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Thursday, February 1, 2001

Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind by Peter Padfield

Padfield's History of Maritime Supremacy Shows How Freedom Works Better Than State Control

Overlook Press • 1999 • 340 pages • $35.00

Peter Padfield, according to the famed military historian John Keegan, is “the best naval historian of his generation.” But in Maritime Supremacy, Padfield goes well beyond the usual naval history to show that there was a connection between maritime supremacy and the freeing of people from the shackles of omnipotent government in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Padfield’s interweaving of famous sea battles involving the Dutch, English, French, and Spanish with changes in philosophy and government is expertly done and strongly reinforces the vital idea that freedom works better than state control.

The connection between freedom and success in the military and economic realms has been remarked on before, of course. Padfield’s new book is a forthright and ringing restatement of that truth. He writes that freedom has always been a distinguishing mark of merchant power “since both trade and consultative government require the widest dissemination of information and free expression of opinion; thus the basic freedoms of trade spread through all areas of life, tending to break down social hierarchies and the grip of received ideas, creating more open, mobile and enterprising cultures. Liberty has always been the pride and rallying cry of powers enjoying maritime supremacy.” His history of the great European conflicts from the Spanish Armada through the end of the eighteenth century proves the point.

The first part of Padfield’s account pits that paragon of despotic rule, the Spanish Empire, against the English and the Dutch. In both instances, the smaller, freer trading nations overcame the larger, militarily stronger adversary that had grown wealthy only through plunder. The story of the Armada is better known, but the Spanish-Dutch conflict makes for even more interesting reading, and more starkly illustrates Padfield’s thesis about the virtues of freedom.

In 1639, the Spanish King decided to reassert control over the rebellious Dutch who were ostensibly “his” subjects. At this point the Dutch were clearly the freest people in Europe, in commerce, religion, and thought. They had grown wealthy through trade. Chafing under Spanish control, the northern Dutch provinces rebelled in the 1590s and managed to secure their independence. But Spain wanted them back and assembled another Armada that was to defeat the Dutch at sea and then land an army. The Spanish ships were manned by conscripts; the Dutch ships manned by sailors who knew they were fighting for their liberty and way of life. In a battle known as The Downs, the Dutch humiliated the Spanish fleet and thereby preserved their freedom.

In the 1670s the French and English monarchs allied to crush the Dutch who were just “too successful” in trade. (One recurring motif in the book is the foolish “zero-sum game” thinking of rulers who believed that if another nation had too much trade, it caused them to have too little and the solution was to resort to warfare.) Outnumbered and outgunned, the Dutch fleet took their rivals by surprise in the Battle of Sole Bay in 1672 and so mauled the Anglo-French navy that 15 years of peace resulted.

Padfield next provides a vivid description of the events leading to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Knowing that another Anglo-French alliance was in the making, the Dutch conceived of an audacious plan to convert England into an ally by invading and overthrowing the autocratic James II. Against all odds, the plan succeeded and consequently William and Mary acceded to the English throne, agreeing to abide by considerable restraints on royal prerogative. Padfield writes, “[T]he flame of True Freedom had passed with naval supremacy and constitutional, consultative government from the United Provinces to Great Britain, where it was regarded with quite as much national pride.”

The latter half of the book is devoted to the famous conflicts of the eighteenth century between France and England. England repeatedly triumphed despite the large advantage France enjoyed in size and population. France was hobbled by its far more regimented economic system, its archaic tax system, and the royal penchant for flooding the country with paper money to pay for its prodigious war expenses. It was again the triumph of the more-free over the less-free nation.

Padfield observes that the assistance Louis XVI decided to give to the Americans during the Revolutionary War was contrary to the advice of the liberal economist Turgot, who had been attempting to modernize the French economy and who foresaw that another war against England would ruin the shaky French finances and undo his reform efforts. But the King’s desire for revenge against the English trumped Turgot’s advice. So, ironically, freedom in America owed much to the decision to trample on it in France.

This is beautifully written history conveying an important philosophic message.

George Leef is the director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy at the John Locke Foundation and book review editor of Ideas on Liberty.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.