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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?

Should Andrew Jackson Have Banned Catholics?

Field of Dreams in the City on a Hill

For centuries the City on a Hill has been buffeted by the tides of religious strife threatening to undo the realm that the eyes of the world are upon. We all remember the dread experienced by the Puritans when confronted by the quaking Quakers. These fearsome advocates of all that is unholy challenged the Visible Saints to stand guard to protect what God had rendered. And what about the Baptists, the Methodists, and Lord only knows what other religious monstrosity would invade our defenseless shores? It’s a wonder the City on a Hill even survived the religious onslaught to come.

Worst of all were the Catholics. Wave after wave of Catholics washed up to undo the work of the Elect of God. The demise of the America can be traced to the failure of Andrew Jackson to stop the encroachment of Catholics when he had the chance. Now we all pay the price for his ineptitude starting right here in New York.

Samuel F. B. Morse was upset, very upset. The Hudson Valley was being overrun by the wrong kind of people. Everything he hoped to accomplish was being threatened by the new immigrants who were overwhelming the natives (who now included Dutch and Germans as well as English) of good stock. Here is how the painter and future inventor of the telegraph described the situation in Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (1835) based on a series of articles he had written for the New York Observer:

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. . . .They 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. And we recognize the idiom he used as well:

If Popery is tolerant, let us see Italy, Austria, and Spain open their doors to the teachers of the Protestant faith. The conspirators against our liberties . . . are now organized in every part of the country; they are all subordinates, standing in regular steps of slave and master . . . the great master-slave Metternich, who commands and obeys his illustrious Master, the Emperor [of Austria-Hungary]. . . . It is a war, and all true patriots must wake to the cry of danger. They must up and gird themselves for battle. It is no false alarm. Our liberties are in danger. The Philistines are upon us.

Morse’s song is still sung today. His words have been updated to our words: “If Popery is tolerant (today we would say “If Islam is a religion of peace”), let us see Italy, Austria, and Spain (today we would say “Syria, Iran, and Libya and four others”), open their doors to the teachers of the Protestant faith (today we would say “if they want to build a mosque”).

Morse was not finished: “Where Popery has put darkness, we must put light. Where Popery has planted its crosses, its colleges, its churches, its chapels, its nunneries, Protestant patriotism must put side by side college for college, seminary for seminary, church for church.” Morse called for naturalization laws to prevent the lifeboat of the world from capsizing: “Our naturalization laws were never intended to convert this land into the almshouse of Europe.” Morse didn’t want Europe’s tired, its poor and its enslaved masses incapable of being free-he didn’t want the Catholics and he certainly didn’t want the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Jews of Eastern and Central Europe whose odyssey to American shores had yet to begin in earnest in the mid-1830s. Don’t send your wretched refuse to me. Instead, he wrote that,

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.

At the time Morse and others were writing such things there was a great concern in the land that the Mississippi Valley, not yet the heartland, and America in general were under siege. The papal minions were fanning out across the country spreading their pagan ways among God-fearing Protestants and they had to be stopped. America had to be saved from the clutches of this global religious conspiracy of people not capable of freedom and liberty and slaves to their overseas master.”

“War must be fought” is Morse’s title for chapter 9.

As already noted, Morse by no means was alone in his views about the threat to America. The Know-Nothing Party arose in large part out of anti-Catholic bigotry, and it had non-trivial support in its day. But it also had its detractors, and against these Morse also took aim. Writing in 1835, Morse characterized the media for saying his chosen war was “the fruits of an intolerant, bigoted, fanatical spirit, and the revival of ancient prejudices,” but he would have none of it: “We have fallen on strange times, indeed, when subjects of the deepest political importance to the country may not be mooted in the political journals of the day without meeting the indiscriminating hostility and denunciations of such journals.”

In the decades to follow, another wave of Catholics swept across America irrevocably changing the realm until the field of dreams was no more and all was nightmare. Consider these reports from Iowa.

The report of one of the Methodist Upper Iowa districts at the 1883 Conference contained the following concern about events in its district:

Upon the river borders Catholicism and German rationalism press upon us.  Rum and Rome and Rationalism practically coalesce while Protestantism, pressed into the minority, instinctively “rises and retires.”

