American Herald Tribune | Devon D. Bowers: The history of the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is one of cooperation and friendship going back over a century, with both nations being fond of each other. It was noted in 2015 that 90% of Americans viewed Britain in a favorable light and was reaffirmed officially during Brexit, when then US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that there was an “unbreakable’ bond between the States and Britain” and said explicitly “The US knows it could not ask for a better friend and ally than the United Kingdom.” Given such close relations, a history of the ups and downs between the two nations should be examined in detail, seeing as how they overlap in many areas of politics and economics, especially in the realm of foreign policy.
As with most wars, the Revolutionary War didn’t end with the final gun shot or cannon fire, but rather with a treaty. While the Treaty of Paris created an official peace between the two nations, there were still a number of left over problems, namely British warships attacking and robbing American merchant ships.
The British government issued an order on “November 6, 1793, whereby commanders of British warships and privateers were to arrest and bring to adjudication in an admiralty court vessels carrying the produce of, or supplies for, any French colony.” Within several weeks, it “resulted in the seizure within a few weeks of over two hundred fifty American vessels in the Caribbean.” At the time of the order’s issuance, an expedition of British army and naval forces left for the West Indies, commanded by Lt.-Gen. Sir Charles Grey and Vice-Adm. Sir John Jervis.
This order and the expedition were kept secret until December, as to avoid neutral shippers being on high alert. Once revealed, the US ambassador to Britain, Thomas Pinckney, actively fought against it, given the fact that the actions would eliminate the US exports to the French West Indies which would effectively cut the US out of the Carribean market entirely as they were already shut out of several markets due to the Navigation Acts. Were this to continue, the US would only have a slight handful of insignificant markets to sell to. Whether or not Pinckney’s arguments had any effect is unclear, however, with in the next two weeks, the British replaced the original order, giving neutrals more favorable conditions. Unfortunately, the information took too long in getting to the British in the Carribean and the US vessels in the island of Martinque suffered for it: on February 19, 1794, Lt. Gen. Grey captured the island of Martinique and declared that the island and all ships in its harbor were prizes.
In response to this, the US sent John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, to Britain to demand compensation for the damages done to US naval vessels and citizens. Jay argued that the original order ignored international law and as such the solution lied with the king rather than with the court system. Though tensions were high, “the British moved quickly to assuage American worries and investigated the Martinque seizures, even going so far as to submit the US demands for a joint US-Britain review commission, and awarded the costs of damages which included the value of the actual ships and the cargo.” This very well may have been to avoid the opening of another front in their war with France as well as to ensure that the French didn’t gain another ally.
There were some problems with Jay’s negotiations though, as there was a complete lack of protection of American seafarers from British impressment and a “failure to secure a mutual hands-off policy with regard to Indians in each other’s territory.” The only way this treaty could even remotely be defended as being worthwhile was the argument that it would serve as British recognition of US sovereignty.
Domestically, the treaty was pushed by the Federalists, who “mounted an extensive pamphlet and newspaper campaign and undertook to circulate petitions to rally the public behind the treaty, the administration, and President Washington.” While the treaty was generally unpopular, the Federalists, especially Alexander Hamilton who wrote over twenty essays defending the treaty in or part or another, that while it wasn’t a particularly good treaty, it was the most the US could expect from Britain and helped to preserve peace. At the end of the day, the Jay Treaty did the following for the US:
- The United States gained control of the Northwest forts and trading rights with India and the British West Indies (although only with ships of seventy tons or less, a severely limiting condition)
- Established a commission to settle boundary disputes in the Northeast and other points of contention.
- The United States agreed in exchange to surrender not only its traditional position on maritime rights, but also to accept commissions that would settle the question of prewar debts owed to English merchants.
The Senate ratified Jay’s Treaty on June 24, 1795. It seems that the situation was finally resolved and true peace could be had, however, it was not to last.
