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INDEPENDENCE RESTRAINED: BRITISH-AMERICAN RELATIONS, 1776 — 1865
The surrender by General Charles Cornwallis of 8,000 British soldiers and seamen to a mixed French and American force at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781, brought the American Revolution to a close. Throughout the six years of war, the British had kept Canada loyal, maintained maritime control, held New York, and enjoyed some military success in the middle and southern colonies, but they had not quelled the Patriots’ appetite for independence or the determination of Washington’s army to continue the fight. The sheer width of the Atlantic, the shortcomings of the British political and military command, and the rebels’ alliance with France and Spain ultimately gave the advantage to the Americans. Yorktown was for Great Britain a disaster and humiliation. As British and Hessian troops marchedout to the surrender ceremony, where Cornwallis’s sword was delivered to the Patriot commander, British musicians played the song ‘The World Turned Upside Down.’Four months later the House of Commons formally recognized this reality by renouncing all further attempts to subjugate the thirteen colonies.
The organizers of this conference have asked me to speak on the British response to the loss of these North American colonies and on the subsequent development of the Anglo-American relationship up to and including the Civil War. When the opposing parties met to negotiate what would become the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, British grief and bitterness had beensomewhat tempered by the calculation that a basis for Anglo-American cooperation continued to exist. The new Whig administration was led by those who had to varying degrees opposed the war and now looked for a continuing relationship based on common interests. Even George III declared that, he hoped, ‘Religion, language, interests and affection, may ... yet prove a bond of permanent union between the two countries.’ The peace, signed in Paris in September, recognized the former colonies to be ‘free sovereign and Independent States.’ Other articles of the Treaty dealt with the Canadian-US boundaries; fisheries; the payment of debts to British merchants; Loyalists’ property and status; the withdrawal of British forces; and navigation on the Mississippi. A marked omission was a wider agreement on trade and a negotiated commercial treaty. The commissioners who did the negotiating parted on terms of relative cordiality, dining together when the work was done. Although they had accomplished a lot, fulfilling the Treaty’s terms would require a swift political rapprochement and the constructive engagement of the parties on both sides — unlikely, given the deep mutual suspicions of two significant constituencies: British Tories and ardently Anglophobic American republicans.
How these issues were resolved over the short and medium term is too big a story for a modest paper. But there is time,first, to highlight the ‘postcolonial’contextwithin which the relationship between Britain and the new nation developed; secondly, to take noteof three indicative episodes –from the presidencies of James Madison, James Monroe, and Abraham Lincoln–that reveal something of the colour of that relationship; and finally, to argue that notwithstanding a geopolitical framework largely shaped by British economic and naval power the United States came to exert considerable cultural influence over their former mother country.
The new American republic struggledfor many decades to free itself fully from the shackles of the British Empire. A century on from 1783, the historian Henry Cabot Lodge considered it a truism that Americans had been ‘striving ever since to make ... independence real and complete’ and that the task was ‘not yet entirely finished.’ The historian Jay Sexton — one of several whose work has emphasized Britain’s persisting role in the republic’s economy, statecraft, and culture during its ‘postcolonial’ period –notes the catalogue of subsequent American declarations of independence, including Noah Webster’s call for linguistic independence; the‘second war for independence’ in 1812; the ‘diplomatic declaration of independence’ asserted in 1823 through the Monroe Doctrine; the landscape painter Thomas Cole’s assertion of artistic independence in 1836; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s proclamation of intellectual independence in 1837; and J.S. Morgan’s call for financial independence in 1857.
Throughout these years, between 1776 and the American Civil War, the British Empire continued to grow in strength and dynamism, consolidating its hold on India, invigorating its settler colonies in Australia and Canada with more people and resources, and establishing a strategic web of way stations and markets that embraced, inter alia, East Asia, Singapore, the African Cape, the Caribbean, and Latin America. The key components of British colonial rule, whether formally or informally exercised, were commercial and financial power, and naval supremacy. Collectively these elements constrained the young republic’s pursuit of a fully realized independence and international equality.
