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Anglo-Saxons – In History, Culture Wars, and Media Coverage

Anglo-Saxons are in the news. That may be a surprise. But which Anglo-Saxons? There are three different ways of answering the question:

1. Anglo-Saxons in history
2. Anglo-Saxons in American history
3. Anglo-Saxons in the culture wars.

In this blog, I wish to examine what has been happening in the last few weeks in an amazing confluence of actions including the media coverage.


In the current issue of Archaeology magazine, Laetitia La Follete, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, wrote her “From the President” column on “SUTTON HOO AND THE DIG.” Here is the opening paragraph:

Archaeology fans around the world got a treat early this year with the release of the Netflix movie The Dig. Focused on the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk, England, on the eve of World War II, it tells the story of Mrs. Edith Pretty, a wealthy landowner who hired the polymath and self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the mounds on her property. Once Brown realized he had found the remains of a ship, he and Pretty brought in a “dream team” of professionals, Peggy and Stuart Piggott among them, to methodically excavate Mound 1. The magnificent Anglo-Saxon royal ship burial and its opulent treasures that the team unearthed rewrote history. The finds’ glittering artistry, sophisticated design, and evidence of far-flung trade showed that the early seventh century in Britain was no Dark Ages.

The real Anglo-Saxons were a media phenomenon complete with a Netflix movie! La Follete announced in the column that in May she had interviewed Martin Carver, who oversaw the excavations from 1983-2005 under the auspices of the British Museum, the Society of Antiquaries and the BBC. Their mission: to give the site its context. What was a ship burial doing in seventh-cenury Suffolk: Why that? Why there? Why then? The interview was online so accessible to people around the world interested in Anglo-Saxons and/or archaeology. A second online lecture will be held June 24.

By coincidence, also in May a new book on the Anglo-Saxons was published.

The Anglo-Saxons: The Making of England: 410-1066 by Marc Morris

A quest for England’s origins

Sixteen hundred years ago, Britain left the Roman Empire and fell swiftly into ruin. Into this violent and unstable world came foreign invaders from across the sea, and established themselves as its new masters. The Anglo-Saxons traces the turbulent history of these people across the next six centuries. It explains how their earliest rulers fought relentlessly against each other for glory and supremacy. It explores how they abandoned their old gods for Christianity. It is a tale of famous figures like King Offa, Alfred the Great, and Edward the Confessor, but also features a host of lesser known characters. Through their remarkable careers we see how a new society, a new culture, and a single unified nation came into being.

Notice the timeframe: roughly from King Arthur to William the Conqueror, neither of whom was Anglo-Saxon. They are reminder of the presence of Celtics and Normans in England. One should add Vikings to the ethnic stew as well.

In an interview with Olivia Waxman, Time, medievalist Mary Rambran-Olin, an expert on race in early England, noted that even the early English did not call themselves Anglo-Saxons. The term developed in the 17th century as England wanted an origin story for its new empire.

If one has a genuine interest in Anglo-Saxons, just in the month of May there was a movie, interviews with an archaeologist and medievalist, and a new book from which to choose.


In the aftermath of the culture war Anglo-Saxons (see below), Washington Post published an article (4/26/21) by historian L.D. Burnett entitled “In the U.S, (sic) praise for Anglo-Saxon heritage has always been about white supremacy: Before the Civil War, Anglo-Saxonism was touted to defend slavery and conquest.” Burnett decries the “sinister use of Anglo-Saxonism” as nothing new. She wrote that the commingling of Anglo-Saxon blood and Anglo-Saxon tradition in the early 19th century was done in conjunction with the purported racial and intellectual superiority of White Americans.

Burnett researched the instances of newspaper usage of the term from 1800-1830 in the digitized newspaper database. The examples were few. “But between 1831 and 1840, the number of references to ‘Anglo-Saxon’ soared.” She attributes the dramatic increase first to the need of proslavery apologists contending with the moral and political pressure from the abolitionist movement. Second, she credits the increase due to the Texas war for independence which many Americans viewed in racial terms. Combined they led to an Anglo-Saxon racial manifest destiny to dominate the continent and the hemisphere. It was at this point that the designation of an ethnic group became divorced from its history and entered into the lexicon of American White racial superiority.

