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Written by Mark Summers
If the story of the English in America were to begin like the Bible, then the chapter of Genesis would start with “in the beginning there was Virginia”. The year 2007 will mark the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia. Although American historians often use this phrase few of them focus on the word permanent. This English settlement, an unprofitable, disease-ridden toehold along the swampy banks of the River James, a settlement that just barely survived, was the cornerstone from which the modern United States of America began. This English colony was the foundation for Americans’ language, literature, government, law, and countless other customs which survive today.
The basis for the English claim to North America began in 1497. Just five years after Christopher Columbus sailed to a “New World” in the employment of Spain, another Italian, Giovanni Caboto, also known as John Cabot, set sail upon the Matthew and landed in present day Canada, at Newfoundland. After planting the Cross of St. George, Cabot claimed the whole of the North American continent for England. It was a bold move, for at the time England was unable to compete with the colonisation schemes of its rivals Portugal and Spain. The Western European quest to colonise America was in many ways similar to the “Space Race” between the USA and USSR in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Throughout the 16th century, while Spain was laying stake to the Caribbean and gaining riches in Mexican gold, the English dream of colonization was simply that, a dream held by a few West Country sailors and London adventurers. Transatlantic crossings were expensive undertakings in the 16th century. Voyages were dangerous and profits could be snuffed out in an Atlantic storm or taken by pirates. Any settlement would be contended by the Spanish crown and thus difficult to maintain. Several brief attempts at New World colonisation in the mid 16th century failed miserably. The accounts of an American “paradise” were now tales of death and destruction at the hands of disease, Indians and Spaniards. In short America was suffering from “bad press”.
Enter one Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was the half-brother of English adventurer Sir Humphrey Gilbert. This Devon man had been making a name for himself (a good and a bad name) at the court of Queen Elizabeth. The queen was enamoured with Raleigh, granting him estates and pensions and increasing his once meager fortune exponentially. Raleigh’s rapid rise through the court gave him the funds and the influence to fund his dream project of an English colony in North America.
By 1584 Raleigh was able to finance a colonial expedition. The site chosen was Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks of today’s North Carolina. The land was to be called “Virginia” in honour of Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen”. This mission succeeded in establishing colonists in North America and gained useful information about the continent. However, poor relations with the native inhabitants, a lack of supplies, and an intervening crisis with the Spanish Armada only doomed the mission. By 1590 the Roanoke Colony was abandoned. Only the mysterious word “CROATAN” found carved on a tree gave any clue to where the colonists went. Raleigh’s settlers were never found. Despite several theories, historians have yet to positively conclude what exactly happened to these English settlers.
Albion would have to wait two decades before another attempt at American colonization began. By 1603 Elizabeth was dead succeeded by a Scot, the Stuart King James I. Unlike ”Good Queen Bess”, the new monarch was far from interested in planting English colonists in America. A lack of interest and a lack of funds from the new king meant that any new attempt at America would have to be generated by wealthy investors. A group of London merchants formed the “Virginia Company” for this very purpose. The group was a joint-stock company that would have to rely on investors to finance the high costs of transport, food, and other supplies that a fledgling colony would need to survive in an American wilderness. It was hoped that this American project would generate profits from the discoveries of gold and silver, discover the famed “northwest passage” to Asia, or at the very least create a base from which to raid Spanish gold shipments. In December 1606, three ships: the Discovery, the Godspeed, and the Susan Constant, set sail for the Chesapeake Bay.
Christopher Newport captained the colonists as they sailed across the Atlantic. Newport’s boats landed at Cape Henry, now the present day city of Virginia Beach, Virginia, in April 1607. The colonists then sailed down a river they named James and landed on a marshy peninsula to establish their fort. The site was to be called Jamestown.
