Three Historians on US-UK rapprochement at the turn of the 20th Century

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

The history of relations between the US and Great Britain/Canada during the 19th century is complex and fascinating. It is also the subject of a very large body of historical research. In this post, I’d like to briefly introduce three titles that cover portions of the period in slightly different ways.

Kenneth Bourne’s Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908 (1967) will appeal to anyone who has an amateur or professional interest in military affairs. Bourne draws on the work of Canadian historian CP Stacey (Canada and the British Army [1963]) and matches it with confidential memos from the UK Public Record Office in London. The result is a fascinating insight into how politicians, generals and admirals and military staff responded bureaucratically to the changes in North American geopolitics during the 19th century. For much of the 19th century and early 20th century, the British Army saw their role as making the invasion of Canada expensive enough to avoid incidental American aggression and sufficient enough to allow honour to be served before an inevitable diplomatic agreement. American expansion through the middle of the 19th century rapidly confirmed that a Canadian invasion of the United States was unimaginable.

The Royal Navy however, after a bad scare during the Civil War when the US east coast was fully fortified and the size of the US Navy expanded, was content to avoid getting entangled in American activities and to maintain blue-water superiority. The Royal Navy had far-flung obligations around the world and it was enough that the Atlantic fleet maintain a Great Power status quo. Disdainful indifference was the watchword. Toward the end of the century however, especially in the final decade, the Admiralty prevaricated with its own political masters in responding to requests for strategic plans for dealing with the Americans. By 1890, it was clear to the admirals that the Royal Navy could not sustain anything but a defensive stance against the US Navy in the Atlantic and that the Caribbean was rapidly on its way to becoming an American lake. During the 1896 confrontation with the US over the Venezuelan boundary, a request to the Admiralty for British naval reinforcements in the Caribbean was greeted with the frosty response: “[t]his contingency would produce entirely exceptional conditions for which no provision can be made even approximately beforehand.”

By 1900, the rapid expansion of the US battleship fleet made the effective defense of the imperial citadels at Halifax and Bermuda impossible and the Royal Navy was regarding Army plans for the defence of Canada with exasperation. For Bourne, “the significant fact of the decade [1900-1910] was that in it sentiment and realism made a marriage of convenience.” Rapprochement was a clear-eyed power calculation made palatable by the death of an earlier generation of British diplomats and by the post facto rationalizations in public.

Charles Campbell’s From Revolution to Rapprochement: The Unites States and Great Britain: 1783-1900 (1974) captures the diplomatic efforts made during the period from the War of Independence to the Boer War. With emphasis understandable from a historian of diplomacy, he tends to place more credit in the hands of diplomats for the long, uneven, but persistent improvement in relations between America and Great Britain. Campbell would have us focus on the exceptional nature of the relations between Great Britain and the United States when compared with any other two Great Power parties of the 19th century. Not only did the governments manage to come up with workable solutions to their differences but even the conflicts and gunplay between citizens of the two nations did not trigger escalation into war. Campbell emphasizes that the absence of war isn’t enough for amity. There must be other incentives, and he notes common heritage – language, culture, political institutions, tradition of common law – as the basis over the long term for improving relations. This pervasive connection was then buttressed by a massively expanded connection between the US and Great Britain in trade and financial commitments, scaled to a point of real significance for both parties and notable in contrast even with continental and imperial trade.

By century’s end, Great Britain was aware of its declining power in relation to Russia, Japan, Germany and France. America’s rapid rise in industrialization and new global interests did not conflict directly with those of Great Britain though they didn’t necessarily complement them either. The widening of the franchise in Great Britain in the late 19th century, and the evident stability and growing maturity of the institutions of government in the United States were the basis for greater feelings of harmony between the two peoples. The first generations of Irish who manned the Fenians and Hunters were now passed on. By 1895, the interaction of the upper classes in Great Britain and the United States was such that significant numbers of the British power structure were wed to American heiresses.

According to Charles Campbell, “[b]y 1890s, Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent stood dominant, quite unchallenged in almost all walks of national life. These Americans and most Britons were extremely race conscious, proud of being Anglo-Saxon.” This “accounted for most of the feeling of horror at the prospect of a fratricidal war during the war scare of 1895, and for much of Britain’s sympathy for America against Spain in 1898.” There was such a thing as “[p]atriotism of race as well as of country”.

A third perspective is offered by A.E. Campbell in his 1960 Great Britain and the United States: 1895-1903. Campbell looks at the public atmosphere surrounding the dramatic shift in relations between the Spanish-American War and the end of the Boer War. In contrast to other writers, AE Campbell believes that there was a strong element of irrationality or mythmaking in the acquiescence of Britain to American actions during this period. Rather than myth hardening public opinions and leading to conflict, however, in this case it led to less conflict … a sequence of events which couldn’t have been expected a generation earlier and which (post facto) has required much uncomfortable accommodation. Campbell suggests that a temporary enthusiasm for international Darwinism and the concept of an Anglo-Saxon race gave the British commentariat a fig leaf which they could cast over a change in power relations that was fait d’accompli in less than a decade.

