How Victorians Fell in Love with American Rebels

By Stephen Basdeo

The much vaunted ‘special relationship’ between the USA and the UK is a fairly recent invention. For much of the Victorian period, relations between the two nations were anything but cordial—and why should they be otherwise? USA had achieved its independence from a nation it saw as tyrannical. Relations between the two countries’ politicians and their people, generally remained frosty.

After America had won its independence from Britain in 1783, hostilities flared up again during the Napoleonic Wars—the result of this was the War of 1812, in which British forces burned down the White House.

Fig. 11
The Declaration of American Independence

There was significant opposition to the War of 1812 in both Britain and United States. In the latter country, a significant number of newspapers voiced their opposition to what they saw as an unnecessary war. Much of the opposition rested upon war being anathema to Christian principles instead of any warm feelings towards their former colonial masters, and clergymen were especially vocal in this regard. What worried many commentators in the press were the government’s purported plans for an invasion of Canada. This measure, Josiah Dunham warned, would not only be costly in economic terms and give little reward, but would also lead to soldiers being quartered in Americans’ homes:

Homes would be converted to barracks, granaries plundered, and pockets rifled “to pay mercenary slaves of that government, which was instituted for your protection.”’[1]

This was a war which neither side won, in which no side gained anything in terms of territory and relations between the two countries continued to be frosty.

the-british-burn-washington-dc-200-years-agos-featured-photo
W.H. Freeman’s depiction of the burning of the White House during the War of 1812. Costly and pointless, the result was status quo ante bellum.

Dunham objected to war on Christian and humanitarian grounds only but even into the 1840s, anti-English sentiment in some parts of America could be stirred up by the most trivial matters. In New York City, the Astor Place Riots occurred in May 1849 because some New Yorkers objected to seeing an Englishman perform the role of Macbeth on stage when there was an American playing at a rival theatre. A street poster at the time, produced by one of the ‘nativists’, read:

WORKING MEN!

SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE!

IN THIS CITY?

——–

The crew of the British Steamer have threatened all Americans who shall dare to express their opinions this night at the

ENGLISH ARISTOCRATIC!

OPERA HOUSE!

We advocate no violence but a free expression of opinion to all public men.

WORKING MEN! FREEMEN!

STAND BY YOUR LAWFUL RIGHTS!

American Committee.[2]

The quoted passage has retained the original punctuation; this was a message designed to inspire fear and Anglophobia among New Yorkers, recalling as it does English aristocratic tyranny and the threat of British naval power, which was, what we might term today, ‘Fake News’, given that no British steamer threatened New Yorkers in 1849. That handbill was written and published by Ned Buntline (his real name was Edward Zane Carroll Judson, Sr), a writer whose novel entitled The Mysteries of New York (1848–9) depicts all of the notorious criminals in the slums of New York as being English immigrants.

George Washington, the man who led the colonists’ forces to successive victories and eventual independence from the British Empire, got some favourable treatment in Britain as early as 1831 with the publication of The Refugees. In this novel Washington was described as a ‘consummate General’. The rights to Washington Irving’s Life of George Washington were purchased by British publishers and printed in the UK. The book received very favourable reviews particularly in the radical press.[3] George Washington was, in the pantheon of Chartist democrats, one of the great popular leaders of history, equal to Wat Tyler, Voltaire, Thomas Paine. Authors on the radical end of the spectrum back in Britain had in fact always looked to America as a shining example of egalitarian democracy, with the people of the United States, in the words of Reynolds’s Newspaper in 1850, having ‘struck boldly into a sublime and wonderful path’ away from the shackles of royal and aristocratic tyranny.[4]

Fig. 80
George William MacArthur Reynolds. A bold radical who was unafraid to point out the wrongs of the empire.

Yet soon the idealization of American leaders in British popular culture would not be confined only to radicals.

In Britain, as the nineteenth century progressed, the children’s literature ‘industry’ flourished (it warrants the term ‘industry’ because books for children were pumped out of presses at a very fast rate). As I write in my forthcoming Heroes and Villains of the British Empire (2020), the heroes of these novels were usually British to the core and the plot—to read one is to read them all—usually sees them participating in some pivotal event in the rise of the British Empire. A famous writer of these kinds of novels was G.A. Henty who produced a stream of badly written novels whose imperial themes are evident by their titles alone (a selection of these is below):

Jack Archer: A Tale of the Crimea (1883)

Under Drake’s Flag: A Tale of the Spanish Main (1883)

By Sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti War (1884)

With Clive in India: The Beginnings of an Empire (1884)

The books by Henty, and other by the likes of R.M. Ballantyne, also appealed to children, most of whom now possessed a basic degree of literacy due to the provisions of the Education Act (1870): they were lavishly illustrated and decoratively bound in cloth with exciting pictures on the front. Although a little bit pricey at over 5 shillings per volume, many kids received these books as school prizes and Sunday school prizes.

