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 contingent of troops under his command. The provision of a legislative assembly was a tactical concession and evidently not what the crown would have wanted, for a legislative assembly embodied and enhanced the power of what Webb calls the “Parliamentary classes,” by which he apparently means the upper classes. Garrison government in the colonies aimed at substituting “military discipline in place of upperclass rule.”
While governors-general engaged in putting the colonial upper classes in their place, Charles II was doing his best to subdue the English upper crust. Arrayed against him was a coalition of merchants, gentlemen, and noblemen, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury and John Locke, who tried to elevate Parliamentary, legislative authority at the expense of the executive. This band of would-be oligarchs allied with their counterparts in the colonies and encouraged insubordination and rebellion against the king’s governors there. In England they constituted the “country” party, which became the Whig party, and which favored colonial self-government, while the king and his allies constituted the “court” party, later the Tory party, which favored executive authority and imperial control over the colonies in every way.
In the contest between these two groups it was, according to Webb, the imperial, court party that concerned itself with protecting the interests of the common man, especially in the American colonies. The military-minded governors, we are told, favored colonies of small farmers (who would make good soldiers). They opposed large grants of land and the plantation system that developed from large grants, and they tried to break up large holdings by land taxes. The allied gentry and merchants, on the other hand, concerned themselves with magnifying their own powers into a kind of plutocratic, capitalistic oligarchy. Thus, in the author’s words:
This Anglo-American political conflict was fueled by the incompatibility of imperial social and political values with those of capitalism. Imperial ideals glorified monarchy. Individualist economic pursuits fostered oligarchy. The empire reflected the political authority of the king’s governors-general, and gave priority to the social needs of yeoman farmers and small planters. Commercial exploitation put political power in the hands of rising merchants and engrossing landlords, and it served their social interests.
As Professor Webb sees it, the court party was able to gain the upper hand under Charles II. After Charles’s death it met temporary setbacks in the Revolution of 1688 (which he calls a “coup”) and again in the period of peace between 1697 and 1702, but it did not finally succumb to its opponents until 1722 when Sir Robert Walpole and his cohorts came to power and “corruptly, destructively, for a generation put into practice the oligarchical and Whig ‘commercial and colonial’ policy.”
History, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. Webb, who obviously places his sympathies with autocratic, executive power and sees the crown (identified with the military) as the protector of the common man, here makes common cause with the New Left attack of E. P. Thompson on Robert Walpole and the Whig oligarchy of the eighteenth century.* But we shall have to wait for a later volume to get Webb’s bill of particulars against Walpole. The present volume only glances forward to this dénouement, but it contains, again and again, interpretations of seventeenth-century Anglo-American history that turn long-accepted ideas on their heads.
Webb supports the contentions outlined above by a detailed examination of the political history of Jamaica from its conquest in 1655 to the appointment of Sir Thomas Lynch as governor-general in 1681 and by a similar examination of the history of Virginia during the years following Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 (the largest colonial uprising before the American Revolution). His handling of the Virginia years offers a good example of how he upends conventional interpretations.
Governor Berkeley of Virginia, as seen by most historians, was an autocrat supported by a pliant council, who drove the colonists to rebellion by his high-handedness. Nathaniel Bacon’s revolt took place after Bacon was arrested by Berkeley for leading a successful but unauthorized expedition against the Indians. The yeomen who followed Bacon have usually been described as resentful of Berkeley. Webb dismisses Berkeley as a weakling. The trouble, it seems, was that he was not high-handed enough and was over-borne by the large planters on his council. When he was succeeded by Herbert Jeffreys, an old soldier who brought two regiments with him from England to put down Bacon’s Rebellion, Virginia got garrison government.
As it happened, the rebellion was over before Jeffreys got there, and the regiments intended for use against the rebellious people Jeffreys used instead to overawe the local magnates whose oppressions had brought on the rebellion. With troops at his back Jeffreys was able to purge the council of its overmighty planters, magnify his own authority as governor, make peace with the Indians, and bring stability to the province—all to the joy of the grateful common people. Thus, according to Webb, Jeffreys implemented the imperial policy of substituting military rule for upper-class rule. Jeffreys’s successor, Lord Culpeper, carried on the good work by reducing the functions of the House of Burgesses, which had become the last stronghold of Virginia’s oligarchs. The House was not even called into session for “years,” while the governor extended the powers of the royal executive and of a council that was now truly and properly pliant to him.