Like the other colonial projects, Jamestown suffered from, disease, starvation, and poor relations with the native tribes. By August more than half the original 107 colonists were dead from malaria, brackish water, or killed by Indians. Many of the “gentlemen” members of the group refused to perform the basic tasks of planting, tilling, and soldiering that were necessary for survival. Only the leadership of Captain John Smith, the timely help of Powhatan Indian princess Pocahontas, and resupply of the colony from English ship captains, allowed this colony to hold on. Despite some successes, the constant warfare, threat of starvation, and lack of leadership (Smith later returned to England) almost caused Jamestown’s abandonment in 1610. On top of all these things, the colony was rapidly losing money. Virginia’s London investors saw no gold, no silver, and no news of a shortcut to Asia returning to England.
During the next decade as Jamestown held on, another John, John Rolfe, achieved two things that ultimately saved the colony. The first was the planting of a Spanish strain of tobacco in Virginia. The native Virginia weed was too bitter for the cosmopolitan tastes of the London elite. Rolfe’s Spanish blend was sweeter and very popular in England. As the crop grew well, the colony found a commodity from which Jamestown could prosper. Rolfe’s subsequent marriage to the now Christianized Pocahontas, brought a respite from war between the Powhatans and English. Thousands of Englishmen by 1619 began sailing to Virginia in 1619 to make a new way of life. Jamestown would survive.
The Virginia colony began expanding along coastal Virginia. Plantations and small farms were turning the American wilderness into another England. Towns and cities began taking their names from the port cities from which the settlers came (ie: Portsmouth, Virginia). As the colony became permanent other features of England were brought across the Atlantic. In 1619 the Virginia colony elected representatives to the “General Assembly” which met at Jamestown. The Virginia General Assembly, which after a brief break has met continuously in Virginia since 1624 is still the oldest continuous legislative body in North America. This legislature, and a new royal charter in 1624 would be the beginning of an American democratic tradition. This tradition was born and fostered in 16th and 17th century England, but would take a different and more radical turn in America 150 years later. Yet the language, law and government of the first English colony would thrive on the American continent from 1607 through to the present day.
As Virginia prospered and continued to grow, another English colony was planted in America. The Pilgrims, a radical offshoot of the Puritan faith, founded this colony, called Plymouth, in present day Massachusetts. Unlike the Anglican, profit-seeking Virginians, these Plymouth colonists found in America a place for religious freedom. These first two colonies, Jamestown, and Plymouth had two widely different views on what it meant to be English in America. These first two colonies would take different sides in England’s Civil War. Centuries later, they would once again take different sides in another Civil War.
In 1625, as King James I lay dying in his bedchamber, two English colonies, Massachusetts and Virginia, were growing from wilderness outposts to thriving “miniature Englands”. The new king, Charles I and his Stuart successors oversaw the rapid expansion of colonial English America. But their political ideologies shook the very foundations of England. This political turmoil also crossed the Atlantic. As the Stuart Age closed in 1689, the seeds of American independence were sown. The various Anglo-American colonies guarded their liberties in an English Civil War, and yet laid a foundation from which an American Civil War sprang two centuries later.
Although Charles I was raised as an Englishman unlike his Scottish father James I, he did inherit the Stuart belief in the “divine right of kings”. By 1629 Charles I was attempting to rule as an absolute monarch. Religious Puritans (increasingly dominant in Parliament) defended the rights of the legislature and criticised Charles’ growing tolerance of Roman Catholicism. By the 1640’s Civil War raged in England. Although most Englishmen remained neutral during the war (or wars), the supporters of the King, often called Cavaliers, were dominant in Northern England and among the rural elite, while the supporters of Parliament, often called Roundheads were dominant in Eastern England and among the London merchants. By 1649 an effective radical military leader named Oliver Cromwell won the war for the Roundheads, and for Parliament. Cromwell sealed his victory with the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. Cromwell abolished the monarchy and created the Protectorate. American colonial opinion was divided.
In 1641 Charles I appointed Sir William Berkeley to the post of colonial governor of Virginia. Berkeley was a rising star in Charles’ court and saw his Virginia post as an opportunity for personal advancement. Although primarily a tobacco growing colony, Berkeley won respect through his efforts to diversify Virginia agriculture. Berkeley ingratiated himself with the wealthy Virginia tobacco planters who dominated Virginia politics. He saw these planters as useful allies during the English Civil War. Consequently Berkeley denounced the execution of his patron King Charles I in 1649. He declared Virginia to be loyal to the monarchy and to the exiled prince (the future Charles II).
