The Rise and Fall of England: 8. Pax Britannica

Dr. Carson, Professor of History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania, will be remembered for his earlier FREEMAN series, The Fateful Turn, The American Tradition, and The Flight from Reality,

The western world enjoyed nearly a hundred years of peace from the Congress of Vienna (1815) to the outbreak of World War I (1914). Indeed, this peace spread over much of the earth, as the impact of European civiliza­tion was felt to the far corners of this planet. Of course, the tenor of peace was frequently disturbed by rumors of war, and on occasion hostilities even broke out at some point. Such wars as occurred, how­ever, were usually at the periphery of Europe, or beyond. In the early years there was trouble in Spain and with her American colonies and the hostilities in Greece. In the mid-century, there was the Cri­mean War to be followed shortly by the most devastating war of the century, the American Civil War. War even came briefly to the European center with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. And the tempo of the conflicts picked up toward the close of the era, with the Chino-Japanese War, Russo-Japanese War, the Boer War, the Spanish-American War, and the Balkan Wars.

Nevertheless, peace had become the norm and war the exception. Such wars as occurred were usu­ally brief and limited to a partic­ular locale. Threats to the peace were frequently met by a concert of powers to restore accord, such as the ones resulting from the Congress of Verona and the Con­gress of Berlin. Moreover, insti­tutions and practices for main­taining accord and extending friendly relations among nations were developing apace: respect for nationals in other lands, hon­oring of treaties, observing diplo­matic niceties, respect for terri­torial boundaries of a country by other nations, and so on. Organi­zations for promoting peaceful interchange were formed on an international basis increasingly: the International Red Cross (1864), Universal Telegraph Un­ion (1875), Universal Postal Un­ion (1878), a convention for standardized patents (1883), and a convention for uniform copy­right laws (1887).¹ The movement for peace reached its peak, in many respects, with the international peace conferences at the Hague in 1899 and 1907. Moreover, senti­ment was spreading that wars were an atavistic throwback to our brute past, that civilization was spreading, and that wars might shortly be banished from the earth. In this context, Alfred Tennyson, Poet Laureate of Eng­land, did not appear so much to be dreaming in the lines that fol­low as describing what was short­ly to be:

Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled In the Parliament of man, the Fed­eration of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe, And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

One history book refers to this ninety-nine years as "The Golden Age of the West." Of the era, the authors say:

The growth of parliamentarianism accompanied the advance of indus­trialization. In one country after another representative institutions were established and personal free­doms were recognized, while new libertarian ideals undermined the time-honored theories of royal ab­solutism. In its hour of triumph the emancipated bourgeoisie extended the suffrage, abolished religious dis­abilities, ended human bondage, pro­claimed freedom of thought, and en­couraged a rugged social individual­ism. Its faith in the beneficent effects of political and economic freedom, moreover, found support in the ris­ing standard of living of the masses. As the advance of technology com­bined with the progress of science to create an unprecedented physical well-being in the lands of the Occi­dent, the privations and fears which had haunted mankind throughout its history began to recede.2

The peace that prevailed gen­erally from the Congress of Vienna until World War I can justly be called the Peace of Brit­ain. During these years Britain was the leading nation in the world. Carlton J. H. Hayes has said, "Right through the nine­teenth century and until the world wars of the twentieth, Great Brit­ain enjoyed a preeminence among the nations comparable with that of Spain in the sixteenth century or of France in the seventeenth."3 His comparisons understate the case. Britain’s pre-eminence in the nineteenth century should be com­pared with that of France in the High Middle Ages, with Rome at the height of empire, with Athens in Greece during the classical age. That is, Britain was leader at the time of the flowering of the West.

A Different Source of Strength

But while Britain’s leadership resembled that of Rome in that it came at the peak of a civiliza­tion, it was unlike Rome in very important ways. Rome’s pre-emi­nence came by conquest and empire. Britain had an empire throughout, but it was not the source of her greatness. Rome’s might was in the force of the Roman legions. Britain never had more than a tiny army by the standards of the age, and even her vaunted navy was not usually an instrument of conquest. Brit­ain’s greatness did not stem from her empire nor have its greatest effect in the navy that ruled the seas.