While the content of many of these ‘imperialist’ novels was highly patriotic and intended to glorify the imperial civilising mission and stress the importance of service to the empire, around the 1880s books began to be written, by British authors, which glorified the lives of eminent American statesmen from whose example, so these writers argued, valuable life lessons could be taught.

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One bestselling book was Heroes of the Great Republic (1880). The author was not credited on the title pages of any of the editions published, but it is likely to have been Eva Hope, the author of the aforementioned biography of General Gordon, as the author who is credited in the book is listed as ‘the author of The Life of Gordon, Livingstone, and Stanley’. The book was the type that was presented as a school prize for merit or good attendance (my personal copy, as well as a copy that has been scanned on the Internet Archive, contains ex libris plate indicating its status as a gift from a teacher). It provided readers with lengthy biographies of Abraham Lincoln, General Grant, Robert E. Lee, President Garfield, and Lloyd Garrison. They prefaced their collection of biographies with the following words:

To the young men of Great Britain, whose only inheritance is the heritage of work, this story of the lives of New World Heroes is affectionately dedicated, in the hope that it may inspire them with hope and courage for the race that is before them. The wish of the compiler is that as it is read by British firesides, the eyes of young men may brighten with new resolution – many hearts beat with fresh determination. That which in character Lincoln, Garfield, Garrison, Lee, and Grant were, others may become. The possibilities of developing character and courage that faced them stand waiting, in their degree, for those who have the power to do them. The tall giant who emancipated the slaves, and the gentlemanly scholar whose guiding star was Honesty, the noble orator, the generals who bravely fought, being dead, yet speak; and their cry rings through the land – LIVE WORTHILY, NOT FOR THYSELF, BUT FOR THY FELLOW MAN, AND FOR THY GOD! And it will surely reach the ears, and sink into the hearts of some whom the future shall crown as New Heroes of the Old World![5]

In that passage we have the three of the imperialist ‘public school’ qualities listed: duty, chivalry, and Christian service. America, in fact, developed private schools which were comparable to British public schools in both their ideology. The biography of James Garfield (1831–81) spoke of his formative years at Hiram College, Ohio, which in Garfield’s day was known as Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, in terms which would not have been out of place in an English ‘public school’ biography or novel, commenting upon his ‘strong framed, deep-chested’ appearance, being a godly boy who was ever ready to serve others.[6]

Lee Social Card
Robert E Lee. One of the many ‘inspirational’ Americans listed in Heroes of the Great Republic.

Henty did write a novel about the American Revolution entitled True to the Old Flag (1885), and by the title it will be evident that this was not a story about a young boy joining Washington’s army but was instead about a lad who remains loyal to the British. Victorian historians more generally, as Helen Kingstone has shown, had a very odd attitude towards telling the story of their recent history. Most national histories, she argues, come to a sudden halt with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and still fewer Victorian novelists depicted the events of the American War of Independence (The exception to this of course was Pierce Egan the Younger in Paul Jones, and William Makepeace Thackeray. The latter, Kingstone points out, had a peculiar fascination with the eighteenth century, and even had his protagonists in The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century (1857–9) take up arms against the British. The serialisation of Thackeray’s novel did quite well, with each number selling approximately 13,000 copies on average).[7]

Fig. 81

Ever the empire’s cheerleader, Henty sought to put as favourable a gloss on Britain’s defeat in 1783:

MY DEAR LADS,

You have probably been accustomed to regard the war between England and her colonies in America as one in which we were not only beaten but, to some extent, humiliated. Owing to the war having been an unsuccessful one for our arms, British writers have avoided the subject, and it has been left for American historians to describe. These, writing for their own countrymen, and drawing for their facts upon gazettes, letters, and other documents emanating from one side only, have, naturally, and no doubt insensibly, given a very strong color to their own views of the events, and English writers have been too much inclined to accept their account implicitly. There is, however, another and very different side to the story, and this I have endeavoured to show you. The whole of the facts and details connected with the war can be relied upon as accurate. They are drawn from the valuable account of the struggle written by Major Steadman, who served under Howe, Clinton, and Cornwallis, and from other authentic contemporary sources. You will see that, although unsuccessful,—and success was, under the circumstances, a sheer impossibility,—the British troops fought with a bravery which was never exceeded, and that their victories in actual conflict vastly outnumbered their defeats. Indeed, it may be doubted whether in any war in which this country has been engaged have our soldiers exhibited the qualities of endurance and courage to a higher degree.[8]

