Military history


British Politics, and a Revolution in European Diplomacy


THREE THOUSAND miles away, the duke of Newcastle shuddered at the news from America. In the middle of July, word reached London that Boscawen had failed to intercept the whole of the French reinforcement, while the action in which he had succeeded—the seizure of several hundred soldiers and two ships belonging to a crown with which England was still technically at peace—seemed certain to provoke hostilities with France. On July 18, Charles de Levis, duc de Mirepoix, French ambassador to the court of St. James, left London in a fury. Not long afterward, in August, word arrived of Braddock’s defeat. Without realizing any substantial gain, the British had muddled their way into the posture of an international aggressor, while the French had landed sufficient men and arms to defend Canada and enable Onontio’s allies to threaten the frontier of every American colony from New Hampshire to North Carolina. British policies had, in short, handed both the casus belli and the strategic advantage to France, giving the French court occasion and motive to declare war. Newcastle’s relations with the man he blamed for these disasters—the duke of Cumberland—had deteriorated so far that they had become the subject of common gossip. At home, the British government was paralyzed; abroad, Britain’s diplomatic position was in disarray.1

Newcastle faced two difficulties, both intractable: a constitutional-political problem that immobilized the government and threatened his position as prime minister; and a diplomatic problem that prevented him from strengthening himself politically. Newcastle was hamstrung as prime minister because as a peer of the realm he could not sit in the House of Commons. The duke desperately needed someone he could trust to build a reliable majority among the M.P.s, but there were only two possible candidates for the job, and in different ways they both spelled trouble. One was Henry Fox, secretary at war and the protégé of the hated duke of Cumberland. Fox was a superb parliamentary manipulator but also a libertine and opportunist—a man whose deficiencies of character and excesses of ambition, no less than his ties to Cumberland, made him an unattractive partner. Moreover, Fox was no orator: an immense handicap for a war leader, who needed not only to be able to manage the votes of the placemen in the Commons but also to inspire loyalty to government policies among the independent backbenchers— the rustic squires without whose support no war effort could long be sustained.

The other possible leader in the Commons was William Pitt, a man of astonishing oratorical power and equally astonishing, almost megalomaniacal, ambition. Newcastle detested Pitt personally, for Pitt loved nothing more than to ridicule Newcastle’s policies in the Commons; but what made him even less attractive was Pitt’s close connection to the heir apparent, the teenaged boy who would one day become George III. It was a trait almost as genetically fixed in the Hanoverian kings as their protuberant eyes, prominent noses, and petulant expressions to loathe those princes in line to succeed them. Pitt was closely associated with the Leicester House faction (as politicians allied with the dowager princess of Wales and her household were called, after her residence) and thus was offensive to the king, who would never admit those whom he regarded as enemies to his inner circle. And there was, finally, Pitt’s celebrated disdain for the day-to-day management of political affairs in the Commons. Brilliant orator that he was, he had no patience for the mundane concerns of patronage and voting discipline that insured the stability of all eighteenth-century British governments. Neither Fox nor Pitt offered an easy alternative for Newcastle, and his basic timidity kept him from making a firm commitment to either. So long as he could not forge a lasting alliance with one or the other, however, he could not control the Commons, and thus could not govern. This problem would go unresolved for a dangerously long time.2

Because Newcastle had little influence over American military initiatives that originated with Cumberland, he hoped to avert war in Europe by the one means still under his control, diplomacy. In this effort the problems and complexities he faced were staggering, but in the end they could be reduced to a single cause: the electorate of Hanover. Ever since 1714, when the British throne had passed into the reliably Protestant hands of the Hanoverian kings, the fortunes of Great Britain had been tied to those of the small north German state that had been their home. The first two Georges were adamant that Britain protect Hanover militarily in time of war. This insistence had led to the construction of a durable alliance system on the Continent, by which Britain aligned itself with Holland and Austria in order to preserve Hanover against seizure by France and France’s ally, Prussia.3


The Great Commoner. William Pitt (1708–78); an engraving after a portrait painted in the studio of William Hoare, published in London c. 1757. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Newcastle’s “System” had survived the Wars of the Spanish and the Austrian Successions, and its preservation virtually obsessed him; yet it had been slowly, inexorably disintegrating since the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. The Dutch were too ground down by misfortune and military losses to welcome the renewal of hostilities between France and Britain and were unable in 1755 to recognize any compelling interest in joining a dispute over who should control the wilds and savages of North America. The Austrians, as we have seen, regarded the recovery of Silesia from Prussian control as an object of such importance that they had already begun to explore a possible rapprochement with France.

