Transcript of the video 'Henrietta Liston and the prehistory of the "special relationship"'
Professor Frank Cogliano
29 November 2016, National Library of Scotland
Thank you, Dora. You can acquire it as soon as I write it.
It's wonderful to be here. Thank you all for coming. Some of you may have been here the last time I was here. I'm glad to say I'm talking about the past this time.
As Dora said, my title today is 'Henrietta Liston and the prehistory of the "special relationship"'. The Liston Papers — and I've gotten to know Dora through the Liston Papers so I'm grateful for that alone — but the Liston Papers are really, really an amazing resource, as I'll tell you a little bit more about Robert and Henrietta Liston as my remarks unfold. But I encountered them when Dora and I began corresponding about my current project, and she said 'I've got some things that might be interesting to you'. And indeed they are.
The Liston Papers are incredibly rich, from the social and cultural and political history — not just of the United States but of Britain and the British Empire in the 18th century in early 19th century. And they're really, really amazing in all kinds of ways. And I'm going to share a little bit of what's in there with you tonight in talking about what I've termed the prehistory of the 'special relationship'.
The 'special relationship' has been in the news recently. I first arrived in the United Kingdom in 1992, just before the presidential election in 1992. It was an innocent time by comparison with the days we live in now, and Bill Clinton was elected in November of 1992. And certainly, with every change of administration that I've experienced living in the UK, there's always been a sort of moment of anxiety about the 'special relationship' and what it means and what a new president or a new prime minister will mean for the transatlantic relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. And so we periodically have these moments of introspection, which are useful.
And what I want to do tonight is offer a few remarks on early British-American relations, and perhaps suggest lessons they might have for us. As Dora said, I'm happy to take questions at the end and both about the talk and more widely.
But if we're going to talk about the 'special relationship', we need to think about its origin. It's not as old as you think it is, necessarily.
[Slide: Winston Churchill making a speech, 1946]
The phrase, the actual phrase 'special relationship', was coined by Winston Churchill, probably in late 1945. He used it in print, but famously he articulated it at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri in 1946 — in March of 1946. And in that address — and that's the famous Iron Curtain address — so former Prime Minister Churchill also calling the phrase 'Iron Curtain' in that speech — he said:
'I come to the crux of what I have travelled here to say. Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organisation will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.'
I want to call your attention to that for two reasons. The first is to emphasise the fact that Churchill coined this phrase and it came to characterise British-American relations only 70 years ago, and I'll say more about that in a moment. The other is — and I think this is often forgotten — is Churchill actually referred to the Commonwealth and then Empire and the United States as having a 'special relationship' — not just Britain and the United States. And I think that's often forgotten in this discourse about the state of transatlantic relations. So he was thinking in a more capacious manner than perhaps we do today.
As to the relative youth of the 'special relationship', it's easy to think that this has always been that way, and that there was always a 'special relationship' with between the United States and Great Britain. That was not the case, as many of you will know. Of course, the United States fought a war of independence from Great Britain. Later — a generation later — fought another war with Britain, and relations throughout the 19th century were fairly tense. As my colleague David Silkenat knows well, there was suggestion during the mid 19th century, when the American Civil War broke out, that the solution to the sectional problem in the United States could be solved if the United States fought its traditional enemy, Britain. And down to the turn of the 20th century it was widely believed that if the United States got involved in another European war, it would probably be against Great Britain, not as its ally.
So the 'special relationship' is relatively new. It's 70 years old. It was born — if we take Churchill's address in Fulton, Missouri as its kind of birth announcement — 70 years ago, just two months before Donald Trump was born in June of 1946. So the 'special relationship' is almost exactly as old as President-elect Trump.
[Slide: Newspaper headline: 'Donald Trump and Theresa May vow to 'strengthen' Special Relationship in phone conversation — but not before he spoke with nine other world leaders'. Photograph: Donald Trump and Nigel Farage shaking hands.]
