Allitt: Between U.S., Britain, 200 years of peace

Patrick Allitt

This year, 2015, marks 200 years of unbroken Anglo-American peace. The Battle of New Orleans, the last military event of the War of 1812, was also the last time British and American soldiers ever faced each across a battlefield.

Sometimes it’s difficult to notice things that don’t happen in history. But the absence of war between the United States and Britain is one of the most impressive achievements of the last two centuries.

The peace could have broken down. The two nations tiptoed to the brink of war in 1859, disputing the U.S.-Canadian boundary on the Pacific coast. Politicians exchanged angry words but in the end the only casualty was a pig, owned by British settler Charles Griffin. Lyman Cutlar, an American, shot it when it strayed onto his potato patch. We remember the conflict — ultimately settled diplomatically — as “The Pig and Potato War.”

When the American Civil War began two years later, Confederate politicians believed Britain would support the South, because Manchester’s textile factories relied on southern cotton. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, however, waited to see whether the Confederates could actually win battlefield victories. He was furious when the U.S. Navy stopped a British ship, the Trent, on the high seas, and abducted two Confederate diplomats. President Abraham Lincoln was forced to apologize and release them.

The big story of Anglo-American relations since then is one of almost continuous cooperation and support. When World War I began in 1914, America resolved at first to sit out the conflict. But when a German submarine sank the British liner Lusitania in 1915, most Americans regarded the act as one of sheer barbarism. Public opinion shifted strongly toward Britain. America entered the war directly in 1917 after submarines began attacking American ships too. Anglo-American friendship intensified as the allies fought their way to victory in November 1918.

Meanwhile, for several decades, the rich and beautiful daughters of American millionaires had been marrying the impoverished sons of British aristocrats, bringing money to Britain and prestigious titles to America. The most famous example was the 1874 wedding of Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill. Their son, Winston Churchill, was the living embodiment of the Anglo-American “special relationship.”

During these two centuries of peace, English has become the world’s dominant language. Anglo-American institutions including the rule of law and parliamentary democracy have spread across the globe, and the two countries have attained an unrivaled cultural radiance. Let’s use this 200th birthday as an occasion for gratitude and remembrance.

Patrick Allitt is the Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University.