Desperate to maintain the Austrian alliance and to keep Prussian attentions turned away from Hanover, Newcastle had proposed a treaty with Austria’s ally, Russia, early in 1755. In return for a great subsidy (£100,000 annually in peacetime, £500,000 annually in the event of war), Russia was to keep an army ready to invade East Prussia. Newcastle hoped that the threat of war on his eastern frontiers would keep Frederick II, king of Prussia, from attacking Hanover. Newcastle knew, of course, that neither Russia nor Austria could keep France from overrunning the electorate if it chose to do so. Thus he undertook to shore up Hanover’s defenses by concluding subsidy treaties with the rulers of various German states, in effect negotiating contracts to retain their armies as mercenary forces in the event of war. To Hanover itself went a subsidy of £50,000 annually to increase its army by 8,000 troops; to the landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, £60,000 to provide 8,000 men if war broke out; to the margrave of Ansbach and the bishop of Würzburg, more money for more mercenaries.

All this diplomatic activity may have helped increase the security of Hanover, but it did nothing to calm the French, who at this point were refraining from a formal declaration of war solely to build up their navy to the point that it could oppose Britain’s on the high seas. Finally, because in the House of Commons Pitt and his followers denounced the subsidy treaties as prostitutions of English interests and treasure to the maintenance of a petty German state, the only purpose Newcastle’s diplomacy served in parliamentary politics was to make him perpetually vulnerable to the loss of his majority. 4

Throughout the summer of 1755, as disaster followed disaster and Pitt heaped scorn on the ministry and its measures, subsidies grew so unpopular in the Commons that eventually Newcastle’s own Chancellor of the Exchequer refused to release money to Hesse without a special act of Parliament. Such crippling opposition finally drove Newcastle into alliance with Henry Fox, who joined the government in November as secretary of state for the Southern Department and manager of the ministry’s interests in the Commons. Once formed, the Fox-Newcastle partnership seemed to work wonders. In a rancorous debate on the subsidy policy begun on November 13, Pitt lashed the ministry mercilessly, ridiculing the partnership of Newcastle and Fox as “the conflux of the Rhône and Saône; this a gentle, feeble, languid stream, and though languid, of no depth—the other, an impetuous torrent.” Such brilliant vituperation would have earned him the acclamation of the House in the previous session, but now that Fox was protecting the duke’s interests in the Commons, Pitt’s speech was only the noisy prelude to a vote by which the M.P.s affirmed their support for subsidies by a two-to-one margin. With barely a pause to relish this crushing defeat of a man he hated, Newcastle unceremoniously turned him and his supporters out of their offices. If the new alliance with Fox could not permanently silence Pitt, Fox’s deft parliamentary management had at least shown that Pitt’s disruptive potential could be contained. 5

And yet Newcastle’s policies, secure at last, were even then in the process of bringing down the whole alliance system on which the duke had lavished such attention and energy. In Berlin, King Frederick brooded on the likely effects of the Anglo-Russian treaty and the possible consequences of the entente that was rumored to be developing between his old enemy, Austria, and his old ally, France. Frederick—who, it was said, feared Russia more than God—accordingly directed his diplomats to find a means of coming to terms with Great Britain. By the beginning of the new year, what would six months earlier have been unfathomable was quickly coming to pass: a treaty of friendship between Prussia and Britain. Under the Convention of Westminster, signed January 16, 1756, the Crowns of Britain and Prussia mutually pledged that neither would invade or distress the other. Should any aggressor disturb the tranquillity of “Germany”—a term vague enough to cover both Hanover and Prussia—they would unite to oppose the invader. The Convention of Westminster was not a formal defensive alliance, nor was it intended to do more than secure Hanover from attack. Prussia was to remain neutral in the present disputes between France and Britain. Unlike all the ministry’s previous treaties, this one required no peacetime subsidies: here, at last, was a means of protecting Hanover that would cost the Exchequer not a farthing.6

