John Bull & Uncle Sam - Four Centuries of British-American Relations

two men seated, talkingIn the more than 200 years since the American Revolution, the United States and Great Britain have moved from enmity to a firm alliance often spoken of as the "special relationship." However, the road to this friendship was not smooth.

The hostility aroused in the United States by the American Revolution was inflamed by various disputes that arose between the two nations during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). The main issue was the forcible seizure of American seamen by the British Navy but disputes also arose about commerce, Indian policy, and boundaries. The spiraling anger culminated in what is known in the United States as the War of 1812, a conflict considered in Britain as a sideshow to the struggle against Napoleon. More or less a draw, the war was concluded in 1814 by the Treaty of Ghent. The treaty resolved none of the issues for which the United States had fought, but it created a framework for future friendly relations between the United States and Great Britain.

In the following decades, the two nations quarreled about the Canadian boundary but settled the disputes by negotiation. The American Civil War brought Britain and the United States to the edge of hostilities because of attacks against Union commerce by Southern ships fitted out in British ports. After the war the British apologized to the United States for their part in the actions of the Confederate marauders and paid a large indemnity for losses suffered, a sign that the United States had emerged from the war as a powerful nation whose good will Britain now wished to secure.

The last significant foreign-policy dispute between the United States and Britain occurred in 1895 over an American demand that Britain submit to international arbitration its dispute with Venezuela about the western boundary of British Guiana, near which gold had been discovered. Because neither the United States nor Britain wanted trouble, the dispute was resolved amicably.

Ever since the United States fought at Britain's side during World War I, relations between the two countries have grown so close that they habitually act in concert in war and diplomacy. The alliance of what Winston Churchill memorably called the "English-speaking peoples" in World War II is still fresh in many memories. Recent headlines about the cooperation between the two nations in the Balkans demonstrate that the "special relationship" shows no signs of weakening.

Alleged British Atrocities

This cartoon, alleging British atrocities, was produced at the beginning of the War of 1812 and reproduced by American publishers trying to whip up anti-British sentiment. It may have been inspired by a massacre at Chicago in the aftermath of which British Army Colonel Henry Proctor purchased American scalps.

William Charles. "A Scene on the Frontiers as Practiced by the Humane British and Their Worthy Allies!" Philadelphia: 1812. Etching with watercolor. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (62)

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The British Burn the Library of Congress

On August 24, 1814, a British force led by General Robert Ross (1766-1814) and Admiral George Cockburn (1772-1853) burned Washington's principal government buildings, including the Capitol, which contained the Library of Congress. To an American bystander, who complained about the burning of the "elegant library," the Admiral expressed his regret, asserting that he made war "neither against Letters nor Ladies."

G. Thompson. "The Taking of the City of Washington in America." London: G. Thompson, October 14, 1814. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (63)

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The Book That Survived the Fire

Until 1940 it was thought that no Library of Congress book had survived the burning of the Capitol. In that year, a benefactor of the Library, Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach (1876-1952), presented to the Library the volume seen here, which Admiral Cockburn took as a souvenir. It bears this notation, said to be in Cockburn's hand: "taken in the President's room in the Capitol, at the destruction of that building by the British, on the capture of Washington 24th, August 1814."

An Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of the United States for the Year 1810. Washington, D.C.: A.G. Way, 1812. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

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The "Star-Spangled Banner"

Here is a copy, written in 1840 by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), of the words for the"Star-Spangled Banner." A Washington attorney, Key witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor on the night of September 13 14, 1814. Exhilarated by the successful defense of the fort, Key wrote the words that became in 1931 the national anthem of the United States.

Francis Scott Key. The Star-Spangled Banner. Washington, D.C., October 21, 1840. Holograph manuscript. Music Division, Library of Congress (65)

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Queen Victoria Rebuffs the Confederacy

In this cartoon the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis (1801-1889), seeking recognition of the independence of the southern states by France and Britain, is rebuffed by Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Napoleon III (1808-1873). In one hand Davis carries a plate of cotton, with which the South hoped to sway Britain because its textile industry was dependent on the supply of Southern cotton. Queen Victoria declared Britain neutral on May 13, 1861.

