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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 143-147

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Book Review

Empire, Revolution, and the British Atlantic World

Tim Keirn
California State University, Long Beach

David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. xi + 238. $54.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Stephen Conway, The British Isles and the War of American Independence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Pp. vi + 407. $90.00 cloth.

Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000). Pp. xvi + 357. $55.00 cloth, $22.50 paper.

Rebecca Starr, A School for Politics: Commercial Lobbying and Political Culture in Early South Carolina (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998). Pp. x + 218. $45.00.

With the decline of nationalist historical perspectives after the Cold War, imperial history has once again become historiographically fashionable and is firmly imbedded within the guise of both the 'New Atlantic History' and the 'New British History.' All of the research reviewed here reflects current trends in historical scholarship. These works stress the significance of both the imperial and transatlantic connection in the process of eighteenth century cultural and political formation on both sides of the British Atlantic. Moreover, these scholars--in varying degrees--diminish the role of the American Revolution as a significant break or watershed in this process.

In The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, David Armitage constructs an intellectual history that traces the emergence of a British Imperial ideology from the time of Henry VIII to that of Robert Walpole. Armitage argues that the development of an imperial ideology served both as a critical agent in the formation of a British state from three kingdoms and also as an essential bond between the formation of the state and the transatlantic expansion of empire. In doing so, the author links the concerns of the 'New British History' with that of the 'New Atlantic History.' The development of a British Imperial ideology is demonstrated via a close reading of numerous English, Scottish and, to a lesser extent, Irish writings from Sir Thomas Smith to Hume. For most of the early modern period, Armitage argues that contested English and Scottish versions of state- and empire-formation impeded the creation of a unitary British Imperial ideology. In addition, both English and Scottish contemporaries, informed by Roman tradition, struggled with incommensurable tensions and anxieties between "empire and liberty" and "imperium and dominium."These obstacles were first overcome in the writings of 'political economists' such as Nicholas Barbon and Charles Davenant in the late seventeenth century. These writers recognized the significance of commerce to the success of the state, arguing that "trade depended on liberty, and that liberty could therefore be the foundation of empire" (143). However, the threat of competing versions of 'empires of the seas' within the British Isles ultimately led to English mercantilist regulation of the Irish economy, the Act of Union (1707) and the formation of a unitary and organic 'British' empire of the sea. [End Page 142]

Armitage's study ends with an analysis of the Walpolean era. He argues that a pan-Atlantic and normative conception of a British Empire as one "Protestant, commercial, maritime and free" originated provincially and in the colonies and was solidified in the Patriotic rhetoric and opposition to Walpole in the 1730s (173). However, Walpole's failure to reconcile the paradox of promised "liberty" to all free inhabitants of the colonies while subordinating all economic activity to the mercantilist dictates of the metropolis, initiated new skepticism and philocolonial perspectives in the anti-imperial critiques of Francis Hutcheson and David Hume--anticipating by some thirty years the ideological ferment that lead to the American Revolution and Grafton's Parliament. The Ideological Origins of the British Empire is an important book and in many ways breaks new ground and concretely bridges the agendas of the New British History with the Atlantic perspective exhorted by J.G.A. Pocock some 25 years ago. However, this is not an easy read. The attempt to create a distinction between 'conceptions,' 'identities,' and 'ideologies' of...


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