Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

So, you may remember that the United States and Great Britain had a minor spat in 1776, which shall we say, did not put them on the friendliest of terms. In 1812, while Britain was focused on its war with France, the same country decided to take advantage of the situation and declare war. The 1820s saw the Aroostock War and border disputes between Maine and Canada. There was also the Pig's Ear War and whilest 54' 40 or fight didn't result in anything major, you can't say the USA and the UK were on particularly great terms. And, during the Civil War, the UK came awfully close to recognizing the Confederate States of America.

And yet, by the time the USA needed to demarcate its Alaskan boundaries in 1900, the UK was a good friend. By WWI, we were supporting our English ally even over against the Germans, who arguably had populations that were almost as big. And, certainly by WWII, there was a "special relationship" that finally helped tipped the balance.

So, given this history between us, here's the simple question. How did the US and the UK become such good friends? I mean, obviously there's the historical connection, but overcoming the animosity of having to fight for your independence (and the stain of having lost its colony) has to hurt.

When, and how did we patch things up?

share|improve this question
From the top of my mind, they were friendly because of trade, but it was because of WW1 and WW2, they became allies. –  Russell Mar 15 '12 at 9:14
@Russell I've rolled back your revision. First, it doesn't follow the rules of capitilization. Secondly, when you capitalize every word in the question title, it becomes harder to read. –  American Luke Sep 23 '12 at 17:22
@Luke, oh, sorry. I'll remember that next time. –  Russell Sep 23 '12 at 23:57
"decided to take advantage of the situation" - this is highly inaccurate. Brits were quite nasty‌​. –  sds Jun 2 at 20:45

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

It was a slow process but it did begin with trade, most notably Southern cotton. This was followed by grain from the growing Mid-West. As the US became more industrialized, trade in other areas increased.

In the interest of keeping trade going and avoiding being entangled in the war, the British were careful to avoid taking sides in the Civil War and ended up with both sides viewing them in a more favorable light. This, along with the establishment of Canada in 1867, which made it clear that Britain no longer wanted to expand their empire in North America, caused Anglophobia to turn to Anglophilia.

During the Spanish-American War, the British, after a delay and with some diplomatic assurances, supported the US. As the US grew in strength, it made sense for the two nations, who had a lot in common, to work together. Connections and friendship between the ruling classes of both nations increased during the early 20th century. This led into the events of WWI and WWII which insured a strong alliance.

share|improve this answer
Mostly right. However, I don't think its fair to say the British were "careful to avoid taking sides in the Civil War". More accurate to say they would really have liked to officially recognize the South, and perhaps even intervene in their behalf, and Abe Lincoln was careful to avoid giving them a good opportunity or reason for doing either. For instance, the Emancipation Proclamation was all about keeping Britain out of the war, and it was timed for maximum PR impact there. –  T.E.D. Apr 4 '12 at 14:43
@T.E.D. - True, there were factions in Britain that did support the South, mainly those supplying arms and ships and those who used Southern cotton. There were also factions who were against the Confederacy due to slavery. British politicians tried to please both side, foreign and domestic, and were mostly successful at doing so. It was probably more of a political calculation than an actual diplomatic strategy. –  jfrankcarr Apr 4 '12 at 15:14
Exactly. The EP was all about empowering the anti-slavery political forces in England to argue on the Union's side. Once the war became officially over slavery, there was no way the Brits could publicly support the South. But he needed a victory first so it wouldn't look like a desperate ploy to do just that. –  T.E.D. Apr 4 '12 at 15:52
The British actually built several commerce raiders for the Confederates, notably the Alabama, and was sued after the war and forced to pay damages. –  Oldcat Jan 25 at 1:18

Several reasons (my answer is based mostly on the book "Dreadnought" by Robert Massie).

The English and Americans spoke the same language and, in those times, their cultures were much closer to each other than, say, English and French or English and German. The increasing wealth of the United States generated increasing respect on the other side of the Atlantic. A strong advocate of US-English friendship had been Joseph Chamberlain. It was part of his dream of building a global community of English-speaking nations (which sort of happened in the form of the Commonwealth, but without Americans).

Around the end of the XIXth century the British realised that they would not be able to defeat the American navy in the (already considered unlikely) event of a war, and they modified their military doctrine from "Royal Navy must be 10% stronger than any other two navies combined, including the US navy" to "RN must be 60% stronger than the German navy" -- effectively admitting that they will not be able to beat the USN anyway, so let's give up trying (the English relocated their bases and RN assets in West Indies accordingly). (after David K. Brown, "The Grand Fleet").

Already hinted in the 2nd paragraph, another major factor has been the growing threat from the Germans. The UK needed allies, and friendship with Americans seemed like a natural thing, due to cultural affinity and lack of direct competition (Americans had no colonial interests in Asia or Africa).

share|improve this answer
+1. I not sure I agree that it was all about the fleet, but pretty damn close. –  T.E.D. Apr 4 '12 at 14:46

It pretty much goes back to the Monroe Doctorine (1823). The Brits suggested a joint statement between the two countries, backed by the British Navy and the logistical advantages the US armed forces enjoy in the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe administration decided to just make the statement themselves, since it would be in the Brit's interests to enforce it with their navy anyway.

Wikipedia refers to this as a "precursor to the Special Relationship", which is I guess the point I'm trying to make. 100 years of this kind of tacit military alliance got the two sides used to thinking of themselves as allies (particularly the navies). When the US Navy surpassed the British, all the Brits really needed to do was make damn sure the US kept thinking the same way.

share|improve this answer
Aside from hiccups like the Civil War, this is probably the closest answer. There were advantages to both nations in not having to spend money fortifying and protecting the Canadian border and the English Caribbean islands from each other, and keeping other nations from getting into the area. As the US became stronger, the risks to England of going back on the deal became higher. Probably by the time of the Mexican War a US/England war would have meant the loss of Canada to the US. –  Oldcat Jan 25 at 1:25

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.