Turning the World Upside Down: The War of American Independence and the Problem of Empire

Turning the World Upside Down: The War of American Independence and the Problem of Empire

Turning the World Upside Down: The War of American Independence and the Problem of Empire

Turning the World Upside Down: The War of American Independence and the Problem of Empire

Synopsis

Demonstrates how the founding fathers rejected Britain and denounced balance of power politics, yet they would engage in realpolitik and mimick Britain as they built their "empire of liberty."

Excerpt

If buttercups buzzed after the bee
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If the mamas sold their babies to the gypsies for half a crown;
If summer were spring and t’other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.

These lines from an old English ballad have often been linked to the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781: ironic folk lyrics to accentuate an ironic military dénouement. According to this tradition the British, as they marched off toward a field to lay down their arms, did so to a number of “airs” and “melancholy” tunes, and one of them was purportedly “The World Turned Upside Down.” Not that any of the men in that sad procession sang the words above or even hummed them silently as they listened to whatever the fifers and drummers played; indeed, these particular lyrics may not have even been paired with the tune yet and it is not at all clear what music was offered—or if the vanquished walked with quiet dignity “in a slow, solemn step” or shuffled disrespectfully, even drunkenly. As with virtually all scenes of potentially high drama and deep symbolism, the reports made afterward are fragmentary, the accounts contradictory.

Even so, Henry P. Johnston could not be bothered with any uncertainty on the subject. Dubious source notwithstanding, he wrote matter-of-factly that the defeated troops “marched out with colors cased, while the tune they chose to follow was an old British march with the quite appropriate . . .

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