We've had a moment where the 'special relationship' was in the news in the past couple of weeks. The headline there that I've reproduced is not my work. It was produced by — it appeared in the 'Daily Telegraph' on November 10th, and it expressed concern. It's a very interesting headline in all kinds of ways. On one hand, we have Mr Trump vowing to strengthen the 'special relationship', while observing that she indeed was the 10th world leader he spoke to. And then, of course, Mr Farage visited Mr Trump in New York and they posed for this image which is — I'm not sure what ex-Prime Minister Churchill had in mind when he used this phrase 'special relationship', but this may be the current state of things. We can revisit that as appropriate during the question-and-answer period. If anything, I would reassure you that British-American relations have survived lots of awkward moments, and I'm quite confident will survive this one. Well, I'm reasonably confident. 'Quite' might be overstating it.
Let's go back to the 1790s, please — let's go back to the 1790s! My two main subjects today — what I want to do today is I want to introduce you to Robert and Henrietta Liston: 'Bob' and 'Henny', as they're known to me when I do my research.
Robert Liston became the British Ambassador — he was actually the British Minister to the United States in 1796, and he served from 1796 to 1800.
[Slide: Portrait of Robert Liston by Gilbert Stuart, 1800, alongside the text: 'Robert Liston (1742-1836) served as British ambassador to the United States from 1796 to 1800.']
And I'm going to briefly introduce you to the Listons, then I'm going to provide a little bit of context about that period in American history and British-American relations, before looking at their activities in the U.S. — particularly what Henrietta has to say, because I think Henrietta is a really fascinating character, and gives us really important and rich insights into what life was like in the early United States, and what diplomacy was like with the early United States.
I love this portrait of Robert Liston, because he's got that slight smirk which I take to be a kind of 'kind' smirk rather than an arrogant smirk. And Robert Liston was a very, very experienced British diplomat in the late 19th and early 20th century — sorry, late 18th and early 19th centuries, pardon me.
He had served in the Ottoman Empire; he served in Sweden; he had wide experience in different parts of the world, and he was sent to the United States — as we'll see in a moment — at a particularly, kind of, difficult and anxious moment in the history of British-American relations.
Robert Liston was a native of Scotland. He married Henrietta Liston just before they left for the United States. And if you see their birth dates, he was born in 1742, she in 1752. They were married in 1796, immediately before they departed for the United States. So they married in middle age.
[Slide: Portrait of Henrietta Liston by Gilbert Stuart, 1800, alongside the text: 'Henrietta Marchant Liston (1752-1828) and Robert Liston were married in February 1796, immediately before departing for the United States.']
She was it was of Scottish descent, but was actually born in Antigua, so she was one of those many Scots who went out to various parts of the Empire, particularly the West Indies. And I think that will have some bearing on some of my comments later, too. So she identifies as a Scot — she's very close to her Scottish family indeed. As Dora knows, much of what we know about her time in the United States comes from the letters she wrote to her uncle in Glasgow, who acted really as her kind of patron and benefactor for a long time. But she also identifies with being a West Indian, and she uses that term quite deliberately. So she's got a very interesting identity herself.
They pitched up in the United States in late April, early May 1796. And the country they find is a country in a bit of turmoil. It's a new republic — the United States only won its independence and had its independence recognized by Britain, the former colonial power, in 1783. It had endured quite a bit of turmoil in the 1780s. It gets its new constitution in 1789, and under that constitution this man George Washington was elected the first President of the United States in 1789. He was re-elected in 1792 to a second term.
[Slide: Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1795, alongside the text: 'November 1792: Washington elected to a second term. Second term is marred by increasing partisanship, international and domestic difficulties.']
And Washington's second term is going to be quite tumultuous, and this is an important context for us to bear in mind as we think about the work of the Listons in representing Britain in the United States. It's tumultuous for a number of reasons; most notably because of the French Revolution and the conflicts arising from the French Revolution. And the French Revolution is going to divide Americans and American politics in quite profound ways. And it's going to force Americans to make a choice between Britain and France, and this will have implications for domestic American politics.
The opposition — and it's difficult to speak of political parties at this point, but to simplify things I'll call them parties — but I'm looking at Owen Dudley Edwards, and he undoubtedly will tell me I shouldn't call them parties. So with that proviso I'm going to call them parties, and with your indulgence, Owen. So these two political parties, if you will. The opposition party — the Republicans, or Democratic Republicans, as they're sometimes called — are oriented towards France. They're led by Thomas Jefferson in the Cabinet and James Madison in Congress, and they believe that the United States as a republic and as a signatory to an alliance with France, has an obligation to France and that the United States should align its interest with those of revolutionary France.