British commercial power reasserted itself swiftly. Already by 1784 British merchants were involved in exporting a higher value of goods to the former American colonies than before the war, and American exports to Britain, too, also increased. In 1801 one third of American exports and imports involved trade to and from Britain. Following the Napoleonic warstrade in both directions reached unprecedented levels. ‘On average in the years 1815 — 1861, the United States shipped half its exports to Britain, while receiving 40 percent of its imports from its former colonial master.’Here was as an integrated Atlantic economy, in which the Americans played the junior role, providing raw materials and agricultural goods for Britain, while the industrializing British economy enjoyed the advantage of a growing market for its finished goods.
British financiers, too, soon re-established their position as the key source of capital for the American economy. London banks kept interest rates low in a republic desperate for foreign capital. By mid-century, Baring Brothers and other houses were specializing in short and long-term credit to meet the developmental needs of a growing, westward-moving people, notably the expanding network of canals and railroads. At that time ‘nearly half of the United States’ national debt was held abroad, chiefly in Britain.’ Baring Brothers’ loans made possible the great territorial acquisitions that more than doubled the size of the country: the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the compensation to Mexico in 1848 for lands seized in the recent war.There were no American securities quoted on the London Stock Exchange in 1800, but nine billion dollars’ worth a century later. Only during the last quarter of the century were there signs of a changing relationship and America’s imminent emergence as a creditor nation.
The vigour and expansiveness of British trade and economic activity depended on its control of the seas. The global pre-eminence of Britain’s navy and the relative weakness of the Americans’ maritime strength are starkly evident in the two nations’ respective expenditure on naval defence. In 1821 the United States government spent $3m on her navy, the British almost ten times that sum. Twenty years later, the disparity had narrowed proportionately but had grown in absolute terms (the Americans’ $6m to Britain’s $34m). Calculations based on population size are almost as stark: on average throughout the nineteenth century,naval expenditure per capita in Britain was four or five times that of the United States. From this position of overwhelming strength at sea, Britain had the capacity to close off the American economy, as the republic discovered in the prologue to the War of 1812.
James Madison and the War of 1812
The embroilment of James Madison’s administration in the Napoleonic turmoil that consumed Europe offers one — albeit the most dramatic — example of the constraints on the new nation’s independence. With both France and Britain each determined that the other should not benefit from neutral commerce, first Jefferson’s administration and then Madison’s chose to use American trade to retaliate against the belligerents’ decrees that threatened it. Believing that Europeans depended vitally on the republic’s raw materials and food, Jefferson in 1807 imposed a complete and ill-fated embargo on United States’ external trade.Its economic consequences for the country and political injury to the Republican party prompted the embargo’s repeal and replacement with a more limited policy of commercial non-intercourse with the warring parties alone. By the time Madison took office in 1809 that policy too was failing, and it was subsequently ended. However, when Napoleon appeared to suggest that he might exempt the United States from his decrees, the president re-imposed non-intercourse with Britain alone.
By the winter of 1811-12 America’s weakness was manifest. Four years of commercial warfare had failed. British officials in Canada were encouraging Native American hostilities in the northwest. The boundary between the two countries remained unsettled, and American nationalists in the western states had an appetite for the conquest of Canada. Beyond this, according to the most recent historian of the brewing conflict, there were multiple grievances over British brutality: the impressment and whipping of supposed British sailors seized from American ships and the savage mutilation of American citizens by the tomahawks of Britain’s Indian allies. Flogging and scalping challenged American sovereignty, and exposed the contentious boundary between the king’s subject and the republic’s citizen. In the republic, an immigrant chose citizenship – in stark contrast to a British subject, whose status remained defined by birth. In June 1812 the Republican party used its majority in Congress to pass a declaration of war – a measure of desperation, given that the republic had a crippled treasury, a meagre fleet of fourteen warships, and an army of just 7,000 troops.
