The Essential Unity of Britain and America

THE editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine which has always sought to treat current questions in a broad and impartial way, asks me to say a few words on a subject which is much in men’s minds on both sides of the Atlantic, — the underlying unity of the English and American peoples, and the causes which have produced that sympathy between them which has been so conspicuously displayed during the last few months.

The sense of unity and sympathy between these two peoples ought in reason and nature always to have existed. It has, in point of fact, existed to a much greater extent than has been generally realized. No American can travel in England, no Englishman can travel in America, without realizing it as a stronger force than he could have gathered from a study of the history of the countries since their political separation.

There is indeed much reason for thinking that the irritation which has sometimes been shown in each country at the language used by the government or the newspapers of the other has been due largely to the undercurrent of affection which each felt for the other, and which made unfriendly or affronting expressions more resented than similar language would have been from a nation less closely bound by the ties of blood and literature and historical tradition. However, despite this occasional irritation, the sense of the essential unity of the two branches of the same stock has been growing steadily stronger in Britain during the last twenty years, and the events of these last months have made it more palpably evident in both countries. It is chiefly of Britain, and of the causes which in Britain have been quietly strengthening and ripening this sympathy, that I shall attempt to speak.

Among the changes that have marked our century, no other is so remarkable as the narrowing of the world by steam and electricity, and the bringing of distant countries into close relations with one another. Even the age which saw the discovery of America and the opening of the ocean route to India saw no such revolution in the conditions of industry, trade, and politics as our time has witnessed. It was first in the economic and social sphere that the results of this revolution were perceived. They have now become enormously significant in politics also. The great nations of Europe have stretched forth their arms over the whole globe, and have parceled out among themselves those of its territories which had been previously inhabited by savages or possessed by weak semi-civilized powers, bringing under their control even those regions in which a few of the weaker powers have still been permitted to retain a nominal independence. Russia, which was first in the field, has obtained the whole of northern and large parts of western and eastern Asia. England, besides planting selfgoverning colonies in North America and Australia and South Africa, holds India with its huge and industrious population, large tracts of tropical Africa, and many important posts in other quarters. France has taken a vast area in North Africa, as well as parts of Central Africa and Indo-China. Germany has acquired three wide dominions in Africa, and has begun to appropriate points of vantage elsewhere. Meanwhile, the United States, which in 1798 had only just begun to spread out her population behind the Alleghanies, has now filled the Mississippi Valley, developed the best parts of the Rocky Mountain plateau, and established populous and flourishing communities along more than a thousand miles of the Pacific coast; having, moreover, to the south of her, all the way to Cape Horn, states of only second or third rate strength.

These five nations have now become world powers in a new sense of the word, each — but especially Russia, Britain, and the United States — holding a considerable fraction of the total area of the world. So far as we can foresee, it is in the hands of these five powers that the destiny of the world as a whole will lie, so much stronger are they than any of their competitors.

The great stage is now almost cleared of minor actors, and each of the five great nations looks round on the others, measuring their respective strength, conjecturing their respective purposes, and considering what will be the future relations of each to each. Of the four European powers, no one has any special affinity for any other. They are mutually jealous, and two of them are even hostile to one another. The alliance of Russia and France is not an alliance of natural friendship or sympathy, but is based on the feelings which France entertains toward Germany, and is, moreover, threatened by the divergence of interests and of traditional policy in the Turkish East, which has been a factor in the past, and may reappear as a factor once more.

England has no reason for hostility with any other power. She possesses at least as much territory as she can hope successfully to defend, administer, and develop. Despite the excited language in which some of her writers and speakers occasionally indulge, her people as a whole desire peace and friendship with all other states, and feel that the duty that lies before them is rather to discharge well their existing responsibilities than to seek the further extension of those responsibilities. Nevertheless, England feels that she is regarded by the other three powers — whether justly or unjustly I will not now inquire — with a jealousy which might readily pass into unfriendliness. She perceives that these powers think their interests opposed to hers, although, in truth, peace, confidence, and unshackled commerce are the highest interest of all countries.

