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Meaning

Kids learn it at school; people sing it on holidays. And most of them probably picture Revolutionary War soldiers marching to a fife and drum about the time Yankee Doodle hops on his pony. But the song did not begin as a patriotic tune. Nor was it written during the American Revolution. Richard Shuckburgh, a British army doctor, wrote the words during the French and Indian War to ridicule America’s ragtag militia. Eventually, however, this ragtag militia embraced the song and had the last laugh.

In 1754, American colonists were still happy members of the British Empire. Sure, some of the British restrictions on America’s trade were annoying, but for the most part life in the Empire was profitable and relatively free. American goods had access to British markets, the British Navy protected American ships as they crossed dangerous seas, and British merchants delivered all sorts of cool consumer goods to American buyers. So when the French started to expand into the Ohio Valley, American colonists were as anxious as the British to kick the intruders out.

This conflict, known here in America as the French and Indian War, was actually part of a larger conflict between Britain and France known as the Seven Years’ War. In fact, the European battles between France and Britain absorbed most of the British army. This meant only a small force could be sent to America to protect British claims on the continent, so American militias were asked to help out.

The militias recruited for the cause were more willing than able. American militias dated to the 17th century when colonial officials, worried primarily about the threat posed by Native Americans, ordered all men to serve in these “volunteer” units. By the mid 1700s, however, as the Indian threat faded, militia muster days turned into an excuse to party. Every couple months the men of the community would gather on the green and march around for a while before busting open a keg.

As a result, British officers were understandably not all that impressed with their American “allies,” especially when compared to their own soldiers. In 1754, the British army was far better trained and equipped. Britain’s navy was the best in the world, and their officer corps was hardened and well organized after a half century of almost continuous war.

Shuckburgh’s mocking jab at “Yankee Doodle” summarized widespread British contempt for American soldiers. And to be honest, many Americans shared this view. Even George Washington, the leader of Virginia’s provincial militia, pined for a British commission. He aspired to the greater discipline and prestige that a position in the British army represented.

Moreover, many Americans feared that British arrogance was rooted in real differences between Englishmen and Americans. In fact, in 1754, the label “American” carried many negative connotations. An American was a hick, a provincial rube stuck in an unsophisticated colonial outpost. “Englishmen” were citizens of a civilized, highly cultured nation. They lived in or near London, one of the world’s great cities, filled with museums, art galleries, and concert halls. Americans spent their lives an ocean away from the political and cultural heart of the Empire.

According to some historians, Americans compensated for their feelings of cultural inferiority by spending a lot of money on the “symbols” of refinement—French furniture and Chinese silk, English books and lace. Most important, they bought a lot of tea. You might think of afternoon tea as a British custom, but tea and all of the ceremonies surrounding it were more popular in colonial America than in England. Americans’ purchase of tea and all the paraphernalia—tea pots and cups, tea caddies, strainers, and tongs—was an attempt to be less provincial and more sophisticated, less American and more British.

It’s no surprise then that Shuckburgh’s doggerel about Yankee doodles—simpletons riding ponies and trying to look hip by sticking feathers in their hats—hit a sensitive nerve. Americans, anxious to prove their sophistication and show their loyalty to the Empire, were instead treated with mocking distain. But over the next few years, something happened. Americans developed a different sense of themselves and—perhaps most importantly—a different sense of the label “American.”

The transformation began as early as 1755. British General Edward Braddock had been sent to drive the French out of the Ohio Valley, but he proved an arrogant fool. He rejected a treaty offer from Native Americans in the valley, and then he walked into an ambush where the French and these same Native Americans cut his army to shreds. The only member of Braddock’s force that performed with distinction was George Washington. The 23-year-old colonel had two horses shot from beneath him while rallying his troops, and rumor has it that the coat he was wearing was found to have no fewer than four bullet holes after the fighting. After Braddock was killed, Washington assumed command of a portion of the army and organized its orderly and safe retreat.

By the end of the war, Americans were far less impressed by the fabled British army than they had been when the war began. They were also less content with their place in the British Empire. During the war, colonial assemblies and British Parliament argued over war expenses and army supply; afterwards, these arguments persisted. Britain imposed new taxes and trade restrictions to recover war costs. Parliament even told Americans that they could not settle in the Ohio Valley. From the British point of view, this made sense; Americans crossing the Appalachians provoked conflicts with the Native Americans of the Ohio Valley. For Americans, though, this “Proclamation of 1763” led them to question why they had bothered to fight a war to keep the French out in the first place.

By 1775, these arguments had led the English and Americans to the edge of war. For Americans, the prospect of war with Britain was daunting, and the arrival of British troops to the colonies invoked fear. As these Redcoats marched through the streets of Boston singing “Yankee Doodle,” they voiced the same old contempt for America’s fighting men. They even added some new lines to make the song more current:

“Yankee Doodle came to town,
For to buy a firelock;
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock.”

But by now, Americans had developed a different sense of themselves—being an “American” was nothing to be ashamed of. These “Yankee doodles” embraced the song and made it their own. Of course, they changed many of the lyrics, but what’s interesting is that even in these new lyrics they poked fun at themselves. Rather than retaliate by directing abuse at the British, they continued to mock their own simplicity.

The most popular of these wartime lyrics told the story of a farmer and his son as they visited the camp of the Continental Army. Like typical Yankee doodles, they were both impressed and confused by what they saw. Drums were called barrels, sashes were labeled ribbons, and latrines were mistaken for graves. Even General Washington, usually off-limits for these sorts of satires, got ribbed:

“And there was Captain Washington,
With gentle folks about him,
They say he's gown so 'tarnal proud
He will not ride without them.”

Yet apparently, this self-ridicule did the trick. The song forged a bond between American soldiers and even inspired them at times. Perhaps as important, the song drove the British crazy. After they were forced to surrender at the tide-turning battle of Saratoga, British soldiers were taunted with a performance of “Yankee Doodle.” “It was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune,” wrote one British officer, “when their army marched down to our surrender." And after the final battle at Yorktown, the conquering American army poured a little musical salt in British wounds with another rousing chorus. According to one observer, the assembled British troops were so infuriated by the song, they “broke their arms in a rage.”

The British band responded to the American song by playing one of their own, “The World Turned Upside Down.” The title aptly expressed their shock at being defeated by the ragtag American army. But the song also summarized a smaller piece of history: the Yankee doodles mocked in song by British soldiers just a short time ago, had managed to turn the tables and enjoy the last laugh. Today, most Americans don’t realize that the song was initially meant to belittle their colonial forebears, but they’re well aware of its significance as a proud part of Revolutionary history.
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