Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


I Hate War! How can I be guilty?

Andrew Lincoln

Before Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, many Ukrainians didn’t believe it would happen. When it did, Ukraine immediately declared a general mobilization-and a mass of Ukrainians who had been following peaceful occupations quickly got ready to fight. It is sometimes assumed that the ‘civilizing process’ leaves the citizens of modern states unprepared for war, and that huge upheavals and propaganda campaigns are needed to get them ready to fight. But the Ukrainian response to invasion tells a different story.

If what we term the civilizing process encourages a hatred of war, a sense of its futility and immorality, such attitudes obviously don’t stop wars from happening. But what if the moral recoil from violence provides a kind of justification for war? This idea may seem grotesquely paradoxical, but there is plenty of evidence to support it. In eighteenth-century Britain, a culture of reform helped to promote humanitarian feeling, and to discourage aggressive responses to the violence of war. But expressions of regret at the terrible effects of warfare were often used by pro-war writers, and were soon adopted by officers reporting back from the warzone. Not reveling in violence may make war easier to justify, and may even allow it to be seen as ‘civilized’. This kind of paradox has an important place in my study of responses to war.

In the book I consider how the ‘moral’ view of war, which recoils from killing and suffering, is related to the ‘national’ view, which promotes war as just and necessary, and which draws on support from religion, from ideas of national destiny, and from the ideal of sacrifice. These two approaches to war may seem diametrically opposed, but in eighteenth-century practice it was not unusual for the national view to co-opt the moral view. I consider how these responses influenced the way war was visualized, explained and criticized, surveying a wide range of materials-including newspapers, periodicals, sermons, poems, novels, plays, moral essays and philosophical works-and I trace some key developments within the long eighteenth century.

We have all seen the reports of how the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, gave his blessing to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In doing this Kirill was following a long Christian tradition. In eighteenth-century Britain the Church played an important role in supporting wars through its Fast and Thanksgiving services. These services promoted the national view by invoking the divine violence described in the bible, and suggesting that all Britons could help the national war effort through their prayers and devotions. Sermons reinforced this message. By the end of the eighteenth century there was growing criticism of the Church’s wartime role, and of its support for contentious wars, like the War of American Independence, and the war against revolutionary France.

Some of the developments I trace are related to changes in readership, as the print market was increasingly geared towards the interests of the middling sort and women readers. The violent, noble hero of classical epic, who found a kind of counterpart in the Duke of Cumberland (the victor, or ‘Butcher’, of Culloden), began to be replaced by other kinds of hero. Colonel James Gardiner, mortally wounded when his defeated troops fled at the Battle of Prestonpans, may seem on the face of it an unlikely hero-but he became one of the most enduring heroes of the century, as a model of Christian piety and of willing sacrifice in a war against ‘savagery’. Victorious dying heroes, like General James Wolfe and Admiral Horatio Nelson, were of course widely-and tearfully-celebrated.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine it was often assumed that the development of commercial links with the West and co-operation over oil and gas would help the prospects of peace. Why not? Surely economic self-interest would encourage good inter-state relations? The idea that commerce promotes peace was shared to some extent by the Scottish philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith, who are both sometimes associated with ‘commercial pacifism’. But both Hume and Smith had to respond to the hugely expensive and destructive wars that Britain engaged in. Both found the chauvinistic public response to these wars, and governments’ willingness to run up massive debts, very disturbing. As I show, it threatened to undermine the central claims of their moral theories.

But what if I am not chauvinistic? What if I don’t support my nation at war? Suppose I declare ‘Not in my name!’? Does that relieve me of responsibility? I might still worry about the safety of our armed forces, and consider myself a true patriot. The public response to war had always been a matter of concern to both the government and to reformers, but as wars gave rise to increasingly deep public divisions, so the sense of public responsibility became an increasingly important issue in itself. From the period of the American war we begin to find examples of what has been termed the ‘domestication of patriotism’, a love of country expressed through private attachments, love of landscape and cultural heritage, rather than through a direct commitment to the public good conceived in political terms. This understanding of patriotism contrasts strikingly with the military responsibility and public commitment of the ‘civic humanist’ citizen, a landowner who has a right and a duty to bear arms in defence of his community, a masculine ideal derived from the Italian Renaissance. It seems more appropriate to the ‘civilian’, to the private individual associated with what would today be termed liberalism, a non-combatant who has no direct responsibility for the violence of war.

If I’m not doing the fighting myself, surely my hands are clean? In the later eighteenth century we begin to find accounts of loyal war service told from a non-combatant’s point of view, accounts that seem more concerned with the damaging consequences of war than with battles or the political issues at stake. We find a growing concern with war victims who suffer far from the war zone. And we begin to find strategies for insulating those at home from the moral guilt of war. Whereas mid-century novelists sometimes included models of feminine virtue that were defined in contrast to masculine militarism, such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or were associated with pacifist sentiments, like Henry Fielding’s Amelia, by the end of the century pacific feminine virtue had been fully reconciled with loyal support for war, because it was deemed to be morally insulated from martial violence. This kind of moral insulation makes possible a heroine like Jane Austen’s Anne Elliott in Persuasion, who is gently virtuous and dutifully reconciled to her husband’s naval profession.

What do we mean by peaceful relations with other nations? Do we mean not interfering with them, or only interfering by non-violent means? Throughout the eighteenth century there was a steady stream of writing concerned to promote peace, either through moral exhortation or political action. During the wars with revolutionary and Napoleonic France, a British peace movement arose that would, after Waterloo, give rise to the Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace. The rising optimism about global peace, in a period of hugely destructive wars, drew support from voyages of exploration, advances in learning and communications, and the prospects opened up by the expansion of empire. One of the founders of this new peace society was Thomas Clarkson, a prime mover of the successful campaign to abolish the slave trade. In arguing the case for pacifism, Clarkson depended heavily upon the example of the Quaker William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and especially of Penn’s way of dealing with the indigenous population occupying the territory. Why was this relevant? Clarkson himself had helped to set up the Sierra Leone Company, founded to trade with the African colony founded for ex-slaves. I show how, from its inception, the campaign for ‘Universal’ peace was bound up with the goal of spreading British trading links and influence abroad, in an era of imperial expansion.

What was the most important lesson I learned in writing this book? I certainly found myself using the term ‘acquiescence’ more than I had expected. In eighteenth-century Britain, as in the world we find ourself in now, warlike governments depend upon the quiet acquiescence of those who do not fight. Without it they could not pour so much of their nation’s blood and treasure into the quagmire of war. And in such a situation, those who do not fight have to find a way of making a virtue out of acquiescence. There are many ways to do this.

Imagining War and Peace in
Eighteenth-Century Britain,
1690–1820 by Andrew Lincoln

About The Author

Andrew Lincoln

Andrew Lincoln is Emeritus Professor of English at Queen Mary, University of London. He has previously published on William Blake, including a 1992 edition of Songs of Innocence an...

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