At every turn, despite its best interests, or that of Canada, Britain seemed to relent and accept American demands. To a degree unseen in dealing with other Powers, Britain was willing to yield. Campbell sees this response as partly a matter of power politics. Britain pre-1890 had virtually no leverage or means to threaten America without harming itself. At that point, America’s isolation was exactly its strength in dealing with Great Britain. Campbell sees the conceptualization of this political reality in Great Britain as filled with delusion. American naivety was not seen as intrinsically anti-British, though to all practical purposes it was. But having cast Americans as obstreperous but well-meaning dolts, the British saw little purpose to creating catastrophic conflicts over relatively trivial portions of imperial power. As Britain saw itself increasingly besieged by Others (Continental, Slavic, and Oriental powers), it became all to easy to see the withdrawal of British power from North America as an act of shared cultural progress rather than a shift in the global balance of power.

Considering the three books in 2006

From the perspective of 2006, and an amateur reader, each of these titles must be viewed with qualification. No doubt much new information is available about military and strategic planning by Great Britain and the US. Bourne was not able to gain access to many US government documents in the early ’60s. C. Campbell’s paean to diplomacy will no doubt be overtaken by more recent trends in history which show more enthusiasm for identifying villains and less interest in praising productive diplomacy. And AE Campbell’s proposition about racial mythmaking could hardly be applied in modern history without all kinds of finger-pointing and back-filling. The idea that social darwinism could be intellectually respectable in times past, and have politically or morally positive outcomes in the current day would be a bit more than most modern scholars could swallow.

Accepting that these three books would be moderated by modern scholarship, there is still a great deal to learn from them for Anglosphere readers. People interested in the subject need to familiarize themselves with the various crises between the US and GB during the 19th century. Above all, they need to be aware that for most of that time, Great Britain was the only Great Power with which America had any serious conflict. Quite obviously, this was not the case for Great Britain, which after the Napoleonic War was to attempt a Splendid Isolation from Continental entanglements. As the map of the world filled in with the pastel colours of European fiefdoms, it became harder and harder for Great Britain to avoid confronting other nations. Toward the end of the 19th century, then, Russia, France, Germany, and Japan became serious competitors across the globe and Great Britain was no longer able to pick its friends and enemies with dispassion.

Back in North America, from the war of 1812 onward (itself encouraged by British distraction in European war), Great Britain and the United States had an ongoing set of boundary disputes … in Maine (settled by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842), Oregon (settled by treaty in 1846), Alaska, on the Grand Banks over fisheries … and over American aspirations in Texas, California, and Central America.

By 1840 however many of the more serious boundary disputes had been settled (usually at the expense of Canada). Several other incidents in the 19th century stand out which required substantial diplomatic palavering. The Caroline-McLeod incident (1840) began as a Canadian militia response to unofficial US support of Canadian rebels in 1837. The militia crossed into the US and captured a steam ship used to transport supplies to the Canadian rebels. They turned it loose on the Niagara River, set it on fire and inadvertently killed an American on board – Amos Durfree. The Americans, again unofficially, responded by burning a Canadian boat in an American port (the Sir Robert Peel) in 1838. Some time later, Alexander McLeod, a Canadian, boasted of his apparent exploits in the matter while in New York State and was put on trial for his participation in the death of Durfree. Subsequently it was found that he’d lied about his participation and he was released. However, the United Kingdom apologized for the actions of its militia and the US Congress created legislation to move all future international incidents to federal courts through writs of habeas corpus.

The Trent incident (Nov 1861) began with Union forces seizing a British ship (the Trent) and capturing two Confederate ambassadors destined for Europe (Slidell and Mason). The event was greeted with great enthusiasm by the North but triggered a mobilization of British naval and army forces which gave both governments cause for concern in early 1862. British army troops were conveyed by winter sleighs across northern New Brunswick (which lacked a connecting railway from Nova Scotia to “Upper Canada”) in what must have been a British Army first of some kind. Threat of invasion kept northeast New England on edge until the US government backed down, released the ambassadors, and paid damages.

Finally after some seven years of arbitration, in 1872, Britain was required to compensate the US (to the tune of $15.5 million) for the depredations of the CSS Alabama, a privateer built in Great Britain and subsequently used to great effect by the Confederacy. The process of coming to terms on this issue and dealing with the usual contradictory demands by the different branches of the US government, was seen as a new model for dealing with GB-US conflicts. The agreement is sometimes known as the Treaty of Washington.

Each of these books offers a slightly different perspective and a slightly different set of explanations of the rapprochement between the US and Great Britain at the end of the 19th century. From a position of continental isolation, subsidized inadvertently by the Royal Navy during 19th century, America had the industrial might to explode onto the world stage in the waning decade of the 1800s and the first of the new century. Great Britain, beset by newly industralizing foes spreading across the planet, needed to make hard choices about who to resist and who to indulge. Painful as it must have been, Britain retreated militarily and diplomatically from North America and ceded security hegemony of the region to the United States. That such a transition could be cast in terms of the maturation of an AngloSaxon community was an opportune but not necessarily forthright explanation that came to be accepted by the public on both sides of the Atlantic.