"Ye Conference. 'Not Any We Thank You Mr. Davis'." Cincinnati: Ehrgott and Forbriger, 1861. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (67)

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British Civil War Artists

Alfred Waud (1828-1891) and Frank Vizetelly (1830-ca.1883), both British, were two of the most accomplished sketch artists covering the Civil War. Waud drew throughout the war for Harper's Weekly; Vizetelly, who sympathized with the South, drew for the Illustrated London News. In this sketch by Waud of General Daniel Sickles (1825-1914) and his staff, reconnoitering along the Potomac River, Vizetelly is depicted as the civilian riding at Sickles's side.

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Britannia Sympathizes with Columbia

This drawing, expressing the widespread sympathy in Britain for the grief felt in the United States after Lincoln's assassination, appeared in the popular British magazine, Punch . The artist was John Tenniel (1820-1914), the famous illustrator of Alice in Wonderland.

John Tenniel. "Britannia Sympathises with Columbia." Punch, May 6, 1865, p. 183. General Collections, Library of Congress (71)

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Queen Victoria consoles Mary Todd Lincoln

This moving letter of condolence to Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882), suffering from the shock of her husband's assassination, was written by Queen Victoria (1819-1901) from her residence on the Isle of Wight, to which she frequently withdrew under the weight of melancholy over the loss of her own husband, Prince Albert (1819-1861). The prince was, she told Mrs. Lincoln, "the light of my Life my stay my all" whose death in 1861 had left her "utterly broken-hearted."

Queen Victoria. Letter to Mary Todd Lincoln, April 29, 1865. Page 2 Envelope: Front - Back, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (72)

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The Alabama Claims

The damage inflicted on Union shipping by the C.S.S. Alabama and other Confederate commerce raiders built in Britain during the Civil War threatened to provoke war between America and Britain. In this cartoon Jefferson Davis assaults the Union, represented by a soldier enveloped by a Copperhead (an epithet for a southern sympathizer in the North) with a club labeled the "Pirate Alabama," furnished by Britain, depicted as John Bull, lurking behind the Confederate president.

Oliver Evans Wood. "The Pending Conflict." Philadelphia: Herline and Hensel, Lith., 1863. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (73)

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The Venezuelan Boundary Crisis

This cartoon by John Tenniel shows Britain, in the person of Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, conciliating the American eagle, representing Secretary of State, Richard Olney (1835-1917), who in 1895 accused Britain of violating the Monroe Doctrine by attempting to appropriate lands claimed by Venezuela in a gold-producing area bordering British Guiana. The territorial dispute was settled by arbitration.

John Tenniel. "Pretty Dick!" Punch, February 8, 1896, p. 67. Engraving. General Collections, Library of Congress (75)

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World War I Songs

World War I produced a flood of patriotic songs, written by popular and obscure composers alike. Here is an example of the latter, showing an American soldier arriving in Europe and greeting British and French compatriots.

James Anderson. We're Over. Warren, Ohio: Halkett and Anderson, 1918. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (78)

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Wilson's Fourteen Points

On January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), presented to Congress a list of Fourteen Points that would constitute the basis for a peace settlement of World War I acceptable to the United States. The fourteenth and final point called for the establishment of a League of Nations, which the United States Senate ultimately refused to permit the nation to join.

Woodrow Wilson. Shorthand Notes for Fourteen Points Speech, [January 1918], p. 6. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (80)

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Wilson at Buckingham Palace

This photograph was taken at Buckingham Palace on December 26, 1918, and signed by President and Mrs. Wilson (1872-1961), King George V (1865-1936), Queen Mary (1867-1953) and Princess Mary (1897-1965) during Wilson's triumphal tour of Great Britain in the last week of December 1918. During the tour the President took a brief trip to Carlisle, England, the birthplace of his mother.

British Royal Family with President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson at Buckingham Palace, December 26, 1918. Gelatin silver photograph. Wilson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (81)

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Lend Lease in Action

During World War II, under the authority of the Lend Lease Act of March 11, 1941, the United States distributed more than fifty billion dollars of aid to Britain and other allied powers who were unable to pay for the necessities needed to conduct the war. In this photograph, shot in December 1941, British children, evacuated from London's East End, are receiving a meal made from American dehydrated vegetables, provided under the Lend Lease program.

