England and America

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

England and America is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Times on 7 january 1896.


England and America

The Times (7 january 1896)


Sir, — An Englishman who travels in the United States comes back, according to my experience, with two impressions, which are so strong that they overshadow all others. One is of the excessive kindness which is shown to individual Englishmen. The other is of the bitter feeling which appears to exist both in the Press and among the public against his own country. The present ebullition is only one of those recurrent crises which have marked the whole history of the two nations. The feeling is always smouldering, and the least breath of discussion sets it in a blaze. I believe, and have long believed, that the greatest danger which can threaten our Empire is the existence of this spirit of hostility in a nation which is already great and powerful, but which is destined to be far more so in the future. Our statesmen have stood too long with their faces towards the East. To discern our best hopes as well as our gravest dangers they must turn them the other way.

As to the cause of this feeling, it is not so unreasonable as Englishmen usually contend. It is the fashion among us to apportion the blame between the Irish-American and the politician who is in search of his vote. But no such superficial explanation as this can cover the fact that the Governors of 30 American States should unhesitatingly endorse a Presidential message which obviously leads straight to war. A dislike so widely spread and so fierce in its expression cannot be explained by the imported animosity of the Celtic Irishman.

To understand the American's view of Great Britain one must read such an American history as would be used in the schools, and accept the statements with the same absolute faith and patriotic bias which our own schoolboys would show in a British narration of our relations with France. American history, as far as its foreign policy is concerned, resolves itself almost entirely into a series of wrangles with Great Britain, in many of which we must now ourselves confess that we were absolutely in the wrong. Few Englishmen could be found now to contend that we were justified in those views of taxation which brought on the first American war, or in the question of searching neutral vessels, which was the main cause of the second. This war of 1812 would possibly only occupy two pages out of 500 in an English history, but it bulks very large in an American one, and has left many bitter memories behind it. Then there was the surly attitude which England adopted towards the States after they had won their independence, the repeated frictions during the Napoleonic epoch, and the attack upon an American frigate by a British 50-gun ship in time of peace. After the war there was the Florida dispute in the time of Andrew Jackson, the question of the Oregon line, the settlement of the Maine and New Brunswick line, and, finally, the hostile attitude of most of our Press at the time of the Civil War. Since then we have had two burning questions, that of the Alabama claims and that of the Behring Sea fisheries, culminating in this of Venezuela. The history of his country then, as it presents itself to an American, is simply a long succession of quarrels with ourselves, and how can it be wondered at if he has now reached that chronic state of sensitiveness and suspicion which we have not quite outgrown ourselves in the case of the French?

If we are to blame as a community for some at least of these unfortunate historical incidents, we are even more to blame as individuals for the widespread bitterness which is felt against us. We have never had a warm, ungrudging word of heartfelt praise for the great things which our kinsmen have done, for their unwearying industry, their virtues in peace, their doggedness in their unparalleled clemency when war was over. We have always fastened upon the small, rude details and overlooked the great facts behind. In our shocked contemplation of an expectoration upon the floor we lost sight of universal suffrage and equal education. Our travellers, from Mrs. Trollope and Dickens onwards, have been surprised that the versatile hard-working men, who often combined ten trades in one to adapt themselves to the varying needs of a raw-growing community, had not the manners of Oxford or the repose of Sussex. They could not understand that this rough vitality and over-bearing energy which carried them through their task implied those complementary defects which must go with unusual virtues. Of all English travellers to the States, there was hardly one who did not make mischief with his reminiscences until, in our own days, Mr. Bryce did something to rectify the balance. And our want of charity and true insight are the more inexcusable since no one has written more charmingly of England than Washington Irving, Emerson, and Holmes.

These personal and political causes of bitterness may each be small in itself, but in the aggregate they have assumed a proportion which makes them of national importance. Our journals and public men are in the habit now, as a rule, of alluding to America and Americans in the most friendly way, and that must in time have its effect, if recent unhappy events do not change it. One must have travelled in America to appreciate how kindly is the temper of the people — "angelic" is the adjective which Monsieur Bourget employs — and it is impossible to think that they can continue for ever to feel vindictively towards a kindred nation which has a friendly feeling for them. But the shadow of the past still lies between us, and it may be long before it is lifted. In the meantime we should, in my opinion, lose no opportunity of doing those little graceful acts of kindness which are the practical sign of a brotherly sentiment. Opinions may differ as to the value of Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty as a work of art, but there can be no gainsaying that as a visible sign of French friendship it carries its message to every American who enters New York Harbour. We have our opportunities occasionally of showing a friendly feeling. We had such a one a couple of years ago, when I ventured to point out in the columns of The Times that an offer of the Guards' bands for the opening of the Chicago Exhibition might do something towards a better feeling between the nations. The chance was missed, but others will arise. Above all I should like to see an Anglo-American Society started in London, with branches all over the Empire, for the purpose of promoting good feeling, smoothing over friction, laying literature before the public which will show them how strong are the arguments in favour of an Anglo-American alliance, and supplying the English Press with the American side of the question and vice versa. Such an organization would, I am sure, be easily founded, and would do useful work towards that greatest of all ends, the consolidation of the English-speaking races.

Yours faithfully,

Mena House Hotel, Pyramids, Cairo, Dec. 30