The ruling party of President Washington — the Federalists — believe that the United States should be, if not formally aligned, at least informally aligned with Britain. They believe revolutionary France is a dangerous power, it's a power, it's a nation that represents anarchy in the world and basically it needs to be stopped. The Republicans say 'Our revolution and the French Revolution are two parts of a global movement for liberty'.
The Federalists say 'Our revolution (that is, Americans) and the French Revolution are totally different things. Ours was good, theirs is bad. They stand for atheism, they stand for the terror, they stand for anarchy. We stand for Republican self-rule and responsibility and therefore we should align with Britain — if not formally at least informally.'
And the Washington administration will do this in 1794 when it enters into an agreement with Britain called the Jay Treaty.
[Slide: Portrait of John Jay by Gilbert Stuart, 1794, and a copy of the first page of Jay's Treaty, alongside text: 'November 19, 1794: Jay's Treaty signed (ratified by the Senate on June 24, 1795)'.] So-called because it was negotiated on behalf of the Americans by this man, John Jay, who — you see him, he's in court robes there. He had been on the Supreme Court. Supreme Court didn't do very much in the 1790s, so George Washington could send a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to Britain to negotiate a treaty and nobody missed him. He came back with a treaty which isn't a formal alliance, but it's an agreement with Britain. It essentially is a trade deal between Britain and the United States, and it's a trade deal that gives the new United States access to British markets, and to the British colonies for example imports in the West Indies. And it puts the United States — if you kind of use contemporary parlance — it gives it most favoured nation status.
This is only 11 years after Britain's been forced to grudgingly concede the independence of the United States, so Britain is moving a little bit — this is very difficult for Britain. The United States, you know, Britain faces the same dilemma about the United States as the United States faces with France: it's a revolutionary power, it's unstable, it actually has waged war against Britain. There's a great deal of resentment in Britain towards the United States, so entering into negotiations with the United States is problematic for some in the British government, and the Jay Treaty represents an improvement in relations between Britain and the United States.
However, politics in the 1790s in the United States and global politics is a bit of a zero-sum game. An improvement in politics — or improvement in relations, I should say — between Britain and the United States means a deterioration in relations between the United States and France. And the Republican Party in particular is very, very agitated about this treaty. And there are real kind of fierce partisan divisions that emerge as a result of the Jay Treaty.
This is a very poorly reproduced image, but it's the best we have, of a fight that took place in Congress — an actual fistfight.
[Slide: Etching of the fight, 1797]
It's actually not a fist fight, it's a fight between two gentlemen using weapons in 1797. And what we see is Matthew Lion is the man with the tongs, and Roger Griswold has the cane. Matthew Lion was a Republican from Vermont. This took place in 1797, so it's a wee bit later than the period in question, but it gives you a flavour of what's going on. Matthew Lion was an indentured servant from Ireland who — a former indentured servant — who'd emigrated to the United States. He represented, if you will, the kind of politics of the Republican Party, more democratic. Roger Griswold was an old Connecticut Yankee. They'd had some sort of dispute in which Matthew Lion spat in the face of Roger Griswald. Griswald went to hit Lion with his cane; Lion took the tongs from the fireplace in the House of Representatives and they battled until they were separated. One newspaper — Federalist newspaper in New England said of this incident and Lion spitting on Roger Griswold: 'I can't believe that the saliva of an Irishman was on the face of a New Englander.'
So politics are frantic. It's important to bear in mind — because we have a tendency to see all politics in apocalyptic terms — the 1790s were really, really bad. I'm not saying that this decade is good, but I'm saying we've been here before.
David [Silkenat]'s decade — the 1850s, in the 1850s you know, there was violence in Congress and of course we had the small matter of the Civil War as a result of the election of 1860. So we've had our moments in the United States.
[Slide: Portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, alongside the text: 'November 1796: John Adams elected president, Thomas Jefferson, his opponent, elected vice president.']
In 1796 — in the election of 1796 — George Washington stepped down. George Washington served two terms. He was eager to retire. He went into retirement in 1796, and I'll say more about that when I get back to the Listons in a moment, but in the election of 1796 the vice president, John Adams, ran for president against the leader of the Republicans, Thomas Jefferson, who had formerly been secretary of state in the first Washington administration. And Adams was elected president, Jefferson was elected vice president.
