GRE General Test: RC-337319 GRE Reading Comprehension

A long-held view of the history of the English colonies that became the United States has been that England’s policy toward these colonies before 1763 was dictated by commercial interests and that a change to a more imperial policy, dominated by expansionist militarist objectives, generated the tensions that ultimately led to the American Revolution. In a recent study, Stephen Saunders Webb has presented a formidable challenge to this view. According to Webb, England already had a military imperial policy for more than a century before the American Revolution. He sees Charles II, the English monarch between 1660 and 1685, as the proper successor of the Tudor monarchs of the sixteenth century and of Oliver Cromwell, all of whom were bent on extending centralized executive power over England’s possessions through the use of what Webb calls “garrison government.”Garrison government allowed the colonists a legislative assembly but real authority, in Webb's view, belonged to the colonial governor, who was appointed by the king and supported by the “garrison,” that is, by the local contingent of English troops under the colonial governor’s command.

According to Webb, the purpose of garrison government was to provide military support for a royal policy designed to limit the power of the upper classes in the American colonies. Webb argues that the colonial legislative assemblies represented the interests not of the common people but of the colonial upper classes, a coalition of merchants and nobility who favored self-rule and sought to elevate legislative authority at the expense of the executive. It was, according to Webb, the colonial governors who favored the small farmer, opposed the plantation system, and tried through taxation to break up large holdings of land. Backed by the military presence of the garrison, these governors tried to prevent the gentry and merchants, allied in the colonial assemblies, from transforming colonial America into a capitalistic oligarchy.

Webb’s study illuminates the political alignments that existed in the colonies in the century prior to the American Revolution, but his view of the crown’s use of the military as an instrument of colonial policy is not entirely convincing. England during the seventeenth century was not noted for its military achievements. Cromwell did mount England’s most ambitious overseas military expedition in more than a century, but it proved to be an utter failure. Under Charles II, the English army was too small to be a major instrument of government. Not until the war France in 1697 did William III persuade Parliament to create a professional standing army, and Parliaments price for doing so was to keep the army under tight legislative control. While it may be true that the crown attempted to curtail the power of the colonial upper classes, it is hard to imagine how the English army during the seventeenth century could have provided significant military support for such a policy.
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