Tune in to any UK radio now and there’s a good chance you’ll hear the catchy but sad tones of English artist Kate Bush’s 1985 hit ‘Running Up That Hill’, which has recently been on the air for more than 30 years topped the UK Singles Chart after the track’s initial release, thanks to its use in the final season of American TV show Stranger Things.
The song’s renewed popularity on both sides of the pond is just the latest reminder that while the US declared its independence from Britain 246 years ago today, the two nations have managed to remain remarkably close – and not just culturally , but also economically and strategically too, says Troy Bickham, a history professor at Texas A&M University
According to Bickham, who specializes in early American history and the history of the British Empire, it is largely a history of shared interests, values and languages that has created the close bond between countries today.
From revolution to dissolution
By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, Britain’s relationship with its North American colonies was already on the wall, Bickham said. News of growing resistance across the Atlantic circulated in the British press for more than a decade, and by 1775 King George III had. officially declared the colonies in a state of revolt. By the time the statement reached his desk, he was mobilizing troops for an attack on New York.
Although the resulting war is often thought of as a conflict between Americans and British, Bickham says it wasn’t exactly understood at the time. Early on, it was widely understood not as a revolutionary war but as a kind of civil war within the British Empire.
“The term ‘American’ to describe Americans only emerged then to refer to non-Indigenous people,” Bickham said. “George Washington would have called himself English, as would Benjamin Franklin and everyone else. What they disagreed on was what it means to be English.”
Back in Britain, large sections of the population sympathized with the cause of the rebellious colonists, and the idea of waging war against them made many uneasy. High-ranking military officers resigned in protest, while others complained loudly in the press and in the House of Commons.
“It was a huge issue, it was divisive,” Bickham said. “Up until the 1930s, the largest petitioning movement in British history was to end the war with the colonies. … One newspaper refused to distinguish between British and American dead, saying: “They are all sons of Britain.”
Arguments against the war were often framed in terms of practical and economic concerns — partly because vocal support for American independence would be grounds for treason, Bickham said. And as the war dragged on and became an increasingly costly endeavor, these arguments only became more compelling.
“They would say, ‘Practically, that doesn’t make sense – we should act, not kill,'” Bickham said. “Eventually a bill came out to fund the war for next year and Parliament said, ‘You know what, this is too expensive, we’re not winning, we’re done.'”
As British forces withdrew, governors and other colonial officials were expelled from the new United States, and many others who had remained loyal to the Crown left voluntarily, Bickham said. However, those former Loyalists who chose to stay found they were able to go about their lives and go about their business largely undisturbed.
In 1785, just two years after gaining independence, the US established formal diplomatic relations with Britain and sent John Adams across the Atlantic to an audience with King George.
“Adams leaves this meeting with the conclusion that, to some degree, the United States and Britain share many cultural similarities that allow them to do business,” Bickham said.
Ultimately, Bickham said it didn’t take long for the ongoing animosity between the UK and US to subside in favor of a mutually beneficial economic partnership. After all, Britain still had an enormous need for American agricultural products, and its former colonists were more than happy to supply them at the right price.
Because the US was still largely an agrarian society, Americans relied heavily on the more industrialized Britain for products they could not produce themselves.
“The United States is Britain’s largest overseas market for goods before the Revolution and it is so after the Revolution – that doesn’t change well into the 19th century,” Bickham said. “Much of the cotton from the South is milled in Britain. So they are very closely related.”
America on the rise
A major disruption to this harmonious financial settlement was the War of 1812, prompted in part by British efforts to restrict American trade with France during the Napoleonic Wars.
Fearing British attempts to regain power, American political leaders pushed back hard. When tensions finally boiled over, the US and Britain were again at war, albeit not for long.
“They fought a small war that lasted a couple of years and it didn’t do much except that by the end of the war the British realized that the United States was going to be the preeminent power in North America,” Bickham said. “The British sort of cut their losses, kept what became Canada, but essentially realized the US will do its own thing and it’s easier to befriend them than fight them.”
Over the decades, the two nations have maintained strong economic ties as well as high levels of social and cultural cooperation, Bickham said. Abolitionists and members of various religious movements often corresponded with their counterparts across the Atlantic, and British literature remained a favorite of American readers.
“There was also a significant amount of social mixing,” Bickham said. “Certainly the American elite still looked to the British for legitimacy and all that.”
As the 19th century progressed, ties between the American and British upper classes would further strengthen as daughters of increasingly affluent American elites would marry into noble but less affluent British families, creating a matching union of social status and financial resources goals of both families.
“Winston Churchill’s mother is American, the Vanderbilts also married into the aristocracy, so there was a lot of connection in that way,” Bickham said.
The World Wars and “The Special Relationship”
Later in the 20th century, it was Churchill himself who described the growing bond between the US and Britain as a “special bond”. Although this relationship would not blossom until World War II, Bickham said the seeds were planted during World War I.
When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the question arose as to which side the US would end up on if it decided to fight. German-Americans represented a larger portion of the US population than any other ethnic group at the time, but the common language of the US and Britain helped channel American sympathies for the Entente powers.
“The advantage the British have over the Germans is that British propaganda doesn’t need to be translated,” Bickham said.
After entering the war and helping Britain and its allies achieve victory, the US reverted to a more isolated stance for some time, even in the early years of World War II. But ultimately the US would once again support its mother nation, supplying the UK with massive shipments of military supplies before eventually mobilizing its own troops to fight alongside British and other Allied forces.
That’s when “the special relationship,” a term Churchill first used in a 1946 speech, was really starting to emerge, Bickham said.
“Certainly it will be cemented very strongly after World War II as the British and Americans work together to rebuild Europe as Western democracies and together defeat the Soviet Union and Communism during the Cold War,” he said.
Through it all, the British and Americans retain a strong cultural affinity, as popular music, books, films and television shows can be easily exported from one nation to another. In fact, Running Up That Hill was first released during the Cold War and found its way to American shores.
As Bickham notes, the fact that the song has now found its way back across the Atlantic in the form of a hit American TV show nearly 40 years later is just another example of the enduring bond between the two nations.