What Obama Should See on His State Visit to England

News Abroad

Lee P. Ruddin is Roundup Editor for HNN. He lives in England.

“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.”

Related Links

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

David Peter Hearn - 8/29/2010

Thank you for this Dr Keegan. I have been told by others that writers of "older" books did not feel the same need as present day writers to check facts and often repeated what they had heard or, sometimes, just made things up! Liverpool is lucky to have such a concientious chronicler as yourself. Please let me know when your book is published - I am very interested in your subject.

Dr Nicholas M Keegan - 8/27/2010

Mr Hearn: sloppy research (if any) by Mr Ellison, I'm afraid! It proves, if proof is needed, that one should always go to the primary sources.

Maury's Commission of Appointment, of which I have a copy, is dated 7 June 1790 and is signed by President George Washington and countersigned by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The original of the Commission is in the archives of the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, Virginia. In the UK, notice of the formal Royal Approval of Maury's appointment, by King George III, was published in the London Gazette, 2-6 November 1790, p.659.

David Peter Hearn - 8/24/2010

Just found this - a footnote - in the snappily titled - "The Cotton Trade of Great Britain: Including A History Of The Liverpool Cotton Market And Of the Liverpool Brokers' Association" written by Thomas Ellison and published by Effingham, Wilson, London in 1886.
'Mr Rutson was godfather to Rutson, third son to Mr. James Maury, who, in 1783, on recognition of the independance of the colonies by the mother country, was appointed first United States Consul to Liverpool.' Does this suggest that Maury's appointment was 1783 rather than 1790?

David Peter Hearn - 8/22/2010

Dr Keegan - I have checked out Gore's and found the same address details as you have - seems as though Mr M moved around a little. There is, of course, another question - was the Eagle originally from the Consulate? Difficult to see where else unless it was off a ship. The thing is that that for the most part us Scousers are proud of the links between our city and the States and the "old" building with a big gold coloured eagle on it is a real good photo opportunity - a story too good to check the facts?! Would love to order your book - I have been researching Thomas Dudley and, increasing, I am finding him a sympathetic and likeable character - a Quaker pacifist mixed up in a war yet giving his country service worthy of any General!
By the way - my country is - the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland is part of the UK but not Great Britain - you do Wales a kindness - it was never a separate country only a Principality hence the expression "England and Wales" - now diluted somewhat by the creation of the Welsh Assembly. THank you for your interest in my wonderful city and please publicise the publication of your book on HNN - I will certainly be buying a copy!

Dr Nicholas M Keegan - 8/22/2010

The heading to this interesting article is inaccurate. Obama will not be making a state visit to 'England' but to the United Kingdom. England is not a state but is a constituent part of the UK, along with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The French make the same mistake when they refer to the UK as Angleterre.

Dr Nicholas M Keegan - 8/19/2010

Thank you for your comments, Mr Hearn. No, I wasn’t referring to Rodney Street. Maury had, in fact, several residences in that street over the years. I think it would be easier if I attach the relevant paragraphs that I have written about the location of Maury’s consulate. I hope that you will find these of interest.

“As the post of consul was unpaid at that time Maury was allowed to combine it with his business activities. Here I must dispel another popular local belief, namely that the premises occupied by the Eagle pub in Paradise Street were the site of the first consulate. In 1790, when he was appointed consul, Maury’s business and the consulate were located at 30 Old Dock.(1) By 1796 he had moved to 22 Paradise Street, followed by further moves to numbers 26 and 33 in that street by 1800 and 1805, respectively.(2) By 1807 he had moved to 3 Exchange Buildings, Town Hall.(3) As far as I have been able to ascertain he never moved back to Paradise Street. The Eagle appears only to have been at 81 Paradise Street and over the years the occupiers of the building included a pawnbrokers, coffee rooms, boarding house, and victualler.(4) For example, in 1824, the occupier was Robert Mair, a muslin manufacturer and retailer.(5) One reason that may have given rise to the local belief about the building’s consular antecedents could be that its façade has for very many years sported a magnificent gilded American bald eagle, similar to but smaller than the one that graces the Embassy in London. Hence why in Victorian times the pub was called The American Eagle.(6) Both the eagle and the building had fallen into severe disrepair over the years but were restored in 2008. It is unfortunate that in early 2009, the American Chargé d’affaires ad interim, Richard LeBaron, was shown the Eagle building by a local journalist in the unwitting belief that it was the location of Maury’s consulate. At the time of writing it has been renumbered 51 Paradise Street and is occupied by Sony as its main retail presence in the city.”
© 2010 Nicholas M Keegan