What the convention did cost England, of course, was its alliance with Austria. Or, more properly, it removed all obstacles to the final dissolution of the alliance and permitted the formal reversal of alignments known as the Diplomatic Revolution. Now the negotiations between the courts of Maria Theresa and Louis XV, previously conducted with such discretion and secrecy, moved rapidly and openly toward completion. When word of the convention arrived at Versailles in early February, the French Council of State repudiated the alliance with Prussia, clearing the way for formal rapprochement with Austria. On May 1, 1756, Austrian and French diplomats signed the Convention of Versailles, a mutual defense pact that mirrored the Convention of Westminster. By this agreement, the French agreed to come to Austria’s aid, should it come under attack; while by a special article the Austrians were freed from any reciprocal responsibility to support the French in their present dispute with Great Britain.

The combination of the two conventions should, reasonably, have immunized Europe against a war spreading from North America. Hanover had been made as secure as any flat and virtually indefensible country could be; Austria’s anxieties at the prospect of a Prussian attack had been allayed as fully as a defensive alliance with the greatest land power in Europe could allay them. France and Britain might now attack one another’s colonies and shipping at will, but only a truly bizarre— indeed almost unthinkable—act could disturb the peace of Europe. The only thing that could shatter the new equilibrium would be for the king of Prussia to attack Austria, and that would be the act of a madman. Frederick had a large and capable army, it was true, but it was no match for the army of France, let alone for those of France and Austria together. Moreover, Frederick’s country was poor and had a population of less than four million; the combined populations of France and Austria were ten times as large.7 No one doubted Frederick’s boldness, but everyone knew that he was not fool enough to launch an attack that would give Maria Theresa all the excuse she would need to recover her beloved Silesia, at last.

Thus in the first month or two of 1756, the duke of Newcastle could look around him at affairs that seemed to be stabilizing; indeed, the future looked almost rosy. Although it had not been a result he had intended when he undertook his diplomatic offensive, and although George II had been unhappy to witness the demise of an Austrian alliance to which his family had been devoted, the new alignment of Britain with Prussia seemed to promise both security for Hanover and a limitation of hostilities with France. Pitt, neutralized in Parliament, had been driven with his remaining few supporters into noisy, ineffectual opposition. The disarray in America remained to be attended to, and the alliance that he had been compelled to forge with Fox and Cumberland promised to make the resolution of those problems personally unpleasant. Nonetheless, Newcastle had more reason to feel secure, and even optimistic, than at any time in the previous year.8

The reckoning on America came in January. On the seventh a meeting of the cabinet considered the pleas from the colonies for further military aid and examined a plan Halifax had drawn up to centralize, coordinate, and expand the war effort. Having received reports from William Johnson and Thomas Pownall denouncing Shirley as a meddler in Indian affairs and a poor commander, Halifax recommended that a new commander in chief be sent from England with expanded powers, and that Johnson receive a new commission, directly from the king, appointing him as colonel of the Six Nations. The ministers generally agreed with these suggestions, although they dismissed as excessively expensive the remainder of Halifax’s program, which called for the creation of a royally funded central storehouse for provisions, the reinforcement of the regulars in the colonies, and the raising of large numbers of provincial troops.9

Two weeks later, in a gathering of the ministers at Newcastle House, Cumberland and Fox proposed their own program, adopting Halifax’s suggestions concerning the replacement of Shirley and a new commission for Johnson, but otherwise reaffirming the plan under which Braddock had been dispatched the previous year. Cumberland disliked Halifax’s idea for using provincial troops—he thought them too expensive, inefficient, and undisciplined—and therefore called for sending two new regiments of redcoats from Britain and raising four new, thousand-man battalions of regulars in the colonies. In addition to Johnson, Cumberland and Fox proposed the appointment of an Indian superintendent for the southern colonies as well, the South Carolina trader Edmund Atkin. Finally, as Shirley’s replacement they proposed sending John Campbell, the fourth earl of Loudoun, an experienced military administrator. The other ministers present, including Newcastle, accepted it all.

