Kevin Phillips may be the last of the Whig historians. His book The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America defies current historical and political conventions and unabashedly celebrates the success of the English- speaking peoples in our time. In this, his work harks back to that of an earlier generation of historians who also honored the record of Anglo-Saxon achievement. Whig history was a perspective on the past that flourished in nineteenth century Great Britain and saluted the gradual triumph of “Whig” principles in England. Traditionally, Whigs had been the opponents of royal absolutism and ecclesiastical pretension. In an era dominated by the Whigs’ Liberal legatees, Whig principles seemed secure, and a future beckoned which promised both liberty and moderation in government, religion, and morals. The Whig historians were fundamentally forward-looking, describing a progress from medieval darkness to modern light. Their tale of development, sometimes messy, but inexorable, culminated in the Great Britain of Queen Victoria, William Gladstone, and Sherlock Holmes. The Whig historians’ sanguine confidence in England’s institutions and destiny seemed eminently reasonable at a time when Great Britain was the workshop of the world and the sun never set on her imperial possessions.
The twentieth century has not been kind to Whig history. Cultural and political upheavals have challenged the idea of progress. The optimism of the Whig historians now seems merely smug, and their glorification of English traditions unfashionably ethnocentric. Professional historians in Britain and America have pursued different approaches to history, forsaking the broad sweep of the Whig historians for greater specialization and investigating aspects of the past that their Whig predecessors rarely emphasized.
Kevin Phillips, however, is not a professional historian. He is a well-known political analyst. Phillips first achieved fame with his book The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), in which he accurately predicted the ascendancy of a new conservative coalition based in the South and Southwest. The success of this book launched a distinguished career. Phillips devoted his time to studying the vagaries of American elections, specializing in sophisticated demographic breakdowns of voting patterns and tracing the effects of ethnicity, religion, and culture on political behavior.
As the years passed, Phillips grew tired of this work. He was increasingly disgusted with the venality of the political system and the mediocrity of America’s elected leaders. He became convinced that the American political process had been stalled through the combined machinations of Pennsylvania Avenue, Capitol Hill, and Wall Street. In 1995, Phillips decided to escape from the Washington of then President William Jefferson Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich into the past, where he could find more exalted company, people like Elizabeth I, William Pitt, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. His research began as an examination of the Saratoga campaign during the American Revolution. He wanted to explore the counterfactual question of what might have happened to Britain and America if General John Burgoyne and his redcoats had proved victorious in the fighting at Saratoga. This led him to investigate the attitudes and political alignments of the American colonists in the period 1775-1777. As he read, patterns began to emerge. Phillips simultaneously discerned connections between the degree of revolutionary enthusiasm among different groups of colonists, the loyalties of their ancestors during the English Civil War, and the attitudes of their descendants during the American Civil War.
Over the course of four years of labor, Phillips’s work grew into a hefty tome covering 350 years of British and U.S. history. The Cousins’ Wars is an epic account of the rise of the English-speaking peoples to global hegemony. Writing from outside the academic mainstream, echoing, consciously or not, an older but honorable historical style, Phillips has produced a timely and thought-provoking book. As the United States faces the millennium, in the wake of the Cold War the world’s sole superpower, with the United Kingdom its most reliable and consistent ally, a reexamination of the shaping of modern Great Britain and United States is in order.
Phillips argues that Great Britain and the United States are nations shaped by war. Some may find his emphasis on war unpalatable, but Phillips is unrepentant about the martial edge to his analysis. He sees war not simply as Carl von Clausewitz’s extension of politics by other means, but as a cultural phenomenon of searing intensity. The upheaval and trauma of war can scar communities for generations. Early in his career as a student of American politics, Phillips was struck by the ways in which voting patterns of the 1950’s continued to mirror those of the 1860’s. To a remarkable degree, Americans in the era of Dwight D. Eisenhower were voting as their great-grandfathers had shot in the Civil War. The shock of war reverberates for so many years because battle tests ideals and institutions as well as...
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