There was a time when Brit­ain’s rulers sought greatness by way of conquest and empire. In­deed, they did so off and on for more than two centuries. Britain’s pre-eminence was an amazing phe­nomenon, considering the small physical base for such greatness and the historical remoteness of England from the centers of civ­ilization, but it did not come over­night. England’s thrust to become a world power began during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), when an augmented navy began to contest with other countries. The navy consolidated its arrival to great power status by the de­feat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Thereafter, the appurte­nances of England began to ap­pear on distant continents, ever more prominently. Successful col­onization began in the Americas in the early seventeenth century. During that century British naval power contested with that other great naval power, Holland, and was generally successful. There followed a number of major wars involving England and France, among others, in the late seven­teenth and throughout much of the eighteenth centuries. So far as the thrust to eminence by way of conquest and empire by Eng­land was concerned, these wars reached their culmination with the Treaty of Paris (1763) which ended the Seven Year’s War (known in America as the French and Indian War). By the terms of this treaty England acquired or consolidated its hold upon a vast and extensive empire: all of North America east of the Mississippi as well as the vast area of Canada. These were in addition to other colonial holdings acquired over the years.

Open for Business

But the imperial greatness of England was short-lived. The old English continental American col­onies revolted in the 1770′s, and were able with the aid of France to effect their independence. In that conflict, however, Britain faced not only a Franco-American Alliance but also a hostile Spain and a League of Armed Neutral­ity of northern European powers. At yet another Treaty of Paris (1783), Britain was divested of the choicest of her colonial pos­sessions. Though the monarch re­tained some colonial possessions, these ceased generally to be con­ceived of as sources of wealth and power. Indeed, for perhaps two-thirds of the nineteenth century Englishmen were given to think­ing of colonies as a burden and responsibility rather than any considerable advantage. One his­torian notes that "most Victorian statesmen as well as spokesmen of the Manchester School pro­fessed a distaste for ‘Empire’ and talked of colonies as a ‘millstone round our necks… "4

At any rate, at the moment of the nadir of imperial prestige in 1783, England was set on a new road to greatness. The industrial surge occurred most dramatically in the 1780′s, and may well have been spurred by British ingenuity turned away from the exploitation of colonies to constructive indus­trial pursuits. Increasingly there­after, Englishmen sought markets instead of empire, conversion in­stead of conquest, free trade in­stead of protection, and produc­tion rather than restriction. This became emphatically so after the Napoleonic Wars. The stage had been set for England to pursue this course with developments in ideas, with limitations on govern­ment, with liberty and property secure, and with a people morally revived.

The Peace of Britain

The age of England’s greatness has been variously described: for Europe and America generally it was the Age of Liberalism and Nationalism; for England much of it is comprehended in the reign of Victoria (1837-1901), and is known as the Victorian Era; in foreign affairs the spirit is best captured by calling it the Palmer­ston Era; in economic terms, Eng­land became the Workshop of the World, the World’s Shipper, and London the World’s Banker. To sum it all up in its most impres­sive aspect, it was the age of the Pax Britannica.

England’s leadership was most obvious and demonstrable in the commercial realm. Industrializa­tion had taken place there first on a large scale. English produc­tivity and commercial activity con­tinued apace in the nineteenth cen­tury, though it need only be al­luded to here. As Lipson says, "In the nineteenth century she stood pre-eminent as the leading com­mercial nation on the face of the globe, as the possessor of the larg­est mercantile marine, and as the universal banker, insurance and commission agent…. Her surplus wealth fertilized the barren places of the earth and promoted mate­rial progress in backward lands."5 No doubt, it was this commercial superiority which made England so imitable and influential. But we must look elsewhere to discover why the nineteenth century should be called the Peace of Britain. Commerce was more of a conse­quence than a cause of this.

It was the Peace of Britain be­cause England followed the ways of peace generally during the pe­riod, was imitated by other na­tions, and influential upon them in ways that made for peace. What makes for peace, we may gather from this experience, is stable and limited government, the counter­balancing of power both domestic and foreign, free trade and the turning of the energies of peoples to constructive pursuits, inhibi­tions upon trespassing either upon individuals or upon nations, and a humane ethos. It was in these areas, at least, that England’s in­fluence was so great and effective.

A Shining Example

Britain’s influence was subtly exercised upon much of the rest of the world in ways that made for peace by the example of its form of government. Peoples tend to imitate what they reckon to be successful. They imitated Britain’s industrialization because of its ob­vious success in productivity. In like manner, they tended to adopt and adapt to themselves the out­lines of Britain’s system of gov­ernment. One historian declares that "most peoples abroad looked upon Britain as the exemplar of what was highest and best in po­litical achievement…," that the British system "was consciously copied, in full or in part, by al­most every country of western and central Europe…."6

The reason for this is not hard to find. There was a great thrust toward liberty in Europe in the latter part of the eighteenth cen­tury, the impetus to which would eventually spread to the rest of the world. The massive push in this direction was made first in the French Revolution and associ­ated events. It was an abortive undertaking. Instead of liberty and fraternity the French Revolu­tion produced disorder, violent and destructive divisions, and eventuated in a new absolutism which made the ones it was sup­posed to supplant pale by compari­son.

