The Magazine

Empire of Liberty

How the New World was made by an illustrious Churchill.

Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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At 8:00 a.m. on July 11, 1708, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, captain general of British forces, and de facto commander of the Dutch, Hanoverian, Prussian, Danish, and other forces of the Grand Alliance, ordered his 80,000 men across the River Scheldt at the village of Oudenaarde in Flanders. Arrayed on the hills north of the village were 90,000 or so French and Bavarian troops under “Le Petit Dauphin” Louis de Bourbon, second in line to Louis XIV, and his military second, Marshall Louis Joseph, Duke of Vendôme.

‘The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Oudenaarde’ (ca. 1740) by John Wootton

‘The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Oudenaarde’ (ca. 1740) by John Wootton

Marlborough’s maneuver entirely surprised the French, who could not imagine that the allies were capable of moving so quickly. “If they are there,” Vendôme cried, “the Devil must have carried them. Such marching”—60,000 of Marlborough’s army had covered 50 miles in 60 hours—“is impossible.”  

Even less imaginable was that Marlborough would move directly into an attack, risking an encounter battle in an age of sieges and set pieces. Forced by circumstance and the terrain to commit his army in a piecemeal fashion, and switching the point of attack from left flank to right flank and back, Marlborough nearly risked too much. But when nightfall ended the fighting, the two allied wings had closed upon the French command.  Marlborough continued, “in a very soaking rain,” to reinforce the position he had won, ready to renew the contest at dawn.

But daylight revealed that the enemy were gone; they had bolted for the safety of France. The armies of Louis XIV, after a generation of conquest, took shelter in their frontier fortifications. And when the citadel of Lille fell in December, the Sun King was forced to the peace table. The unending War of the Spanish Succession, fought almost without interruption for a generation, might at last be won. Marlborough believed that his army had “been blessed by God with more success than ever was known in one campaign.”

Alas for Marlborough, King Louis was playing for time. Not even Marlborough’s campaigning could yet secure Britain’s global demands: As much as London wanted to balance Louis’s bid for continental hegemony, it wanted to dominate French North America and to feast off the decline of the Spanish empire there.  Louis rejected the allied demands, and the war would continue. Sidney Godolphin, lord treasurer and thus prime minister of the English government, agreed with Marlborough in saying, “I see no more room for signing any Treaty, but on a drumhead.”

But, as Stephen Saunders Webb writes in this masterful new work, the Duke of Marlborough wanted something more than the decisive battle that had thus far eluded him; he wanted regime change in France. He “would conquer all of France, deflate the French monarchy, and restore the French parliament. Marlborough intended that this revolution .  .  . would reduce French influence and transform a despotic tyrant into a constitutional monarch.” The nature of this new, constitutional, limited government in France would “cement the balance of power and secure the peace of the Atlantic world.” Regime change in Paris, he wrote, “is more likely to give quiet to Christendom [than taking] provinces from them for the inriching [sic] of others”—the Dutch and the Austrians, who put their faith in “barrier fortresses” and buffer zones.

Anyone who attempts a Marlborough book stands in the shadow of Winston Churchill, who intended his multi--volume Marlborough: His Life and Times as both a panegyric and a polemic. Writing in the 1930s, Churchill hoped to “recall this great shade from the past, and not only invest him with his panoply, but to make him living and intimate to modern eyes.” Such pedantic, Whiggish historical purposes, perhaps appropriate to those interwar years, would revolt a modern academic historian. But the long life and times of John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough, cannot be grasped without a prolonged meditation on the relationship between power—military power, “hard” power, coercive power, imperial power—and liberty.

Few contemporary historians are as well prepared to do this as Webb. Marlborough’s America is the fourth in his series The Governors-General, which together comprise the opening chapters of the long and winding (and still incomplete) story of that paradoxical creation, the Anglo-American empire, in which the protection and extension of naturally endowed, universal political, confessional, and individual “liberties” rest upon the growing powers of a fiscal-military state. The series is also a wonderful genealogy of the British Army’s officer corps, the imperial proconsuls. The Royal Navy may have ruled the waves, but it was the British Army that ruled the empire.