Marjorie Taylor Greene forced the political left into an apoplectic rage two weeks ago when they discovered she intended to form an “America First Caucus” based on “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” Clearly, this showed that Representative Greene intended to force “white supremacy” on the rest of the United States. After all, she openly displayed her racism by using the term “Anglo-Saxon.” Only racists—i.e. Southerners, former Confederates, Klansmen, anti-immigrationists and the like—used that term to describe “white supremacist” immigration and political policies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This leftist two-minutes of hate mirrored the outrage over then Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s claim that the legal system in the United States is based on “Anglo-American” traditions, a phrase that has been widely and correctly used for over a century to define the American political and legal order. Greene is largely too inexperienced and dense to understand the difference between “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-American,” but this was probably her intended meaning.
Regardless, Twitter historians immediately jumped into action to support this new woke crusade against language and more importantly provide evidentiary cover for the claim that “Anglo-Saxon” has been nothing more than another term for “white supremacy.” Lead Twitter historian Kevin Kruse penned a piece for MSNBC linking early twentieth-century “Anglo-Saxon” rhetoric to the rise of Nazi Germany. Kevin Levin, a Boston based “freelance teacher” who has become a darling of the Twitter historian brigade for his attacks on the “Lost Cause,” produced a Twitter thread with several examples of Confederate monuments and dedication speeches that in his mind used the term “Anglo-Saxon” as a code for “white supremacy.”
Did racists used the term “Anglo-Saxon” in white supremacist speeches in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Yes. But as Kruse illustrates, this language found favor among most Americans, meaning that America, North and South, was racist at the turn of the century. This isn’t news. Anyone who has read American history knows that Americans a century or more ago held racial views at odds with modern American society. Did some Southerners use the term to describe racial hegemony in the South? Yes, but this does not mean Confederate monuments or other symbols were built to maintain “white supremacy.” That was already a given in the post-Reconstruction period. This also presents several questions: First, did these racialists intend “Anglo-Saxon” to mean all white people or a racial subgroup of Europeans? Second, what did “Anglo-Saxon traditions” mean to the men who used the term? And third, was the term only used by “white supremacists” to defend the racial order in the United States, or was this a description of a larger legal and political tradition adapted to a variety of circumstances?
The term “Anglo-Saxon” was widely used in the middle of the nineteenth century to differentiate Americans of English stock from those of Ireland or other European nations. Abraham Lincoln made this clear in his famous 1858 rebuttal of Stephen Douglas at Freeport in 1858 when he suggested that the founding generation did not intend the Declaration of Independence to apply only to “rich men” or “white men” or “Anglo-Saxon white men” but to all men. Lincoln was a white supremacist, but his use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” did not connote any hint of a racial order in 1858. In the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt chaffed at suggestions that he was an “Anglo-Saxon.” During a 1902 speech, he said, “I haven’t got any English blood in me. Someone once introduced me as a typical specimen of the Anglo-Saxon. I was glad for once to find what Anglo-Saxon was, because I was half Dutch and half Irish.” The famous Southern journalist Irvin S. Cobb explained to a New York audience in 1917 that many of the Southerners who had been classified as “Anglo-Saxon” were in fact Celtic and could not be considered “Anglo-Saxon” in any form. To Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Cobb, Anglo-Saxon carried a distinctly English meaning and was not intended as a broad term for “white Americans.” Kruse admits as much in his piece. Anti-immigration proponents who warned against large scale immigration in the 1920s were focusing almost entirely on Eastern Europeans in their diatribes, meaning other white people. If “Anglo-Saxon” was a code word for “white supremacy,” it undoubtedly ignored large sections of Europe.
Levin’s contention that “Anglo-Saxon traditions” served as a code word for “white supremacy” would mean that large groups of Northerners would also be guilty of the sin, including many men who used the term during ceremonies dedicated to Union veterans, Northern events, and Northern leaders.
Poet George William Bell wrote in 1913 that “Lincoln’s Anglo-Saxon blood runs pure throughout its English, Northern, Southern course….” Others described Lincoln’s language as “pure Anglo-Saxon.” A British politico mourned Lincoln’s assassination in May 1865 with the hope that “the great Norman Anglo-Saxon family in all its branches throughout both hemispheres, all sprung from the same race, may hereafter live in brotherly union and love, contributing to the happiness and welfare of each and all, and giving to the world a bright example of concord, progress, and civilization.” At a 1909 centurial tribute to Lincoln in Chicago, several speakers used the term “Anglo-Saxon liberty” and “Anglo-Saxon democracy” to describe the triumph of the Union during the War. Does this make Lincoln, his legacy, and his monuments symbols of “white supremacy”? If you follow Levin’s logic, then yes.
