“The special relationship is back on,” says The Sun’s political editor. “A fine day’s work” was how Tom Newton Dunn summed up David Cameron’s visit to the Obama White House.
Yet us Brits should not get too carried away. Yes, the prime minister did a fine job walking a tightrope between protecting BP and appeasing his vengeful American hosts. But the fact that President Obama swapped anecdotes and was on first-name terms with “David” at their first joint White House press conference does not mean “Barack” is no longer a pragmatist, less sentimentally connected to Britain than any of his predecessors. You need only have tuned into BBC's Newsnight to see British-born, American-based historian Simon Schama reiterate Obama’s “unsentimental” attitude toward international relations.
Worst still, it appears Cameron is just not that into America either. As Benedict Brogan, the Daily Telegraph’s deputy editor, blogged recently, “it is Mr Cameron’s indifference which is striking.” His op-ed for the Wall Street Journal illuminated, if not his “indifference” toward America per se, then certainly his thoughts about Anglo-American “historical ties.” Given that Cameron is “hard-headed and realistic about [Anglo-American] relations,” readers can only surmise that his flight aboard Marine One and the bottle of beer he received at the respective G8/20 summits in Canada did little for him. (Close observers would also have noticed that Obama referred twice to the special relationship and Cameron only once in the East Room.)
This is not to say, however, that there is no personal chemistry between the two leaders; historians are already comparing the house that Barry and Dave are building with the one “Jack and Mac” built in the 1960s. Why Cameron felt the need, then, to downgrade Britain’s World War II role, I do not know. Do not get me wrong, to say Britain today is the junior partner is pretty incontrovertible. Yet, telling Sky News that we had also been “the junior partner in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis” was historically inaccurate, as Britain did not even have a partner to be junior to.
Instead, Cameron would do better to play up the history of Obama’s hero, Abraham Lincoln, rather than downplaying his own (some commentators would contend that Cameron needs no help here, seeing as Obama returned a loaned bust of Winston Churchill as soon as he entered the Oval Office). And the city of Liverpool provides just the opportunity for the PM when the Queen welcomes the Obamas on a full state visit to the UK in the spring.
I say this for the simple reason that the American Civil War heritage trail is to be extended there. Thanks to the unwavering efforts of Tom Sebrell II, a Virginian-born, London-based historian, and the prodigious input by local enthusiast David Hearn, Merseyside’s roles in the Sesquicentennial are to be told through walks and bus (possibly even ferry) tours in 2011 and beyond. (It is important to note here that London is also playing a role. And that Queen Mary, University of London, like Liverpool's John Moores University, is involved in orchestrating walking tours for the general public.)
As Obama will be aware, President Lincoln’s blockade closed the Southern ports to legitimate foreign trade which prompted the South to look abroad for ships. What he may not be aware of, though, was Britain’s role during the Civil War and that Liverpool’s world-class shipbuilding facilities helped in the construction of a Confederate Navy. Speaking about the project in 2009, shortly after the city’s Lord Mayor endorsed his plans, Tom reminded me that “if it were not for events which took place in Liverpool and Birkenhead from 1861-65, the war would likely have been much shorter.”
Dr. Sebrell is keen to stress that his plans are not partisan to any side in the war, but aim to educate and increase understanding. As a consequence, there is no reason why a representative of the UK government could not accompany an African American representative of the U.S. around Liverpool—especially one, Tom recalls, who “admits to being a Civil War buff.” What is more, administration officials can be assured of a very different Liverpudlian welcome than the one Condoleezza Rice received in 2006 when the then Secretary of State visited the Philharmonic Hall.
Talking of the Phil, if Obama was to fly into John Lennon Airport, he would be able to attend the Hope Street venue (albeit not the original building) where, it is said, Henry Ward Beecher helped turn the diplomatic tide toward the North in 1863. Notwithstanding the lack of correspondence between the Brooklyn pastor and Mr. Lincoln, “the North’s vox populi on slavery”—as rhetorical expert Halford R. Ryan dubbed Beecher—is seen by many as a quasi-political emissary of the 16th President of the United States who passionately confronted a Liverpool audience about its commercial interests.
The Phil, Tom reiterates, is just one of many “brilliantly-preserved sites historically and culturally significant to the American Civil War and Anglo-American relations in the Victoria era.” While Obama cannot experience the old Custom House and the teeming life around the docks that his great-great-great-grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, did in the nineteenth century, Kearney’s Irish descendant could follow in the footsteps of James Maury and experience the newly-restored inaugural U.S. Consulate in Paradise Street. (The Town Hall would also be worth visiting, if only to view Gilbert Stuart Newton’s portrait of Maury in the West Reception Room.)
Maury’s successor, Thomas H. Dudley, would also be of interest to Obama. He was, after all, Lincoln’s Man in Liverpool, according to Coy F. Cross II’s 2007 book. Lincoln appointed him consul to monitor Confederate shipbuilding activity on the River Mersey, the South’s naval epicentre during the Civil War. His Unionist spy network operated out of 22 Water Street. Meanwhile, round the corner at Rumford Place was the office of Charles K. Prioleau, Confederate paymaster general, and, on Old Hall Street, the cotton exchange where traders Fraser, Trenholm & Co. financed the purchase of commerce raiders designed to prey on Northern merchant vessels.
Given Obama’s legal training, however, the activities of James Dunwoody Bulloch, the Confederacy’s chief purchasing agent and Dudley’s nemesis during his tenure as consul, would be of particular interest. Notwithstanding Queen Victoria’s Neutrality Proclamation and the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819, which prohibited either side from equipping or arming warships within its ports, Dudley was kept busy documenting Bulloch’s violations of (inter)national law. Suffice it to say, the New Jersey attorney’s evidence of British laxness in enforcing the provisions of its neutrality laws earned the U.S. $15 million in damages.
“Americans were slow to forgive Britain’s sympathy for the South,” says Cross. “But the settlement”, the diplomatic historian concludes, “laid the groundwork for a cooperative and friendly alliance that has lasted for over one hundred twenty-five years and through two world wars.” Let us hope, then, that a similar settlement can be reached over the whole Lockerbie affair and that the president’s state visit to the UK goes ahead as scheduled. As far as I am concerned, though, only a visit to Liverpool would confirm that “the special relationship is back on.”