On July 4th, Americans celebrate our Independence Day, and the anniversary of our declaration of ‘no more rule by redcoats’. At the time – a mere 245 years ago – the United States and Great Britain were bitter enemies. But today, there is a ‘Special Relationship’ between the two, and both affirm the other as their most important foreign ally.
What would become the United States was hardly the only territory that chafed under the rule of the British Empire. The peoples of Ireland, India, China, Apartheid South Africa, Aborigines in Australia, and more had grievences with the Crown. Immediately after the Revolutionary War, average Americans viewed Great Britain as synonymous with everything bad in the world, and vice versa. ‘Monarchist’ was cast about casually as a discrediting slur as often as ‘racist’ or ‘socialist’ are today.
That wasn’t the only view, though, and officials like John Jay and Lord Shelburne negotiated a mutually profitable peace treaty that set the foundations for future cooperation. Protected by the Atlantic Ocean and French influence, the United States had time to establish a solid economy contributing to and benefiting from world exports. Still, conflicts remained, most dramatically in the War of 1812 that saw the British burn the White House, but also in tensions related to the Monroe Doctrine, disputes over the borders of Oregon, and the so-called 1859 ‘Pig War’ on the Washington/Canadian border (although that one resolved more amicably, with the aforementioned pig being the sole casualty).
Still, nearly a century after the Revolutionary War, most average Britons and Americans no longer held much animosity for each other, given their extensive family connections, shared language, deep financial ties, and similar Protestant outlook. In the American Civil War, Great Britain nominally remained neutral but refused to recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation, effectively isolating and delegitimizing the insurgents to the benefit of the United States. In the post-war world, Britain maintained its economic dominance despite the competition of American heavy manufacturing, but both countries managed to profit substantially. In the decades precceding World War I, known as The Great Rapprochement, the interests of the two now much more similar centralized and industrial nations continued to come together.
While the United States tried to officially remain neutral in World War I, its citizens gave enthusiastic aid and support to the British side. Even in the absence of official government support, many grassroots efforts throughout the United States even tried to renounce the appearance of German sympathy, such as the attempt to rename East Germantown, Indiana as Pershing. While trying to remain a non-combatant in the second World War, efforts such as Lend-Lease still made clear both official and popular American sympathies were with the British, and despite technically being attacked by Japan, the United States focused first on defeating the Axis power that most directly menaced the United Kingdom.
In the aftermath of World War II, the greatly depleted United Kingdom gave way to the United States as ‘leader’ in the Western world. America took on many of the roles Britain had perfomed as the Cold War took shape, against the shared enemy of Communism. Shared military alliances such as NATO and unprecedented cooperation in intelligence-gathering and nuclear defenses characterized the era, now defined by the first use of the term ‘special relationship’ by Winston Churchill.
The two world powers have continued to support each other in warfare and economics. Coalition armies, especially in Middle Eastern conflicts, have been commonplace. The United States has been an economic support to the UK as it undergoes the process of Brexit, and the two countries have shared research and intelligence in the era of COVID. Despite periodic political differences over the decades, the partnership between the United Kingdom and United States has been one of the closest and durable alliances in modern history. A far cry from the bitterness that characterized the War of Independence, and a model of hope for other nations currently in conflict. This Independence Day (as have all in living memory) will be distinguished by celebration without recrimination – no effigies of King George III will be burned; only fireworks.
Good research databases for British/American relations include American History Online (also a good source of primary documents), Britannica Online Academic Edition, Early Encounters in North America, ProQuest History, and America History and Life; as well as books like Anglo-American Relations: Contemporary Perspectives by Alan Dobso or the Historical Dictionary of Anglo-American Relations by Sylvia Ellis. Many of these sources were used for the links above.
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