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Caution and Cooperation

Review by: Marc-William Palen, University of Texas at Austin

Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations. Phillip E. Myers. (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2008), 332 pp.

With over 50,000 books dedicated to the subject, the Civil War remains “the most written-about event in American history.” Within this deluge of work, historian Phillip E. Myers wades in with a reinterpretation of nineteenth-century British-American relations in his 2008 book Caution & Cooperation, a book that is part of the New Studies in U.S. Foreign Relations series. He argues that a cautious and cooperative consistency prevailed between the two countries from 1815 to 1871. The central thesis is that the Civil War “was not as unique and threatening to relations as historians have believed.” Rather, by extending the scope of analysis to the antebellum and postwar periods, Myers shows that “past cooperation held up and grew stronger” during the conflict (p. 4).

Myers begins with an overview of antebellum British-American relations in order to illustrate the early prevalence of diplomacy. There existed “a prewar rapprochement” based upon “tradition, commerce and investments, antislavery, antimilitarism, Francophobia, and compromise”(p. 33). Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, British Prime Minister Palmerston deftly kept attempts toward British intervention from the likes of John Russell and William Gladstone at bay. The British maintained their neutrality and largely pro-Union stance from the war’s inception, regardless of the commercial effects of the Union blockade of the Confederacy upon the British economy, or various humanitarian concerns on the minds of many in England. Incorporating recent revisionist scholarship, Myers also reexamines the Trent affair, along with other seizures of British vessels by the Union and the construction of Confederate raiders in British ports. He contends that the diplomatic settlement of these potential areas of conflict strengthened relations, maintaining something akin to the antebellum rapprochement.

British recognition of the Confederacy, according to Myers, remained highly unlikely throughout the conflict. Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, and Union ambassador to Britain Charles Francis Adams outmaneuvered and outclassed Jefferson Davis and his Southern emissaries at every step. The South’s reliance upon “King Cotton” diplomacy was politically mismanaged and remained ineffective upon the decision-making of the majority of Britain’s policy-makers. Successful settlement of the myriad disputes between the Union and Britain, along with British investment and an intense aversion to slavery, further strengthened Anglo-American cooperation. The battle of Antietam signaled the death knell of any chance of British recognition of the Confederacy, and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863 ultimately “tightened the grip of nonintervention and fortified neutrality,” as it represented “a new and understandable war aim” (p. 125).

This Northern policy of diplomatic relations quelled the fears of British politicians. According to Myers, the Lincoln administration further aided relations by quieting the desire of certain American politicians to annex Canada, as well as potential crises arising in British-American China policy, the St. Albans raid, and European interference in Mexico. This international approach allows the author to argue for a global British-American rapprochement during much of the nineteenth century. Continuing in this vein, Myers reinterprets the causes of Canadian confederation in 1867, which he views as further evidence of cooperative diplomacy rather than “the more traditional interpretation” in which Canada “was a hostage to British-American relations” throughout the war and sought confederation “to better face Union wrath” (p. 171). The resulting postwar Anglo-American treaties and arbitrations solidified the accommodating relations during the Civil War and the decades before.

Myers admirably wades through the torrent of primary and secondary sources concerning the Civil War and nineteenth-century international relations. The book is not, however, without its weaknesses. His argument would have been strengthened if he had specifically addressed some more recent arguments that reevaluate traditional interpretations of Anglo-British relations of the period, Anglo-American cooperation in mid-nineteenth century China, British expansion in Canada, and the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation on British intervention. He also pays scant attention to British reaction concerning the heavily protectionist policies of the Republican-dominated Union, which went against the prevailing ideology of the outspoken and powerful British free traders in the press, the business sector, and Parliament. These criticisms aside, Myers delivers a nuanced and fresh argument concerning nineteenth-century Anglo-American relations. Historians of the Civil War, American nineteenth century foreign policy, and British imperial history would well consider reading the book.

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