The War of 1812
Neither the Treaty of Paris nor the Jay Treaty defined the border between the US and the British colony of Canada, this resulted in both sides laying claim to the same pieces of land, thus leading to border skirmishes. Under the Treaty of Paris, the British were to “ evacuate Detroit, Niagara, Sandusky, and four other fortified posts south of the Great Lakes,” however didn’t due to their wanting to continue utilizing their forts in the fur trade with Native Americans. In order to keep this lucrative friendship with Native Americans going, the British actively funded them with weapons and ammunition as Americans moved into places such as the Ohio Valley and Kentucky. To add to this, as was noted before in the failures of Jay’s Treaty, the British Navy continued utilizing impressment of American sailors to aid in their war against Napoleonic France. One incident in particular led to increased tensions.
In 1807 the frigate H.M.S. Leopard fired on the U.S. Navy frigate Chesapeake and seized four sailors, three of them U.S. citizens. London eventually apologized for this incident, but it came close to causing war at the time. Jefferson, however, chose to exert economic pressure against Britain and France by pushing Congress in December 1807 to pass the Embargo Act, which forbade all export shipping from U.S. ports and most imports from Britain.
However, the Embargo Act ended up harming Americans more than the British, with many Americans outright ignoring it. Just before Jefferson vacated in 1809, Congress replaced the Embargo Act with the Non-Intercourse Act which expressly forbade trade with either Britain or France. This, too, proved ineffective and was replaced with Macon’s Bill Number Two on May 1, 1810. The bill resumed trade with Britain and France, however, it stipulated that if either of the two nations attempted to intervene in trade (the US trading with Great Britain or the US trading with France), the non-intercourse would resume against the intervening nation.
In August 1810, Napoleon said he would exempt American shipping from the Milan Decree of 1807 which “ordered that all ships touching British ports before sailing into French territorial waters were to be confiscated,” putting US vessels at risk of being taken by the French navy. Despite being provided evidence by the British that US ships were still being confiscated by the French, President James Madison revived non-intercourse against Britain. This was done due to the fact that Madison was allied with many of the war hawks in Congress.
Those living in the Northwest Territory, encompassing what parts of what are now Ohio and Illinois, blamed the British for increased fighting between themselves and Native Americans. With war seemingly on the horizon, Maj. Gen. Isaac Brock, the British commander of Upper Canada, moved to augment his small British and Canadian forces with Native American allies, only serving to confirm the suspicions of many Americans.
In November 1811, Madison summoned Congress into session. This was a rather different Congress in many ways as there were a number of individuals such as Henry Clay, a Whig party Kentucky Senator, who was a strong supporter of US expansionism. There were also those who hated Native Americans due to their having lived on the frontier, such as Felix Grundy, a Tennessean Congressman, who grew up on the Tennessee frontier and lost three brothers to Native American raids.
The concerns of most of Congress may very well have been economic however. In 1807, the British issued the Orders in Council which caused major hassles for US suppliers “with a variety of requirement for special licenses, shipping material through British ports, and outright embargo.” Madison attempted to talk with British ambassador Augustus J. Foster in July 1811 and out of the meeting, both Madison and the Secretary of State James Monroe became convinced that the only way the British would end their Orders would be by force. While there were those in Congress such as Tennessean Senator George Washington Campbell who stated “There appears at present no honorable ground upon which war can be avoided—a change in the measures of G. Britain towards us could alone preserve peace—and there is no stronger reason to calculate on such an event now, as than there has been for several years past,” most of those in Congress were looking for a way to avoid war. The tipping point came when the House Foreign Relations Committee released a report going through the history of US attempts to get rid of the Orders, concluding that the only way to stop Britain was through force. It was not soon after that Congress began to move on a war footing. President Madison “sent a note to Great Britain demanding that it lift all restrictions against American shipping.When no answer was forthcoming by June 18, he asked Congress to declare war,” with war being declared on June 18, 1812.
Strangely enough, though, all of it could’ve been avoided: by the time the US declared war on Great Britain, the British had already lifted their restrictions.
