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Reviewed by:
  • The New Imperial Economy: the British Army and the American Frontier, 1764–1768
  • Douglas M. Peers
Walter S. Dunn, Jr., The New Imperial Economy: the British Army and the American Frontier, 1764–1768 (Westport: Praeger, 2001)

One of the most striking characteristics of the historical profession in the 1990s and into the new millennium has been the resurgence of imperial history. An important consequence of this has been the extent to which imperial historians now address questions of cultural contact and identity that have hitherto been ignored or marginalized. But the shift towards a discursive appreciation of empire has come at a cost, namely a tendency to ignore the material interests that knit the empire together, and played such crucial roles in setting its priorities, including those which helped to mediate cultural contact. Hence, any study that seeks to reintroduce economics into the imperial equation is to be welcomed. However, it must be said that in the case of The New Imperial Economy, the title promises more than it delivers: there is little that is new here, and the empire which frames the analysis is assumed rather than examined. This leaves the economy, and here readers will be treated to a very detailed and often fascinating account of the people and products that fed into a trading network which linked British producers with consumers along the western frontier of British North America. But economy is understood here as largely a series of commercial transactions, and not as an ideological construct in its own right. Nor is much attention paid to questions concerning the relationship between economies, armies and politics that have featured in a number of recent works, such as those which detail the role of empire in forging what has come to be termed ‘military fiscalism’. Instead, Dunn’s stated purpose is to illustrate how “the real economic significance of frontier trade was that it offered the opportunity to develop new markets and created the need for the army” (p.191), and how that in turn set the stage for the American War of Independence. Such an argument has much to commend it (though it is not an original one), and were it pursued systematically with the data Dunn has at hand, it would make for an interesting study as he has worked extensively in the archives of a number of the key merchants active along the frontier. But instead Dunn has been lured away by another objective, that of providing a “snapshot depicting business activity in the British Empire centering on the four crucial years from 1765 to 1768.” (p.vii) While few would deny that those were crucial years, the goal of taking a “snapshot” does not mesh well with Dunn’s earlier objective, and ultimately it is the “snapshot” that takes precedence.

This book, and its prequel, Frontier Profit and Loss: the Fur Traders and the British Army, 1760–1764 (Westport: Praeger, 1998), are both derived from Dunn’s 1971 Ph.D. thesis. It would appear from his bibliography that the data he has so assiduously collected over many years is still historiographically framed in terms of the debates over the American Revolution that were current in the 1960s. A scan of his bibliography reveals that most of the cited secondary sources were published prior to 1971. While the date of publication is not in and of itself a guarantee of scholarship, the fact that so many recent works have apparently not been incorporated is of concern. This is glaringly apparent in one of the early chapters wherein Dunn addresses the state of the British economy. The impression he gives is of a buoyant and expanding economy, one in which the industrial revolution was helping to create a powerful and confident middle class. His sources on this occasion, and others, are a brace of books on the English economy published in the 1920s and 1930s, including Paul Mantoux’s 1927 study, a work to which he frequently returns. 1 Working with such sources has not surprisingly led to a very Whiggish view of the Industrial Revolution, one which stresses how scientific and intellectual advances triggered economic growth. He also assumes that this economic output...

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