In this state of facts, England has been forced to look round and consider with which of the four other world powers she has most natural affinity, and with which of them there is the least likelihood of any clash of interests. That one is unquestionably the United States. We in England have always believed that the special mission of the United States was to build up a vast free, industrious, enlightened, and prosperous community in her magnificent domain between the two oceans, and to set to other peoples an example of orderly self-government, and the elevation of the masses of the people to the highest point yet attained of material wellbeing and intellectual development. This is a task sufficient to employ the energy of the United States for generations to come ; and some of us have thought that it will ultimately be accompanied by the extension of her influence over the Spanish states of Central and South America, reclaiming those regions from misgovernment or barbarism by an infiltration of the surplus population of North America. We have never believed that Canada would raise a dispute between the United States and Britain, because to seize Canada against the will of the Canadian people would be utterly opposed to the first principle of American policy, while to retain a self-governing colony by force against the will of its people would be no less inconsistent with British policy. We have therefore held that the United States would continue to think that she had all the territory she needed. If, however, she should desire to acquire such a transmarine dominion as the Philippine Islands, we should see no possible ground for objection by Britain to such an act. Some of us who know the United States, and love her next to our own country, might think such a step fraught with future difficulties, and might regret it in the interest of the United States herself. But Britain would regard it, so far as her own political and commercial position was concerned, with nothing but satisfaction. Thus the English have seen, and see to-day, no ground for a collision of political interests between themselves and the American republic, and when they study the chessboard of the world they feel the contrast between her position toward them and that of the powers of Continental Europe.

That narrowing of the world, however, whereof I have spoken, and the sudden prominence upon its stage of a few great powers and races, has had another effect. It has intensified the selfconsciousness and the patriotism of each of the races, rousing in each a stronger sentiment of the unity of the race and of the splendor of the part it has to play. Each recalls with a keener pride its achievements in the past; each is more eager to sustain its greatness in the future. Now, although there are five great world powers, there are only four great world races ; for one of the races has embodied itself in two powers, and has built up the North American republic and the oceanic empire of Britain. There has indeed been a large infusion of other elements into the population of the United States, but those elements are mostly drawn from the same sources, Teutonic and Celtic, which form the population of the British Isles, and all have been, or are being, moulded into the same normal American type. That type differs less from the normal British type than the Englishman of Hampshire differs from the Scotchman of Fife or the Irishman of Galway; and the differences which separate the average Englishman and the average American are as nothing in comparison with those which separate either of them from members of any of the other great races. The influences of climate and institutions which tend to differentiate them are less potent than the influences of literature and thought which tend to assimilation. Here in England, at any rate, we never think of natives of the United States as different from ourselves, and when we speak of “ foreigners ” we do not include Americans. Accordingly, whenever we think of what is called — the term may not be a correct one, but it is the best we have — the Anglo-Saxon race, to which we belong, we think of it as a whole, though it dwells on opposite sides of the Atlantic. We think of it as one race, one in character, in temper, in habits, in beliefs, in ideals. That intensified race consciousness which the rivalry of the other great races has produced, that feeling of pride in the occupation and development of the earth’s surface which has grown with the keener competition of recent years, have deepened the sense of solidarity in the scattered members of the race, and drawn Englishmen nearer and nearer to the great branch in the United States, now larger than their own, as well as the smaller branches in Canada and Australasia. Thus it is not with jealousy, but with admiration and sympathy, that the extraordinary progress of the United States in wealth, power, and population has been regarded by the great mass of our people. They have thought of the two countries as partners and fellow workers in securing the ascendency of the language, the free institutions, the ideas, which they themselves cherish, and with whose power and progress they believe the future welfare of humanity to be involved.

To any one who remembers the days of the war of secession the contrast between the sentiment of Britain then and the sentiment now is very striking. It is true that even in 1863 — and this is a fact not realized in America as it deserves to be — the masses of the people hoped for the victory of the North, because they felt that the North stood for human rights and freedom. Those who advocated the Southern cause never ventured to hold an open public meeting, while hundreds of such meetings were held to send good wishes to those who fought against slavery. But it must be admitted that the bulk of the wealthier classes of England, and the newspapers written for those classes, did in those days say many offensive things regarding the United States, and sometimes conveyed the impression — erroneous though that impression was — that England as a whole had ranged herself on the side which every one now admits to have been adverse to the progress of the world and to the welfare of the South itself. Why did the wealthier English class err so grievously ? Partly from ignorance, for in those days the United States were little understood in Europe ; partly from its own political proclivities, which were not generally for freedom. But since 1863 Britain has passed through great political changes. The parliamentary suffrage has been so extended as now to include the immense majority of the working classes, both in town and in country. Members are far more observant of the wishes of their constituents, far more anxious to consult and regard them, than they were in the old days. The political influence of great landowners has almost disappeared. Many laws have been passed for the benefit of the laboring man which no one dreamed of in 1863. Britain has in fact become virtually a democracy, though the affection and reverence felt for the present sovereign have made the Crown more popular than ever. Britain is indeed in some points more democratic than the United States, for her legislature is not restrained by any such constitutional provisions as limit the powers of Congress. Thus there has come about a notable change in the tone of British public opinion. In 1863 the masses of the English people were with Mr. Lincoln, but their sentiment told very little on the wealthy and the newspapers which the wealthy read. Now the masses have become politically predominant, and public opinion has adapted itself to the new conditions. The old fear and jealousy of democratic institutions have vanished, because these institutions have come, and have obviously come to stay. So far from being dreaded as a fountain of democratic propaganda, America is looked on as a champion of popular government against the great military monarchies of Continental Europe, and as the only great country which, like Britain, has recognized that the freedom of the individual citizen as against the official is the basis of all truly free government. Accordingly, one chief cause of that change in the ruling sentiment of England toward America, which in 1898 has rejoiced those of us who remember 1863, is the change in the political conditions of England herself.

