The Anglo-American Rapprochement

By Stephen Bowman

Reflecting upon the reasons for the level of Anglophobia in the United States during the early-twentieth century, Walter Hines Page, the US ambassador in Britain from 1913 to 1918, observed in 1916 that American dislike for the British was partly caused by the insensitive behaviour of some English travellers and was perhaps also due to some foolish British foreign policy decisions. While admitting that many Americans were jealous of British power, Page – a committed Anglo-Saxonist – was nevertheless strikingly critical of his blood brothers.

It is, of course, difficult to establish clearly the extent to which Page conflated England with Britain. Yet, singling out the behaviour of English travellers on the one hand and British policy on the other, would suggest he made some differentiation between the two. Indeed, Anglophobia in America generally was just that: Anglophobia. England was the scapegoat of the American Revolution and of the War of 1812 and was criticised for inept diplomacy during the American Civil War. The Scots, the Irish and the Welsh were largely able to avoid coming under the Anglo bracket if they didn’t want to and could disown their association with the English-dominated British state by highlighting their own historical traditions of standing against English tyranny.

The apparent unpopularity of the English in America makes all the more striking the appeals to a shared Englishness that so marked the rapprochement that occurred between Britain and the United States from the late-1890s. This improvement in official relations between the two states has been typically observed in British support for America during the latter’s war with Spain in 1898 – a favour largely reciprocated during Britain’s war in South Africa – and in the gradual resolution of outstanding disputes between the US and the UK in the early years of the twentieth century. The rapprochement, partly motivated by a realisation in Britain that the ever-more powerful USA was worth placating, was underpinned by the Anglo-Saxonism of groups like the Pilgrims Society, the Anglo-American League, the Sulgrave Institute and the International Magna Charta Day Association (IMCDA). While non-English, white, English-speakers were included as part of Anglo-Saxondom, English cultural references sustained the Anglo-Saxonism of the British-American rapprochement.

This was demonstrated by the appeals to notions of liberty and freedom, manifest in the rights handed down by the English Magna Charta, and which Don MacRaild has already discussed in an earlier post with reference to the IMCDA. The Pilgrims Society – an elite dining club founded in London in 1902 and in New York in 1903 – also utilised this rhetoric. Chauncey Depew, the Pilgrims president in New York, whilst speaking at an event on ‘Britain’s Day’, held on the 7th December 1918 to mark the British contribution to victory in the First World War, described the improvement in British-American relations as the ‘fruitage in the centuries of Magna Charta, the Bill of Rights, and the American Declaration of Independence, in common principles and ideals’ (New York Times, 8 December 1918).

Themes of English liberalism were also evoked by groups like the Pilgrims Society. To them, liberalism connoted vague notions of Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking freedoms symbolised in large part by grand institutions and principles such as parliamentary democracy, Magna Charta and habeas corpus. Liberalism was seen as an inherent characteristic of Anglo-Saxondom, though nobody took too much time to ask what was meant by either term. Nor did liberalism necessarily mean the same thing in Britain as it did in America. In Britain, it was more closely associated with the Liberal party, while the Civil War and Reconstruction periods in the US increasingly witnessed liberalism connoting ideas about pro-Union ‘progressivism’. Moreover, painting transatlantic liberalism in broad brush-strokes has the effect of obscuring the discourse that exists in American political thought between the liberal and republican ‘traditions’. This discourse centres on whether the eighteenth-century Founding Fathers were motivated by Lockean liberalism or classical republicanism. It is a debate that questions the extent to which men like Thomas Jefferson were influenced in their constitutional decisions by a desire to protect the rights of property and of the individual, or whether they were instead driven by concepts of civic virtue and duty. Arguably, however, it was the Jeffersonian heritage of American liberalism – partly influenced by English Lockean ideals, but also borne of the American struggle for independence from Britain – that ensured that appeals to Anglo-American solidarity based on a shared liberalism remained both inexact and intact.