Illustrative quotes from the three titles [page numbers available on request]:

Bourne (1967):

“The statesman’s attitude to relations with America, therefore, was in a sense a negative one. His anxiety was not to make an ally of the United States, but to extricate Great Britain from the path of American advance, to see that at such a dangerous time the United States did not again threaten to become an active enemy.” By 1900, Germans were noting “England will stand far more from America than from any other Power, and even in purely diplomatic issues it is more difficult to make England take sides against America than to make any other Power do so.” [per Count Paul Metternich]

“The growth of American power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then, was a first by no means welcome to the policy-makers in Britain; rather its existence had to be accepted in a world where the crucial dangers loomed elsewhere. Sentiment rather than interest made that acceptance at least tolerable and ultimately even welcome; but it was a realistic assessment of priorities that dictated it.”

“The admiralty, in some ways, may even have been ahead of the statesmen while the War office tended to cling long after 1902 to an increasingly inconvenient and eccentric anti-American line.”

C. Campbell’s argument (1974) can be summarized no better than in the words of the book’s Foreword:

“Stressing the mutual intertwining of their economies, as well as the cultural and racial ties between the two peoples, he points out the astonishing series of general treaties, special commissions and arbitration agreements that began with Jay’s Treaty in the 1790s and culminated in the Treaty of Washington and the subsequent settlement of all outstanding issues by the 1890s. It was, he argues, a remarkable achievement that two such aggressive nations survived so many crises without resorting to armed force. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Unites States, relatively content with its continental empire, ceased to threaten British interests in Canada, and England gave up the policy of trying to contain America’s restless expansion. For the next 50 years, American and British diplomats gradually liquidated the stubborn disputes they had inherited from the past to achieve the basis for the special relationship that emerged in the twentieth century.”

“The common heritage, the close economic relations, the absence of clashing vital interests, the rise of British democracy and admiration for American institutions, the dwindling of Irish and free-silver fanaticism, and Anglo-Saxon race patriotism — these were positive forces moulding the British-American relationship. Diplomacy and arbitration had held off war and mitigated tension; more positive forces had then made themselves felt.”

A.E. Campbell (1960):

“During the years 1895 to 1903 there were three important clashes between the United States and Great Britain. In 1895 the United States asserted her right to intervene in a quarrel in which she had no direct concern between the Britain and a South American state. Between 1898 and 1902 the United States wholly altered the balance of power in the Caribbean by gaining complete control over a canal which under an earlier agreement would have been international and neutral. Between 1898 and 1903 the United States forced Britain to accept at the expense of Canada her own interpretation of an earlier Anglo-Russian treaty, and did so in a way peculiarly offensive to British amour-propre. These were not the only matters in dispute between Britain — often representing Canada — and the United States. They were the most important, and they were, moreover, the most important disputes in which the United States then engaged with any major Power — from which rank one may exclude Spain. Yet to none of these aggressions did either British opinion or those responsible for British policy react with any vigour.”

“The ready acquiescence of the British public in the American policy of their statesmen is the crux of the question.”

“…[I]t was fundamental to politicians and diplomats that good relations with the United States must be preserved. The principle that the United States was the one Power Britain could not afford to cross occasioned no argument. It was an axiom of British policy, and it is a measure of its general acceptance that Anglo-American relations could be handled so economically and caused so little debate. The possibility must at least be considered.”

“American foreign policy in the 1890s might be described as Jacksonian. There is the same confidence of power. There is the same enlarged sense of dignity. There is the same sensitivity to anything that might be considered an affront, however unimportant. And there is the same sort of check on all these traits, a distrust of international relations and a reluctance to engage in them.”

“American ideas [of the time] were incompatible with the exercise of power, but not with the sense of power. This was hardly understood in Britain. American aggressiveness was ascribed to other causes, and judged by other standards. The judgment was faulty, but it made for good relations.”

“It is impossible to imagine the Englishmen of Palmerston’s day, for instance, whatever the circumstances, reacting in the same way to the activities of the United States. Palmerston foresaw American expansion, but he did not suppose that it would necessarily benefit Britain, and he thought it should be opposed as far as possible. The prospect he foresaw gave him no pleasure. A generation later his successors thought otherwise. It has been the chief object of this study to argue that they did so irrationally.”

“Anglo-American relations in the late nineteenth century, then display the elaboration of an unusually effective myth.” “This myth is different in that, so far from justifying a sense of grievance, it minimized it, allowing a larger measure of concession that would have been possible without it.”

“The concession of British interests was made in a context which could represent it as the furtherance of Anglo-Saxon interests. The climate of opinion which fostered imperialism, which strained British resources and brought Britain and the United States into conflict, also bred the theories of human progress and the sense of kinship which prevented withdrawal from appearing defeat.”