- Experiencing Empire: Power, People and Revolution in Early America ed. by Patrick Griffin
Empire, Atlantic World, Timothy Breen
Recently, scholars of the eighteenth century have paid increasing attention to empire as something that occurred on both sides of the Atlantic, something which, as Patrick Griffin describes it in his introduction to this collection, was “imagined on the margins as much as it was at any center” (10). This collection of twelve essays offers a window into how diverse actors—from transgressive French colonial wives in St. Louis to a [End Page 337] Scottish coffeehouse owner—constructed and negotiated empire. Arising from a 2013 conference celebrating Timothy Breen and his influence in the field both as a scholar and mentor, this collection provides tantalizing snapshots into some of the best and most current research being done on the imperial Atlantic world.
The collection is divided into three parts with overlapping chronologies. The first section explores how individuals, both in Europe and North America, were engaged in a “process of Atlantic consolidation [that] had political implications that cannot be disentangled from imperial concerns” (12). The authors each narrow in on something surprising and explore it in a way that emphasizes the construction of empire through the thousands of day-to-day decisions of ordinary people. In an essay evocative of Breen’s work on consumption in North America, Timothy Shannon considers how working-class Britons helped to shape the dimensions of empire even if they never stepped foot outside of England. Shannon uses the example of Peter Williamson, a self-declared American expert, as an avenue for exploring how the consumption of American goods, images, and even animals, functioned as important components of how ordinary “Britons interpreted their relationship with America” (28). Owen Stanwood also follows in Breen’s footsteps by examining the role that a particular commodity—American wine—played in the British imperial imagination. Wine, contends Stanwood, formed the heart of an inclusive yet elusive vision of an imperial political economy, a vision that French Huguenots used to create niches for themselves within the British Atlantic. Essays by Patricia Cleary on European tolerance for the sexual infidelity of white women in colonial St. Louis, and Ian Saxine on English settlers’ use of American Indian land title as a means of contesting imperial power in frontier Maine, round out the section.
The second section offers three essays that each engage with particular technologies of empire. James Coltrain argues that Britain’s flexibility, and its willingness to decentralize decision-making, allowed it to successfully project imperial authority far into the North American interior, factors that were critical to British success during the Seven Years’ War. In contrast, Christopher Hodson discusses how John Law’s fiscal and monetary system was central to constructing a French empire both at home and abroad in the 1720s. A truly excellent offering from Michael Guenther explores how the London bookshop of opposition printer John Almon became a center not only for radical politics but also for [End Page 338] performing a key imperial function: collecting and deploying information. Almon operated “one of the largest and most effective intelligence networks of the day,” which often provided him with better information than official agents of the state; when members of Parliament needed information, they often turned to Almon (150). Together, these essays remind readers that the same factors that contributed to the construction of empire also contributed to contests over its nature. Empires relied on a partnership of state and individual actors sharing and deploying expertise and power; agreeing over how, and to what ends, that power should be distributed was central to the late-eighteenth-century crisis of empire.
The final section of the book focuses on the period following the American Revolution. Donald Johnson’s essay on “Forgiving and Forgetting in Postrevolutionary America” discusses how former loyalists, and those who had lived under British occupation, managed to erase their lapse in loyalty to the new union and to rehabilitate themselves as good Americans—and the...