Excerpt from The Conduct of the Allies, and of the Late Ministry, in the Beginning and Carrying on the Present War


After ten years’ war with perpetual success, to tell us it is yet impossible to have a good peace, is very surprising, and seems so different from what has ever happened in the world before, that a man of any party may be allowed suspecting that we have either been ill used, or have not made the most of our victories, and might therefore desire to know where the difficulty lay.  Then it is natural to inquire into our present condition; how long we shall be able to go on at this rate; what the consequences may be upon the present and future ages; and whether a peace, without that impracticable point which some people do so much insist on, be really ruinous in it self, or equally so with the continuance of the war.

The motives that may engage a wise prince or state in a war I take to be one or more of these: either to check the overgrown power of some ambitious neighbour; to recover what has been unjustly taken from them; to revenge some injury they have received, which all political casuists allow; to assist some ally in a just quarrel; or, lastly, to defend themselves when they are invaded.  In all these cases, the writers upon politics admit a war to be justly undertaken.  The last is what has been usually called pro aris et focis; where no expense or endeavour can be too great, because all we have is at stake, and consequently our utmost force to be exerted; and the dispute is soon determined either in safety or utter destruction.  But in the other four I believe it will be found that no monarch or commonwealth did ever engage beyond a certain degree: never proceeding so far as to exhaust the strength and substance of their country by anticipations and loans, which in a few years must put them in a worse condition than any they could reasonably apprehend from those evils for the preventing of which they first entered into the war; because this would be to run into real infallible ruin, only in hopes to remove what might perhaps but appear so by a probable speculation.

And as a war should be undertaken upon a just and prudent motive, so it is still more obvious that a prince ought maturely to consider the condition he is in when he enters on it; whether his coffers be full, his revenues clear of debts, his people numerous and rich by a long peace and free trade, not overpressed with many burdensome taxes; no violent faction ready to dispute his just prerogative, and thereby weaken his authority at home and lessen his reputation abroad.  For if the contrary of all this happen to be his case, he will hardly be persuaded to disturb the world’s quiet and his own, while there is any other way left of preserving the latter with honour and safety.

Supposing the war to have commenced upon a just motive, next thing to be considered is, when a prince ought in prudence to receive the overtures of a peace: which I take to be, either when the enemy is ready to yield the point originally contended for; or when that point is found impossible to be ever obtained; or when contending any longer, although with probability of gaining that point at last, would put such a prince and his people in a worse condition than the present loss of it.  All which considerations are of much greater force where a war is managed by an alliance of many confederates, which, in a variety of interests among the several parties, is liable to so many unforeseen accidents.

Written in 1712, when the conservatives were actually conservative, them being the “landed men” whose taxes paid for the debt the government owed to its creditors, largely the “moneyed men” of the Whig party, of whom Swift said: “Since the moneyed men are so fond of war, I should be glad they would furnish out one campaign at their own charge. . . .”   The full text of The Conduct of the Allies may be found at <www.ucc.ie/celt/published/E700001-019/index.html>, <books.google.com/books?id=AZkDAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA178>, and <books.google.com/books?id=1KAUiZMWH5YC&jtp=327> among other sites.  See, also, David Stasavage, “Partisan Politics and Public Debt: The Importance of the ‘Whig Supremacy’ for Britain’s Financial Revolution,” European Review of Economic History 11 (2007): 123-153.

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