Virginia remained loyal to the crown until 1652. Oliver Cromwell sent a force to Jamestown to demand the surrender of Berkeley and his royalist Royalist forces. Berkeley backed down and surrendered his governorship. When the Protectorate ended with the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, Berkeley’s actions were not forgotten. Berkeley was later reappointed governor by King Charles II. The new king also referred to Virginia as his “Old Dominion”, in honour of its loyalty to the crown. The “Old Dominion” is still the official nickname for the state of Virginia.
During Cromwell’s rule significant social changes also occurred in Virginia. Royalist refugees of “Cavalier” stock fled to Virginia and Governor Berkeley’s protection. While a planter elite had always dominated Virginia, the society in the early days of the colony was more mobile. Now, new families of Royalist stock, like the Carters, Randolphs, Washingtons, and Lees would form the nucleus of the super planters who politically controlled the Colony throughout the War of Independence and beyond. Virginia, and the rest of the South would increasingly rely on slave labour and plantation economics. The name “cavalier” continues in Virginia to this day, as the official nickname of the sports teams from the University of Virginia.
The northern American colonies went a different course from Virginia. First with Plymouth Colony in 1620 and later with Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, which later united as present day Massachusetts, the northern colonies became the centre of religious individualism and political radicalism in America. During the reign of Charles I, thousands of Puritan dissidents flocked to “New England” under threat of persecution and hatred of the Stuart monarchy. The vast majority of American Northerners supported Cromwell in his overthrow of the monarchy during the English Civil War. Many of these colonists hailed from East Anglia. Along with religious Puritanism, these immigrants inherited an economic and urban tradition from their homeland. These things were embodied in the Massachusetts capital of Boston. Boston became not only America’s first big city, but also the heart of American political radicalism. Within 150 years, Boston would become the scene of growing tensions between America and the “Mother Country”.
With the return of the monarchy in 1660, came a renewed English enthusiasm for American colonisation. During the reign of Charles II, new colonies were founded in the North. From Massachusetts emerged new religious colonies such as Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Pennsylvania by the end of the 17th century was established by Quaker William Penn. New Amsterdam was captured from the Dutch in 1664 and renamed New York. Conversely from the royalist South would emerge Maryland, established by the king’s confidant Lord Baltimore as a home for English Catholics, and Carolina (now the two states of North and South Carolina), “humbly” named by the king for himself. Two English economic philosophies were slowly developing and competing in America: an urban, sea-faring, capitalist North, and an agrarian, semi-feudal, plantation South.
By the close of the Stuart Age, the Northern and even the Southern colonies became increasingly hostile to the monarchy. This hostility was not confined to the Americans. In 1685 Charles II died and was succeeded by his brother King James II. The new King James (who was Catholic) continued in his brother and father’s footsteps. He continued to press for more monarchial power over Parliament. Englishmen from all walks of life were increasingly upset at the decline of their “English liberties”. James II’s fatal mistake came in 1688. There was widespread fear the king was pressing for England to return to the Catholic fold abandoned by King Henry VIII. Parliament removed King James II from the throne in 1688, in what was called “the Glorious Revolution”. Protestant monarchs King William and Queen Mary were placed on the throne. Parliament was supreme in England. In 1689, an English Bill of Rights was established. Writing to defend the “revolution”, Englishman John Locke would help popularise the phrase, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of property”.
In America, the colonists celebrated the removal of King James II. The Massachusetts colony would remove its governor in 1688. Governor Andros, a friend of King James, tried to dissolve the Massachusetts Assembly. Parliament accepted the decision of Massachusetts and had the colony send Andros over for trial. Unwittingly Parliament’s acceptance of the Massachusetts Assembly would be turned against them by the colony in the 1760’s. Even Virginia got in on the act. Berkeley and the later Virginia governors of the 17th century began siding with their own Assembly rather than the monarchy. This has often been called the process of “Americanisation”, a transformation of Englishmen into Americans, in habit, dress, and politics that was to become more distinct in the 18th century.
