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A World on Fire

A World on Fire

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Written by Amanda ForemanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Amanda Foreman

  • Format: eBook
  • Publisher: Random House
  • On Sale: June 28, 2011
  • Price: $15.99
  • ISBN: 978-0-679-60397-9 (0-679-60397-2)
EXCERPT

one

The Uneasy Cousins

Britain and America-Divisions over slavery-Lord Palmerston-Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Stafford House Address-Charles Dickens's disappointment-The caning of Charles Sumner

For seventy-five years after the War of Independence, the British approach to dealing with the Americans had boiled down to one simple tactic: to be "very civil, very firm, and to go our own way."1 During the late 1850s, the prevailing view in London was that Washington could not be trusted. "These Yankees are most disagreeable Fellows to have to do anything about any American Question," the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, had complained in 1857 to Lord Clarendon, his foreign secretary, fourteen months before Lord Lyons's arrival in America. "They are on the Spot, strong . . . totally unscrupulous and dishonest and determined somehow or other to carry their Point."2 It went without saying that the Foreign Office expected Lyons to be on guard against any American chicanery.

One of the legacies of the War of 1812 was a British fear that the United States might try to annex British North America (as Canada was then known), accompanied by a conviction among Americans that they should never stop trying. It was neither forgiven nor forgotten in England that precious ships and men had had to be diverted from the desperate war against Napoleon Bonaparte in order to defend Canada from three invasion attempts by the United States between 1812 and 1814. London regarded the burning of Washington and the White House by British soldiers in August 1814 as a well-deserved retribution for the sacking of York (later called Toronto) by American troops.

Lyons soon discovered, as had each of his predecessors, that the War of 1812 had not only an entirely different meaning in the United States, but also a different outcome. In American histories, Britain had provoked the war by her arrogant and unreasonable behavior, first, by blockading all ports under Napoleonic rule, thereby stifling American trade, and second, by boarding American ships in search of deserters from the Royal Navy. The practice of "impressing" American sailors* into the navy was considered beyond the pale, especially when it took place off the coast of Virginia.3 Despite furious protests from Washington, the number of American citizens wrongly impressed had steadily increased over the years, and by 1812 the tally had reached over six thousand. But when the U.S. Congress declared war on June 8, 1812, it was to stop a practice that had already been disavowed by the English; just two days earlier, in London, the British government had agreed to stop impressment-too late to affect the outcome of the debates in Washington.

The peace treaty signed by Britain and America in 1814, the Treaty of Ghent, was based on the assumption that the war had been a draw since no territory was lost or gained by either side. However, news of the treaty had not yet reached the British and American armies facing each other in New Orleans, and a battle still took place on January 26. Though a small engagement compared to the great battles unfolding in Europe, it was a decisive American victory. General Andrew Jackson's force of four thousand men managed to defeat a British expedition almost three times its size. The fact that this stunning victory occurred after peace had been declared was later brushed aside in the telling. Two great American myths were born: that Andrew Jackson won the war, and that he had not only put the British in their place, but also crushed the army that had defeated Napoleon.

The failure of the United States to conquer Canada during the war had come as a great surprise to many Americans. Former president Thomas Jefferson wrote to a colleague in August 1812, "The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent."4 Over the next few decades, politicians often expressed their desire to expel England from the "American continent." When small local rebellions broke out in Quebec and Toronto in 1837, it came as no surprise to the British to learn that President Martin Van Buren had ostentatiously invoked international law and declared U.S. neutrality, or that American sympathizers were providing arms and volunteers to the rebels. By announcing "neutrality," Van Buren elevated the uprising of a few hundred Canadians to the standard applied to an international war, giving hope to Americans who believed that a Canada free from British "shackles" would want to join the Union.5

That the original thirteen states would increase in number over the years had never been in doubt, but whether these new states would allow slavery was a question that had troubled Americans from the beginning. When the first Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, five of the thirteen*-Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut-had abolished slavery, and eight-New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia-had not. There had been slaves in America since 1619-one year before the arrival of the Mayflower. And at the time of independence, one in five of the 4 million ex-colonists were black. The Convention agreed on a compromise, the first of many that would be tried until the Civil War. Slavery was left alone, but the slave trade was given a twenty-one-year time limit. After 1808, the importation of slaves was to be banned.

