In 1776, on the brink of his first battle with British troops after America declared independence, George Washington gave a spirited defense of breaking from British rule. “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army,” he told his troops. “Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of a brave resistance, or the most abject submission.”
Needless to say, two and a half centuries later, America views British influence on much different terms. No longer the evil oppressor, the British are more than a longstanding political ally; they’re essential to our culture. We built a theme park for Harry Potter, after all. Adele gets us through Thanksgiving. Heck, we even cast a Brit to play Abraham Lincoln.
At the same time, demographically, a much smaller percentage of Americans claim British roots. At the time of Washington’s address, the majority of newly minted Americans were of British descent. Now, the most common countries of origin for America immigrants are China, India, and Mexico, according to a recent study by the Census Bureau.
But what have we inherited from our formerly “cruel and unrelenting enemy” that, for better or worse, we just can’t seem to shake? In advance of a March 9 Smithsonian/Zócalo “What It Means to Be American” event—“Will America Always Be a British Colony?”—we asked five people with expertise on both sides of the pond: What are the most persistent legacies of past British rule—cultural, political, legal, etc.—that have survived and will continue to survive America’s ongoing demographic changes?