Emma Macleod: Separate states of opinion

In 1812 Britain was at war with America, its independence still causing mixed feelings. Picture: Getty
In 1812 Britain was at war with America, its independence still causing mixed feelings. Picture: Getty
Share this article
16
Have your say

THE British contemplate the prospect of part of their state separating from Westminster governance.

Many are deeply opposed to the possibility of this severance. They predict disaster for the new sovereign state, and they prefer to avoid discussing its potential benefits. Others are ideologically committed to the goal of a new state. They forecast utopia, and they find it tactically important to skate over possible disadvantages. Others still are uneasy about the prospect of separation, but they do not wish to damage the many current and potential ties and opportunities for cooperation between the two peoples.

There are some striking similarities between the conversation that took place in Britain more than 200 years ago before and after the American Revolution, and current discussions about the 2014 referendum and the possibility of Scottish independence. The departure of 13 of Britain’s American colonies from the empire in 1776 and the creation of an independent republic in their place fascinated Britons of all political persuasions. Commercial and cultural connections across the Atlantic influenced people’s perceptions of the United States as well as their attitudes towards republicanism, the empire and London.

Thirty years after the British government conceded the loss of America, the War of 1812 broke out between the two states. President Madison declared war over maritime disputes arising from Britain’s need to control the traffic of the seas during its titanic struggle against Napoleonic France. Once again, several Scottish regiments were sent across the Atlantic, to defend Britain’s Canadian territory against “Uncle Sam” (a play on the initials “US” coined during this conflict).

Scots were also prominent in the naval force sent to blockade the American coast. Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane (1758-1832), MP for the Stirling burghs (1802-6), commanded the North American station in 1814 and was responsible for the burning of Washington, as well as the failed attacks on Baltimore and New Orleans. His nephew Thomas (the model for fictional heroes Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey) was also active in these operations. Clearly many Scots were willing to fight for the British government against the United States, whatever they might have thought of the new republic.

Back home, Scottish public opinion was largely preoccupied with economic questions raised by the War of 1812 and the foregoing crisis. Desperate to cut France off from vital supplies, and to man its own fleets, the British navy had seized hundreds of neutral American vessels it suspected of trading with France and thousands of sailors in the employment of American merchant ships, on the assumption that they were deserters from its own vessels.

The British government had also passed Orders in Council in 1807 and 1809 to hamper French commerce, in retaliation against economic warfare waged by Napoleon Bonaparte. But these Orders had the effect of restricting neutral American trade too.

In response, the American government passed an Embargo Act in 1807 and another Act in 1809 to prevent Britain and France from importing goods into the United States, and a further Act against British shipping in 1810. With independence secured, its economic viability had to be defended.

British manufacturers were badly affected by the dispute. It aggravated severe unemployment in the central belt of Scotland as well as in commercial ports, and in the Midlands and northern counties of England. Exports to America fell to £1.43 million by the end of 1811, from a height of £8.6m. Weavers from Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire were among the 70,000 signatories to petitions to the House of Commons in 1811 asking for relief for the cotton industry.

Another campaign in 1811 and 1812 (including petitions from Aberdeen, Dunfermline, Paisley, and two from Glasgow) eventually persuaded the government to repeal the Orders in Council in June 1812 in the vain hope of repairing relations with America.

Certainly, economic interests may have been the chief motivation behind these public campaigns, but they and the discussion in the press on the resulting conflict in America are revealing of Scottish attitudes towards the United States nearly 40 years after its Declaration of Independence.

Some merchants in Glasgow and Port Glasgow had actually petitioned against the repeal of the Orders in Council on the grounds that the American trade was a relatively small and unimportant sector of British commerce, and conservative newspapers such as the Glasgow Courier, the Aberdeen Journal and the Edinburgh Star, derided American economic and military weakness by comparison with British resources.

Until the outbreak of the war, these newspapers insisted that the Americans would not have the boldness to embark on hostilities. After the declaration of war, they forecast disaster for America in the conflict. They soft-pedalled American triumphs, such as Baltimore, but celebrated British victories such as the burning of Washington in August 1814 with a jubilation that is difficult to imagine in war reporting today.

“It is not the enterprise itself, splendid in itself… but it is the punishment, which has fallen at last upon a wanton and unprincipled enemy, which justifies, and… ennobles our exultation”, crowed the Courier.

Yet this braying confidence was accompanied by anxiety that America was already becoming a significant maritime nation; a correspondent to the Edinburgh Star pressed the government to take advantage of the war to destroy America’s naval capacity.

Newspapers and periodicals of more liberal politics, such as the Caledonian Mercury, the Glasgow Herald, the Aberdeen Chronicle, the Inverness Journal and the Scots Magazine tried to combine advice that American friendship was highly important to Britain with patriotism and loyalty to the British government. They criticised both sides in the maritime actions of the pre-war crisis, and they insisted that the potential benefits of Anglo-American cooperation – whether in terms of trade, or of opposing the Napoleonic threat – were much greater than their differences.

Similarly, the Glasgow merchants had argued that America ought to be considered the home of “our best allies”, not only because it was “our most extensive market”, but also because of “the [liberal] nature of her government”, and because “the manners of the people” were so similar to those of the British.

Against conservative demands for substantial compromises from America as the price of peace, these liberal publications argued for proper concessions to America to secure lasting harmony. “America is connected with us by the ties of necessity,” stated the Scots Magazine in January 1815 on the news of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the conflict. “The nature of things, we may say, has decreed the unalterable connection in commerce of Great Britain and America, and the loss of that connection must have been deeply felt by both countries.”

Contemporary discussions of America on this side of the Atlantic, 200 years after our last war on opposite sides, often reveal this cocktail of attitudes – from resentment, through apprehension, to admiration and a keen desire for friendship.

It is not difficult to imagine that a similar mélange of opinions regarding Scotland’s position vis-à-vis England will continue to be expressed for some time to come. At the time of the War of 1812, very few Scots were inspired by the American Revolution to press for a Scottish secession from the British state.

Yet, while some Scots supported the British government to the extent of continuing to nurse their wrath against Americans they still considered to be rebel colonists, many others admired the new republic on the other side of the world, even while they refused to condemn the British government’s cause against it in 1812. For them, there was little in all this that could be reduced to a yes/no answer.

• Dr Emma Macleod is a lecturer in British political history at Stirling University. Her seminar takes place today at the University of Glasgow and is open to the public. http://www.gla.ac.uk/events/voxpopuli/