There is one slight flaw with this analysis of events in the 1830s. There is one event which she did not mention that calls into question her race-based interpretation. It can be summed up in two words:


Beginning in the 1830s, America experienced a demographic deluge by a people who were not considered to be white. The reaction by the English-speaking white people already here was much like the America First Caucus today. Here is an example from Samuel Morse (“Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States,” 1835) prior to the invention of the telegraph when the Hudson Valley was being overrun by the wrong sorts of people:

Foreign immigrants are flocking to our shores in increased numbers, two thirds at least are Roman Catholics, and of the most ignorant classes, and thus pauperism and crime are alarmingly increased. . . . The great body of emigrants to this country are the hard-working, mentally neglected poor of Catholic countries in Europe, who have left a land where they were enslaved, for one of freedom. . . .[T]hey are not fitted to act with the judgment in the political affairs of their new country, like native citizens, educated from their infancy in the principles and habits of our institutions. Most of them are too ignorant to act at all for themselves, and expect to be guided wholly by others [the priests].

Morse’s ire against a supposed great papal conspiracy was, if not a majority opinion at the time, very popular. As always, the vote was the key:

we must have the [naturalization] law so amended that no FOREIGNER WHO MAY COME INTO THIS COUNTRY, AFTER THE PASSAGE OF THE NEW LAW, SHALL EVER BE ALLOWED EXERCISE THE ELECTIVE FRANCHISE. This alone meets evil in its fullest extent.

Sound familiar?

People define themselves in opposition to the “Other.” In the United States in the 1830s, the “Other” were the Irish Catholics and the true or real Americans were the Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Again by coincidence, in May there was a new book out on the Irish in America: The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation by Zachary M. Schrag.

In 1844 America was in a state of deep unrest, grappling with xenophobia, racial, and ethnic tension on a national scale that feels singular to our time, but echoes the earliest anti-immigrant sentiments of the country. In that year Philadelphia was set aflame by a group of Protestant ideologues — avowed nativists — who were seeking social and political power rallied by charisma and fear of the Irish immigrant menace.

For these men, it was Irish Catholics they claimed would upend morality and murder their neighbors, steal their jobs, and overturn democracy. The nativists burned Catholic churches, chased and beat people through the streets, and exchanged shots with a militia seeking to reinstate order. In the aftermath, the public debated both the militia’s use of force and the actions of the mob. Some of the most prominent nativists continued their rise to political power for a time, even reaching Congress.

The book is an account of the moment one of America’s founding cities turned on itself over the issue of immigration.

Schrag wrote about this in a blog for HNN in May, “In 1844, Nativist Protestants Burned Churches in the Name of Religious Liberty.” The subject of the Irish including before the 1830s was a three part series in New York Almanack by John Warren. One wonders how Burnett failed to mention the Irish in her column on the 1830s and why the Washington Post failed to catch such a glaring omission.

One final observation on the use of Anglo-Saxon before turning to the America First Caucus. During congressional debate over the 1924 Immigration Act, Senator Ellison DuRant Smith of South Carolina, said the following:

Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power, and yet the youngest of all the nations.

In this immigration debate, Africans in America were not the issue. The Irish in America were not the issue either anymore. Instead the demographic deluge that was feared mainly was the people called ethnics from southern and eastern Europe. They were the new “Other” to be feared as Adam Server, The Atlantic, wrote:

Nativists needed a way to explain why these immigrants—Polish, Russian, Greek, Italian, and Jewish—were distinct from earlier generations, and why their presence posed a danger.


Now we turn to the media sensation that launched the Anglo-Saxon “15 minutes” of media coverage, the America First Caucus. There are three obvious reasons why the simple-minded Anglo-Saxon Caucus was doomed from the start:

Kevin McCarthy
Rudy Giuliani
Jared Kushner.

Did you hear the one about an Irish, Italian, and Jew who attended an America First Caucus? Perhaps one should add Sean Hannity to the list.

