variety of their London life, and she also illuminates the growing tensions of the revolutionary crisis in strikingly new ways."—Richard S. Dunn, author of Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713

(Richard S Dunn)

"Before Americans had a Washington - or any other capital city worthy of the name - they had London. Taking as her subject the men and women, young and old, enslaved and free, high-born and humble, who crossed the Atlantic in the years just before and during the Revolution, Julie Flavell paints a vivid and compelling picture of London as the cultural, political, and economic center of colonial American life."—Eliga H. Gould, author of The Persistence of Empire: British political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution

(Eliga H Gould)

'This is a good book that lives up to expectations' — Leonard Schwarz, Reviews in History
(Leonard Schwarz Reviews in History)

'[a] well-researched and enjoyable book' — Leslie Mitchell, Literary Review
(Leslie Mitchell Literary Review)

'Julie Flavell has produced not an account of the administration of the American colonies from London but something much more original…She reveals an extraordinary, almost forgotten world, rich with anecdote.' — Duncan Fallowell, Daily Express
(Duncan Fallowell Daily Express)

'[An] engaging social history, written with a novelist's eye for character and plot.' — Gaiutra Bahadur, The Observer
(Gaiutra Bahadur The Observer)

"Flavell's subjects—their lives marked variously by bankruptcy, broken engagements, illegitimacy, and suicide—invite illusions to Fielding and Austen.... [An] engaging portrait of colonials in the metropolis. Highly recommended."—G. F. Steckley, Choice Reviews Online
(G. F. Steckley Choice Reviews Online)

"The book is written in a very accessible style laced with familiar literary parallels drawn from such authors as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and likely to attract the non-specialist reader. . . . But for all of its seeming lightness of touch, Flavell's work is based on thorough research and has some serious and important messages for historians of the revolutionary period."—Stephen Conway, The American Historical Review
(Stephen Conway The American Historical Review)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1st edition (June 29, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300137397
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300137392
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,526,921 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on September 28, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The story of how England bungled the administration of her colonies in America, leading to war and their independence, has been told many times in many ways. Independent scholar Julie Flavell, in _When London Was Capital of America_ (Yale University Press) has a different aspect of the transatlantic colonial relationship to describe. London was the capital of an empire that included the North American colonies and the West Indies, and it is somehow surprising that we have before this heard so little about what becomes obvious with a bit of thought: as a capital of those colonies, London would have been full of people from them. Flavell has given a picture of how pre-independence Americans lived in London, what they were doing there, and how indigenous Londoners thought about them. It's a new way of looking at the colonial period.

Flavell concentrates on the stories of a few Americans, the only famous one being Benjamin Franklin. One of her subjects is Henry Laurens, one of the many prosperous Southern plantation owners who repaired to London for business or personal reasons. In Laurens's case, he headed to London in 1771 to seek schooling for his sons. In addition, the Laurens family could see real plays, and instead of seeing goods boasted of as "lately arrived from England" could see the goods on site themselves. Flavell says, "Before American independence created a national government and America's own capital, London was where wealthy Americans from all over the empire were most likely to meet." There was the Carolina Coffee House, not a branch of the Starbucks of its time, but a business center where he could meet other plantation owners and find the latest news about prices of indigo and rice and slaves. Traveling with Laurens was his slave and manservant Scipio.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The principal theme of this book is the evolution of the, at first, psychological, and then actual, separation of the national identifies of British subjects and American citizens during the latter half of the 18th Century. It's a clever narrative, and one that Author Flavell supports well with the experiences in London of several of the wealthy plantation families from South Carolina, most notably Henry Laurens and his relatives, and other, better known historical subjects such as Ben Franklin and his son.

The book goes a good way toward correcting the popular understanding that as the difficulties between the two soon-to-be different countries germinated after the end of the Seven Years' War, primarily because of the conflict's costs which Great Britain sought to partly recover from its North American subjects, and which culminated in the American Revolution, each affected royal subject chose a side and the break was clean and irrevocable. Flavell reminds that human nature doesn't work that way, and that the separation was much more gradual, painful and more often than not conflicted than might first appear.

The book has its shortcomings. First among them is that with the exception of the author's treatment of the Laurens family, whose representative history really does warrant the extensive treatment she affords, there isn't a lot new here. Ben Franklin in London may not be quite as familiar as Ben Franklin in Paris, the difference being he was a colonial agent in the first and a revolutionary rock star in the second, but at least this reader found the story of his many years in the city and the ever-diverging relationship with his son pretty familiar territory.
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Format: Hardcover
Parts of the accounts are lively and enjoyable, but others are drier and more of use to a researcher, which is why I am not giving more stars.

We meet a wealthy American household, which sends a son aged seven to school in London. He is accompanied by a black slave who has renamed himself Robert, from Scipio, to fit in better. Upon walking around London the slaves at this time get to see that white people are not all powerful, all wealthy and all respected. Indeed, the gutters and slums are full of poor, sick, begging white people. Not only that, but the plentiful black people meet up and get to talking, and they discover that slavery is not lawful in England. An attempt to grab a slave and throw him on a ship is called kidnap and abduction. No wonder attitudes start to change.

We also contrast American cities of the day with the seat of learning, science and trade London provided. Benjamin Franklin is another character followed through his time in London. The West Indian goods such as sugar were stolen from docks while coffee fuelled commerce. Families considered it acceptable to send an embarrassingly pregnant daughter across the ocean in either direction. Con men thrived on boasts.

I enjoyed reading this account of fast-changing times. However I didn't need it in the depth provided, and we get no street plans of American cities at the time, for contrast. Depending on your requirements from this book you may rate it better than I did.
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This book was a great read and offered a lot of new perspective on London and the Colonial period. You get lots of interesting social history, background on luminaries such as Ben Franklin, and a fresh take on slavery and how London's attitude toward it differed from America's. Finally, you get the clear distinction even back then between North and South, between Southern Planter and New England tradesman and what exactly constituted being an American. There were a few solecisms and misspellings (charicature! Yale UP needs more copy editors...), but on the whole it was well done and eminently entertaining. The Georgian period in England remains one if its most fascinating, with so many shades of meaning and various expressions as to defy most preconceived notions.
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