Those of you who were here in September will remember my explanation of the Electoral College. That didn't prove to be important(!). The way the Electoral College worked in the 1790s was the person who finished second in the Electoral College became vice president, so were that to pertain today — and I'm glad you're sitting down — Secretary Clinton would be the vice president-elect to Mr Trump.
So, Thomas Jefferson as the loser of the election in 1796 became the vice president of the United States in 1797 under John Adams. Revolutionary France, at war with Britain already, interpreted the Jay Treaty and the election result of 1796 as a repudiation of France and the Franco-American alliance, which is a fairly accurate conclusion to reach. And so France undertakes in 1796 in the wake of the election a kind of four-year quasi war with the United States.
[Slide: Painting — the 'USS Constellation' by Antoine Roux, around 1805, alongside the text '1796-1800: 'Quasi-War' between the United States and France'.]
And so, the United States and France — and again, this is important because it coincides exactly with the time that the Listons are in the United States — France and the United States are waging a war at sea on each other's shipping. So they're attacking each other's shipping, in the West Indies mainly, not only also in the Mediterranean. And it's widely expected that the United States will declare war on France in the late 1790s. It doesn't do so for reasons we don't need to worry about, although I'm happy to go into that on the Q and A if you like.
But it's widely expected that war is imminent. And in Henrietta Liston's journals and letters she mentions this quite a bit, not least in the context of saying 'Well, Robert can't return to Europe yet because we're expecting war and he has to stay here'. And so this is important background in terms of conditions in their own lives.
And so this four-year 'Quasi War', as it's called, goes on in the late 1790s, during the Adams administration, for exactly the time period that the Listons are in the United States. Which brings us back to the Listons. They arrived in May of 1796 in New York, and the arrival of the British Ambassador, a new British Minister to the United States, was big news. And they were feted and welcomed and celebrated where they went. They were a little bit surprised at this, in fact, and so what you see …
[Slide: invitation to dinner with George Washington, which reads 'The President of the United States and Mrs Washington request the Pleasure of The Minister of G. Britain & Mrs Liston's Company to Dine, on Friday next, at 4 o'Clock. 24Feb.y 1794. An answer is requested.']
So, they arrive in May of 1796, they're in New York, they'll travel down to Philadelphia — but soon after their arrival — wait, Philadelphia, which was then the capital of the United States — they were invited to dine with President Washington and his wife Martha.
And so here you have an image from the papers that Dora kindly supplied me with, which shows the invitation to their first dinner. Perhaps it's not the first one, but this is a one of the invitations they received. And what I want to say with regard to Washington's dinners is these were a big deal — well, getting invited to dinner with the president of the United States would be a big deal even then. But it's really, really important, it's not just dinner with George and Martha for Bob and Henny.
George Washington was acutely aware that as the first president of the United States, he was setting precedents that would be followed by his successors and that establishing the importance and the dignity of the office was vitally important. And so Washington engaged in a series of what we might call the sort of social events that have real political and cultural importance — and his opponents will criticize him for this. So he holds levees once a week — as they're called, and these levees are essentially receptions where people come and they greet President Washington and they greet Mrs Washington, and there's a real kind of protocol to how people behave.
There's a big debate about what the president should be called. That's nothing like a debate going on about what we're going to call the president, the next president. There's a big debate that goes on right after Washington is inaugurated, and John Adams — among others — suggests a variety of titles. And this question of titles is important. They eventually settled on 'Mr President' because they believed it has Republican dignity, but it's not just a matter of protocol. Although it is that, it's also about establishing the legitimacy of the new government. And Washington is acutely aware of his responsibilities here, so the kind of the levees — the dinners which he has — these are all really — they're important parts of this.
And Henrietta Liston's papers are brilliant for all this because she provides really detailed descriptions of what these events are like. She laments, for example, the fact that at Washington's levees they don't put out card tables to play cards as you would at the equivalent event in Britain. In deference to the Quakers in Philadelphia she said if the Quakers weren't there — and they're lovely people — we could play cards which would make these levees a little more interesting.