Americans of English stock had grown from two tiny frontier settlements to a population of 250,000 at the close of the Stuart Age. New colonies were forming. Cities and towns were emerging. Colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary were established. America was becoming more English and yet less English at the same time. Americans had lived through and opposed one another in an English Civil War. As the English Parliament emerged supreme, Americans began to view their own assemblies as miniature Parliaments. A king was deposed by popular will and the Americans would not forget it. The cry of “English liberties” would echo along the Atlantic coast for generations, and nowhere more so than Boston, Massachusetts. In the end the lessons learned in 17th century England would reemerge outside that town of Boston, as a group of Massachusetts colonials met the king’s army on a field in Lexington Green.
On April 19, 1775, two contingents of British Regulars marched from Boston Massachusetts to the village of Concord. Their mission was to seize arms and ammunition being held in the town. Boston, Massachusetts and environs had long been a tempest of American opposition to British colonial authority. The military governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, believed that the seizure of these weapons would prevent the political situation from escalating.
Instead, the leaders of the Massachusetts radicals dispatched two riders Paul Revere and William Dawes, to warn the colonial militias of Gage’s mission. By daybreak Gage’s troops stood before a few dozen of armed colonial militia blocking their route at Lexington. For awhile the two forces stood silently apart. A shot was fired. To this day, no one has been able to prove who fired first. This “shot heard round the world” was the beginning of the American War of Independence also known in the United States as the American Revolution.
Historians on both sides of the Atlantic have long viewed the War of Independence as a struggle between two nations. The author believes that this view is a distorted one based upon viewing the war from hindsight. For example in the popular William Wadsworth Longfellow 19th century poem “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”, the hero warns the colonists that the “British are coming!” Yet eyewitnesses of the time clearly remembered that what Revere actually said was the “Regulars are coming”. In April 1775 Paul Revere and his fellow “rebels” considered themselves to be “British”.
In reality the American War of Independence was a second English Civil War between two competing English views of government, the 17th century Whig idealism of John Locke and other philosophers, and the mercantilist 18th century realism of the British Ministry. The war would not only divide public opinion in the American Colonies (where 20 – 30% of the population remained loyal to Britain) but in England and the other British nations as well (where a strong and vocal Parliamentary opposition eventually brought down the North government). In the end what began in Virginia in 1607 would be ripped apart by a conflict that would lead to the creation of a new nation, the United States of America.
With the fall of the Jacobean monarchs in 1688 two political actions took place in England which would have unintended consequences across the Atlantic. The first significant action was the removal of a monarch (James II) by Parliament. To English Americans the concept of the supremacy of Parliament would translate into the concept that colonial assemblies were themselves supreme not only to the monarchy but to Westminster itself. The second action was the installment in 1701 of the Hanoverian monarchy. The first of the Hanover Kings George I, was a German prince who took little interest in English affairs and even less in America. George I and his son George II reigned for 59 years over the American Colonies. For these 59 years America and her assemblies were largely ignored in a period often referred to as the years of “salutary neglect”. The assemblies accustomed to self-rule had every intention of keeping it when George III (a thorough Englishman) came to the throne.
Yet in 1754 when a young Virginia militia colonel named George Washington handed a letter to the French commander of Ft. Duquesne (now the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) warning the French to remove themselves from British territory, he and his fellow colonials thought of themselves as subjects of the British king and transplanted Englishmen. Washington’s letter touched off a war (the 4th in 60 years) between France and Great Britain. This “French and Indian War” in America, escalated two years later as the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Colonials and British regulars fought side by side in the conflict against a common French enemy. Success came largely in 1763 with the ministry of William Pitt (the elder). American colonial assemblies cheered the military success but did little to pay for the war.
