- British North America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries ed. by Stephen Foster
That a volume in the Companion Series to the Oxford History of the British Empire (OHBE) should be devoted to British North America in the form that culminated in the American Revolution is counterintuitive. One of the main criticisms of the initial series of the OHBE, after all, was that insofar as the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century volumes dealt with North America they unduly privileged the colonies that ultimately rebelled.1 However, Stephen Foster as editor effectively stakes out a distinctive area of interest for the new companion volume on British North America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, even though it too has a heavy emphasis on the colonies that came to form the United States (US). The essays in this volume address the two central questions as to “whether it made a difference to people living in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that they were subjects of an empire and… if so, whether it mattered that the empire in question was British” (7).
In a robust historiographical discussion, Foster situates the book in relation both to earlier interpretive approaches to Imperial history—notably the “imperial school” headed at Yale by Charles McLean Andrews—and to more recent initiatives within the “Atlantic World” approach. The latter, when combined in Foster’s view with historians’ morally-based fear “of being in collusion with the ill deeds” associated in the founding of the United States with slavery and Indigenous dispossession, has produced “a cacophony.” Upon the resulting historiographical impasse, the book ventures “a flank attack… rather than a head on assault” but promises the reader a heightened sense of “the ‘colonialness’ of the colonies” (7). The previous efforts in this direction, despite the undoubted inroads of the Yale school, are presented as cautionary examples that show the difficulty of moving away from national history in a US context: “We have been here before” (3).
There is plenty of quality in the ten essays that follow. Foster and Evan Haefali provide an “overview” that acknowledges the complexity of empire, and trenchantly addresses diverse issues such as “the anomaly of New England” (21), the role of the Iroquois and other Indigenous powers, the relationship between war and public finance, the spread of cultural anglicization, and the disputes over the nature of Britishness that influenced the way in which “the Empire collapsed in on itself” (63). Ken MacMillan’s excellent chapter on empire, sovereignty and the seventeenthcentury American colonies builds upon the author’s earlier work in insisting that the role of the crown, far from being weak and reactive, was consistently based on principles of imperial oversight “forged in the medieval and early modern composite monarchy headed by the English crown” (101). Haefali’s discussion of religious pluralism in what was to become the US, in the context of the failure of the Church of England to gain “hegemonic status” despite the impetus temporarily given to such ambitions by the Revolution of 1688-89, concludes with the intriguing and revealing observation that degrees of religious pluralism varied widely among and within colonies, and that there was a link with Revolution-era Loyalism: “Pluralism produced more Loyalism than religious unity did” (134). A further chapter on religion, by Jeremy Gregory, makes the point that religious “establishments” in a broad sense were regionally characteristic of the North American empire: the Church of England in areas of the South and Congregationalism in New England, with pluralism prevailing to a greater degree in the Middle Colonies. The prominence given to religious history in these chapters is welcome, although it is curious that Roman Catholicism in Quebec—part of British North America from 1763, and its religious character a factor in the revolutionary crisis—receives only a passing reference (132).
Subsequent chapters address issues related to African and Indigenous North Americans, although in each case from specialized perspectives. Robert E. Desrochers, Jr., argues that “the advent of print capitalism fundamentally changed...