And so, she's describing what is essentially court life. Now, this is a republic — George Washington's the president of a republic — it's not supposed to have a court in a formal way. And Washington's political opponents, like Jefferson, will criticise this kind of republican court, as they call it — they say 'This is monarchical. He wants to be king'. And they're kind of misinterpreting, I think, what's going on — which is he's attempting to establish the dignity of the government, whilst maintaining its republican identity. And it's a very, very tricky and kind of subtle balance he's trying to strike.
And Henrietta Liston and the Listons participate in this, and she gives us real insight into what's going on in this very, very early period in the history of the American Republic and its government. And so they're invited to dinner, and she describes the dinner in kind of wonderful detail, and this is one of the dinners she goes to, and she writes:
'We received a Ceremonious invitation from the President to dine on Wednesday of the week following; [This is right after they arrived.] Thursday being the usual day for publick Dinners. [So they got a private dinner with Washington, which would still have several other people there.] This was a compliment commonly paid to a Foreign Minister on his first arrival. [And they actually dine with the Portuguese Ambassador as well. She writes:] This Entertainment, though sombre & formal, had an air of Magnificence; - There was a Plateau ornamented with French figures, two courses of French cookery served up in the American style & [and, like many an undergraduate, she doesn't know how to spell 'dessert'] And a Desert, — The President sat in the Centre of one side, I was on his right hand, Madame de Freire [who was the wife of the Portuguese ambassador] on his left; Mrs Washington separated from him only by a Lady & Gentleman. — The Secretary of State [who at that time is Timothy Pickering] at the Bottom of the Table, — the private Secretary at the top. — The President during dinner drinks wine with every Lady, & with most of the Gentlemen.'
One thing that also comes out in her accounts is how much drinking they're doing at these events. And she comments on this extensively. So that's an account of her very first meal with Washington. Henrietta Liston is smitten by Washington, and many people were smitten by Washington. When she meets Washington, she writes back to say you know this person, he is the real thing — all you've heard about him is true. You have to remember, she is the wife of the British Ambassador to the United States. Washington was the man, of course, who led the successful Revolutionary struggle against the United States, and she's making a journey, as it were, that's fairly significant. But she is won over by the Washingtons, particularly George, but also Martha, who she comes to really like and she has a great deal of affection for, though she begins by saying 'Well, she's kind of plain'. And it doesn't seem to really have been a love match, but they kind of liked each other. You know, they seem very fond of each other. So she damns with faint praise in the beginning, but she's really, really won over and I'll say more about that in a moment or two and why that matters.
She's there for the election of 1796 and I think her account of that is very, very interesting. And what you have is an image of her journal from March of 1797. So of course the election was held in late 1796, but the president was inaugurated in March. Inaugurations at that time used to happen in March, not in January as they do now.
And she slightly gets it wrong — she doesn't quite understand the way the American Constitution works. She didn't quite get that Washington had, in choosing not to stand for office again, was giving up office.
[Slide: Handwritten journal entry alongside the typed text.]
So she says:
'Yesterday General Washington voluntarily resigned his Office of Chief Magistrate of the United States of America: [that was what the Constitution mandated since he was no longer president] Mr Adams was sworn in President as his successor, — carrying the Election by a majority of three Votes over his opponent Mr Jefferson; — who, at the same time, took the oaths as Vice President.'
I will say, she doesn't love Jefferson. One of the first things Dora showed me — and I don't have it in my presentation today — was an account that the Listons gave, or Henrietta gave, of their visit to Jefferson at Monticello. And they went and they visited Jefferson in his home outside Charlottesville, Virginia and she said 'yeah it's nice enough'. And she gives a wonderful description of Monticello in 1799, but Jefferson asked them if they want to stay the night. They more or less say 'No, no we've got a reservation elsewhere, we'll be off'. Most people really enjoyed staying with Jefferson at Monticello. She's much more sympathetic to the Federalists, politically.
She continues writing of Washington: 'He has for eight years sacrificed his natural taste, first habits & early propensities — I really believe we may truly say — solely to what he thought was the good of his Country. — But he has become tired of his Situation, fretted by the opposition made to his measures; & his pride revolted against the ingratitude he experienced, — and he was also disgusted by the scurrilous abuse lavished upon him by his political enemies.'