The invention in 1793 of Eli Whitney's cotton gin (which separated the tough cotton fibers from their seeds, saving many hours of manual labor), however, meant that slavery not only continued but also even flourished in the Southern states. The demand for cotton by England's textile mills was apparently inexhaustible and within two years after Whitney's gin arrived in the South, shipments of cotton across the Atlantic had increased from roughly 130,000 pounds a year to more than 1.5 million. The rise of cotton over rice, tobacco, or corn as the primary Southern crop coincided with the government's acquisition of the Louisiana territories from the French in 1803. The United States doubled in size as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, opening up to development and potential statehood more than 820,000 square miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. Instead of dying out, as some of the original framers of the Constitution had hoped, slavery was spreading north and west.

By 1819 the thirteen states had become twenty-two, evenly split between free and slave states. But in 1819 the territory of Missouri applied to join the Union, and the balance was suddenly upset. Missouri straddled the implied boundary established by the Mason- Dixon Line; both the Northern and Southern states claimed her as one of their own. Both feared what would happen to the balance of power in the Senate, where each state sent two senators regardless of size or population. By now, the two regions were developing separate though intertwined economies. The Northern states were hurtling toward industrialization, building factories, constructing cities, and developing financial institutions; the Southern states kept to their agricultural base, received fewer immigrants, and developed an alternative financial system based on the buying and selling of slaves and cotton.* The majority of Northerners could read and write; in the South, the literacy rate was less than half. The growing political, economic, and cultural differences between the North and South could not be easily reconciled. Finally, in 1820, Congress agreed to the "Missouri Compromise," which admitted Missouri as a new state to the Union, with slavery allowed. As a balance, however, Maine was admitted as a free state, and the future growth of slavery was confined to new states south of the Missouri border. The Southern states suddenly became deeply interested in the expansion of the United States into Mexico and Central America.

Britain could not help becoming entangled in these territorial disputes. In 1823, President James Monroe announced the "Monroe Doctrine," which essentially called for the Old World to stay on its side of the Atlantic and allow the New World to develop without interference. Since Britain had possessions and interests on both continents, this was neither desirable nor possible for her.* After a decade as foreign secretary, from 1830 to 1841, Lord Palmerston had become thoroughly exasperated by the continuous bickering between the two countries over Canada's borders. "It never answers to give way [to the Americans]," he wrote in January 1841, "because they always keep pushing on their own encroachments as far as they are permitted to do so; and what we dignify by the names of moderation and conciliation, they naturally enough call fear."6 Palmerston followed his own advice in the case of a British subject named Alexander McLeod, who was being held in a New York prison on the charge of murder. McLeod had been arrested in November 1840 after he drunkenly boasted in a New York bar of killing an American sympathizer who had been on his way to take part in the Canadian revolts of 1837. Palmerston informed Washington that McLeod's execution "would produce war; war immediate and frightful in its character."7 Hints from William H. Seward, the governor of New York, that he would pardon McLeod once the public outcry had petered out had no effect on Palmerston's determination to go to war unless the prisoner was released. Fortunately, a jury acquitted McLeod since there was no evidence against him except his own bibulous lies.8

Palmerston's approach to American issues was a reflection of his general attitude toward foreign policy: that Britain's interests should never be sacrificed to satisfy her friends or appease her enemies. His unapologetic nationalism made him widely disliked in Europe. According to legend, a Frenchman once complimented him by saying, "If I were not a Frenchman, I should wish to be an Englishman." To that Palmerston replied, "If I were not an Englishman, I should wish to be an Englishman." The Germans complained, "Hat der Teufel einen Sohn, / So ist er sicher Palmerston" ("If the Devil has a son, surely he must be Palmerston"). Palmerston's willingness to use the Royal Navy, which was the largest in the world, at the slightest provocation earned him the sobriquet "Lord Pumicestone" among his detractors. It was also noticed that Palmerston employed his gunboat diplomacy only against smaller nations such as Greece, while his manner toward the other Great Powers of Europe (France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia) was far more conciliatory.