A focus on the region that suffered the greatest fighting — Lakes Erie and Ontario and their connecting river systems — reveals a new nation made vulnerable through its military limitations and porous frontier with the British Empire. Formal independence had not resolved the plural identities on each side of the indeterminate border. During the precarious years after 1783, ‘the republic and the empire competed for the allegiance of the peoples in North America — native, settler, and immigrant.’ The war of 1812 revealedthese contested understandings of what it was to be an American or Briton (or British-Canadian). Optimists on both sides regarded that border as temporary. The 70,000 Canadian Loyalists believed their political stability and commercial prospects would draw the American rebels back into the empire and end a foolish republican experiment. Americans believed that a tiny imperial outpost would inevitably come to seek protective incorporation within the United States.
The Americans’ experience under the BritishEmpire had led to fear of centralized power. The duty of government was, with a light hand, to protect individual freedom, property, and social opportunity for white men. ‘Ours is a government of opinion, not of force,’ declared a New Hampshire Congressman: in Britain ‘more power is concentrated in less compass then ever happened to any other nation on earth.’ Yet a conflict that began with American overtures of friendship to the people of Upper Canada soon collapsed into horror, hardship, andmutual bitterness. Michigan governor William Hull’s bungled campaign to protect Detroit degenerated into plunder and looting. Atrocities by Indians followed. The British forces’ destruction of Niagara Valley villages shocked Americans into savage retaliation. Unscrupulous Kentucky riflemen ransacked and burned the pacifist Indian mission at Moraviantown. Consequently, ‘the war hardened bitter feelings along national lines, which gave greater meaning and power to that boundary.’ A new British-Canadian ‘nationality’ was born amongst settlers of previously doubtful loyalty to the empire.
The war also exposed the Americans’ weakness when denied access to British finance.Without a national bank, Madison’s administration tried to conduct the war on principles of republican economy, aware that they governed a fragile nation averse to the taxes required to build an adequate army and navy. But the alternative — dependence on big domestic financiers — proved strategically costly. Instead of contesting the St Lawrence River and choking the line of supplies to British forces upstream, the Americans concentrated their efforts on Niagara and Detroit, where the war could never be won. This they did to appease David Parish, a German capitalist who loaned millions of dollars to the administration. Madison kept US troops away from Ogdensburg, New York, where Parish owned 200.000 acres and where Canadians erected a border sign for American eyes: ‘If you don’t scratch, I won’t bite.’ The voices of powerful western New York Republicans only encouraged this flawed over-focus on the Niagara front. By contrast, the Federalists who dominated northern New York helped keep troops out of St Lawrence County. Here the smuggling of cattle, pork, and grain from American farms did much to sustain the British army, whose numbers (14,000 by 1814) came to exceed Upper Canada’s agricultural capacity. ‘The porous northern border,’ Taylor concludes, ‘became a debilitating open sore for the US.’ In the face of British regulars, their flanks guarded by Indian guerrilla fighters, the Americans suffered regular defeats in the Lakes region. Stalemate worked to the advantage of the empire, which needed only to defend itself.
Equally, however, the war’s stalemate served to cement American independence. Although the peace treaty of Ghent, signed in December 1814, settled none of the disputes about which fighting had begunit also established Britain’s acceptance of the United States’ permanence and the opportunity — energetically seized — for Americans to dispossess the Indians, now lacking an external ally. During the war a British spy had sneered, ‘Seventeen staves and no hoopwill not make a barrel that can last long.’ The Union proved far more durable than he had expected, even if the question of internal unity would remain a material issue until itsfinal resolution in 1865.
The Monroe Doctrine
Let me turn next to James Monroe’s annual message to the joint session of Congress in December 1823. The president’s three prosaic paragraphs on foreign affairs set out what would later be celebrated as the guiding credo of American foreign policy: namely the Monroe Doctrine, embracing the principles of republicanism, anti-colonialism and non-intervention. On one reading, commonly repeated by nationalists and historians, the message was the United States’ ‘diplomatic declaration of independence’, made possible by the new mood of confidence following the War of 1812.
