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Dispatching Anglo-Saxonism: Whiteness and the Crises of American Racial Identity in Richard Harding Davis's Reports on the Boer War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 November 2019

James Todd Uhlman*
University of Dayton
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


U.S. opinion of the Second Boer War (1899–1902) was highly divided. The debate over the war served as a proxy for fights over domestic issues of immigration, inequality, and race. Anglo-American Republicans’ support for the British was undergirded by belief in Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. Caucasian but non-Anglo Democrats and Populists disputed the Anglo-Saxonist assumptions and explicitly equated the plight of the Boers to the racial and economic inequalities they faced in the United States. They utilized Anglophobia, republican ideology, and anti-modernist jeremiads to discredit their opponents and to elevate an alternative racial fiction: universal whiteness. Reports written by the celebrity journalist Richard Harding Davis while covering the Boer War, along with a wide array of other sources, illustrate the discursive underpinning of the debate. They also suggest the effectiveness of the pro-Boer argument in reshaping the racial opinions of some Anglo-Saxon elites. Although Davis arrived in South Africa a staunch supporter of transatlantic Anglo-Saxonism, he came to link the Boers with the republican values and frontier heritage associated with the U.S.’ own history. The equation of the South African Republic's resistance against the British Empire with that of the U.S.’ own war of independence highlighted contradictions between Anglo-Saxonism and American exceptionalism. As a result, Anglo-Saxonism was weakened. Davis and others increasingly embraced a notion of racial identity focused on color. Thus, public reaction to the Boer War contributed to the ongoing rise of a new wave of herrenvolk democratic beliefs centered on a vision of white racial hybridity across the social and political divisions separating Americans of European descent.

Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2019

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