With the French threat removed the Americans were even less interested in paying for British regular troops. Added to this, the British exchequer was £122 million in debt in 1763. Parliament began a series of direct taxes upon the colonies in 1764 in order to raise revenue from America. In that year the average Englishman paid 26 shillings a year to the government while the average colonist paid just 1 shilling. Because the amount of revenue to be raised was quite small, Parliament was unprepared for the hostile reaction of its colonies to its taxes. The first great outburst of American protest came in 1765 with the Stamp Act. This law required all official documents in America to be affixed with an official government stamp. Since paper was a necessity it was believed that the Americans could not avoid taxation through economic boycotts (as with previous Parliamentary taxes).
At issue was the concept of representation. American colonial assemblies protested that since there were no Americans sitting in Parliament they could not be taxed directly by it. This argument was based upon the English tradition of localized taxation. The argument was taken up in Parliament. George Grenville defended the tax. He and others claimed that the Americans were “virtually represented” in Parliament as was the case with several English counties. He asked when the colonies “had been emancipated?” William Pitt (now Lord Chatham) defended America replying, “I desire to know, when were they made slaves?” Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, but added a declaration that they had the right to taxation.
Taxes and protests followed through the remainder of the 1760’s and into the 1770’s. The center of these two protests was the first two English American colonies Massachusetts and Virginia. By 1773 Massachusetts was placed under martial law. General Gage took over the reigns of government but matters quickly deteriorated. By 1774 the protests of the Massachusetts Sons of Liberty escalated with the Boston Tea Party. Parliament in response to the destruction of the tea closed the port of Boston. Virginians became increasingly radical when Parliament blocked the planters attempts to settle Western Indian Territory. In 1775, radical Virginian Patrick Henry called for revolution when he exclaimed “Give me liberty of give me death”. In many of these cases the American radicals drew inspiration from and the support of English radicals. The Americans who took up the cry of “Wilkes and liberty” cheered John Wilkes’ arrest for libel for slandering the king and subsequent election to mayor of London. Another English radical, Thomas Paine, immigrated to Philadelphia jobless and penniless. He would later become the pen that would inspire total separation from the crown.
As War began in 1775, the colonies were thirteen separate bodies fighting against Parliament. George Washington was named to lead the rag tag army. At first there was no intention of forming a united government or disavowing the monarchy. The Americans won some respect for actions at the Battle of Bunker Hill but were still heavily outgunned and outmanned by the British regulars. The seizure of New York City in 1776 was a tremendous blow to the rebellion. In order to secure a French Alliance and to inspire Washington’s troops, the American Continental Congress drafted a Declaration of Independence. It was formerly adopted on July 4, 1776. It was largely the work of Virginian Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson drew inspiration from the English Whigs including the philosopher John Locke (who inspired America’s most famous phrase: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). The document declared total separation from England and its monarchy. In order to secure independence the colonies would have to secure the aid of Britain’s long time enemy France.
The very popular inventor, philosopher, and printer Benjamin Franklin was sent to Versailles to secure French assistance. With the victory at Saratoga, New York in 1778, the colonies secured the aid of France, which included money, weapons, and uniforms. After 1779, the war between Britain and her colonies shifted to the South. Britain’s generals hoped to capitalise on a strong loyalist presence in the region. American loyalism never materialized in a cohesive manner. While Lord Cornwallis won victories in the South, his damaged army headed to Virginia. By 1781, the French Navy blockaded Chesapeake Bay. Washington’s Americans and Rochambeau’s French Army surrounded Cornwallis. Cornwallis’ surrender in October 1781 was the beginning of the end of the war, and the end of the North ministry.
The final treaty was signed in 1783 at Paris. Relations between the Mother Country and the former colonies were at their worst. Americans who had supported the war harassed the loyalist minority. Many Loyalists fled to England or emigrated to Canada (which had remained loyal throughout the war) Some in England, and Government in particular resented the former colonies. Throughout the remainder of the century a British military presence was maintained on the periphery of the new nation. Many in Britain wondered if the former colonies could sustain a government.
