Duke of Marlborough by Shutterstock.com
This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2013, edition of The Weekly Standard.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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. 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.
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.
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. 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.”
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.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.”
Thomas Donnelly is codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.