In the Upper Conference, as Methodist districts were known, the battle against foreign elements resumed with gusto in 1885.  The Conference resolved to support the Evangelical Protestant Association in its efforts to evangelize the foreign population amidst the large cities of the country:

Whereas, the growth of Romanism and its efforts to obtain power, demand that active exertions be made to preserve our institutions from its insidious attacks; and

Whereas, the most successful method of awakening the power of Romanism is the conversion of its followers …

 Resolved 1st.  That we cordially endorse this evangelistic agency and pray that it may become more and more efficient in reaching the foreign Romanish population in our land.

The missionary activity stressed by the Upper Iowa Conference in 1887 was domestic not foreign in scope.

Throughout a wide area on either side of the Mississippi river, a foreign immigration has been steadily driving out our native population and has so weakened our Churches as to make it impossible in some cases and difficult in many, to maintain our existence.

The threat of Romanism and infidelity loomed large on the Midwestern plains.

According to the 1890 census, Iowa was divided between 40% pietist (Protestant) and 29% liturgical (Catholic) with 31% nonmembers, a clearcut sign that the battle waged to protect America was being lost.

The battle against Catholicism at the local level in the Upper Iowa Conference region can be tracked in the annual report of the districts.  For example, in 1892, Decorah reported an heroic effort against the depletion of its eastern borders: it was fighting the good fight to hold the territory for Protestant Christianity.  Dubuque Methodists declared than even in the midst of a Roman Catholic population, it was not dead.  This conflict was no idle matter to the people who had settled the prairies only a few decades before only now to find themselves fighting for their cultural and religious life in the land they regarded as home.

The 1899 Conference report from the Davenport district asks the question:

Am I in the United States of America, or Scandinavia, or the Emerald Isle, or Germany?

Now these alien immigrants from Scandinavia and Germany among elsewhere continued to overrun the land threatening the Methodist and therefore American way of life.

The Decorah district in 1902 reported a disturbing trend in the once-Methodist lands:

the stranger has got possession of the gates, and the native American Methodist farmer seems, and feels himself to be, a stranger in the new surroundings.  Germans, Scandinavians, Bohemians and Irish are buying the farms all the more easily, because the American early settlers have reached years when they wish the rest they have earned and the advantages of town life and have the means to gratify the desire.  The new occupants bring with them Romanism, Lutheranism, or hatred of all churches, and whatever the form it is in the antagonism to Methodism.  Notwithstanding, we are still optimistic, because we believe in God, the gospel go-ahead-itiveness, which last is a synonym for Methodism.

The Pope had designs on Iowa as Decorah reported.

The principal embarrassment to our work, as all well know, is the outgoing of our original New England and Middle States’ people and the incoming, principally of people from the countries of Europe and alien to our Methodistic type of Evangelical religion.  Those people who are Protestant are of the state-church type of Lutheran sacramentarians.  The major part of them are however, papists.  Rome evidently has designs on fair Iowa.

First the City on the Hill had been swept away by the incoming flood of Irish Catholics. Then the field of dreams had been plowed under due to the incoming flood of German Catholics. How much more indignity could the American people endure?

Little did they know that Italian Catholics were about to arrive. “Why have you come, Joe DiMaggio?” sang the anthem of the beleaguered Americans. Those Italian Catholics will never sing to “My Way.” They will only sing to their way. Can anyone even imagine at Yankee Stadium, the great stadium to America’s national pastime at the city at the center of the universe, that Italian Catholics could sing the praises of New York New York?

Woe is us. Even as I write these words the Irish American Heritage Museum is hosting a Governor Martin Glynn Symposium on February 18 in honor of New York’s 40th Governor and its first Irish American Roman Catholic Governor. What’s next? A Catholic President? Catholics on the Supreme Court? Papal Law becoming the law of the land, our Constitution in tatters, people eating pizza?! American is undone all because Andrew Jackson lacked the right stuff to do what is necessary to protect the country from the threat from abroad. We should all be on our knees in prayer giving thanks that our President today will not make the same mistake Andrew Jackson did when he allowed those religious aliens to settle in our country and establish foreign rule even in Middle America!


Portions of this post appeared in “The Methodist Upper Iowa Conference: From Wilderness Settlement to Middle-American Melting Pot,” Methodist History 2009 47/4:226-241 and “The Immigrant Experience in American History: Who Is an American?” American Interest, June 27, 2012,