Monroe’s formulation was the product of a foreign policy crisis prompted by French intervention in Spain in April 1823. Acting on behalf of the Holy Alliance, France suppressed the forces of constitutional reform and licensed a return to absolutism under Ferdinand VII. The implications for Spain’s American colonies, the scenes of serious rebellions and revolutions during and after the Napoleonic wars, were alarming: was this the prelude to intervention in Latin America by the Old World’s confederation of reactionary monarchies? That prospect was as unsettling for the British as for the Americans. Concerned for the future of their commercial activity should the Holy Allies cut off thesepotential new markets, the British foreign secretary George Canning proposed to Richard Rush, the American minister to London, that their two countries should jointly warn the reactionary Allies to keep their hands off Spanish America: ‘why should we hesitate mutually to confide them [the convergence of interests]; and to declare them in the face of the world?’ The proposal divided the Monroe cabinet. The president himself was minded to cooperate, encouraged by the advice of both Madison and Jefferson, who saw no necessary conflict between the principles of non-entanglement in ‘the broils of Europe’ and ‘most sedulously’ cherishing ‘a cordial friendship’ with ‘the nation which can do us the most harm of anyone, or all on earth.’
However, the refusal of Britain immediately to recognise the Latin American states, and the determination of the American secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, not to trust Canning’s motives, led to Monroe’s unilateral pronouncement in December. The president articulated a broad conception of national security, based on the principle that ‘the Americans continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for colonization by any European powers.’Any attempt by those powers ‘to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere’ would be ‘dangerous to our peace and safety.’ The confidence of the president’s declaration encouraged such a positive view of American sovereignty and national authority that in later years Henry Cabot Lodge would assert, ‘The Monroe Doctrine bore witness to the strong foreign policy of an independent people.’
That assessment, as Jay Sexton’s recent study forcefully argues, misses the depth of American anxiety and caution in the face of international realities; it glides over the reality of the United States’ fundamental reliance on British power to secure what they wanted. Part of the purpose of Monroe’s message was to encourage the British into a similar declaration: he knew that his country would be largely powerless if the Holy Alliance had chosen to intervene in Latin America. The essential truth was that enforcing non-colonization on the European powers depended on Britain’s naval might. Moreover, the immediate threat of such intervention had already been removed by the time Monroe spoke in December. Two months earlier Canning had secured from the French ambassador, in the Polignac Memorandum, a decisive pledge that his country would not intervene in Spanish America. Its principles foreshadowed those laid out by Monroe. (Canning himself would boast in 1826 the it was he who had ‘called into existence the New World.’) On such grounds, the London Economist asserted that ‘the Monroe doctrine might quite as fairly be called the Canning doctrine,’ and the Times welcomed it for setting out ‘a policy so directly British.’ By its means the British could take even better advantage than the United States of commercial and diplomatic opportunities of Latin America. And while the picture is one of broadly collaborative competition between the two nations during the rest of the century, it was the British who were the senior partner. ‘Without the drafts provided by the South American branches of London’s Baring Brothers bank, American diplomats and traders would not have been able to do business in the region.’ American independence continued to function within limits shaped by the British.
The Trent Crisis, 1861
The power of British finance also lies at the heart of my third illustrative episode: the dangerous diplomatic crisis that Lincoln’s administration faced early in the Civil War over the Trent affair.
From the outset of the conflict, the president and his cabinet deemed it imperative that none of the great European powers should throw its resources behind the South. The world must be made to understand that the Union was involved in putting down an internal insurrection, accept that the Confederate 'government' was illegitimate, offer the rebels no material or moral support, and respect the Federal blockade of southern ports. The administration was shocked when, within weeks of the onset ofhostilities, the British government of Lord Palmerston issued a proclamation of neutrality, recognising the Confederates as belligerents. Secretary of state Henry Seward raged and swore at what he saw as overt encouragement of the rebels, but for the British this was no more than a conventional response in time of war, falling well short of diplomatic recognition.
