The vast majority of men and women who began settling along the Atlantic Coast of North America in the seventeenth century were English and proud of it. Although some of the first settlers, most notably the Puritans, left England because they believed it needed reform, by the eighteenth century most Americans saw it as a model to emulate. The resulting urge to follow the ways of their homeland has been described as a desire for "anglicization," a process which was visible across the entire spectrum of American colonial life--in religion, the law, fashion, architecture, literature, and political culture.
The "anglicizing" impulse had such power that it survived the violent rupture of British-American relations caused by the American Revolution (1776-1783). In spite of the lingering hostility spawned by that conflict, the impulse persisted well into the nineteenth century. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in 1856, eighty years after independence, in the United States "the culture of the day, the thoughts and aims of men, are English. . . . those who resist it [English culture] do not feel it or obey it less."
Even as Emerson wrote, however, the situation was changing. The United States was growing more confident and establishing its own identity. By the mid-1800s American ideas and products had begun to establish a beachhead in Britain. As the power of the United States increased, the cultural tides between it and the United Kingdom began to reverse, and American influence began appearing in some areas of British life. This process, which in the post-World War II period has been called, with considerable exaggeration, the "Americanization" of Britain, is the latest chapter in a complicated history that includes a broad range of shared institutions and experiences.
To illuminate the interwoven history of the two nations from the earliest British settlement in Virginia to the present, the exhibition examines exploration and settlement; war, both as enemies and allies; language and literature; science and technology; reform movements; and popular culture. By focusing on these areas, the exhibition demonstrates the extraordinary cross-fertilization that laid the foundation for the "special relationship" between the two nations in the last half of the twentieth century.