We view the North American colonies as faraway from their imperial capital in the age of sail. But by the mid-eighteenth century there was a regular marine service between the two that took around a month and was relatively safe, though not comfortable. We forget that colonists, particularly those from the southern colonies and the Caribbean, often spent long periods of their life in London. It was their metropolis. About a million people lived in London by the time of the American Revolution. It was twenty times larger than any North American colonial town.
Julie Flavell has cleverly reminded us of this in her book, When London Was Capital of America. She has picked a dozen or so Americans as representative of those colonists who spent years in London and explained their various reasons for doing so.
The widower, Henry Laurens, had accompanied his young sons to London to supervise their education. Laurens was from South Carolina and had made good money as a rice farmer. He was taking advantage of better opportunities in England, Scotland, and also Geneva, Switzerland. An Old World education would give his sons a competitive edge in the colonies.
Henry brought with him to London his black slave, Scipio. While in London, Scipio took on the family name and became Robert Laurens. Americans were advised to bring along their slaves along because that would be cheaper than finding London servants, who were known for their bad attitude. They could thus avoid the “servant trouble” so commonly mentioned in letters home to America.
But Scipio – Robert – turned out to be a lot of trouble. Slaves and their masters entered a “legal twilight” in England. There was no recognition of slavery in the common law tradition. Furthermore while the abolition of slavery was a couple of decades away from becoming a formidable political force in London, there was a general consensus that this “peculiar American institution” was doomed.
In 1772 the King’s Bench handed down a ruling that kept any slave from being transported against his will back to the colonies and to slavery. But even before the ruling, many blacks took the opportunity of residence in London to free themselves from their servitude. If they could find wage labor, they could apply for a certificate of free status. Or they could marry a Brit, and there was a resulting substantial mulatto population in London amongst its 15,000 black residents. Or they could simply run away. Robert did just that, but then was arrested and tried for burglary in 1774. He might have been transported, the common fate of London thieves at that time. Instead he was imprisoned for a term of years, which kept him at arms length from slavery.
The growing differences between the British Parliament and their New World subjects in the mid century divided the ranks of Americans living in London. Many young men were inspired to return home and fight, first for British liberties, but after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, for independence from London. Those who benefited from trade and political connections tended to remain loyal, though not Henry Laurens. He became a prominent in revolutionary politics in the colonies, Henry, nevertheless, pleaded with his sons to remain in London and avoid the conflict.
One of Henry’s sons, John, had a success career in London, including marriage to a woman of means, often a goal of the young male colonials. John ignored his father’s advice, returned home without his new wife, and subsequently became a trusted aide-de-camp to General George Washington. John and many other young Americans had spent too much time in the notorious London coffee houses and gin shops talking with English and American radicals. Expatriate Americans were often more thoroughly radical than those who had remained in the colonies.
Perhaps the most famous American to spend years in London was Benjamin Franklin. Because of his discoveries concerning the nature of lightening, Franklin was an American celebrity and hobnobbed with the scientific establishment in England and France and visiting the country houses of Britain’s movers and shakers.
From 1757 to 1762 Ben resided in London on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly to obtain a Royal Charter for the colony. A Royal Charter would end the proprietary rights of the Penn family and subject their North American property to taxation. He returned to Pennsylvania in 1762 but two years later was back and remained in London with trips to the continent until 1775. Flavell points out that Ben also saw to private matters, furthering various land schemes in which he was a partner.
Franklin believed that the growing conflict between the colonies and London could be resolved through negotiation, and he was a good negotiator. He also believed, as it turned out correctly, that the British Empire and the American colonies would remain trading partners, and that London would remain a common destination for those North Americans seeking a bustling urban environment.
Flavell’s is a small sample size. We’ll have to take her word for it that they are representatives of thousands of colonials living in London when it was capital of American.