What are we to make of all this? It should be said at once that it is not simply the product of an overwrought historical imagination. Professor Webb has examined a wealth of sources, mostly in manuscript in English repositories, and he uses them skillfully and often persuasively to build his case for the dominance of the military in domestic and imperial policy. Perhaps his most telling evidence (revealed in an appendix) is the sheer number of army officers sent to the colonies as governors during the years from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the accession of George II in 1727. By Webb’s count the crown commissioned 206 “commanders-in-chief” (a term used to include governors) in England’s overseas provinces during this period, and almost nine out of ten (87.5 percent) were English army officers. Because the heyday of this military presence came after the terminal date of the volume before us, it is perhaps not fair to judge the validity of the thesis by this volume alone; but we do not yet have the next one, and a number of facts of Anglo-American history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries induce a degree of skepticism.
If we were talking about the England of the Duke of Marlborough at the opening of the eighteenth century, the dominance of the military in domestic and imperial policy might be more persuasive. But the England of the period we are dealing with was not notable for its military achievements or even for a military presence. We are told that the Tudors established national, centralized power through garrison government. But the garrisons were only in a few isolated towns and in dominions outside the realm, and their numbers were minuscule. The fact is that England scarcely had any army worth the name from the accession of Henry VIII until the Civil Wars of the 1640s. The Tudor revolution in government was not a military revolution but an administrative one, and the power of the crown was extended through the realm by means of the local gentry and nobility serving as justices of the peace and as lord-lieutenants, with virtually no military force to back them other than the “trained-bands” of militia, which seldom justified their name by their training. Under Cromwell, to be sure, England had a quasi-military government, but in the empire English authority virtually disintegrated during the interregnum.
Cromwell did mount England’s most ambitious overseas military expedition in more than a century, but it proved to be a farce. Its objective was the Spanish island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean; but despite the fact that the English greatly outnumbered the defenders, they were repulsed with heavy losses and had to content themselves with taking Jamaica, which had scarcely any defenders. Under Charles II the English army was still too small to be a major instrument of government. It was not until the end of the war with France in 1697 that William III persuaded Parliament to create a professional standing army, and Parliament’s price for doing so was to keep the army under legislative, parliamentary control.
Under these circumstances it is difficult to accept the notion of a military, imperial mentality prevailing over a commercial, Whig opposition to establish government by military discipline in the colonies. And the accounts we are given of “garrison government” there do not dispel the doubts. It is undoubtedly true that royal governors sometimes appealed for popular support, the support of ordinary inhabitants against the local magnates of a colony. And the local magnates as often accused the governors of pandering to popular prejudice. Royal authority could be an antidote to the excesses of overmighty colonial subjects.
But by and large colonial governors in the seventeenth century had to govern through the local ruling class. They did not have an independent military force of a size to make any other kind of rule possible. Garrison government is supposed to have come to Virginia with Jeffreys and his two regiments. The troops, which may or may not have deterred Virginia’s ruling class from insubordination, had no such effect on Governor Berkeley, who for several months defied the king’s orders to hand the colony over to Jeffreys (commissioned as lieutenant-governor to succeed him). How far the troops contributed to the authority of Jeffreys and Culpeper after Berkeley’s departure is a moot point. In the official correspondence that survives from this period, the troops figure largely as a possible source of mutiny and rebellion, because the English government failed to pay them. On the only occasion when they were needed to put some iron in the government’s authority, during a series of riots in 1682, they proved totally unreliable and the riots were quelled by local militia. After that the troops were disbanded.
It is equally doubtful that the governors of Virginia after 1676 “crippled” the House of Burgesses. It is true that Governor Lord Culpeper had orders to eliminate the right of the Burgesses to initiate legislation, but he did not succeed in doing so. Nor did the House cease to meet “for years” after 1681. Although the sessions are not all recorded in the modern printing of the House journals, the Effingham Papers, which Professor Webb says he has consulted, contain the journals for sessions in November 1682, April 1684, and November 1685. They also record that the Burgesses gave Governor Effingham (who succeeded Culpeper in 1683) a hard time. It could be argued (and has been) that royal policy after 1681 was to increase rather than diminish the powers of the House of Burgesses.
In short, there are doubts. It is too early to say that Professor Webb’s interpretation is eccentric. This is clearly a work to be taken seriously. But it is not too early to say that it will require more demonstration than the author has thus far given us to establish his daring and original thesis.
December 4, 1980