Plattsburgh seen from abroad

Dateline: 05 September 1814

First, my enormous thanks to the owners and editor of Lake Champlain Weekly for allowing me, an enemy national, to write this column at a time of war between our countries. This respect for freedom of speech is part of our shared Anglo-American heritage, which your country, to its great credit, has written into its Constitution. As my regular readers will know, I am a great admirer of America, and though your country is less than 40 years old, I am sure it has a great future ahead of it.

In the years since 1776 America has had just four Presidents, all of them very great men. I confess to a particular admiration for your present leader, James Madison, the author of your Constitution. The bravery of your soldiers and sailors in the Battle of Plattsburgh has served President Madison well. It is easy to imagine that, had this war gone the other way, the President would have attracted the blame. This would have been an unfortunate reflection on a very great man.

The lessons of this war are very clear. Our countries must find a way to live and work together. Your Articles of Confederation offered the Canadian colonies the opportunity to join America, but it seems there is little demand from them to do so. So Britain’s colonies will have a border with the United States for many generations to come. We need to find a way to make this a permanently peaceful border. One day it will stretch all the way to the Pacific. Let’s work to make it the longest unmilitarized border in the world.

Our values unite us. Britain has recently brought to an uneasy close a Europe wide war against the French. That was a war of competing value systems, unlike this conflict between our two nations. Revolutionary France had no respect for property or for individual rights. As President Madison and his colleagues themselves pointed out in The Federalist Papers, most aspects of the US Constitution were explicitly modeled on British ideas of governance. The separation of powers strengthens and codifies a British tradition unknown on the continent of Europe. Free men governed by the rule of law – a law that binds the government itself – is a powerful idea, and it is an Anglo-American gift to the world.

In the future I am sure that these shared values will make us allies far more than enemies. Freedom of speech, representative government, and the rule of law are values that are sure to unite us as friends.

The next challenge to these values will create divisions within our countries, not between them. No-one who observed the late and successful campaign by Messrs Wilberforce and Pitt to ban the slave trade can believe that this conflict is over. Within a decade or so Parliament will certainly ban slavery throughout the British Empire. That will be a much tougher step for America to take. I know the people of New York and Vermont well enough to know that you will be on the right side in this future conflict, but what of your southern brethren? Anglo-American values will change the world: but only when we apply them to all men within our borders. And that will be the greatest challenge your young nation will face.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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