There remains one other force which has drawn the two peoples together, and it is perhaps the most hopeful of all, because it is independent of material interests and of politics. It is the better knowledge which they are coming to have of each other. The habit of travel has prodigiously increased within the last forty years. Americans come over in thousands, not only for business, but for pleasure, and find themselves more at home in England than they did before. Englishmen go in far larger numbers to the United States, for instruction and pleasure as well as for business, and return with more accurate ideas about the United States than they had before. Each man diffuses these ideas in his own circle, and thus the whole nation has come to know its Western kinsfolk in a perfectly new way, and in a way in which it does not and cannot know any nation of the European continent. In former days each people drew its impressions of the other from the action of the government and the language of the newspapers ; and both the action of the government and the language of the newspapers tended to misrepresent each to the other. Governments are brought into contact by differences ; and they are obliged to deal with matters of difference in a cold, dry way. Each tries to drive a hard bargain ; each gives its views in dispatches which are in substance, sometimes even in style, much like the letters written by attorneys on behalf of their contending clients. Each is in danger of importing into its diplomacy the manner and methods of party politics; and the methods of party politics do not tend to amenity or good feeling. Newspapers, on the other hand, which might have been thought a better index of popular sentiment, are prone to dwell on points of difference more than on points of agreement. It is perhaps easier, it is certainly more tempting, to carp and cavil and satirize than it is to praise ; and the journalist is apt to think that his talent and his vigor are better displayed in sharp criticism than in kindly appreciation. Besides, it is, unluckily, the bitter things that are said in one country about another that are most frequently copied into the newspapers of the latter. Here in Europe half the ill feeling that exists between the nations is due to the goadings of the press, though our own (if an Englishman may be permitted to say so) is in this respect less blameworthy than the journalism of France or Germany or Russia. But every one who knows the educated class in any country will agree that the tone of its feeling toward other countries is more generous, more friendly, more large-minded, than could be gathered either from the action of its government or from the columns of its newspapers. It is therefore an immense gain that Englishmen and Americans are now learning to know one another through direct personal contact, and that the spirit of that cordial welcome which a man from either country finds when he travels in the other is coming to be recognized as the real and genuine spirit which animates both nations ; and after a recent visit to Canada, I will venture to say that this is now the prevailing spirit among Canadians also.

This truer insight has enabled us in England to realize the substantial identity of thought and feeling between the two peoples. Let me take as an example the way in which the most terrible event of recent times impressed them both. The massacres of the Eastern Christians which took place in 1895 and 1896 excited little commiseration, little indignation, in Continental Europe. The press in Germany and France and Austria, guided by the wishes or hints or commands of the governments of those states, did its best to conceal the facts from the public. A few noble and earnest men, mostly Roman Catholic priests or Protestant pastors, in France, in Germany, and in Switzerland, appealed to their fellow countrymen to move the governments to interfere and to send help to the sufferers. But their voices found only a faint response. Far otherwise in Britain and in the United States. The governments of both those countries did indeed attempt, or accomplish, much less than was hoped and wished. But the peoples were stirred by a horror and an anger which pervaded every class. Untrammeled by any considerations of political expediency, their hearts spoke out in the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom ; for they believed that it is justice, humanity, and freedom that ought to guide the policy of nations. Here, as in so many other instances, it was shown how unlike their neighbors in Continental Europe, and how like their kinsfolk in America, the British are. It is in this community of ideas and feelings, this similarity of instinctive judgments, that the unity of the peoples best appears. The sense of identity has deeper and better foundations than the pride of Anglo-Saxon ancestry and the spirit of defiance to other races.

