Monday, October 01, 2007 10/01/07-Thanks, Catherine

In today's excerpt--Catherine the Great, Tsarina of Russia. King George III seeks Catherine and Russia's help in suppressing the American rebellion, but is rebuffed. Further, Britain's dominance of the seas is diminished when Catherine forms a naval alliance from which it is excluded. Her concern in both cases is not for the American rebels, but instead for the European balance of power. These two developments, when combined, significantly limit Britain's ability to sustain the war:

"Confronted with the increasing frenzy of 'His Majesty's unhappy and deluded people' on the other side of the Atlantic, George III's ministers approached Empress Catherine the Great for Russian assistance. Britain had the best fleet in the world but a negligible army, traditionally resorting to hired mercenaries. By contrast, the Russians had a homogeneous force hardened by war, toughened by the elements, and thoroughly brutal. ... King George requested 20,000 disciplined infantry, 'completely equipped and ready to embark' as soon as the Baltic navigation was possible in the spring; he also sought to hire Russian naval ships to bolster his own navy. It was a tempting offer, but Catherine refused. ... Publicly she wrote to George III, wishing him 'good luck,' but privately she was far more smug, convinced that George had badly bungled his handling of the rebels and 'should be taught a lesson.' ... Britain was forced to resort to its second choice ... the German House of Hesse. ...

"[Catherine] was equally unwilling to acknowledge the existence of the American rabble. ... But as fate would have it, the tsarina was also supremely fickle. Edgy and ambitious, she distrusted republics and despised insurgents, but even more than that, she craved power on the grand European stage. This would lead to one of history's most curious moves. The consequences would be far-reaching. ...

"Under the guise of protecting 'freedom of the seas' and 'international law,' Catherine brazenly proposed the ... 'League of Armed Neutrality.' The ostensible goal was to halt brash attacks on the high seas by British, Spanish, and American navies and privateers. The reality was quite different. While crisis abounded, Catherine grasped her own opportunity to spearhead an alliance that would include the other great powers in Europe--Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and eventually Prussia, Austria, Portugal, and the Ottoman Turks--against the belligerents, which, in effect, meant England. Notably, the French and Spanish also rallied to the cause. ... John Adams and Francis Dana now lauded Catherine's 'idealism' and hailed the empress as 'our friend.' George Washington referred to her as the 'great Potentate of the North.' ...

"In one bold stroke, [Catherine's] Doctrine of Armed Neutrality redressed the balance of global sea power. More than that, the tsarina had isolated Britain diplomatically--the first time that had happened in the eighteenth century--and had curtailed Britain's vaunted maritime fleet while aiding France's. In so doing, she helped bolster the hopes of the beleaguered American rebels fighting for their lives and, in effect, almost inadvertently helped midwife America to independence."

Jay Winik, The Great Upheaval, Harper Collins, Copyright 2007 by Jay Winik, pp. 37- 40.


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