Although Newcastle had for many years been Shirley’s patron, the decision to abandon him probably did not come hard. Over the years the two men had become estranged, and Fox and Cumberland, on whom Newcastle now depended for his political life, were united against him. Moreover, Thomas Pownall, after orchestrating a great letter-writing campaign against Shirley, had returned to London to manage the final phases of the offensive in person. He was fortunate in that four deeply troubling letters written in America and addressed to the duc de Mirepoix were intercepted at about the time of his arrival: letters that seemed to promise treason in return for French money. The letters, the work of an anonymous author calling himself Filius Gallicae, contained enough accurate information on North American military affairs to make Halifax, Cumberland, Fox, and others fear that a high army officer was about to turn his coat. Pownall suggested that, since Shirley had spent several years in Paris and had a French wife, Filius Gallicae might well be the commander in chief himself. In fact, the letters were probably a hoax intended to discredit George Croghan or even John Henry Lydius, but that hardly mattered. In Pownall’s opportunistic hands their effect was to discredit Shirley and insure his immediate recall. Whereas once it had been contemplated to relieve him of his military command but to compensate him for his long and faithful service by giving him the governorship of Jamaica, now Cumberland clamored to have him sent home in chains. Cooler heads prevailed, but Shirley’s career was effectively finished. On March 31, Fox wrote him a brusque letter confirming that he had been superseded in command of His Majesty’s forces, and that upon receipt of the letter he was to “repair to England with all possible Expedition.” 10

With Shirley taken care of, Pownall swept all before him. First he saw to it that Shirley’s leading political ally, Robert Hunter Morris, was removed from the governorship of Pennsylvania. The supply contracts for the army in New York, which Shirley had awarded to the partnership of Livingston and Morris, were diverted to the powerful, politically wired London firm of Baker and Kilby—the New York correspondent of which happened to be Oliver De Lancey, the younger brother of Lieutenant Governor James De Lancey. The records of Livingston and Morris in their dealings with Shirley were seized and submitted to a Treasury audit, a process that would take years to complete.

William Johnson, now known as Sir William because the king had conferred a baronetcy on him in November, hardly needed Pownall’s help; he was secure politically and his positions as northern Indian superintendent and colonel of the Six Nations brought him an annual stipend of six hundred pounds sterling. Nevertheless, Pownall continued energetically to publicize him as a man who (in contrast to Shirley) had sacrificed his own estate in the defense of the colonies and had proven himself a hero at the Battle of Lake George. In February, Parliament showed its gratitude by voting Sir William a reward of five thousand pounds for his services to the nation.

Only one piece of business remained. With Shirley dismissed from his governorship, the Crown needed a man of judgment and political acumen to head the crucial province of Massachusetts Bay. Modestly, and only after a decent interval, Thomas Pownall consented to accept that burden himself. 11

WILLIAM SHIRLEY’S career lay in ruins long before he knew it. In itself that would hardly have surprised him, for the tactics Pownall used to destroy him were the classic ones that men who wished to become royal governors employed. They were, for that matter, not dissimilar to those Shirley himself had employed to bring down his predecessor in the Massachusetts governorship, fourteen years before.12 Rather than his almost predictable destruction, what was most important about Shirley’s brief, thwarted tenure as commander in chief was the fact that six months passed between the time the ministers decided to replace him and the date his successor arrived. During that period, as government officials dawdled and the cumbersome machinery of army bureaucracy ground slowly forward in preparation for the change of command, Shirley had already set the campaign of 1756 in motion.

More ominously for Britain, at that same time the French ministry was more efficiently setting afoot its own military operations for 1756. Even before Lord Loudoun’s commission as lieutenant general and commander in chief for America had been issued, a new French commander, Dieskau’s replacement, had already sailed for Canada with reinforcements.13 Within six weeks after Loudoun took command of his army, two great French victories—one in America, the other in the Mediterranean—would call into question the whole British war effort and throw the British government into chaos.

And that would be only the beginning.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!