(Bloomberg Opinion) — This is one of the most joyous weekends in the American calendar, high summer and the commemoration of the nation’s historic leap toward freedom from colonial dominion 245 years ago. The British, some readers may be surprised to learn, cherish no matching holiday to celebrate our deliverance from decades of funding the defense of those ungrateful folks.
If Americans were not so courteous, some of them might suggest that we have been sulking ever since about our forced parting from the 13 continental colonies.
In the 1950s, my father was a member of the Thursday Club, a London lunching group that gained notice in the Netflix series “The Crown” because Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, also belonged. The club had a childish rule that every American guest must write “Lost Colonial” after his name in the visitors’ book.
We started being bad losers well before then. Some of the most famous, or notorious, sayings of the 18th-century sage Samuel Johnson concern American colonials: “To a man of mere animal life, you can urge no argument against going to America, but that it will be some time before he will get the earth to produce. But a man of any intellectual enjoyment will not easily go and immerse himself and his posterity for ages in barbarism.”
After relinquishing the colonies following the loss of the 1775-83 war, the British were disgusted that Americans promptly became enthusiastic admirers of the murderous French revolutionaries. Three decades later, when the U.S. and mother country quarreled about maritime rights, it came as a further shock to London that the infant U.S. Navy showcased some of the finest fighting seamen afloat, worthy successors to John Paul Jones.
Following the triumphs of the Constitution and its sister heavy frigates over British warships, the parliamentarian (and future prime minister) George Canning told the House of Commons ruefully that “the sacred spell of the invincibility of the Royal Navy was broken.”
The British eventually prevailed, being able to deploy far greater firepower once Napoleon was beaten. But on land, they were obliged to accept such humiliations as their repulse from a January 1815 assault on New Orleans, at the hands of an American army led by Andrew Jackson.
This was the second and hopefully last conflict in which American and British troops shed each other’s blood. During the ensuing century, however, both British and American authors made a good thing out of bad-mouthing each other in print.
Among the pioneers was Fanny Trollope, mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope. Flat broke and unhappily married, she traveled to America and lived for a time in Cincinnati. On her return to Britain, in 1832, she published a two-volume travel book entitled “Domestic Manners of the Americans,” which became a best-seller and established her on a path both to solvency and popular success.
Readers were treated to a withering denunciation of slavery, as well as of American domestic behavior, especially the custom of spitting on carpets. She complained that criticism of America was received as a mortal insult:
She was denounced, of course, by her erstwhile hosts in the U.S., though later defended by Mark Twain. He wrote, “Mrs. Trollope was so handsomely cursed and reviled by this nation [for] telling the truth.”
In 1856, Southerners got their own back with the publication, under the pseudonym A Lady of New Orleans, of a novel entitled “Tit for Tat,” lambasting the British for their enthusiasm for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
And in 1860, William Seward, shortly to become Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, told the Duke of Newcastle that he was “determined to take the first opportunity that presents itself to insult your country.”
By then, the British were already experiencing twinges of unease about rising U.S. industrial strength. As early as 1835, the radical politician Richard Cobden visited America and came home to warn his fellow countrymen that “our only chance of national prosperity lies in the timely remodeling of our system, so as to put it as nearly as possible upon an equality with the improved management of the Americans.” The smug British took no notice.
When the U.S. Civil War came, many Brits felt that their own Empire would rule the waves, and run its cotton mills more comfortably, if the Confederacy sustained its independence from the Northern States. Instead, of course, not only did the Union survive, but by the 1870s cheap American grain was ruining British farmers. The U.S. had overtaken Britain by the key industrial indicator of machine-tool production. Thereafter, the Queen’s seemingly wealthy Empire lived chiefly off its invested millions, derived from the first Industrial Revolution.
The old British lion and young American eagle continued to enjoy trading insults. In 1895, when Theodore Roosevelt conducted Rudyard Kipling on a guided tour of the Smithsonian in Washington, the poet provoked the budding statesman by mocking the self-righteousness of a nation that had extirpated its native population “more completely than any modern race has done.” Roosevelt’s outraged response made the glass cases of the museum “shake with his rebuttals.”
