When Political Order Collapses

Gettysburg battle painting

JMC fellow William Anthony Hay’s article in Library of Law and Liberty explores the nature of civil wars and the ways nations’ understandings of civil have developed throughout Western history.


What Makes Civil Wars Different

By William Anthony Hay
From the Library of Law and Liberty


The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously described war as the pursuit of politics by other means. Louis XIV a more than a century earlier considered it the final argument of kings with the Latin phrase ultima ratio regnum engraved upon French cannon to emphasize the point. Those positions make sense for understanding conflict between rival states or their rulers. Wars fought within a political community raise different issues that go to the heart of deeper questions about how political order works and why it sometimes fails. Since the end of the Cold War, failed states mired in ongoing strife have made those questions all the more pressing for American foreign policy.

David Armitage offers insight for addressing those challenges in Civil Wars: A History in Ideas, which explores how successive generations since Rome understood conflicts within societies and drew lessons from them. His subtitle’s phrasing deliberately emphasizes context as the book shows how the idea of civil war developed from particular contexts. The concept then took forms that provided markers for later generations which put their own spin on the meaning of civil war. Rather than the commonplace academic perspective looking to lived experience from the bottom of society upwards or retrospectively applying theories of present day social science, Armitage focuses mainly on statesmen, intellectuals, and literary figures. The result emphases ideas and their impact. He also draws mainly on the Western tradition starting with the Roman Republic while recognizing contributions from other traditions as they intersect with his main narrative.

Continue reading at the Library of Law and Liberty >>


William Anthony HayWilliam Anthony Hay is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the College of Arts & Sciences Institute for the Humanities at Mississippi State. He specializes in British History and International Relations since the eighteenth century.  Elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2009, Hay is a past-president of the Southern Conference on British Studies. Along with research grants from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the Earhart Foundation, he has held fellowships at the Lewis Walpole Library and Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University and the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Hay is currently writing a book tentatively entitled King George’s Generals: Strategy, Policy and Britain’s War for America, 1763-1781. Boydell & Brewer will publish Hay’s latest book Lord Liverpool: A Political Life in Spring 2018.  His first book The Whig Revival, 1808-1830 (Palgrave: 2005) examines the political realignment that brought the Whigs to power in 1830 through an alliance with provincial interests. Hay writes regularly for publications including the Wall Street JournalNational Interest and Literary Review.  Before coming to Mississippi State, Hay directed a program on European politics and U.S. foreign policy at Foreign Policy Research Institute.  Hay received his Ph.D. Modern European and International History from the University of Virginia in 2000.

Learn more about Professor Hay’s scholarship >>




Facebook iconTwitter iconFollow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates about lectures, publications, podcasts, and events related to American political thought, United States history, and the Western tradition!



Want to help the Jack Miller Center transform higher education? Donate today.