At first it seemed that independence was a failure. Only the emergence of a conservative (as in political philosophy not political party) counter-revolution in America, which created the Federal Constitution in 1787, secured the existence of the new nation. The document, still in use today, was the written form of the democratic principles and traditions long held in England. Its greatest advocate and first U.S. president under it was George Washington. While America articulated its English political heritage on paper, it would take nearly a century before the relations between England and its colonies would change from one of enemies to allies. The United States would see itself as the defender of liberty and revolution. Great Britain reformed its monarchy and its colonial policies. A new Great Britain would see a more radical revolution threaten it from across the Channel. With the rise of Napoleon Britain would also see itself as the defender of liberty. At the dawn of the 19th century these competing views of liberty once again created misunderstanding and war (the last) between Britain and her former colonies.
After the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, the relationship with England (and the rest of Great Britain) moved into the realm of foreign policy. Relations between the United States and Great Britain remained tense throughout the remainder of the 18th and for most of the 19th century. Increased technology and communication along with the emergence of the United States as a world power eventually neutralized U.S. isolationism and strengthened cultural ties between it and the “Mother Country”. By the beginning of the Second World War, these strengthened relations would be tested as the United States mulled its decision on whether or not to enter that global conflict.
American isolationism began just as the ink was beginning to dry on the United States Constitution. The goal of U.S. isolationism as set forth by the first president George Washington was twofold. The first goal of the United States was to maintain its independence by avoiding European conflicts. As a young nation the U.S. did not have the military or economic might to involve itself in a European war. Secondly, the United States maintained a “moral status” as a revolutionary nation to support and promote republicanism across the globe. By the end of Washington’s presidency, France, still technically an Ally since 1779, was in the midst of its own revolution. U.S. policy would be tested as the French Revolution went from the ballot box to the guillotine.
At the dawn of the 19th century the American “two party” political system emerged. Although George Washington had warned the nation of the dangers of political parties, the emergence of them testified to the strength of the U.S. constitution and the maturity of American politics. What did however make the party system so dangerous was that they were tied into pro-English and pro-French factions.
The first political party to emerge was the Federalist Party. The Federalists were for a strong central government and a political system similar to England’s. Their fiery leader was Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury (similar to Exchequer). Hamilton, a West Indian (white), by birth, emerged from obscurity to become aid to George Washington and military hero during the War for Independence. An Anglophile, Hamilton was trusted by the British during the 1790’s, so much so he was known in British diplomatic circles as “Number Seven”. The Federalists were dominant in politics until the War of 1812. They later became the American Whig Party, and are today the ancestors of the Republican Party.
The second political party to emerge was the Democrats (originally called Republicans or Democratic-Republicans). This party centered on the first Secretary of State, and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, now an Anglophobe, favoured relations with France. He counted on the support of the rural South and the urban artisan class. By the time Jefferson became the third U.S. president, France, had fallen out of favour in American eyes. Jefferson and his Party continued to harbour a strong dislike of England, which contributed to the War of 1812.
This resentment, which stemmed from the War of Independence, was not relegated just to politics. A New England man, named Daniel Webster, was a Puritan minister and political activist. An avid believer of education, Webster pushed for an Americanised version of the English language. The legacy of the Webster’s popular dictionaries is seen today when one sees how the word “honour” becomes “honor” in American usage etc.
Jefferson and his successor Democrats maintained control of the presidency through 1825. During this time the United States expanded its borders with the Louisiana Purchase. The United States believed itself “destined” to control the Western Hemisphere. As such the young nation feared British involvement with the Western Indians as well as in Canada. Great Britain meanwhile was fighting the Napoleonic threat in Europe and striving to protect its industries at home. The United States was required to purchase British permits in order to trade in England. The French often captured ships baring such permits. Both Great Britain and France locked in the death grip of war boarded U.S. ships and seized sailors to be impressed into their navies. Despite propaganda to the contrary, most U.S. sailors taken by the British were in fact British subjects who jumped to the United States merchant marine for better pay.
