The Magazine

Isn't That Special?

Anglo-American relations are more complicated than you think.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
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Unlikely Allies

Britain, America and the Victorian Beginnings of the Special Relationship

by Duncan Andrew Campbell

Hambledon & London,

307 pp., $31.95

How deep are the historical roots of the Special Relationship? Is it simply a marriage of convenience that has managed to last for most of the past century because the dangers that have brought the United States and Great Britain together have tended to be more perilous than the factors that divide them? Or is there something about the linguistic, democratic, jurisprudential and historical ties that mean that there is something more than mere long-term self-interest? With the United States and Great Britain, as well as Anglosphere countries such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand presently bearing the Western brunt of the war against terror, these questions deserve a carefully considered answer.

In this engaging and well-researched book, Duncan Andrew Campbell, an academic from the University of Wales currently working in Washington, seeks antecedents for the Special Relationship far back into the 19th century; despite its subtitle he goes beyond Queen Victoria's birth, back as far as the Treaty of Ghent (1815). He finds much culturally, economically, and diplomatically to suggest that the English-speaking peoples should date their friendship back to those early days before the American Civil War. The book is revisionist, well-written, and satisfyingly short. Sadly, though, its thesis is wrong.

For all that Queen Victoria herself might have been pro-American--welcoming the transatlantic telegraph, opposing slavery, writing sorrowfully as a fellow-widow to Mary Todd Lincoln, sending books to stock the Chicago public library after the 1871 fire, and so on--her ministers watched the United States with profound imperial suspicion. Be it Canadian border disputes, Newfoundland fishery incidents, the kidnapping of Confederate diplomats from the British mail packet Trent, the threat of "Yankee Democracy," naval rivalry in the Pacific, or any number of other issues, the only special relationship between London and Washington for most of the 19th century was one of mutual irritation.

The burning of the Capitol, White House, and Treasury buildings in Washington by Admiral Sir George Cockburn in 1814 had been a direct consequence of the American burning of York (present-day Toronto) and Newark, although apparently it is a myth that the British soldiery voted to set aflame "this hive of Yankee democracy" and quite untrue that the White House was only painted white over its original pink in order to mask the unsightly marks of arson. When Cockburn burned down the offices of the National Intelligencer, which had libeled him, Campbell wittily observes that it made him "one of the few individuals to get satisfaction at the expense of the American press." Cockburn, whom Campbell describes as "the most unwelcome visitor ever to dine at the White House," later had the further satisfaction of conveying Napoleon to St. Helena.

After the Battle of New Orleans in 1815--in which a mere 291 Britons died--bloodletting between the English-speaking peoples ended forever. "The War of 1812 was an avoidable conflict," believes Campbell, "that was in the interests of neither Britain nor the U.S. and one in which neither side held the moral high ground."

War after 1815 was unthinkable, largely because it would have been a conflict between the whale and the wolf. The American wolf would have fallen upon practically defenseless Canada, snatching a vast and vital part of the British Empire. Meanwhile, the British whale, in the shape of the Royal Navy, which was far larger than the U.S. Navy for most of this period, would have sailed up the Hudson River and shelled Manhattan. Mutually assured destruction worked in our ancestors' day just as surely as in ours. Yet there were unpleasant moments, especially over the Trent Affair during the Civil War, defused in part by Prince Albert just before he expired.

The moment that the fear of a Wolf-versus-Whale conflict was greatest, however--during the Venezuelan Crisis of 1896--is written off by Campbell entirely: "Although it is sometimes cited as the last time Britain and the United States nearly went to war," the author opines, "there is not much substance to the claim. .  .  . It lasted about three days in the United States." In fact, it went on for over four months, and on December 17, 1895, President Cleveland told Congress that it was "the duty of the United States to resist by any means in its power .  .  . the appropriation by Great Britain of any lands .  .  . which after investigation we have determined of right belong to Venezuela." The Senate chamber rang with applause, and he won unanimous support for a purely American commission to investigate Venezuela's claims. He had sounded, as the British ambassador to Washington, Lord Pauncefote, reported to the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, "the note of war." It was a note supported by over 40 state governors.

The German and French press joined the American in paroxysms of excitement about Britain's international isolation and her inevitable humiliation. Canada looked to her military preparedness in the event of war with America. The excitable American yellow press called for war with Britain, as did ex-President Harrison. The Irish Nationalist MP John Redmond even wrote to the New York World to say that Irish sentiment would be supporting America in the coming conflict. "A war with America--not this year but in the not distant future--has become something more than a possibility," Salisbury wrote to the chancellor of the exchequer, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, on January 2, 1896, denouncing "Cleveland's electioneering dodge."

As a result of the Venezuelan war scare, but also British support for America in the Spanish American War (whereas most of Europe supported Spain), Theodore Roosevelt's Anglophilia (despite boasting he had not a drop of English blood), and the McKinley administration's support for Britain in the Boer War (in contrast with much of the American population), on November 18, 1901, Lord Pauncefote and Secretary of State John Hay signed the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, which was the founding document of the Special Relationship.

Covering the isthmian canal due to be excavated in Latin America, the Treaty inaugurated a number of vital Anglo-American agreements over the next decade, covering such issues as the Alaskan and British Columbian border, Newfoundland fisheries, and Jamaica. Although the United States was to keep its plans to invade Canada up to date until the 1920s, the Special Relationship was firmly in place. Yet the estimable Pauncefote is only mentioned once in this book, and then in a footnote, misspelled.

Campbell is far better at spotting the inherent suspicion that many Europeans have always felt about Anglo-American kinship and unity, and still do. The farseeing British journalist W.T. Stead reported, long before the Great War, that Kaiser Wilhelm II "foresees the necessity of forming a European Customs Union against the United States on similar lines to the Continental blockade devised by Napoleon against England, in order to safeguard the interests and assure the freedom of Continental commerce at the expense of America's development."

Stead saw how German, Austrian, Italian, and Belgian intellectuals' opposition to Anglo-American amity meant that in order to "defend themselves against the USA, these thinkers advocate the creation of what would be the United States of Europe." Considering that Stead predicted all this in a book entitled The Americanization of the World: Or the Trend of the Twentieth Century that was published as long ago as 1902, it is all the more tragic that he should have drowned on the Titanic 10 years later, before he was able to see his prophecies come true. For although Bismarck stated that the most important factor of the 19th century was that Great Britain and the United States both spoke the same tongue, how much more important was it for the survival of freedom in the 20th?

Campbell is also good on the symbiotic politico-social networks that were built up during the era: There were no fewer than four senior late-Victorian British cabinet ministers--Sir William Harcourt, James Bryce, Lord Randolph Churchill and Joseph Chamberlain--who were married to Americans, for example. There are also several excellent vignettes, especially about writers such as Henry James, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, and especially Charles Dickens, who repaid the adoration and hospitality he received in Boston in 1842 with his rabidly anti-Yankee American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, and eventually also with support for the Confederacy. Campbell also thinks pleasingly laterally, connecting, for example, the secession of Texas from Mexico in 1836 to the almost-contemporaneous rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada.

Yet on his central thesis, that the Special Relationship has deep roots in the Victorian era, Campbell is plain wrong. The two countries were conscious rivals until the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, which was not signed until after the queen-empress's death. Of course, this should not put anyone off reading such an entertaining, thought-provoking, and fluent work, especially in the 150th anniversary of the laying of the transatlantic cable, which Queen Victoria told James Buchanan that she hoped would "prove an additional link between the nations whose friendship is founded on their common interest and reciprocal esteem."

Although the cable broke down the very next month, the common interests and reciprocal esteem are still in good repair today.

Andrew Roberts is the author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900.