Simmering resentment marked relations between thetwo countries over the next six months, and then boiled over into a scalding diplomatic crisis in December 1861, when the Union navy seized from a British mail packet, the Trent, two Confederate commissioners bound for diplomatic service in Europe. This prompted wild, patriotic rejoicing in the United States and white-hot indignation in Britain. Generally regarded as an ocean bully, long disdainful of neutral rights, Britain now found herself in the unaccustomed role of victim. The technicalities of Captain Charles Wilkes's action in removing the Confederates James M. Mason and John Slidell from the Trent were not clear cut, but the legal advantage lay with the British: by removing the commissioners in a search-and-seize operation, without taking the vessel to a prize court for adjudication, the Americans were in breach of international law. As much as points of law, however, it was the affront to the Union Jack and injured pridethat moved Palmerston and his foreign secretary, Earl Russell, to rattle their sabres. The prime minister told an emergency cabinet meeting, ‘I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do!’ British strategists prepared for war by planning the defence of Canada and a blockade of the northern states.
Accounts of how the Trent crisis was resolved largely focus on the rational calculation by each governments of its national advantage. It was in the strategic interests of neither to be swept into war. Lincoln himself was a restraining influence, determined that he would not have 'two wars on his hands at a time.' He readily listened and deferred to those from whom he could learn, notably Charles Sumner — whose friendship with the English Liberal reformers, John Bright and Richard Cobden, made the senator a barometer of British opinion — and Seward, who well knew when and when not to be bellicose, and who enjoyed good personal relations with the British minister in Washington, Lord Lyons.
What, however, are often overlooked in accounts of the peaceful resolution of the affair are the financial dimensions of the crisis and the enormous power that this gave the British. When news of the incident reached London, the price of US bonds fell by ten percent; in Frankfurt it rendered American stock ‘entirely unsaleable.’ British demands for a formal apology and the release of Mason and Slidell caused a stock market panic and a run on the New York banks. The consequent depletion of their gold reserves left the banksreneging on their pledge to advance the US Treasury the next instalment of an essential first national loan, which the secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase, had insisted be paid in gold. Chase lamented that war with Britain would hasten ‘a financial, as well as a diplomatic and military, disaster.’Rothschilds, the London bankers, told their American counterparts that ‘every support will be given to our Ministers, if you force us into it.’When the cabinet met on Christmas Day to agree its response to Britain’s demands, financial concerns acted as an incentive quite as much as issues of international law and neutral shipping rights. The Attorney General Edward Bates recorded his thoughts in his diary: ‘war with England is to abandon all hope of suppressing the rebellion … our trade would be utterly ruined and our treasury bankrupt.’ As a result, on 26 December the reconvened cabinet swallowed the bitter pill and agreed to surrender the Confederate prisoners. The next day Seward informed Lyons that the United States – delighted that Britain now embraced the freedom of the seas and respect for the rights of neutrals – would free the captives and make reparation for Wilkes's illegal act, but would offer no apology for a deed not authorised by the administration.
Soft power: the United States as the republican example
For several decades after American independence, then, the material and military might of the British Empirerestrained the United States’ independent action. But the young nation found compensation for this deficit in its ‘hard power’ through the influence it exerted abroad as a model of liberty and representative government. Declarations of human equality and associated democratic mobilisation – through mass political parties and the steady rhythm of elections – provided a unique model for the liberal critics of Europe’s ancien regime; so too did the freedom of religion and conscience signalled by the unique experiment in the separation of church and state. This ‘soft power’ of republican example worked to inspire democratic and radical forces abroad, attract millions of immigrants from western and central Europe, and set the agenda for ‘modernity’: the entwined processes of economic development and self-improvement, commitment to the dignity of labour, the assault on ancestral privilege, and the widening of life-chances as individuals freed themselves from hierarchies of ascribed status.