Many Americans, particularly Democrats, clamored for war against Britain. The War came on 12 June 1812. Most of the fighting in what is called the War of 1812 took place on the U.S. Canadian border. The war was a disaster for the young United States. After Americans burnt the future site of Toronto, Ontario, in Canada, British forces seized and destroyed much of Washington, D.C. Although the Americans managed to defend Baltimore, Maryland (which inspired the American national anthem), and despite a few naval successes, the war was a failure. Several New England states even threatened to secede. Only the timely arrival of the Treaty of Ghent, signed 24 December 1814, and Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans on 8 January 1815 (after the war was over) prevented a complete breakdown of the government. British tacit support of the Monroe doctrine of 1824 (which stated U.S. dominance of the Western Hemisphere), plus the US need of British naval dominance against the Spanish ended violent conflict between the two nations.
The following decades saw the political discussion of the United States centre around the issue of Black slavery. Much of the growing Northern state abolitionist movement was inspired by the English Anti-slavery societies. Several abolitionists including former slave Frederick Douglass were popular speakers in England. Nevertheless as the slavery question pushed the Northern and Southern states to war, Great Britain was divided over which section to support in the conflict known as the American Civil War.
The American Civil War (1861-1865) was the bloodiest conflict fought on American soil. Both the United States government (aka the Union) and the insurgent Confederate States Government (aka rebels, Confederacy) purchased thousands of British made Enfield muskets from Tower Arms. The English aristocracy largely supported the South. The region was a major supplier of cotton to English textile mills. Southern independence would ensure a weaker United States, which could no longer threaten Canada or interfere with the British economy. British army Colonel Arthur Fremantle of the Coldstream Guards visited the Confederacy in 1863. His book “Three Months in the Southern States” documented his account of the Battle of Gettysburg. The English working class supported president Abraham Lincoln, particularly after his Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 turned the war into a crusade against slavery. Although the British government came close to recognizing the Confederacy, by 1863, Britain chose to remain neutral. The actions of U.S. minister to Britain Charles Francis Adams also secured a ban of manufacturing English ships for the Confederacy. The CSS Alabama for example, built in Liverpool, sank 64 U.S. ships before being sunk.
During the latter half of the 19th century, the United States emerged as a growing world power. On a cultural front, many Americans because of steamship travel began traveling to England on a regular basis. One can read in the novels of the American writer Henry James the “transatlantication” of the American wealthy elite. These “new money” Americans began importing such Anglicism’s as foxhunting, manor houses, and even English butlers. They became the basis of the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) elite who pushed for a growing conformity with England in American foreign policy.
This was tested at the end of the 19th century. Great Britain supported the American war against Spain in 1898. In response the United States maintained neutrality during the South African Boer War of the period, despite the protests of the strong German, Dutch, and Irish-American communities. By the beginning of the 20th century, the United States agreed to support Britain against German influence in Africa, and the British agreed to not to interfere with American plans to construct a canal at Panama.
In 1914 as the First World War began, the United States maintained is isolationism. Despite the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania and other ships by the Germans the United States would not enter the war against Germany until 1917. This was once again largely due to a fear of the German and Irish American electorate. Some Americans of English descent did volunteer to fight in Canadian forces before 1917. Even with the defeat of Germany and President Wilson’s push for a League of Nations, the United States continued to remain isolationist.
The isolationism was challenged as Hitler’s forces began invading Europe. By 1940 Great Britain stood alone among the Western Democracies against the German onslaught. President Franklin Roosevelt managed to push a $30 billion aid package to Great Britain despite the U.S. official position. By 1940 80% of the U.S. public supported remaining out of the war. Despite this some American men volunteered to fight on the British side. Famous among these were the American Eagles, two U.S. volunteer RAF squadrons raised by ex-pat Charles Sweeney. Six American pilots are counted in the Roll of Honour among the killed in the Battle of Britain.
Isolationism would not die until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Germany declared war on the United States the following day. Thousands of American planes, tanks and other equipment would be sent to England. Thousands of American G.I.s would follow. Living among the English people, they would be known as “Our Boys”. Beginning with WWII a new generation of leaders and a new relationship with England, still the “Mother Country” would begin.