The Americanization of Queen Victoria
Arnstein, Walter L., The Historian
AMERICANS OF OUR day are accustomed to the notion that Britain and the United States end up on the same side of every significant international conflict. That was true during the twentieth-century world wars, the Cold War, and both Iraq wars as well as the current Afghan war. The situation was far different in the nineteenth century. Then, most Americans who read history books and who celebrated the Fourth of July looked upon Great Britain not as the natural ally but as the inveterate enemy, the country that had ultimately been defeated by General George Washington and his fellow "Founding Fathers." A generation later, during the War of 1812, the new republic had been embarrassed by the ease with which a British force had burned down Washington, D.C., even if soon after the Star-Spangled Banner memorably survived a British bombardment of nearby Fort McHenry. That particular Anglo-American military conflict may have concluded with the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, but the threat of war between Britain and the United States recurred time and again in the course of the nineteenth century as late as the 1890s.
When and how was Anglo-American hostility succeeded by Anglo-American amity? A hitherto neglected answer is what this article calls "the Americanization of Queen Victoria." Thus a comprehensive bibliography published in 1987 on the entire previous history of Anglo-American relations failed even to mention Queen Victoria. (1) Scholars have scarcely touched systematically on such subjects as the personal impact of the monarch on Anglo-American relations or on its converse, the pattern of changing American attitudes toward the British monarchy in general and toward the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) in particular. (2)
One plausible source of information is in what nineteenth-century American newspapers and magazines wrote about the queen. Happily, the researcher today can escape the laborious process of locating needles in haystacks of articles that lacked indexes. Thus an online research tool named Harp Week has provided a reasonably comprehensive overview of writings about (and images of) the British monarch. It has supplied a detailed index as well as a veritable concordance for Harper's Weekly, a widely-read periodical that in the second half of the nineteenth century was most likely to keep respectable American middle-class and upper-class families informed about newsworthy happenings of the previous week.
Although in the year 1880 more than 3,000 distinct weekly and monthly magazines were brought out in the United States, Harper's Weekly has been called "the most important American weekly in existence" during the post-Civil-War era. (3) One of the prime reasons for the magazine's great popularity was the excellence of its black-and-white illustrations and its cartoons by masters such as Thomas Nast, the man who first decreed that, in American politics, Republicans were elephants and Democrats were donkeys. Another reason was the skill of George William Curtis, the highly respected political editor of that journal for three decades. (4) Founded in 1857 and to endure until World War I, Harper's Weekly described itself proudly as "A Journal of Civilization." (5) Emulating in format an earlier British periodical, the Illustrated London News, it attracted a circulation of 200,000 or more from the early 1 860s on, and, like most British and American journals of that era, the authors of almost all articles remained anonymous.
So many of Queen Victoria's private letters and diary entries have been published since her death--many of them only since 1960--that the historian of our day may readily become absorbed by the "private" Victoria, but late-nineteenth century Americans knew only the "public" Victoria. A systematic perusal of Harper's Weekly enables us therefore to recapture the "public" Victoria about whom many people read but whom very few met in person. As noted earlier, nineteenth-century Americans had no particular reason to feel friendly toward Queen Victoria. …