Abraham Lincoln’s and his fellow countrymen’s determined Unionism was a steely recognition of the moral purpose and power of their nation. Sharing Henry Clay’s view that the Union was 'the world's best hope', Lincoln viewed the European nationalist and revolutionary movements of the mid-nineteenth century – notably in Hungary, Ireland, Germany, and France – as part of 'the general cause of Republican liberty'. When during the war he declared, ‘The struggle of today, is not altogether for today — it is for a vast future also’, he was expressing his faith that the American conflict constituted something larger than simply an American crisis. He knew that progressive forces throughout the world looked to the United States as an unequalled exemplar of liberty; that the nation’s mission was to act as the improver of humankind.
European liberals, republicans and nationalists lauded Lincoln’s wartime administration, convinced of America’s world-wide significance. Joseph Mazzini, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin and Karl Blind, radical exiles from failed assaults on the political establishments of Italy, France and Germany, wrote to Lincoln from London: ‘As republicans, we have felt too well that the rending asunder of your great Republic would furnish arms to all the despotisms of Europe …. There was a bond of unity between you and us from the beginning of this struggle. In serving the cause of liberty, your cause — we are serving our own.’ From Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi wrote to the president after the Federals’ battlefield triumphs of July 1863. ‘America, teacher of liberty to our Fathers, now opens the most solemn Era of human progress,’ he rejoiced, ‘and whilst she amazes the world by her gigantic boldness, makes us sadly reflect that this old Europe albeit agitated by the grand cause of freedom, does not understand, nor move forward to become equal to her.’
Foreign enlistments provided a practical expression of the Union’s soft power. Possibly a third of Union recruits were not native-born. Many who served in ethnic regiments — German, Irish, Hungarian, and French — were volunteers from abroad in a cause of global significance. Take the case of a young English lad, Thomas Wolfe of Brinklow, Warwickshire, who made his way to North America, fought at Gettysburg, was captured, imprisoned and paroled, and then returned to the front to fight with Grant in the Wilderness campaign. ‘I am not affraid to die,’ he wrote to his father. ‘I know it is gods will if I should fall under that starry banner which is liberty and freedom.’ Taken prisoner in Richmond, he suffered dire privation. His distraught father wrote to Lincoln, enclosing his son’s loyal correspondence, and pleading for the president to intercede for a lad who had ‘volunteerd through principal … to fight for liberty and freedom.’ For Wolfe, as for thousands of others, the American Union really was‘the last best hope of earth.’
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American Anglophobia persisted throughout the nineteenth century, not least amongst Irish Americans. Equally, anti-Americanism never lost its purchase on British Tories. The two nations’ financial closeness meant that financial crises occasioned periodic discord, as did the issue of free trade. But these episodes were increasingly in the minor key. Despite the mass immigration from southern and eastern Europe after 1880, those of British stock in the US remained a majority. A sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority — and related duty — intensified as racial theories achieved ‘scientific’ respectability. ‘God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing’, Senator Albert J. Beveridge declared at the dawn of the new century. ‘No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns [and] … administer government among savage and senile peoples.’
What also prompted a more equal international relationship was the changing balance of power. Britain’s industrial might, naval supremacy, colonial empire and geopolitical power swelled throughout the nineteenth century, but America’s relative standing also increased, as she colonized her dramatically expanding terrain, became a Pacific as well as an Atlantic power, and exploited her unsurpassed natural resources on behalf of a people that grew from five to seventy-five million. While Britain had twice the US population in 1800, a century later the positions were reversed. By then, too, America had established her economic and industrial primacy. When the two powers encountered one another in East Asia, for example, they discovered that, relative to their relations with other powers, they had many common interests and objectives.
These changed realities — surging American power and transatlantic rapprochement — prompted some remarkable proposals by the 1890s. The American naval Albert Mahan wrote on the ‘possibilities of an Anglo-American reunion’. The British jurist A V. Dicey even called for a common citizenship. Although these ideas came to nought, relations between the two nations had travelled a very long way since 1783.