Very interesting. Her letters are much more interesting than Robert's because Robert's a Diplomat. He's a British official. He tends to give kind of standard dull — Dora? — accounts of what's going on. — she [Henrietta Liston] says no, Washington got attacked by the press. She gives a very interesting view. Washington is seen as kind of this selfless figure, and she suggests that a little bit. She actually says he retired, chose not to stand again because he was tired of the abuse he was receiving. So it's a slightly different alternate interpretation of events than we get from some histories of the period, where Washington's often portrayed as being above party. She said he's not above party and he actually was subjected to a great deal of abuse, which is why he resigned.
As I said before, she greatly came to admire Washington, as did her husband Robert. And Washington apparently greatly admired the Listons. And so he invited them — I mean, having them for dinner in Philadelphia, the capital, was one thing — but he invited them to Mount Vernon, his home in Virginia.
And I was recently at Mount Vernon speaking, and one of the things that that I was told was that during his retirement Washington very rarely had a night at home alone with Martha. There were always guests at Mount Vernon; people would just drop by for dinner and stay. And basically, running an estate like that was also essentially running a hotel, and so to receive an invitation from somebody who's going to be so hard put upon really was significant.
And the Listons do receive invitations to go to Mount Vernon, and they go to Mount Vernon and in fact soon before Washington's death — Washington died in December of 1799 — they visited him in November of 1799 and they were very, very upset. I think beyond simply what one would expect of a diplomat, they were greatly upset by his death. And she writes at length about his funeral. [Slide: Invitation to George Washington's funeral, which reads 'THE COMMITTEE OF ARRANGEMENT ON the part of Congress request the favour of the Company of Mrs Liston & ladies of her Family at a FUNERAL ORATION to be delivered at the German Lutheran Church on Thursday the 26th inst. At the hour of twelve, in honor of the Memory of General GEORGE WASHINGTON. JONATHAN DAYTON, JOHN MARSHALL, Chairmen. December, 1799.']
You see the ticket — they have a ticket in their papers: they were invited, they had a ticket to attend Washington's funeral, which one would have expected. I mean, it was the equivalent in the early United States to a state funeral, and of course the British Ambassador would have been one of the most important diplomats in the country. So they're invited to the funeral and you see the invitation there, but she writes about how:
'Mr Liston & I greatly esteemed & admired the Man [she underscores that] & felt grateful for his uniform attention & kindness to us; & it is with satisfaction we reflect on having visited him so lately & parted from him so affectionately.'
She wrote that just after visiting him before his death. And she writes about going back to Mount Vernon after his death to see Martha Washington just before her death. And so there's a real kind of close bond develops, which I think is more significant than, or more significant than you'd expect particularly when one considers the roles that these two families play. Washington is the president the United States; he's the first president of the United States; he led the American effort in the War of Independence. Robert Liston represents the former mother country, of course, and colonial power and so the fact that these two men reached a rapprochement and there was genuine affection between those men and their wives and among the four of them is quite revealing about their diplomacy.
So Henrietta Liston's journals and diary and letters are fabulous. I cannot recommend them to you enough, and they're wonderful for me because she has some really, really insightful and enjoyable and revealing things to say about the way politics worked in the early republic, at least at the highest level and gives us insights of the kind we don't regularly have. And so they're a wonderful resource and when they go online — I can't recommend them to you enough — as they will next spring, next March. But they're also a real boon to social historians and people interested in how life is lived.
She has some wonderful passages and I want to close, you know, I want to leave time for questions — I want to close by sharing some of her insights and descriptions to you. As I said she's very, very smart, she's a very good travel writer. She becomes famous as a bit of a travel writer. Her travel journals have been published for other parts of the world, particularly the West Indies. But she's very, very good in describing and observing things, so she writes — and I give you a quote there which I love. She's constantly complaining about how expensive things are in the United States, and how difficult it is to manage the family's budget. Because she's not just managing the family's budget, she has to manage the budget for the British Ambassador so they have to entertain. She complains about the amount of entertaining they have to do, and how costly it is to get anything done. And she says 'everybody rips us off, everybody is always cheating foreign ministers'.