Stability and Balance

Amidst the turmoil of these years, England retained its form of government, its stability, and even a modicum of prosperity. Not only that, but England fought a long war against France and what that country had come to repre­sent. Such repressions as were adopted in England to forestall revolutionary subversion were generally mild. Of equal impor­tance is the fact that when the other victors in the Napoleonic Wars turned to unmitigated reac­tion (circa 1815-1830), Britain frequently stood for liberty and against the excesses of repression associated with the reaction. It be­gan to appear that England had found a way to liberty without revolution, "the means of peace­fully reconciling liberty and au­thority, monarchical and constitu­tional government, aristocracy and democracy."7

England had a stable and bal­anced government within whose framework an extensive liberty existed in the nineteenth century. The key idea for describing the government was balance, a balance in the House of Commons between the landed gentry and the towns­men (made more effective by the Reform Bill of 1832), a balance between the elected house and the hereditary house in Parliament, a balance between the prerogatives of the Crown and the powers of Parliament, a balance between the parties, as Liberals and Conserva­tives alternated frequently in or­ganizing governments after 1830. It was almost typical that most of the thrust to free trade should be accomplished under a Conserva­tive Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, though the ideological im­petus to it came from the Liberals.

A Heritage of Freedom

The central features of the Eng­lish government were a separa­tion and counterbalancing of pow­ers, a limited monarchy, constitu­tional restrictions on the execu­tive power, initiation of money bills in the elected house, cabinet government with ministerial re­sponsibility to the Parliament (but whose head was chosen by the monarch), and the separation of powers. Governments imitating Britain could and did abstract these and combine them in vari­ous ways, hopefully suiting them to their own experience. Indeed, if they did not fit them into their own heritage and tradition there would be missing what was prob­ably the most important aspect of the British example, for the British had shown that it was possible to attain liberty within a framework of inherited institu­tions.

The first foreign imitation of the British form of government, and possibly the most imaginative adaptation, was that of the United States of America in the eight­eenth century. True, the United States abandoned monarchy, but it kept the form and much of the function in an elected president. Nor did Americans adopt a cabinet system. Otherwise, the imitation was obvious, a two-house legisla­ture, the separation and counter­balancing of powers, limitations on government power in a consti­tution which went beyond the limi­tations of the British, initiation of money bills in the more demo­cratic house, and so on. In addi­tion, the Americans kept from their English heritage trial by jury, the common law, and the right to a writ of habeas corpus. Moreover, they fitted this into their own history of colonial ex­perience by keeping the states within a federal system.

Many other countries were to follow the British example in re­arranging their governments in the nineteenth and into the twen­tieth century. As provinces broke away from old empires to form nation-states or as other provinces were linked together in nation-states these were apt to imitate England. Of Belgium, Hayes says: "The liberal constitutional mon­archy which had been instituted in 1831 in conscious imitation of the British — with a King who reigned but did not rule, with a bicameral parliament representing the upper and middle classes and making the laws, and with a cabinet of ministers conducting the administration and responsi­ble to the parliamentary majority —this regime actually functioned more nearly like the British than did any of the other governmental systems which Continental na­tions copied from the ‘mother of parliaments.’ "8 When the kingdom of Italy was formed in 1871 it "represented a continuation and extension of the Sardinian consti­tutional regime which had been copied from Great Britain’s…."9

Other nations were to follow this example more or less closely: Denmark, Norway, Spain, Portu­gal, France, Germany, and, of course, the self-governing prov­inces or dominions within the British Empire, Canada, Aus­tralia, New Zealand, and so forth. Indeed, any land that had a cab­inet system of government in the nineteenth and twentieth centur­ies had derived it from the British model. The full extent of this in­fluence is brought out by an event such as the promulgation of a con­stitution in Japan in 1869. While it is said to have been modeled upon the German system, the debt to the British appears in this de­scription. The "constitution, besides assuring the authority of the emperor, provided for a cabinet and a two-house legislature con­sisting of a Chamber of Peers and a House of Representatives elected by Japanese males of suitable property qualifications."¹º