The term Anglo-Saxon was applied to a host of other Union men as well. At a dedication ceremony for a statue to Ulysses S. Grant at Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, one speaker to “great applause” said that North America was saved for the “Anglo-Saxon” and that Grant melded this “brotherhood” together in an indestructible Union, evidently of white supremacists.
At the 1914 dedication of monuments to Union Generals Meade, Hancock and Reynolds at Gettysburg, one speaker remarked that Confederate soldiers were “bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, and Anglo-Saxons,” meaning, according to Levin, that all Civil War soldiers, but particularly these three generals, were white supremacists.
Republican Indiana war governor Oliver P. Morton was described as the unveiling of his monument in Indianapolis as a man of tremendous “Anglo-Saxon strength,” a clear dog whistle that Indiana needed to maintain “white supremacy.”
People in New England and Canada dedicated monuments to eighteenth century wars near the close of the nineteenth century. The President of the Bunker Hill Monument Association remarked in 1896 that “many of our privileges came down as heirlooms from the Anglo-Saxon race….”
The Bennington, Vermont Battle Monument dedication ceremony in 1891, attended by President Benjamin Harrison, featured an address which argued that Americans were “more true to their birthright of Anglo-Saxon freedom and liberty” than British citizens. Levin would certainly think this meant these people favored white supremacist government and that President Harrison was, by default, a white supremacist for attending the event.
A Massachusetts speaker remarked at the Lousibourg, Cape Breton, Canada memorial dedication in 1895—erected as an “inspiration to heroism of for all generations of Anglo-Saxons,” in a region dominated by people of French descent—that, “We are for the most part Anglo-Saxons today, and we are here to recognize and to glorify certain qualities which characterize that race.” Obviously, this monument to “Anglo-Saxon” white supremacy needs to be removed.
At the 1891 dedication ceremony for the Candia, New Hampshire Soldiers Monument—which honored fallen Candia men in three American wars—the Reverend Samuel C. Beane said, “From that day to this, there have been, by people of Anglo-Saxon blood and their allies, four memorable contests for the destruction of arbitrary power and the restoration of men to their natural rights.” This included the “Civil War,” a contest that he argued began only out of a struggle of patriotism to “regain a few forts and save the national territory from dismemberment” that eventually transformed into a crusade to erase “every line of color and race that subjected man to man.” To Beane, this was part of the “Anglo-Saxon tradition,” but how could this be so? Surely Beane should have anticipated that twenty-first century woke leftists would think that references to “Anglo-Saxon” were made only to support “white supremacy.”
Most Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, North and South, understood the phrase “Anglo-Saxon traditions” and “Anglo-Saxon civilization” to mean self-government, heroism, individual liberty, and the rule of law. As Beane contended, these principles were handed down through generations of Englishmen beginning at Runnymede in 1215 and later transported to American shores. That Americans of all ethnic backgrounds referenced it, North and South, in a variety of contexts should provide a clue to woke Twitter historians that language should be analyzed within the context of the period, not from twenty-first century presentism.
By and large all Americans wanted to maintain a traditional “Anglo-Saxon civilization” one hundred years ago, but this meant a heritage linked to the old world and defined by traditional political institutions, not a racial order or “white supremacy,” even during the height of the “Lost Cause.” As the historian Charles Reagan Wilson wrote in his Baptized in Blood, ”Race was intimately related to the story of the Lost Cause but was not the basis of it, and was not the center of it.”
In fact, memorials and dedication ceremonies were never intended to be political events and had no political meaning. The historian Gaines Foster argued in his Ghosts of the Confederacy that most Southerners paid little attention to the dedication speeches and that these events were intended to be apolitical. “More important, by placing the celebration of Memorial Day under the charge of women and hence within the realm of sentiment, southerners further reduced any political or ideological implications. That some blacks, even ones active in politics, could contribute to the memorial work also indicated how little political content it had.”
In other words, Twitter historians like Levin should be embarrassed to post most of their nonsense, but that would require a level of self-awareness and honesty they frankly lack. Unfortunately, their polemics often pass for “scholarship” in the modern academy, a result of the transformation of the profession from real critical thinking and understanding to a thinly-veiled propaganda arm of the modern woke movement.