True, identity politics includes white people, too, but even a shred of thinking would have revealed the fallacy of this particular effort. In addition at the very moment Democrats are finally starting to realize that they do not have a monopoly on the vote of non-European immigrants and that these people do not necessarily accept the all-race all-the-time emphasis of the Woke, the America First Caucus is politically counterproductive.

In summary, one cannot help but notice the differing coverages of the current Anglo-Saxon contretemps.  One could choose from new books by scholars on the topic or watch a movie/interview. One could read responsible articles in Atlantic and Time about Anglo-Saxons in America. Or one could partake a politically-corrected view of history in the Washington Post.

Bonus question: One hundred years from on a history test you are asked to explain why American nativists were not Native Americans without laughing. What would you write?

NYSHA Responds to Advocacy for Local and State History Post

New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown

In a previous post, I reported on a petition initiated by the New York Academy of History in support of local and state history.  Much of the details of the letter were against recent actions of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA). That organization has undergone some changes in 2017 as reported in New York History Blog by editor John Warren and columnist/advocate Bruce Dearstyne.

My post also led to a response by Paul S. D’Ambrosio, President & CEO, Fenimore Art Museum & The Farmers’ Museum aka NYSHA. He sent me an email asking if I would publish it. I agreed to do so and he then sent a second draft which is published below.

This is in response to the recent blog post by Peter Feinman entitled “History Professors Protest for State and Local History.” The post was unfortunately misinformed and inaccurate, and it is regrettable that no one from Fenimore Art Museum (the “Museum”), formerly known as the New York State Historical Association, was approached for comment prior to its publication. Accordingly, I write to you now to correct the record and provide an accurate description the Museum’s current and future activities. 

Most crucially, the notions that NYSHA is “defunct” or “ceases to exist,” or that any of its programs are “at risk,” could not be more incorrect. The organization formerly known as NYSHA has simply changed its name (formally adopting the name that it has legally used as a “d/b/a” for many years), while continuing to carry on a wide range of activities promoting an appreciation of art, history, and culture. The Museum thus has been, and remains, a private, non-profit organization chartered under the New York State Education Law and recognized by the IRS as exempt from taxation under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3). Indeed, the Museum’s status as such was re-affirmed by the IRS on October 17, 2017 in response to a submission including the Museum’s amended charter.  

The charter amendments were driven by the Museum’s desire to reflect the broad range of its long-standing activities, to avoid the misconception that it was a state agency, and to correct the ongoing confusion with the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. The Museum also desired to address the fact that its collections have never been limited to New York State and, in fact, our important art collections, including our American Folk Art and American Indian Art, have been national in scope for decades. The charter amendments thus allow the Museum to present an institutional identity to the public that fully reflects its collections and the experience it offers.

Most important to the concerns in Mr. Feinman’s blog post is what the charter amendments did not change – the scope or quality of our educational programming. We still host more than 7,000 school children each year in organized tours on a range of historical and artistic topics.  We continue to operate our Research Library, a vital resource for the region with more than 100,000 volumes and a large collection of unique original manuscripts. The Library continues to be staffed by professional librarians as it has been for many years. We continue to serve New York as the statewide coordinator of National History Day, a competitive program that reaches more than 10,000 students throughout the state. We maintain a close partnership with The Farmers’ Museum, a living history museum dedicated to promoting an understanding of the rural and agricultural history of New York. We share most of our professional staff with this prominent history museum. Please know as well that we are committed to ensuring the continued publication of the journal New York History, and that its future is not in jeopardy. Finally, of course, we bring world-class art exhibitions to New York State every year, including artists such as Andrew Wyeth, Ansel Adams, and (upcoming in 2018) Thomas Cole.

In short, our museum campus continues to thrive as Fenimore Art Museum, and we maintain the same reverence for our state’s rich past as we always have. We are firmly committed to providing cultural enrichment and a better quality of life for New Yorkers, and critical educational opportunities for the youth of the state.

I would be happy to answer any questions anyone may have about Fenimore Art Museum and its range of activities. Please feel free to contact me directly at or call me at 607-547-1413 if would like to discuss this matter further. Thank you for your attention and interest.