Palmerston's attitudes had been formed in the age when wigs and rouge were worn by men as well as women. He had personally witnessed the first wave of violent revolutions in Europe as a child when his parents joined the retinue of friends and relations escorting Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, through France. The family's brief but terrifying experience at the hands of a citizens' committee in Paris left Palmerston with only tepid faith in the ability of the lower classes to make rational decisions. During the first half of his political career, Palmerston was better known for his womanizing (which won him his initial nickname of "Lord Cupid") than for his work at the War Office, where he toiled diligently for twenty years at the midlevel post of secretary for war. But

apart from his enjoyment of female company-the more the better- Palmerston was in every other way a serious politician whose capacity for long hours and hard work almost incited a rebellion among the clerks when he became foreign secretary in 1830. It was a shame, Florence Nightingale remarked after she came to know the real Palmerston, that people accepted his jocular, almost flippant manner at face value, since "he was so much more in earnest than he appeared." Once his slumbering humanitarian instincts were aroused by a particular cause, he could act with unbounded zeal. The abolition of the slave trade became a lifelong obsession as Palmerston painstakingly attempted to create an impregnable web of international treaties that would allow the navy the right to search suspected slave ships in any part of the world.

One of the driving forces behind Palmerston's enmity toward the United States was its refusal to agree to a slave trade treaty. To his mind, the acts abolishing the slave trade in 1807 and then slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833 had joined such other events as the Glorious Revolution and Waterloo in the pantheon of great moments in the nation's history. For many Britons, the eradication of slavery around the globe was not simply an ideal but an inescapable moral duty, since no other country had the navy or the wealth to see it through. At the beginning of 1841, Palmerston had almost concluded the Quintuple Treaty, which would allow the Royal Navy to search the merchant ships of the Great Powers. "If we succeed," Palmerston told the House of Commons on April 15, 1841, "we shall have enlisted in this league . . . every state in Christendom which has a flag that sails on the ocean, with the single exception of the United States of North America."9 The Quintuple Treaty was signed, but without the signature of the United States. As a consequence, the slave trade continued exclusively under the American flag. The one concession Britain did obtain-and this was not accomplished by Palmerston, who was out of government between 1841 and 1846-was the formation of joint patrols with the U.S. Navy off the West African coast.

Whether Palmerston was foreign secretary, however, made no difference to the constant wrangling or the relentless expansion of the Union over the lands of Native Americans as well as British-held territories. Three years later, in 1844, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, James Polk, ran on a platform that all of Britain's Oregon territories right up to Russian America should be annexed by the United States. "The only way to treat John Bull is to look him in the eye," Polk wrote in his diary. "If Congress falters or hesitates in their course, John Bull will immediately become arrogant and more grasping in his demands."10 Polk's claim for all the land as far as what is now southern Alaska resulted in the popular slogan "Fifty-four Forty or Fight!" (meaning that the new boundary line should be drawn along the 54°40' parallel). But the expected fight never occurred; Texas joined the Union as a slave state in 1845, and a year later President Polk declared war on Mexico, a far less dangerous opponent. The British foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, who shied away from gunboat diplomacy, was willing to negotiate, and the Oregon Treaty was signed in June 1846, giving all of present-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho to the United States.11 Victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848 resulted in the United States acquiring a further 600 million acres, most of them below the Mason-Dixon Line. There were now thirty states in the Union, once again in an even split between slave and free.

Excerpted from A World on Fire by Amanda Foreman Copyright © 2011 by Amanda Foreman. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.