The circumstances of the friction occasioned by the Venezuela boundary question toward the end of 1895 illustrate the way in which the sentiment of friendliness had ripened in Britain. The President’s message and the action of Congress were received in this country with amazement. Few persons had the least idea that any serious disagreement between the two governments would or could arise over a matter which had attracted no attention here. With the shock of surprise there was a shock of grief that Congress should apparently treat lightly a contingency so lamentable as a collision between the two nations. But there was no outbreak of hostile feeling toward the United States. The general feeling was that there must be a great misconception somewhere, and that, so far as national honor permitted, every step ought to be taken to remove the misconception, and set matters right between nations made to be friends. Very shortly afterward, there occurred, on the part of a great Continental state, what our people deemed a provocation. It was resented with a promptitude and a warmth in excess of its real importance, but which showed how different was the sentiment which the words of a Continental power, theretofore friendly, excited from that which prevailed where our own kinsfolk were concerned. And (unless my recollection is at fault) the possibility of some joint action of European powers directed against Britain immediately caused a revulsion of opinion in the United States in favor of Britain, like that which softens a man’s heart toward a relative with whom he has had a coolness, so soon as he finds that the relative is threatened from some other quarter.

The alliances of nations are usually based upon interest alone, and last no longer than the cause which has produced them. A coincidence, or at least an absence of any conflict, of interest is the almost indispensable condition of cordial relations. But when other ties than those of common material benefit exist, their existence may give to those relations a greatly increased strength and permanence ; just as, if one may compare great things with small, a partnership in business succeeds better and lasts longer when its members have a personal regard for and a personal trust in one another. Now the United States and Britain have nowhere in the world any conflicting interests. They have in some directions identical interests, as for instance in the maintenance of open markets for their goods. They are in some respects complementary to each other ; for while the United States is the great food-raising and cotton - growing country of the world, Britain is the great consumer of sea-borne food and of raw cotton ; and as the one is rapidly becoming the chief among the producers of the world both in the agricultural and in the mineral department, so the other is by her mercantile marine the chief distributer. Each has the strongest interest in the welfare of the other ; and we have repeatedly seen how powerfully the commercial prosperity or depression of the one tells on the trade of the other. Thus there exists, as regards political interest, a basis for the establishment of the most close and cordial relations between the two countries, — a basis independent of the chances and changes of the moment, because it is due to permanent conditions. But above and beyond this coincidence of interests there is the community of blood, the similarity of institutions, and that capacity for understanding and appreciating one another which is given by a common tongue and by habits of thought and feeling essentially the same. Nature and history have made each profoundly concerned in the well-being of the other. No true American could see without the deepest grief the humiliation and suffering of the ancestral home of his race. No true Englishman but would mourn any grave disaster that could befall the people which it is one of the chief glories of England to have reared and planted. Seventeen years ago, in addressing an American audience, I ventured to express the belief that if ever England was hard pressed by a combination of hostile European powers America would not stand by idle and unconcerned, and the reception given to those words confirmed my belief. The sympathy of race does not often affect the relations of states, but when it does it is a force of tremendous potency ; for it affects not so much governments as the people themselves, who, both in America and in England, are the ultimate depositaries of power, the ultimate controllers of policy.

War between two nations is a deplorable event, whatever the causes and the circumstances. But as evil sometimes comes out of good, so events which in themselves are unfortunate may become the parents of good. Thus the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Spain gave occasion for the display of a feeling in England, not against Spain, but of interest in the United States, which was not only general, but conspicuously spontaneous. It was the sudden and indisputable evidence of a sentiment we believed to exist, but which had never before been made so manifest. It was promptly and heartily reciprocated in the United States. And now many voices have been asking what durable expression can be given to this feeling shared by the two peoples, and to what account, permanently helpful to both, it can be turned. As Mr. Olney has pointed out, in the thoughtful and weighty article which he contributed to the May number of The Atlantic Monthly (an article whose friendly tone has been cordially appreciated in England), there are some obvious difficulties in the way of a formal alliance. Those difficulties are not insurmountable, and if such an alliance were ultimately to be formed, instead of threatening other states it would be a guarantee of peace to the world ; for each nation would feel itself bound to justify its policy to the public opinion of the other. Meantime, there are things which may be done at once to cement and perpetuate the good relations which happily prevail. One is the conclusion of a general arbitration treaty, providing for the amicable settlement of all differences which may hereafter arise between the nations. Another is the agreement to render services to each other: such, for instance, as giving to a citizen of either nation a right to invoke the good offices of the diplomatic or consular representatives of the other in a place where his own government has no representative ; or such as the recognition of a common citizenship, securing to the citizens of each, in the country of the other, certain rights not enjoyed by other foreigners. But the greatest thing of all is that the two peoples should realize, as we may hope they are now coming to do, that whether or no they have a formal alliance, they may have a league of the heart; that the sympathy of each is a tower of strength to the other; that the best and surest foundation of the future policy of each is to be found in relations of frank and cordial friendship with the other.

James Bryce.