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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With Anne’s death, and the Hanoverian succession in Britain, the Whigs (and Marlborough) were restored to power. And, with a few interruptions, their strategic and geopolitical views dominated the building of the first British empire, won by that ultimate Whig, William Pitt, in the Seven Years’ War. Had George III followed his father’s imperial precepts (George II had fought, and nearly perished, with Marlborough at Oudenaarde), he might have held Marlborough’s America within the imperial fold.

And yet, it is not really until the third part of Webb’s study that we get directly to Marlborough’s America. For it was by a blood transfusion, in the form of his staff and officer acolytes, that Marlborough transformed a diffuse set of American “plantations” into economically and strategically productive imperial provinces that played an essential part in destroying the hegemonic pretensions of the House of Bourbon. 

Webb tells this tale in three acts, each one devoted to a Marlborough lieutenant’s American adventure, and an epilogue about the “Golden Adventure,” the Caribbean expedition led by Admiral Edward Vernon in the early 1740s. This was the catastrophic exposition of Tory “blue water” strategy. It also was an operation that featured the British Army’s first experiment with a Royal American Regiment, mustered into service at a strength of 4,183 in January 1741 and out of service by October 1742 at just 1,124. Like their fellow redcoats, most of the American regiment was lost to various forms of disease. It also suffered from command abuse by Vernon and the British officers who made up the regiment’s senior leadership.

The outstanding American officer of the regiment was Lawrence Washington, whose distinguished service won him a promotion to major and an appointment as adjutant-general of Virginia upon his return home to the plantation he would name “Mount Vernon” after the admiral. Lawrence might have preferred to keep his British commission had the army been willing to have him; certainly, Lawrence’s half-brother, George, wanted nothing more than to win a place as a regular field officer in the official British imperial establishment. 

Another casualty of the expedition, though he died while it was being readied, was Alexander Spotswood. Webb characterizes Spotswood’s death as “fatal to the West Indies expedition,” a sentiment echoed by the Duke of Newcastle, secretary of state and architect of Whig imperial strategy in the mid-18th century: “Mr. Spotswood’s Loss .  .  . is not to be repaired.” Spotswood had been Marlborough’s deputy chief of staff, courageous in combat, but also a genius of organization and logistics.

These skills made him, in Webb’s telling, the “Architect of Empire” in Virginia, and he was literally the architect of colonial Williamsburg, laying it out along the lines of a Roman military camp and ensuring that its principal buildings conveyed an imperial grandeur. But Spotswood was also the architect of a detailed plan of imperial American penetration inland from the coastal plain—across the range of the Appalachians into the Mississippi basin—expanding the colonies, cutting New France in two, and harnessing and then reducing the power of Indian tribes, particularly the Iroquois league, which could tip the balance of North American power.  

Spotswood explained to the British government that the diffuse American colonies needed a centralized executive and legislature, and a commitment of regular British troops to garrison the frontier and push it westward. A generation later, Benjamin Franklin would make exactly the same case as colonial agent in London, and to the Iroquois and his fellow Americans at home.

Franklin and Spotswood, like Marlborough, thus ran afoul of the “country party” oligarchs, the tidewater tobacco grandees who feared the socially and economically disruptive effects of westward expansion and interventions from London. Ironically, these Virginia elites made use of Whiggish rhetoric to protest Spotswood’s “Standing Army” as “a means to govern Arbitrarily and by Martial Law.” But the securing of the Hanoverian succession in London, and Marlborough’s return to power, eventually allowed Spotswood to bend the cavaliers to his program. The combination of renewed backing from London and the promise to use British military power in the service of colonial expansion was a powerful political brew, which the Virginia Assembly of 1720 drank heavily. As Webb puts it, the colonial elites became the greatest enthusiasts for the “empire militant.”

The assembly advised King George “how to Extend your Empire” and “Secure our Present Settlements from the Incursion of the Savage Indians and from the more dangerous Incroachments of the Neighboring French” by taking control of the [Appalachian] mountain passes with government-sponsored settlement, royal forts, and regular garrisons. The assembly also endorsed Spotswood’s aggressive plan to cut French communications “betwixt the Rivers St. Lawrence and Mississippi,” reminding the king that “our Lieut. Governour Colonel Spotswood .  .  . has spar’d no fatigue or Expence to visit our Mountains in person and to inform himself of the Exceeding Importance of them both for Your Majesty’s Service and for the defence and Security of this Dominion.”

The habits of the British imperial mind, brought to their maturity by Marlborough and carried into the American colonies by his legates, took quick root (as with Lawrence Washington) and flourished. Campaigning in the American Revolution, George Washington carried with him a copy of Marlborough’s commission; Alexander Hamilton carried a copy of the charter for the Bank of England, another imperial institution in which Marlborough played a founding role. Washington told his Continental Army officers that they fought to give birth to “our rising American empire.”

Even the American “country party” was infected. Thomas Jefferson spoke not only of a consensual, contractual “empire of liberty,” but also, in correspondence with James Madison, of an “empire for liberty.” The cause of liberty, and the many particular American “liberties” entailed, was not, after all, a self-evident proposition, but one that needed to be proven in the exercise of power and, most critically, won by military power. In England, it was Marlborough’s coup that created the conditions for the Glorious Revolution; in America, a later generation of “Marlborough men” would build an international military coalition and succeed on the battlefields that made an American Revolution.

By setting the Duke of Marlborough within his institutional and colonial context, Stephen Saunders Webb has made us see a great man in an even greater light. This is not a book suffocated by current “lessons.” But it is a reminder that the roots of American strategy run deeper than we think—that, though the empire for liberty was turned upside down in 1776, or 1781, it was not created ex nihilo. This empire was conceived and nobly advanced well before the United States was formed, and it remains an unfinished work.

Thomas Donnelly is codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.