Paul S. D’Ambrosio
President & CEO
Fenimore Art Museum & The Farmers’ Museum

His response reflects the dual nature of the Cooperstown organization. On the one hand, there is a museum, actually two museums. I have been to both museums as part of Teacherhostels/Historyhostels and attending conferences. Those conferences have been both a local one for social studies teachers (which I believe have been discontinued or at least I stopped getting notices about them) and state ones such as for the New York State History Conference which NYSHA helped run.  The museum part of the operation of the organization is not defunct. It continues to function as a museum and my post was not directed towards this aspect of its identity.

The second part refers to its statewide identity and function. In previous posts I have written about the need for the history community to organiza and advocate. I confess when I wrote these various posts, the name that came to me as the perfect vehicle to express what I wanted was the New York State Historical Association. Here is where I have a problem with NYSHA. It is partially addressed in the letter from Ken Jackson that initiated this sequence and not really addressed in the respose by Paul D’Ambrosio. The true issue is not the functioning of the museum but the absence of any leadership position as a statewide advocacy group for history.

At the end of my post, I suggested the following actions be taken:

Let’s pick three days to advocate on behalf of state and local history during the 2018 legislative session:

1. a day when the legislature is not in session and advocacy can be done locally (such as a Friday)
2. a day when the legislature is in session (such as a Tuesday or Wednesday)
3. a day when the Regents is in session (monthly meetings).

We need to become a squeaky wheel.

Notice what Paul D’Ambrosio’s response in his post was to my suggestions  – there is none whatsoever. In my email to him, I even asked what he thought of my suggestions. In other words, I gave him the opportunity to revise his own response to include an endorsement or recommendations of his own on behalf of state advocacy for history. His email response to me is private but clearly his published response does not address the deeper concerns I raised. One should note that he once was a member of the Regents  Advisory Council on Museums reported on in post dated November 9, 2017 so he has been involved at the state level. What lessons can he share from that experience as part of an advisory council that nobody outside a small circle even knows exists?

Over the past few years, I have participated in advocacy days for tourism and state parks. Both of these days are organized by private organizations with full-time staff  who have the mission of having a statewide perspective. They are not trapped in the day-to-day necessities of running a museum, park, or hotel. Their job is to monitor the events in the state capital as they relate to their respective sectors and to be on top of developments. Obviously teachers and libraries also pack a wallop along with numerous other sectors like preservation.

History and museums have no such state voice. Yes, MANY exists and with a lobbyist but it is a small staff and I am not sure it has the resources to create a Musem Advocacy Day (MAD) in New York. MANY is not a purely history organization either since its mandate includes art museums, science museums, zoos, and acquariums. And the 600-pound history gorillas in New York City tend to do their own thing without consideration for a state leadership role. There are more fulltime people at the New-York Historical Society building than in just about any individual county in the state. It operates in a separate world from the history museums and societies in the towns and villages throughout the state …. or even their equivalent organizations in the neighborhoods of the city.

NYSHA should be the history organization that galvanizes the history community. It isn’t and it is not going to be. So what do we do instead? Perhaps being squeaky as I suggested in the earlier post isn’t enough. We need to get MAD!

Peter Finch in Network

And just as was about to post this blog to the IHARE website, look what I received.

November 29, 2017

Dear Friends, Members, and Supporters,

I’m pleased to share the news that I have been invited to testify on Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at the New York State Assembly’s Standing Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts, and Sports Development’s Annual Budget Oversight Hearing of the 2017-2018 State Budget. The purpose of this hearing will be to review the impact and effectiveness of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grants awarded throughout the State and arts projects funded by NYSCA.

I would like to include information from as many members of New York State’s museum field as possible in my remarks. This is a link to a survey that will take less than 5 minutes of your time to complete. Please click the link above and submit your answers before Friday, December 1 at 5 PM when the survey will close.

The information gathered will be shared with the Committee next Tuesday and with you later next week. Please feel free to forward this email to colleagues.

Unless you choose otherwise, I will aggregate and reported responses anonymously.

Thank you for sharing your information and helping me to prepare my testimony.

Erika Sanger
Executive Director
Museum Association of New York