America’s Garrison Government

The Governors-General: The English Army and the Definition of the Empire, 1569-1681

by Stephen Saunders Webb
University of North Carolina Press, 549 pp., $22.50

The difference between eccentricity and originality in historical studies is often difficult to detect at first encounter. When a radically new interpretation of a large segment of history makes its appearance, time is needed to sift the evidence that will establish it as a seminal work or send it to the dust pile of bright ideas that did not work out. It is going to take time—and some further volumes already promised by the author—to tell where Stephen Saunders Webb’s challenging new interpretation of the first British Empire will wind up. If Professor Webb is right, then a lot of English and American history will need rewriting.

A brief summary of his main contentions will indicate why. At the outset he challenges the conclusion of Charles McLean Andrews, the most magisterial colonial historian of this century, that England’s policy toward its colonies before 1763 was dictated by commercial concerns and that a change to a more “imperial” policy, dominated by expansionist military objectives, was what started the American Revolution. According to Webb, England already had a military imperial policy and also a military domestic policy for more than a century before the American Revolution. He sees Charles II as the proper successor, not of his vacillating father and grandfather (Charles I and James I), but of the Tudor monarchs of the sixteenth century and of Oliver Cromwell. All were bent on extending centralized executive power over England and her possessions, and their chosen instrument for doing so was what Webb calls “garrison government.”

Garrison government, practically speaking, seems to have meant crushing the power of dissident local magnates by a show of military might. It involved sending a governor-general to a hot spot in England or an outlying province (Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Wight, the American colonies) and providing a garrison that would back him in any contest with the local leaders. There is very little clashing of arms in Webb’s pages. The mere presence of the soldiers was enough to keep down the magnates and the populace they might have manipulated.

The growth of militarily supported executive power in England accompanies, in Webb’s chronicle, the expansion of the empire by Cromwell’s conquest of Jamaica and by Charles II’s conquest of New Netherland (present-day New York, New Jersey, and Delaware). Charles II, who “was the most absolute king in the history of England,” also tightened the reins over the existent colonies in North America, by sending soldiers to govern them and to break the incipient power of colonial magnates in Jamaica and Virginia. We get no farther than Jamaica and Virginia in this volume. Indeed we get no farther than the early 1680s, when “garrison government” arrived at its mature form in these two colonies, to become a model for all other colonial governments in the empire.

Garrison government in this mature form, as delineated by Webb, allowed a representative assembly to the colonists, but the “whip-hand” belonged to the governor, supported by the “garrison,” i.e., the local…

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