Yet Kipling was profoundly impressed by the U.S. — as was another young British visitor that year, Winston Churchill. As an army officer on his first visit, he wrote home euphorically to his brother: “This is a very great country, my dear Jack. What an extraordinary people the Americans are!”
The future prime minister was, of course, himself half-American, on his mother’s side, and thus perhaps biased. But a host of other British visitors were enthralled by the energy, imagination and appetite for the future they encountered in the U.S., even if nobody else saw fit to copy its cherished Constitution.
“I discovered the meaning of a classless society,” enthused a young officer in the British Gurkha Rifles officer, John Masters, who traveled there after World War II. He fell in love with the country, and lived there for the last decades of his life as a successful novelist.
Yet the tensions of rivalry were too strong to disappear. At a rash moment in 1921, Sir Auckland Geddes, British ambassador to the U.S., told reporters that he perceived the two countries “drifting towards war,” an assertion that made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Geddes then qualified his statement by saying, “I do not expect to see an Anglo-American war, but I do picture a deadly struggle disguised as peace.” Which was maybe a little bit true.
It took two world wars to make explicit America’s economic supremacy, and Britain’s eclipse. As late as 1941, Washington remained so convinced of the enduring wealth of the old British Empire that the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration insisted upon audited accounts, to prove Britain’s bankruptcy, before passing the Lend-Lease Act, providing aid for the fight against the Nazis. A U.S. Navy cruiser had collected the country’s last 50 million pounds (1940 valuation) in gold from Cape Town, South Africa, to pay for arms shipped during the Battle of Britain.
A critical element in Churchill’s genius as British war leader was his understanding of the centrality of making the U.S.-U.K. alliance work, when lesser men on both sides of the Atlantic indulged spite and animosity.
After Lord Halifax was dispatched as British ambassador to Washington in December 1940, for example, his fellow aristocrat Lord Linlithgow, viceroy of India, wrote to commiserate: “The heavy labour of toadying to your pack of pole-squatting parvenus! What a country, and what savages those who inhabit it!”
A British minister visiting the U.S. Army in its camps at home in 1942 reported glumly to London that anti-British feeling of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were about as friendly to the British “as they would be to the German general staff if they sat around a table with them.”
Admiral Ernest King and Generals George Patton and Joseph Stilwell (“boy, will this burn up the limeys!” wrote the latter exultantly after “his” Chinese troops took Myitkyina in Burma) were foremost among Anglophobe U.S. senior officers.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, then serving in British Embassy in Washington, wrote more temperately to the Foreign Office: “Anti-British sentiment is a part of the central patriotic American tradition … Anglophobia is a proof of vigorous Americanism, socially acceptable in ways anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism are not.”
The great British historian Michael Howard wrote wryly: “It is never very easy for the British to understand that a very large number of Americans, if they think about us at all, do so with various degrees of dislike and contempt … In the 1940s the Americans had some reason to regard the British as a lot of toffee-nosed bastards who oppressed half the world and had a sinister talent for getting other people to do their fighting for them.” Roosevelt never visited Britain during the war, for fear of upsetting American voters.
As a historian, I seek to remind new generations of British politicians that there never was such a thing as the “Special Relationship,” if by that they mean that our former colony should be expected to do us favors.
Especially now that the World War II generation of American leaders, which knew Europe well, is long gone, Britain is viewed by many in Washington as a theme park, a vacation destination, rather than as an important geopolitical player.
Yet, for all the history of vitriol, it is remarkable how well U.S. and British soldiers, spies, executives, scientists, diplomats, actors and the like have worked together, most conspicuously in the world wars and the Cold War. A tension cannot fail to exist between Americans conscious that they belong to the richest and mightiest nation on earth, and Limeys who lost their claim upon that status a century ago. Yet, out there on the field, this does not matter, as long as a mutual respect can be sustained.
A British historian once wrote shrewdly about the worsening relationship between Britain’s wartime prime minister and America’s president before the latter’s death in April 1945. Churchill, asserted John Grigg, grew envious of Roosevelt’s power, and Roosevelt of Churchill’s genius. Today, most of us are only grateful for American power, and are delighted to recognize a genius that is sometimes displayed on both sides of the pond. Happy Independence Day.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy” and “Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943.”