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  • Exclusionary Empire: English Liberty Overseas, 1600–1900
  • Jack Rakove
Exclusionary Empire: English Liberty Overseas, 1600–1900. Edited by Jack P. Greene (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2010) 305. pp $90.00

This strong set of essays surveying the constitutional and political history of liberty in English-speaking lands is reminiscent of two other pieces of writing on closely related themes. The first, and more obvious, is John Greville Agard Pocock’s sparkling essay, “British History: A Plea for a New Subject,” Journal of Modern History, XLVII (1975), 601–628. Pocock’s essay, though admittedly a short piece largely devoted to the intricacies of conceiving English, Scottish (not Scotch), Welsh, and Irish history within a mutably British framework, reached out in its concluding pages to British-shaped societies and institutions in America and the Antipodes; in spirit, Pocock’s provocative musings sketched the agenda that Exclusionary Empire pursues. It seems a curious omission that this essay never merits a single mention in Greene’s volume. (The second comparison will come later.) [End Page 443]

Exclusionary Empire arrives with a charged dedication: “For all of those subordinated people who lost their lands, cultures, freedoms, and lives in the construction of Britain’s empire of liberty, which denied them civic space.” Greene closes his helpful introductory essay on a similar note, juxtaposing the remarkable extent to which British colonial expansion, unlike that of other empires, involved a distinctive, recurring emphasis on the settlers’ desires to retain the traditional forms of English liberty, particularly the rights of representation and the common-law protections of civil justice, while applying “systematic discrimination on religious or racial and cultural grounds” against various indigenous populations (24).

Yet questions about the origins of exclusionary policy against these cultural others do not, in fact, provide the dominant motif of the ten essays collected herein, though they figure importantly in several of them, including Greene’s discussion of the West Indies and Robert Travers’ essay on India. Instead, the controlling theme of the work as a whole is the extent to which the traditional motifs of English history, the great subjects of the controversies at home that accompanied the initial burst of expansion overseas, remained the prevailing concerns within virtually all of these settlements. There is a sense, ideologically, in which these essays collectively attest to the idea that the customary stuff of English liberty provided the most influential values that England’s emigrants, whatever their class of origin, carried overseas; it was the item in their cultural baggage that mattered most. That this concern was primarily about their rights alone, and had nothing to do with the excluded peoples that they would dominate, can hardly be surprising.

In her essay about British North America, Elizabeth Mancke surveys an array of liberties that the colonists treasured, suggesting that the right to trade freely—the liberty of commerce—is the one that merits special attention. Greene’s discussion of the West Indies emphasizes the extent to which the planters’ political concerns echoed the mainland American demands for recognition of legislative privileges, but with a special value placed on the autonomous regulation of slavery—until, that is, the emancipation of the 1830s persuaded whites to renounce their claim to legislation in order to maintain racial hegemony over the freemen. James Kelly tackles the rich history of eighteenth-century Irish politics, in which Protestant claims for traditional English rights of self-government collided, after 1789, with competing demands not only from the island’s Catholic majority but also from middle-class Protestants. Ultimately, this predicament led to the Irish Parliament’s decision to approve its own dissolution (thus anticipating the later action in the West Indies).

In the sole essay in the volume that focuses on the metropolitan view of empire, Eliga Gould traces the lasting legacy of the American Revolution by demonstrating that the claims of unlimited parliamentary jurisdiction over the empire asserted before 1776 were sharply tempered, in subsequent operation, by the lessons of 1783. A different set of lessons [End Page 444] seems to be the subject of Peter Onuf’s essay on “Federalism, Democracy, and Liberty in the New American Republic,” which presents a complicated set of judgments...


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