- Transatlantic Subjects: Ideas, Institutions, and Social Experience in Post-Revolutionary British North America
This important collection of essays, the product of a conference held at McMaster University in October 2004, investigates the social and cultural integration of Britain and its North Atlantic colonies in the six decades following the American Revolution. With the stated purpose of [End Page 157] theorizing a new direction for Canadian colonial history, editor Nancy Christie positions the volume as a corrective to orthodox readings of the period that focus on the political collapse of the First British Empire and the development of a home-grown loyalist identity in the northern colonies. Emphasizing the plural and 'mutually constitutive' nature of metropole and periphery, Christie argues that an enduring 'cultural system' bound the various parts of the North Atlantic Empire long after the rupture of 1783. This problematized 'transatlantic' conceptualization amounts to a full-scale paradigm shift, which privileges social and cultural processes, multiple and contested identities, and complex institutional developments over the more localized and unidirectional preoccupations of an older Canadian national historiography.
The individual contributions take up the burden of this argument on three main fronts. Under the heading 'Agrarian Patriots,' the first group of essays by Donald Fyson, Nancy Christie, and Brian Young explore aspects of social and institutional practice often ignored in conventional colonial history, offering nuanced reconsiderations of class discourse, cultural identity, and counter-revolutionary positioning in the process of implanting British culture, institutions, and economic forms in the 'loyal colonies.' In the second section, 'Provincial Britons,' Todd Webb, Michael Gauvreau, and Bruce Curtis unravel a series of religious, educational, and political debates and conflicts that spanned the Atlantic, looking at the role of ethnic-national identities, denominational 'schism,' and diverging ideologies as key factors in the formation of a colonial 'Britishness.' The last section, 'A Laboratory of Modernity,' extends and broadens the discussion of a modern British identity. Essays by Michael Eamon, Jeffrey L. McNairn, Michelle Vosburgh, Bryan Palmer, and Darren Ferry investigate ideological and philosophical imports from Britain, their function in the colonies, and the role of British travellers and settlers as interlocutors in the ensuing debates.
The essays work well within the scope of the claims set forth in the introduction. For example, Fyson's piece on the reception of low-level British institutions of governance in Lower Canada deftly handles the issue of complex identities, providing a strong rationale for revisiting conventional views of French-Canadian attitudes to British authority in the pre-Rebellion period. The essays by Webb and Gauvreau on the formation of a modern British colonial identity and the place of British and Canadian religious institutions in this process underscore the significant role of religious particularisms, older ethnic-national loyalties, and political infighting both in and between the colonies [End Page 158] and metropole, effectively substantiating the claim for a wider trans-atlantic framework. Likewise, the essays in section 3 provide a good case for situating the development of liberal economics, the spread of Enlightenment values, and the construction of new class subjectivities in the context of a more extensive, multidirectional 'British world.'
Indeed, on the whole, the contributions advance the core project of forging a new, more comprehensive, and outward-looking 'British history' as urged three decades ago by J.G.A. Pocock (who provides an illuminating preface to the volume) and claimed for the present collection in its introductory essay. The pertinent question here concerns the vexing problem of identity, and the far from settled question of British and British colonial identities. As Pocock points out, British settlers to Canada 'defined their "Britishness" from their mixed origins in that union of multiple identities' (x). In that sense, the plural meanings implicit in the connection between metropolis and periphery demand that the cultural circuits that bound the latter be examined in an appropriately wide-ranging context. If one were to cite a weakness in the collection in this regard, indeed an outcome – I suspect – of the breadth...