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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This empire-making began at home. Indeed, Marlborough-minded readers would do well to read Webb’s Lord Churchill’s Coup, the precursor to Marlborough’s America. Before he was a duke, indeed before he was a lord, John Churchill was a general in James Stuart’s service. But as James II became more absolute and more Roman Catholic—not content simply to suppress Protestant dissenters, but taking on the Tory, Anglican establishment as well—General Churchill engineered what is commonly called the Glorious Revolution (but which Webb delights in calling a “Protestant putsch”). No one can accuse Webb of writing rose-colored Macaulay/Trevelyan-style Whig history. The Anglo-American empire might be the engine of a kind of political progress, but it’s a grimy, creaky, inefficient, fume-producing machine, too.

What were the basic design principles of this British imperial military machine? To begin with, it sprang from an ideological core, the defense of the “Protestant interest.” This was always a fluid idea, always part secular and political as well as confessional—and less strictly confessional as time went on. But even when it was more confessional, the Protestant interest was more accurately defined as anti-Spanish or anti-French than anti-Catholic. The many versions of the reformed faith across Britain’s grand alliances—or, say, in England and Scotland—limited the amount of Protestant purity. But no narrow national, or “British,” interest would suffice either to hold the alliances together or to catapult London into the driver’s seat.

British imperial ideology also owed much to classical humanism. It had a civilizing and improving ethos, supposedly traceable to the Roman colonization of ancient Britain—as Webb observes throughout his series, the British officer corps was big on the Romans—but also reflective of early modern political thought, as exemplified in Thomas More’s Utopia and John Locke’s Two Treatises. Such works gave both justification and practical strategic guidance when it came to colonizing Highland Scotland, Ireland, and North America. The British Army wanted to develop the “wastes” and indigenous peoples, as well as bring them to the true religion, and to avoid what it saw as the Spanish and French models of conquest and exploitation. Of course, if the natives didn’t go along with the plan, the British could crack heads—as More had given his Utopians license to wage war if colonies were left uncultivated.

But for the British Army, the purpose of projecting power and developing colonies was to preserve a favorable balance of European continental power; and though it had a “globalized” view, the Army kept score in Atlantic Europe—particularly in the Low Countries. This put Marlborough and his army very much athwart the naval (and nativist) conception of Little England as an isolated island “set in a silver sea,” relying on its “wooden walls” for security. Thus, the British military tended to split along the lines of domestic political factions which had, by Marlborough’s time, and through the American Revolution, hardened into party politics. Though the Duke of Marlborough was a conservative, a devout Anglican, and a Tory by mental habit, he maintained a moderate and nominally nonpartisan stance, and was in fact dependent upon the Whig dominance of the period.

Indeed, Webb shows that even at the pinnacle of Marlborough’s military genius, during the campaigns that ultimately convinced Louis XIV that he “loved war too much,” the duke’s year was divided between summer battles in Europe and winter battles in London. Not only did he have to beat back the schemes of Tory politicians for power, but he had also to struggle with the emotional quirks of Queen Anne, for whom politics was intensely personal. Marlborough’s wife, Sarah, had once been the queen’s closest companion; but as the queen aged, the relationship soured badly. By 1710, Marlborough’s triumphs in battle could no longer win him the political cover he needed at home. The Godolphin ministry was defeated and dismissed and, with it, any prospect of dictating a drumhead peace to Louis.

For half a dozen years, the distinction between civil and military power in the English empire had been essentially meaningless. Marlborough had engrossed both. Now, in the autumn and winter of 1710, the new Tory ministry and an embittered, dying queen reduced this former favorite from his imperial preeminence to the role of a theater commander in Flanders.