So there's a quote there that she wrote soon after her arrival, in a letter to her uncle in Glasgow, and she talks about how expensive — she's constantly saying 'could you send this, this, this', and she sends him shopping lists all the time:
'It is from accident only that anything is to be got in this Country below the value, of us all advantages are taken, Foreign Ministers are esteemed lawful game, & there is less real principle in this Country than I expected to find, particularly in the lower orders the People [she's a real snob] — yet was our door left open all night we should not, probably, be robbed, cheating not stealing seems to be the error in America.' [— Henrietta Liston to James Jackson, 21 July 1796].
She says people are very honest, except they cheat you. Those of you out there on the internet, there's your hashtag or there's your tweet: cheating not stealing seems to be the error in America according to Henny Liston. And she writes these things — I think she's a wonderful writer notwithstanding the fact that I misread her comment I apologise for that — but her insights on these things are really, really interesting. She talks about how difficult it is to shop. Now, we get the perspective of an elite woman trying to shop in New York and Philadelphia in the 1790s, that's a really, really rare and important insight, and so there's a wealth of material here of interest to social historians. And I want to share some of these insights with you if I can.
So I'm going to — if you'll indulge me, I'll indulge you in some of the treasures from Henrietta Liston because she's wonderful.
In May of 1796 when they first arrived, she writes a long account of their Atlantic passage and what life was like in New York when they first arrived. And I'm going to pander to this particular cultural moment because one of the people who most impresses her when she first arrives in New York is a fellow West Indian: Alexander Hamilton.
'We were visited by, and very frequently met another man of eminence in this country Colonel Hamilton — once Secretary of the Treasury, and framer of the funding system adopted in this country, author also or rather Editor of the publication called The Federalist [Hamilton was one of the chief contributors to the Federalist Papers] — Colonel Hamilton is by birth a West Indian; [local pride in that]by profession a lawyer; and has retired from public business to the practice of his profession. He is lively and animated in conversation, gallant in his manners, and sometimes brilliant in his sallies, his political conduct has occasioned and created for him many enemies and brought upon him unjustly, much obloquy, he is, however, a great support to the Federal Constitution.'
She has a number of passages in which she gushes over Alexander Hamilton. She was clearly charmed by Alexander Hamilton, as were many New York women. And because we're talking about Hamilton, we'll talk about the theatre. Soon after arriving, they go to the theatre — not Hamilton and Mrs Liston. She writes:
'There is a very good theatre at New York, and a very tolerable set of performers. [Which is high praise from Henrietta] Lady Temple wife of the British Consul here kindly procured a box and accompanied us. Notwithstanding the political attachment the Americans choose to profess to the French, their former allies — their British origin, in spite of themselves, draws their affections. The house was, Lady Temple and her daughter observed, fuller than usual to see a new British Minister; and the popular and offensive French music, usual at the theatre, was omitted. I could likewise observe that all dinners to which we were invited — after the health of the President — that of the King of Great Britain followed, and with more feeling than was necessary, to a mere compliment to his Minister.'
It's very interesting what she's observing there. I think, now, we have to allow for her bias — she's the wife of the British Minister of course, but she's finding the Americans, at least when she first arrived, more pro-American than she expected. Also refer back to her description of Hamilton: it's only a few lines, it's a very perceptive pen portrait of Hamilton and his character and the fact that he upset people as well as had achieved a lot. And so she's very, very good — she's actually very, very perceptive and smart and what she's strongest on, I think, and most amusing about, is her description of America and Americans. I mean, outsiders — and I say this as somebody who's lived in Britain for 25 years — outsiders see things that insiders don't always see. And she's wonderful on this. She's a little bit of a snob, but that makes her more amusing.
So, she writes a couple months later after they first arrived and they've gone to Philadelphia — which was the capital of the United States — and she's removed to Germantown because it's the summer, and she's worried about yellow fever which was always a problem in Philadelphia. And she writes this comparison of Europe and the early United States.
'But the eye of an European will sometimes languish for works of art; no gothic cathedrals, no ruined-abbeys, no Ivy-covered turrets, give exercise to the sombre imagination — neither are there to be seen magnificent palaces, polished lawns, or cultivated pleasure grounds — to please the taste — not even gardens worth examining: here all is nature, and she is neither improved, nor controlled [Controlling nature is a very eighteenth century concept] — now and then the romantic cottage of a Swede, or German, attracts attention; but even in these, there is deficiency in that neatness, cleanliness, and comfort to be found in an English one.'