Lend Lease in Action: Vegetables for British Children, Office of War Information, December, 1941. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (84)

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Pro- and Anti- war Sentiment in Song

World War II inspired American song writers to write patriotic music, much of it dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the British people. Before the U.S. entered the war, some Americans, opposed to another involvement in a European conflict, also found their voice in songs.

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  • The Duncan Sisters. "Let's Not Go Over There." Chicago: D.L. Winter, 1940. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (85b)

  • Marce Smith and Eddie Lundquist. "Fight on Britain-Fight On." Los Angeles: Marce Smith and Eddie Lundquist, 1941. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (86c)

  • Abner Silver and Mann Curtis. "Let's Stand Behind Great Britain." New York: Lincoln Music Corp., 1941, pp. 1 and 4. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (85a)

  • Earl Watters and Ken Bradshaw. "We Won't Be Over Till It's Over Over There." Bloomington, Illinois: Watters and Bradshaw, 1940. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (86d)

  • Fred Wise, Milton Leeds, and Harry Donnelly. "Carry On London Town." New York: Sheldon-Mitchell Publishing Corporation, 1941. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (85d)

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The Joint Air War Against Germany

These charts show the mutual British-American contributions to the air war against the Axis powers in 1943. The British effort far exceeded the American at this point, although the balance shifted as the war progressed and as the growth of the American Army Air Force accelerated.

Charts Comparing RAF and USAAF fighter operations, November 3, 1943. Chart 2, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (87a,b)

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Night and Day

The point of this cartoon, based on the American popular song "Night and Day" is that the American Air Force, commanded by General Ira Eaker (1896-1987), bombed Germany during daylight hours and the British, commanded by Air Marshal Portal (1885-1949), bombed at night.

Corporal Sweeney. Night and Day Cartoon, ca. 1940s. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (89)

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An Air Force Dance Band

American popular music, especially jazz, became extremely popular in Britain after World War I, a popularity that has persisted. The "Flying Yanks," advertised here as playing a benefit for the British Red Cross in Derby, were a highly regarded World War II Air Force Dance band.

"Flying Yanks." Derby, England, July 31, 1943. Poster. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (91)

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Churchill and Roosevelt

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) established a close working relationship even before the United States officially entered World War II. The meetings the two leaders held in August 1941 at Argentia Bay off Newfoundland resulted in the promulgation of the Atlantic Charter. General George Marshall (1880-1959) and General Sir John Dill (1881-1944) are standing behind and to the left of the two statesmen.

Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Atlantic Conference, Argentia Bay, August 8 12, 1941. Copyprint. W. Averell Harriman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (92)

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Churchill Addresses the Virginia General Assembly

In Churchill's speech of March 9, 1946, to the Virginia General Assembly, he salutes Virginia as "the cradle of the Great Republic" and reminisces about "so much of what we have in common," including the "light of the Elizabethan age, with Shakespeare, Raleigh and Grenville." Churchill concluded by asserting that "among the English-speaking peoples, there must be the union of hearts based upon conviction and common ideals."

Churchill's Address to the Virginia General Assembly, March 9, 1946, Page 2. Carbon copy with holograph revisions. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (93a,b)

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Art Celebrates Victory

On April 20, 1946, at a ceremony in the Library of Congress, British novelist W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) presented an autograph copy of his novel Of Human Bondage, originally titled, "Beauty for Ashes" to repay the debt owed the Americans for shelter during the recent war. Maugham stated: "it is not only for my own small family, but for all those of my fellow countrymen who found refuge on these shores that I wish to offer this manuscript to you . . .as an acknowledgment of the debt we owe you."

W. Somerset Maugham. Of Human Bondage, 1914. Page 2, Page 3, Page 4, Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (95)

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The Marshall Plan

In 1947 Secretary of State George Marshall proposed a plan under the terms of which the government of the United States granted billions of dollars to the nations of western Europe to enable them to rebuild their war ravaged economies. Here a British family is seen receiving food from the United States under the auspices of the Marshall Plan.

"Something For Everyone." The Marshall Plan in Action, 1950. Copyprint. W. Averell Harriman Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (96)

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