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The U.S. and Great Britain: Origins Of The Special Relationship

Events In The 19th Century

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The U.S. and Great Britain: Origins Of The Special Relationship

President James Monroe, issuer of the Monroe Doctrine.

An 1832 portrait by William James Hubbard
Updated March 18, 2012

When British Prime Minister David Cameron and his family arrived in Washington, D.C., March 14, 2012, he and U.S. President Barack Obama spent a lot of time reaffirming and celebrating what many have called the "special relationship" between the United States and Great Britain.

Obama described that relationship as "rock-solid." He said, "We stand together and we work together and we bleed together and we build together, in good times and in bad, because when we do, our nations are more secure, our people are more prosperous, and the world is a safer and better and more just place. Our alliance is essential -- it is indispensable -- to the security and prosperity that we seek not only for our own citizens, but for people around the world."

With some notable exceptions -- the American Revolution and the War of 1812, to be exact -- the U.S.-British relationship has been rock solid and positive. Here is a quick overview of that relationship's origin in the 19th Century.

Era Of Good Feelings

When the War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814, the U.S. and Great Britain took their first steps into the "special relationship." It began with the Era of Good Feelings.

The era described both a period of short-lived domestic political harmony in the United States, and a period of "rapprochement" between the U.S. and Great Britain. The period saw the two nations formalize and demilitarize the U.S.-Canadian border with the Rush-Bagot Treaty, 1817, and agree to jointly hold the Oregon Territory (today's Oregon, Washington, and parts of Canada, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) in the Convention of 1818.

Monroe Doctrine

The most notable and durable of foreign policies that came out of the era was the Monroe Doctrine. While technically the doctrine was a unilateral American policy, in truth it was a bi-lateral, U.S.-British policy because it could not have survived with the military backing of the Royal Navy.

The doctrine, which U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams drafted and which President James Monroe issued in 1823, warned all European nations that their period of colonization in the Western Hemisphere was over. France had lost most of its possessions in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) then sold most of the rest in the Louisiana Purchase; Spain had lost most of its holdings in a series of Central and South American revolutions. The Monroe Doctrine told those nations to attempt no reconquest in the Western Hemisphere.

Great Britain still held Canada, and it backed the Monroe Doctrine as good for both its imperial defense and trade. By then, the U.S. and Great Britain had embarked on a mutually beneficial trade system. Britain wanted to bi-laterally issue the Monroe Doctrine, but Adams insisted the U.S. do it unilaterally as an expression of the young country's rising prominence. Still, England agreed and tacitly gave the Monroe Doctrine its naval backing; the U.S. Navy then could not have enforced such a wide-ranging policy.

Webster-Ashburton Treaty

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty, 1842, resolved border questions between Maine and Canada, set the U.S.-Canadian border between Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods, and agreed to mutual use of the Great Lakes. Along with the Rush-Bagot accords, Webster-Ashburton paved the way for stable relations in North America between the two governments.

Later, in 1846, President James K. Polk negotiated full U.S. control of the Oregon country south of the 49th Parallel. He did so even though some Americans in the region wanted war with Great Britain to claim the territory as far north as the 54th parallel. Polk anticipated war with Mexico for control of the Southwest, and he prudently saw no reason to aggravate relations with Great Britain.

C.S.S. Alabama Claims and the Treaty of Washington, 1871

The Treaty of Washington, 1871, settled U.S. grievances against England stemming from the U.S. Civil War, and it laid the foundation for international arbitration of disputes.

During the Civil War, even though it declared its neutrality in the conflict, England allowed its shipbuilders to outfit a commerce raider for the rebellious Confederate States of America. Christened the C.S.S. Alabama, the ship wreaked havoc on U.S. shipping throughout the second half of the war.

After the U.S. defeated the Confederacy in 1865, many lawmakers wanted restitution for damage the Alabama had done. Some even called for Great Britain to cede Canada to the U.S. as payment.

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant approved negotiations between his diplomatic team, headed by Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, and a British delegation. They agreed to send the issue, and others including border and fishing disputes, to neutral arbitration.

An arbitration body in Geneva, Switzerland, decided that Great Britain should pay the United States $15.5 million in damages. Great Britain also apologized the the damages.

The Washington Treaty was the most significant use of arbitration up to that time, it signaled the international acceptance of the arbitration settlement method, and it cleared away nagging issues impeding the "Special Relationship."

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