'The lower class of people live well — that is, they eat meat, drink spirits, and drive their carts [So these are Americans who eat well and have their own cars, basically] in coats of English broadcloth. Every labourer has his coffee, his beef and greens, and such daily: his wages are very high, at the season when he can work, and as there are no regulations, he demands for his commodities what he pleases [It's that unregulated American economy the Europeans are fascinated by]. Few or no beggars molest you in the streets, but private petitions are not unfrequent. [So they did get lots of letters to Robert Liston asking for money but they're not being harassed on the street] There are neither a great proportion of old or of sick persons, [her conclusion] consequently sudden deaths occur often. [She doesn't see any old people — where are they going, they're all dying very suddenly. Her view is "Oh, it's basically America: people make a lot of money, they have a lot of consumer goods, they eat well and they die easily, life is cheap"]. The sickly season is from the middle of July till the frost sets in — numbers are occasionally carried off by yellow fever — which in 1793 — made dreadful havoc. [There's a terrible yellow fever epidemic centred on Philadelphia in 1793, which is why the entire government and the diplomatic corps decamped every summer.] I would pronounce the climate of North America to be, upon the whole, unhealthy, did I not recollect that this country includes climates and situations so various, that a traveller, may suit himself with what he pleases.'
So, she said basically, the climate in Philadelphia in the summertime is awful. If you've ever been to Philadelphia in the summertime you would agree — but she does allow for the possibility that there are varied climates because it's a big place. I think she goes on at length about the insects — she's very, very upset about the insects and the fact that there are flying bugs and mosquitoes and all sorts of things as a lengthy although she concedes the fireflies are beautiful. She also says — and this very interesting as far as kind of a cultural history:
'It is usual here during the summer, to sit without light from sunset to bedtime. You find benches fixed at many doors, and where they are not — the steps are crowded with well-dressed persons, during the summer evenings, and this on account of the heat and insects.'
She's obsessed with the insects. What's interesting — I love that line, because she's basically saying — as you'll see if you go to Brooklyn this summer, or you go to Philadelphia or Boston — people sit out on their stoops and they've been doing in it America since the 1790s, and chat.
And so these are just kind of throwaway lines, and there are thousands of such observations in her papers, so when they're digitised and online or when the digitisation is complete — I know Dora is hard at work at it — there's a wealth of material here.
But back to my main theme in terms of the 'special relationship', and I'll say this by way of conclusion. It's a really interesting moment in the history of British-American relations. One war is over, another war is in the offing; they of course don't know that. It's a perilous time for the early American Republic but it's also a difficult time for Britain, which is at the time engaged in a massive war in the Atlantic world with revolutionary France and its allies.
And Robert Liston, and Henrietta Liston, and the American government officials and politicians they need — get along remarkably well and they stand out, in part, in contrast to their predecessors and successors. So, Robert Liston's immediate predecessor was a man named George Hammond, who'd been British Ambassador to the United States before him. And Hammond was very, very unpopular and had made a hash of things and indeed there was a threat of war during the first Washington administration, in part because Hammond did mismanage things.
Liston would be succeeded by Anthony Merry. Anthony Merry will famously fall out with President Jefferson. Jefferson supposedly answers the door in his slippers and in the state of undress according to Merry, and this is a deliberate rebuke. None of this happens to the Listons, and we could say 'Well okay, that's fine — he's a diplomat; he's supposed to get along with people'. But it's more than that — they work constructively together, recognising that the United States and the United Kingdom at that time had certain common interests. As I said at the beginning, the relationship is a fractious one. Its history is one of ups and downs. It hasn't always been special. It's been special, but it's been special in all kinds of ways — not always positive.
We, in the aftermath and the afterglow of particularly the Second World War, and everything that's followed on from it — have kind of misunderstood, I think, what went before. It's a much more fractious relationship, but we have a hint of what's to come in the relationship between the Listons and the Washingtons in particular; but the United States more generally. And what strikes me in thinking about this — and as we think forward, wonder what's next. Both sides placed a great deal of emphasis on patience, decorum, dignity, and good manners, frankly. And we would do well to remember that and we can only hope that the next caretakers of the British-American relationship remember that. So, thank you for your attention and I'm happy to take questions.