americans detest the british -- 5/21/14

Today's selection -- from John Tyler by Gary May. Well after the War of 1812 and for much of the 19th century, many Americans detested the British. Some joined Canada in rebellion against Great Britain, and there were frequent incursions and incidents leading the two countries to calls for renewed war:

"For Americans, Britain remained the great international bogeyman. In the years following the War of 1812, Britain's international power and wealth had continued to grow and its navy stood as the greatest in the world. New Englanders felt especially vulnerable given the presence of British troops in Canada, which shared a disputed border with Maine. When a rebellion against Great Britain erupted in Canada in the late 1830s, Americans had sympathized with the rebels, and citizens from Vermont to Michigan actively joined the fight. The British crushed the revolt, but tensions still ran high.

"In December 1837, British partisans, armed with pistols, pikes, and cutlasses, had attacked and boarded the Caroline, an American steamer in New York waters known to have carried arms to the Canadian insurgents. In the fight that ensued, three partisans were wounded and one American died, apparently from a stray bullet. Passengers and crew were escorted safely to shore, and the battle, such as it was, ended ten minutes after it began. Then the British set the Caroline afire and the ship slowly sank. New Yorkers were enraged, and local newspapers exaggerated the event, calling it a massacre during which two dozen American innocents were slaughtered. The Livingston Register called for 'Blood for Blood' until the nation's honor was restored. President Martin Van Buren had sent General Winfield Scott, dressed in full military regalia, to the New York-Canadian border and the immediate crisis ended without further bloodshed. But the British never apologized or compensated the Caroline's owners for the loss of their vessel, and Americans cried 'Remember the Caroline' and waited for the next incident.

The capture of the 'Caroline', 1837, illustration from 'Cassell's Illustrated History of England'

"Their wait ended in the winter of 1837-38, in the Aroostook River Valley, part of the disputed territory that pitted Maine against New Brunswick. The Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War with Great Britain, left unresolved the line that separated the northeastern boundary of Maine. The dispute was later submitted to the king of the Netherlands, who issued a compromise that the British accepted but the U.S. Senate rejected. Later attempts at mediation had also failed, and that winter new problems arose. Americans who were settling in the area noticed British interest in a road running through the Aroostook Valley, a safe supply route to reinforce Quebec and Montreal, if military necessity so required. ...

"Canadians and the Americans again prepared for battle. The 'Aroostook War' was mostly one of words. Nova Scotia's legislature appropriated funds in case fighting broke out, and Congress authorized President Van Buren to call for fifty thousand volunteers (the regular army then numbered only seven thousand men) and backed them up with $10 million. 'If war must come,' proclaimed Pennsylvania senator James Buchanan, 'it will find the country unanimous .... The only alternative is war or national dishonor; and between these two, what American can hesitate?'

"The American who hesitated was the president, who again sent his peacemaker General Scott. After a year's hard work, he arranged a truce in March 1839. But the underlying cause of the crisis -- the contested border between Maine and New Brunswick -- remained a dangerous irritant between America and Britain.

"In November 1840, the Caroline affair erupted anew when Alexander McLeod, a Canadian deputy sheriff believed to have been involved in the attack on the ship, was arrested in New York and put on trial for arson and murder. The British strongly protested and informed their minister in Washington that if McLeod was executed it would 'produce war, war immediate and frightful.' They could not understand why the U.S. federal government would not intervene in a state's judicial proceeding. Almost a year had passed before McLeod was acquitted and the crisis was calmed for the time being.

"Tyler inherited these 'sticks of dynamite waiting to explode.' 'The peace of the country when I reached Washington on the 6th day of April, 1841, was suspended by a thread,' he later observed. Then, a new crisis occurred in November. Nineteen slaves imprisoned on the Creole, an American ship bound for the slave markets of New Orleans, rebelled. They murdered slave owner John Hewell, beat the captain and several of his crew, and forced the Creole to sail to Nassau, in the British Bahamas. There, officials bound by Great Britain's Emancipation Act of 1833, which had abolished slavery, eventually freed all the slaves on board, including the rebellion's leader, Madison Washington. Southerners were especially angry; Mississippi newspapers suggested that if the United States failed to protect American 'property,' there was little reason for any state to remain in the Union."


Gary May


John Tyler (The American Presidents Series: The 10th President, 1841-1845)


Times Books


Copyright 2008 by Gary May


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