History books were another matter: when national histories published in the latter part of the Victorian era dealt with the American Revolution—and as Kingstone points out this was rare—they unsurprisingly cast England in as favourable light as possible. In J. R. Green’s A Short History of the English People (1874), for example, we find that historian imply that the existence of the independent nation of America was just another manifestation of the greatness of the British Empire:

What startled men most at the time [of American independence] was the discovery that England was not ruined by the loss of her colonies or by the completeness of her defeat. She rose from it indeed stronger and greater than ever. During the twenty years which followed she wrestled almost singlehanded against the energy of the French Revolution, as well as the colossal force of Napoleonic tyranny, and came out of one struggle unconquered and out of the other a conqueror. Never had England stood higher among the nations of the Old World than after Waterloo; but she was already conscious that that her real greatness lay not in the Old World but in the New. From the moment of the Declaration of Independence it mattered little whether England counted for less or more with the nations around her. She was no longer a European power, no longer a rival of Germany or Russia or France. She was from that hour a mother of nations. In America she had begotten a great people, and her emigrant ships were still to carry on the movement of the Teutonic race from which she herself had sprung.[9]

Fig. 55
The British Empire in the Late Victorian Era

Green’s words were partially true; the British Empire reached its greatest extent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In spite of the Thirteen Colonies having broken away from the empire, Green’s lauding of the United States as a legacy of the imperial project was tied explicitly to English greatness; the colonization of the Americas had contributed to the supremacy of the Teutonic race. English history was in effect a global history:

The history of France has little result beyond France itself. German or Italian history has no direct issue outside the bounds of Germany or Italy. But England is only a small part of the outcome of English history. Its greater issues lie not within the narrow limits of the mother island, but in the destinies of nations yet to be. The struggles of her patriots, the wisdom of her statesmen, the steady love of liberty and law in her people at large, were shaping in the past of our little island the future of mankind.[10]

Yet however much some British writers sought to inculcate a respect for American statesmen in their works, further diplomatic disputes occurred between the two nations as the nineteenth century progressed, particularly in regard to boundary disputes with British North America, or Canada; some politicians in Britain had even expressed a willingness to support the Confederacy in the American Civil War, although in the end the United Kingdom remained neutral. During the 1890s, tensions between the two nations flared up again during a boundary dispute between British Guiana and Venezuela, with the Americans supporting the latter nation’s claims.

cb03-020_puck_1898_j_2d5973
This image, produced around the time of the Great Rapprochement, shows Britannia and Columbia shaking hands ‘After Many Years’. Britannia greets a ‘daughter’ and Columbia greets her ‘mother’. 

It was only after 1895 that ‘the Great Rapprochement’ occurred between the two nations. Although ideas such as a rapprochement should be taken with a pinch of salt, for in the 1930s some American military officials were devising the famous ‘War Plan Red’, which modelled the outcomes of a war between the United Kingdom and the USA.

Nevertheless, had it not been for the ever increasing admiration of Washington and other American statesmen in popular culture, with a generation of diplomats having been raised on tales of American virtue and heroism, perhaps the rapprochement may have come much later?


[1] Josiah Dunham, An Oration, in Commemoration of the Birth of our Illustrious Washington (Windsor, Vt., 1814), pp. 17-18, p. 38, cited in Lawrence Delbert Cress, ‘“Cool and Serious Reflection”: Federalist Attitudes toward War in 1812’, Journal of the Early Republic, 7: 2 (1987), 123-45 (p. 135).

[2] Ned Buntline, Working Men [Handbill] (New York: Order of United Americans, 1849).

[3] Anon. ‘Washington’s Part in the American War’, The Leader, 29 August 1857, 836.

[4] G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘American Republicanism’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 30 March 1851, 1.

[5] Heroes of the Great Republic: Lives of General Grant, General Lee, Abraham Lincoln, President Garfield, Lloyd Garrison (London: Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1880), pp. ix-x.

[6] Ibid., p. 188.

[7] See Helen Kingstone, Victorian Narratives of the Recent Past: Memory, History, Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

[8] G. A. Henty, True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence (London: Blackie, 1885), pp. v-vi.

[9] J. R. Green, A Short History of the English People (London, 1874; repr. New York: Harper, 1879), p. 749.

[10] Ibid.

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