Trade Barriers Removed

British free trade policies in­fluenced other lands in that direc­tion as well. The British had taken the lead in trying to remove mercantilistic restrictions. "In fact, commercial men in London signed a petition for free trade in 1820 and William Huskisson, who was President of the Board of Trade…, from 1823 to 1827 worked arduously for the aboli­tion of the worst impediments to trade."¹¹

Such arguments from successful British businessmen plus the ac­tual reduction of tariffs by the gov­ernment made a considerable im­pression elsewhere. "In fact, in the United States tariff rates were lowered steadily from 1833 to the War between the States…. The Netherlands virtually abolished customs duties from 1845 to 1877. Belgium greatly reduced its rates after 1851, and Sardinia did away with excessive forms of protection under the leadership of its great statesman, Count Cavour." An Anglo-French treaty was worked out in 1860 which lowered rates, and thereafter both countries worked out similar treaties with other countries. By way of "a net­work of most-favored-nation clause treaties, the lowest rates which Western culture had ever known became generalized."¹²

A Balance of Powers

Britain’s foreign policy for much of the century is the most direct reason for calling the peace that generally prevailed the Pax Brit­annica. Just as balance was the key to the greatly admired and imitated English government, so was balance the key to a very ef­fective foreign policy. There were several facets to this policy, how­ever. In the first place, England’s foreign policy makers maintained a rigorous independence of other powers. Of the Viscount Castle­reagh, the great British statesman at the time of the Congress of Vienna, one historian says that he "refused to identify Britain too closely with the policies of the European powers…. He resisted Russian attempts to convert the congress system into a means of imposing a programme of con­certed anti-revolutionary interven­tion…."¹3 When a concert of powers approved intervention in Spain in the 1820′s, George Can­ning, his successor, "announced that Britain would in no circum­stance permit the permanent mili­tary occupation of Spain, the vio­lation of Portuguese territory, or the appropriation of any part of the Spanish American colonies."’¹4 Indeed, Canning had proposed a joint British-American declara­tion at the time that the President of the United States set forth the Monroe Doctrine.

On the other hand, Britain gen­erally did what it could to advance constitutional regimes. Lord Palm­erston, whose hand usually guided English foreign policy in the mid-decades of the nineteenth century, was most outspoken in this regard. He told the House of Commons in 1832 that "the inde­pendence of constitutional States… never can be a matter of in­difference to the British Parlia­ment, or, I should hope, to the British public. Constitutional States I consider to be the natural Allies of this country." He was to show that he meant this in regard to Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and so on.¹5

Britain did, of course, partici­pate actively in international af­fairs. Her representatives sat in the great congresses and helped to arrive at common decisions on oc­casion. Britain made treaties with other lands, engaged in diplomatic niceties, and protected her na­tionals abroad. But the most di­rect and important participation was in attempting to maintain a balance of power, a balance of powers on the continent and in western Europe, a balance be­tween the powers of the East and the West. As the author of one of the volumes in the Oxford His­tory says, "To the statesmen of the nineteenth century the bal­ance of power meant an equilib­rium or ratio between states or groups of states, a ratio estab­lished in due form by treaty set­tlement, affirmed by public declara­tion and giving to each state, or group of states, a position based upon a rough assessment of its material and moral strength."

It was in establishing such a balance of powers that Britain’s independence was so important. "Great Britain could not dictate to the powers of Europe the policy which seemed most favourable to the peace of the Continent; she could always throw her wealth and influence into the scale against any Power or combination of Powers likely to disturb the exist­ing equipoise."¹6 So it was that Britain would intervene in the Crimea to throw her weight against Russia, would counteract the weight of France in Spain, would favor the Greeks against the Turks, and so on. It should be noted, too, that for much of the century Britain’s weight was used in opposition to territorial expan­sion and in favor of trade being open to all countries, particularly England, of course.

Humane Reforms

England’s leadership was so general in the nineteenth cen­tury that examples only can be given. One major impact was in the spread of humanitarian ideas and the advancing of humane measures. Within England itself, there were notable humane re­forms. The penal code was revised to eliminate the death penalty for numerous offenses. This did not indicate less concern for protect­ing property, though many of the penalties reduced were for such things as stealing and picking pockets, for a police force was authorized to supplement penalties with surveillance. Attempts were made also at prison reform.

Under the humanitarian animus, efforts were made at providing education for poor children, some factory legislation was passed, and reforms were made in caring for the sick under Poor Law care.

The humanitarian interest spread to concern with peoples in the col­onies and those in far away places. Missionaries went forth in large numbers from England to many places in the world to bring not only Christianity but the pecu­liarly humanitarian application of it in the nineteenth century.

