The Case for Cornwallis

October 24, 2014 Topic: HistoryMilitary Strategy Region: United KingdomUnited States

The Case for Cornwallis

Lord Cornwallis has gotten a bum rap in America. He was a gifted troubleshooter who implemented a more streamlined, sustainable version of British power, so that London could emerge triumphant and dominant on the global stage after 1815.

The second aspect of his approach, in cooperation with William Pitt and the young chief secretary of Ireland, Lord Castlereagh, was to recognize that the whole system of Irish governance was faulty. These three men shared the view that the greatest enemy to stability in Ireland came from the privileged members of the colonial elite and their unwillingness to reform Irish governance. “The patriotic Irish gentlemen who are so enraged at the insolent interference of England in the management of their affairs,” Cornwallis remarked disdainfully, “if they ever dare to go to their country-houses, barricade their ground-floor, and beg for a garrison of English Militia or Scottish Fencibles.”

Thus, Cornwallis and his allies attempted nothing less than their own revolution in Irish affairs—the aims of which were never fully realized but which were to change the course of Irish history forever. The first step was to abolish the old Irish colonial parliament through an Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, which came into being in 1801. The second part of the policy was more ambitious. It was to consummate the Act of Union with an Act of Catholic Emancipation by which Irish Catholics—the vast majority of the population—would be allowed to participate fully in the newly constituted political system for the first time.

Notably, it was the hawks in the British cabinet—concerned above all with the need to prosecute the war with France—who were foremost in making the case for political equality in Ireland. Napoleon’s forces had already made three attempts to land in Ireland between 1796 and 1798, hoping to take advantage of Irish discontent. Put plainly, it was a grave threat to British national security that a large section of the Irish population felt alienated from the state. “Holding Ireland on our present tenure,” said Cornwallis, “how are we to make head against all Europe leagued for our destruction?”

Modern theorists of security studies might categorize such an approach as one of “smart power.” The novelist Sir Walter Scott, later reflecting on the career of Cornwallis and those who took their lead from him, had perhaps a better name for it: “Common sense.”

How ironic, then, that it was King George III who exploded in anger when he learned that Pitt was planning an Act of Catholic Emancipation to win Irish loyalty! The king believed such an act contradicted his Coronation Oath to uphold the Protestant constitution of Britain—and, worse still, a reward for the disloyalty shown by the Irish. And so, in the midst of the war with Napoleon, George III vetoed the measure and forced Pitt, Cornwallis and Castlereagh to resign. “It is too mortifying a reflexion—when all the difficulties were surmounted . . . that the fatal blow should be struck from that quarter most interested to avert it, and that Ireland is again to become a millstone about the neck of Britain, and to be plunged into all its former horrors and miseries,” remarked a deflated Cornwallis, defeated once again by the dunderheaded policies of George III.


DESPITE HIS hope that he would then be allowed to retire, Cornwallis’s career was not quite over yet. In 1802, he was sent as a plenipotentiary to France to negotiate with Napoleon and signed the short-lived Treaty of Amiens—the subsequent collapse of which he could not have prevented. In 1805, when Pitt returned to office, he appointed Cornwallis as governor-general of India once again, with a mandate to curb the expansionist campaigns of his predecessor in the post—Lord Wellesley, the older brother of the future Duke of Wellington. But his tenure was short-lived. Just three months after arriving, he caught a fever and died at Ghazipur on the Ganges, where he was buried. His epitaph did not mention his time in America.

In Cornwallis we do not have a Marlborough or a Wellington. His career was bookended by the defeat at Yorktown and the failed Treaty of Amiens. He did not die gloriously in battle, but instead faded out of view at the end of a long and complicated career in which he had grown ever more disillusioned. His bold vision of religious equality in Ireland may, some argue, have “solved” the Irish question, but it remained just that—a vision.

Nonetheless, while Cornwallis could boast few spectacular “victories,” he did have achievements to his name that stood the test of time. For one thing, he stabilized Britain’s international standing after Yorktown. He used the American lesson to identify—and begin to eradicate—the self-defeating features of the British global system. Cornwallis was the troubleshooter who implemented a more streamlined and more sustainable version of British power, steering it away from energy-sapping conflicts on its periphery, so that it could emerge triumphant and dominant on the global stage after 1815. Rather than simple retrenchment, this was an achievement of rebalancing, which aimed at “grand bargains” but also recognized the need to use power selectively but decisively.

Cornwallis’s willingness to learn from his own mistakes and those of others was another feature of his creed. He developed a coherent sense of what might be called “grand strategy,” but this never constituted a tactical blueprint—what had worked in India would not necessarily work in Ireland. It is hard to imagine a modern “special envoy” combining military and political command in the way that Cornwallis did, but his insistence that these strands needed to operate in harmony is a lesson we repeatedly seem to have to relearn. There were also more subtle strains to his thinking—such as his ability to combine diplomacy with force, and his capacity to distinguish between constructive co-option and counterproductive corruption. One might also remark on his ability to distinguish between vested interests and the national interest, and on his recognition of the need for internal political harmony as a precondition of external security. Beyond that, the modern parallels should probably stop; few these days would have the stomach for the techniques of late eighteenth-century counterinsurgency, as applied in Ireland in 1798 (even those willing to countenance waterboarding in the twenty-first century).

The lessons, if there are any, are bigger than one man. Nonetheless, the longevity of Cornwallis’s career, and the existence of both successes and failures in it, says something about the business of great-power politics—a game in which patience is a virtue, “solutions” are often elusive and victories sometimes identifiable only in hindsight, and in which one is sometimes forced to court the people one would prefer to repudiate, both at home and abroad.

In closing, perhaps one final word on George III is merited, to whom Cornwallis was unfailingly loyal, but by whom he was periodically exasperated. Many years later, in 1945, Britain’s recently appointed Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, the Labour Party’s most ferocious cold warrior, entertained a delegation of American trade unionists at the Foreign Office. As the meeting began, one of the Americans asked: “What do you have a picture of that son-of-a-bitch there for?” Surprised by the question, Bevin turned around to see a portrait of George III, only to snap back: “If it hadn’t been for that son-of-a-bitch, you would still be a part of the British Empire.” If he could have been present, Cornwallis might well have been inclined to agree.


John Bew is a reader in the War Studies Department at King’s College London and director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. He was the 2013–2014 Henry A. Kissinger Chair at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. He is the author of Castlereagh: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2012) and the forthcoming Realpolitik: A History (Oxford University Press, 2015).