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  • Citizenship, Empire, and Modernity in the English Provinces, c. 1720–1790 1
  • Kathleen Wilson (bio)

Now, by our country, considered in itself, we shall (I conceive) most rationally understand, not barely a certain tract of land, which makes up the external appearance of it; but chiefly, the collective body of its inhabitants, with their public and joint interests.

—Rev. George Fothergill, 1758

In faith, my friend, the present time is rather comique—Ireland almost in as true a state of rebellion as America—Admirals quarrelling in the West-Indies—and at home Admirals that do not chuse to fight—The British Empire mouldering away in the West, annihilated in the North— . . . and England fast asleep . . . —for my part, it’s nothing to me, as I am only a lodger, and hardly that.

—Ignatius Sancho, 1779

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the bead of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one.

—Walter Benjamin, 1940 2

I. Modernity and Its Discontents

The debates over “modernity” that have reverberated in European cultural theory and history since World War II have not unduly troubled most historians [End Page 69] of eighteenth-century Britain. Suspicious of any species of “Whig” (that is, linear) history and confident that Continental theorizing bears little relevance to their inquiries, British historians have been content to fight less epochal battles over the appropriate characterization of their period. Hence whether England was an “aristocratic” or “bourgeois” society, an “ancien regime” or “commercialized” polity, marked predominantly by paternalism and deference or restiveness and resistance are the issues that have traditionally occupied many historians’ attention. 3 Although such dichotomous readings have often been more geared towards advancing academic careers than productive debate, the status of eighteenth-century England as a progenitor of modernity is rarely taken seriously within the disciplinary wooden walls of Hanoverian history.

Certainly there is cause for skepticism about the historical returns of investigations into the location and meanings of modernity, not least since the term is twisted and turned to serve a variety of scholarly constituencies. Among more positivistic social scientists and historians, for example, modernity has been conceived as the story of “modernization”—that is, of those objective, ineluctably unfolding processes that are believed to have generated the structures and texture of “modern” life: urbanization, industrialization, democratization; bureaucracy, scienticism and technology. 4 Although heuristically useful in sketching in some fundamental shifts in Western culture, the “modernity as modernization” perspective is a conceptual dead end for historians less interested in structural determinacy than in the specific meanings, ambiguities, and significance of a period’s configurations. For this latter group, other historical and cultural critics have engaged more fruitfully with the notion of modernity as an unfolding set of relationships—cognitive, social, and intellectual as well as economic and technological—which, however valued or construed, are seen as producing the modern self and its expectations of perfection or progress. For Marshall Berman and Jürgen Habermas, to name but two, the promise of a modernity begun by the eighteenth-century “Enlightenment project,” embellished by nineteenth-century thinkers from Hegel and Baudelaire to Marx and Stendhal and betrayed by the savagery and genocide of the mid-twentieth century, has yet to be fulfilled. 5 Probably more fecund still has been the re-theorizing of modernity among the so-called “post-modernists”—a disparate group of critics whose perceived unity rests on their intellectual debts to various French post-structuralisms as well as their shared belief in the discontinuity of the late twentieth-century present with the “modern” period that came before it—who have located in the discursive and institutional matrices of power and resistance shaping late eighteenth century European societies the genealogies of their own ages’ discontents and transfigurations. 6 Their inquiries have replaced the stable and knowing “bourgeois” subject beloved of...

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