1.Gore’s 1790 Directory for Liverpool.
2.Roger Hull, Researcher, Liverpool Record Office, e-mail to the author, 22 April 2009.
4.Ron Jones, The American Connection: the Story of Liverpool’s Links with America, from Christopher Columbus to The Beatles, Moreton, Wirral, 1986, printed privately, pp.29-27.
5.Paul Webster, Librarian, Liverpool Record Office, e-mail to the author, 7 May 2009, quoting from Baines’ History of Lancashire 1824.
6.Jones, p.29.

David Peter Hearn - 8/18/2010

Dr Keegan's interest in Liverpool is extremely welcome - we Scousers welcome any interest in our city. Having researched the site of the first US Consulate in Liverpool I am as certain as I can be that it was in what we now call Paradise Street. The Consulate was stated as being on the quayside of Steer's Dock and the Pool of Liverpool which would correspond with Paradise Street. The only question that I would really have is that if the former public house known as The Eagle was the actual buildin that contained the Consulate. Dr Keegan did not say where he believed the Consulate to have been sited but if he thinks that it was at 4 Rodney Street that address was Maury's home address - Rodney Street was at the time a very up market residential area (in fact it still is!) and theConsulate would have needed to be in the port area. I would be interested, Dr Keegan, to learn of the address that you have for the Consulate and thank you again for your interest in Liverpool!

Arnold Shcherban - 8/17/2010

You just love that chicken-hawk cliche: "in an increasingly dangerous world" that the authors of the War on Terror installed in the minds of their supporters, and the latter blindly repeat over and over again.
It follows that when the two military adversarial nuclear superpowers with the most sophisticated weaponry known to mankind along with their allies faced each other the world was far less dangerous than now, when there is only one economic, technological, financial and military superpower together with its NATO allies dominates the world, facing an amorphous group of, at the best, several-thousands-strong religious(Muslim) fanatics armed with
AK-47, ridiculously obsolete rockets, and self-made bombs...

Dr Nicholas M Keegan - 8/16/2010

An interesting article. You mention 'the newly-restored inaugural U.S. Consulate in Paradise Street' Liverpool. I'm afraid this is incorrect. I take it that you are referring to the recently-restored 'Eagle' pub in Paradise Street. It was not the site of Maury's first consulate. I provide chapter and verse on the first consulate in my forthcoming history of American consular representation in the UK. It is unfortunate that the United States chargé d'affaires visited the Eagle a year or so ago and was given to understand that it was the site of Maury's first consulate.

Alonzo L Hamby - 8/16/2010

It seems to me more important that Britain and the United States have not simply a common language (more or less), but broadly common interests and a common history.

This is a relationship weighted with a lot of familial rivalry, and it is just as well not to get too deep into Churchillian "English-speaking peoples" romanticism. But, that said, it seems to me that the United States has far more in common with Britain (and its various offspring) than with any other country, and those commonalities add up to hard interests in an increasingly dangerous world.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/15/2010

This is a nice discussion of the role of England in "our" war, but I wonder what the public reaction would be if the President actually focused on this, rather than on WWII historical sites, or more neutral attractions? Or, more to the point, I wonder what the Fox-WashingtonTimes-Politico-Drudge nexus would make of it, and how they would spin it into a narrative of resentment and division?