Englishmen acting for their government frequently introduced humane reforms in lands that they administered. The increasing in­trusion of the British into India in the course of the century brought many western reforms to that exotic land. "Reform meant the destruction of criminal bands and the gradual establishment of an unprecedented degree of law and order over much of India…. Reform meant also the abolition of a number of traditional Hindu customs such as female infanti­cide, suttee, and thuggee.¹7 The British took the leadership gen­erally in abolishing the slave trade, in seeing to the abolition of slav­ery in their colonies, and in at­tempting to stop the international slave trade.

The Greatness of England Found in Her People

England’s greatness, such as it was, was in, the final analysis the greatness of her people. Certainly, the great men of Britain’s age of greatness should be credited with much of the nation’s influence upon and prestige around the world. Britain’s statesmen stood out above those of other nations and generally took the lead in the international conferences: the Duke of Wellington, the Viscount Castlereagh, George Canning, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Palmerston, William Gladstone, Benjamin Dis­raeli, and many, many others. It was fitting, too, that Queen Vic­toria, that doughty, highly moral, and dignified lady should reign during so much of this epoch.

But statesmanship was only one facet of this leadership. British philosophy had been on the rise since the seventeenth century with Bacon, Locke, and Newton, would play a major role in the eighteenth century with David Hume, and would be adorned in the nineteenth century by Spencer, Mill, and Bradley. Economics was almost a British invention, and certainly its development as a science owes most to Adam Smith, David Ri­cardo, Thomas Malthus, John Stu­art Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and Stanley Jevons. Probably the ma­jor work of Edmund Burke should be called sociological; in any case, his conservative philosophy made a deep imprint on political thought in the era that followed.

British scientific leadership was already well established before the nineteenth century, with the work of Newton, Boyle, Harvey, Halley, and so forth. But later scientists left as great an impact: Charles Darwin more than any other, but in chemistry there were Davy and Faraday, in geology Charles Lyell, and that jack-of-all-trades scien­tist, T. H. Huxley. The British ex­celled in literature more than the other arts, and the century is filled with illustrious poets, novelists, essayists, and historians: Words­worth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Dickens, Carlyle, Macaulay, Buck­le, the Brownings, Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Ruskin, Arnold, and others. Even Karl Marx sought out the freedom of Vic­torian England from which he was to poison the intellectual air and bend the minds of men toward totalitarianism.

The nineteenth century was truly a Golden Age, if man ever had such. Hope abounded, and im­provements appeared to be occur­ring in every direction. And Eng­land was surely the center of it from which radiated so much that made for peace. The symbol of England’s greatness was the navy, but with equal aptness it should have been or included the mer­chant marine. The ships that plied the seas from their home base in the tight little isle carried not only the abounding goods of a productive nation but statesmen, thinkers, ideas, and men confident in the superiority of their ways and institutions to teach others in the arts of peace.

The next chapter of this series pertains to "The Workshop of the World."



¹ Carlton J. H. Hayes, Contemporary Europe Since 1870 (New York: Mac­millan, 1958, rev. ed.), p. 307.

2 Chester G. Starr, et. al., A History of the World, II (Chicago, Rand Mc‑Nally, 1960), p. 337.

3 Hayes, op. cit., p. 40.

4 Asa Briggs, The Age of Improve­ment (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1959), p. 385.

5 E. Lipson, The Growth of English Society (London: A. and C. Black, 1959), p. 332.

6 Hayes, op. cit., pp. 80-81.

7 Ibid., p. 80.

8 Ibid., p. 107.

9 Ibid., p. 125.

¹º Starr, et. al., op. cit., II, 449.

¹1 Shepard B. Clough, European Eco­nomic History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968, 2nd ed.), p. 356.

¹² Ibid., p. 358.

¹3 Briggs, op. cit., pp. 345-46.

14 Ibid., p. 347.

¹5 Ibid., pp. 351-52.

¹6 Llewellyn Woodward, The Age of Reform (London: Oxford University Press, 1962, 2nd ed.), pp. 193-94.

¹7 Walter L. Arnstein, Britain: Yes­terday and Today (Boston: Heath, 1966), p. 105.



Liberty and Peace

Violation of liberty, and nothing else, is the basic cause of con­flict. The violation of liberty may affect either the person or his property; it may be in the form of either a loss of liberty or the threat of a loss, real or imagined. Under any of these conditions, man’s will to be free impels him to strike at that force which is infringing on his liberty or threatening to do so.

F. A. HARPER, Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery

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