The winter of 1811–12 was the bitterest that the English people experienced between the Great Plague [of 1665] and 1940–41. . . . [A French blockade] had now closed all western Europe except Portugal to British goods. American non-intercourse shut off the only important market still open except Russia. . . .A crop failure drove up the price of wheat, warehouses were crammed with goods for which there was no market, factories were closing, workmen rioting. Deputations from the manufacturing cities besought Parliament to repeal [its laws against American shipping], . . . hoping to recover their American market.
Due to the American government having no knowledge of this, they declared war. However, it is possible that a war still would have occurred or at least been encouraged as elements of Congress saw a link between the lowkey British-Native American alliance and their expansionist goals.
Not to soon after the war started, both sides realized that their problems could simply be negotiated with words rather than bullets and sent out feelers and in January 1814, ambassadors from their respective nations met in Ghent, Belgium to discuss how to end the war, with each side writing up a list of demands. The British/Canadians wanted the US to give up their fishing rights in British waters, return Louisiana to Spain, “cede northern New York, part of Maine, and control of the Great Lakes” to Canada, and establish “an Indian buffer nation along the Greenville Treaty line of 1795, to separate the United States from Canada” whereas the Americans to take over Upper Canada. Eventually the British/Canadians gave up on their demand for a Native American nation and the Americans trashed their aspirations of taking Upper Canada. There was still contention regarding American fishing rights in Canadian waters and British claims to having the right to navigate the Mississippi River, the key to western trade, soon being kicked down the road to be solved at a later date. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Eve 1814, ended the War of 1812, but didn’t reach US shores until February 11th of next year. The Senate ratified the treaty, officially ending the war, on February 17, 1815 at 11 pm.
While the War of 1812 could’ve been avoided, it was still of extreme importance due to the fact that, rather than with the Jay Treaty, it forced the British to deal with the US as equals and showed that the Americans could go and push to protect their interests, even to the point of war.
Relations between the US and Britain would simmer somewhat, but would experience major tension when the US issued the Monroe Doctrine and the American Civil War broke out.
1: Jay Loschsky, Rebecca Rifkin, “Canada, Great Britain, Are Americans’ Most Favored Nations,” Gallup, March 13, 2015 (http://www.gallup.com/poll/181961/canada-great-britain-americans-favored-nations.aspx)
2: Rebecca Perring, “UK Is Still America’s greatest ‘friend and ally’ in wake of Brexit, John Kerry Declares,” Express, June 27, 2016 (https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/683879/John-Kerry-EU-referendum-US-Brexit-America-London-Phillip-Hammond)
3: Joseph M. Fewster, “The Jay Treaty and British Ship Seizures: The Martinique Cases,” The William and Mary Quarterly 45:3 (July 1988), pg 426
4: Fewster, pg 434
5: Joseph Charles, “The Jay Treaty: Origins of the American Party System,” The William and Mary Quarterly 12:4 (October 1955), pg 594
6: Todd Estes, “Shaping The Politics of Public Opinion: Federalists and the Jay Treaty Debate,” Journal of the Early Republic 20:3 (2000), pg 397
7: Estes, pgs 398-399
8: Miriam Greenblatt, The War of 1812 (New York, NY: Facts on File Publishing, 1994), pg 16
9: Jeff Wallenfeldt, editor, The American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812: People, Politics, and Power (New York, NY: Rosen Education Service, 2010), pg 177
10: Tom Holmberg, United States. Macon’s Bill, Number 2. 1 May 1810, The Napoleon Series, http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/government/us/c_macon.html
11: Majorie Bloy, A Web of English History, http://www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/france/consys.htm
12: Indiana University Bloomington, War of 1812, http://collections.libraries.indiana.edu/warof1812/exhibits/show/warof1812/before
13: Roger H. Brown, The War Hawk of 1812: An Historical Myth, Indiana Magazine of History,http://josotl.indiana.edu/index.php/imh/article/view/9047/11807 (1964)
14: John Stewart Bowman, Miriam Greenblatt, War of 1812: America at War (New York, NY: Facts On File, 2003), pg 41
15: Ibid, pg 28
16: Bowman, Greenblatt, pg 137