Once Upon a Time in Westphalia

From the issue

FOR GOD’S sake do not drag me into another war,” said the Reverend Sydney Smith in 1823.

I am sorry for the Spaniards—I am sorry for the Greeks—I deplore the fate of the Jews; the people of the Sandwich Islands are groaning under the most detestable tyranny; Bagdad is oppressed . . . Thibet is not comfortable. . . . The world is bursting with sin and sorrow. . . . Am I . . . to be eternally raising fleets and armies to make all men good and happy?

That witty and humane clergyman had lived through a time of troubles: the American rebellion followed by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, strife over more than twenty years at terrible cost to the inhabitants of the countries where war was waged, from Spain to Russia. Although the price paid by England was slight by comparison, at least in human life if not in gold, those conflicts made the very question of war—whether and why it should be waged—as lively a topic in England as it is today in America, or should be.

This question is comparatively new. Once upon a time, the king declared war, his army fought it, the country paid for it, and that was that: no political problem arose. But the English civil war of the 1640s, the Glorious Revolution and the beginning of constitutional government meant that for the first time there could be open debate between a “Party of War” and a “Party of Peace.”

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April 25, 2014