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.