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  • Subjects and Sovereign: Bonds of Belonging in the Eighteenth-Century British Empire by Hannah Weiss Muller
  • Matthew Dziennik
Hannah Weiss Muller. Subjects and Sovereign: Bonds of Belonging in the Eighteenth-Century British Empire. New York: Oxford, 2017. Pp. xii + 329. $74.

In the last decade of the eighteenth century, the ancien régime faced an existential crisis. A confluence of socioeconomic stagnation, rising debts, popular politicization, and Enlightenment ideas threatened the established order and saw the overthrow of some of the most significant royal houses of Europe. In their place emerged new types of government built on popular sovereignty and dedicated to breaking down the hereditary inequalities of monarchy, aristocracy, and slavery. Republics replaced monarchies, the popular will displaced divine right, and national citizens replaced subjects.

That, at least, is the triumphant narrative familiar to students of the Age of Revolutions. In this wonderful and ambitious study, Muller adds to a growing body of work that, in eschewing these false dichotomies, is exploring the sophistication, innovation, and durability of imperial and monarchical regimes in the revolutionary age. Like Eric Nelson's The Royalist Revolution (2014), Malick Ghachem's The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (2012), or Jeremy Adelman's Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic (2009), Muller rehabilitates subjecthood from the view that it was simply a reactive and conservative alternative to the newly emerging dynamism of citizenship. Subjecthood—a reciprocal bond between the sovereign and the subject that guaranteed fundamental rights and generated opportunities to claim legal privileges—was a powerful idea with a distinct lineage. And its importance only expanded as the British Empire faced new challenges in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War. Having triumphed in the conflict, imperial officials spent much of the period between 1763 and the 1790s attempting to manage the confusion and contradictions of a global territorial empire. Muller's triumph is to demonstrate how the incorporation of new peoples within the definition of British subjecthood was crucial to this process.

Muller's beautifully written book—loaded throughout with nuance and insight—begins its analysis with the popular and legal understanding of subjecthood in Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Edward Coke's opinion in Calvin's Case (1608) established the principle of birthright subjecthood but left a plethora of fundamental questions unresolved. While most theorists could agree on the inviolability of allegiance to the monarch demanded by birthright subjecthood, what rights and protections the subject might expect in return were unclear. Since Coke had been silent on the question of overseas territories, newly conquered territories in the West Indies, Canada, the Mediterranean, and Bengal became the pivots on which subjects and sovereign negotiated the bonds of belonging in the British imperial world. Subjecthood was "many things to many people," and its expansive and flexible nature allowed new subjects to play a major role in defining subjecthood as imperial administrators sought to make sense of political uncertainty and ideological incoherence.

The global scope of the book is impressive. Based on archival work in Britain, Gibraltar, Minorca, and India, Muller's work focuses on the local specificities of culturally and geographically diverse locations across the empire. Three case study chapters on Grenada and Quebec, the Mediterranean, and Calcutta also double as thematic approaches to how subjecthood was negotiated. In the Mediterranean, interpretations of subjecthood depended on local contingencies and the importance of maintaining good relations with [End Page 220] the Dey of Algiers. In Grenada and Quebec, new subjects used memorials and petitions to make valuable and effective contributions to British understandings of subject status. And in Calcutta, the day-to-day process of administering a British legal order helped refine subjecthood during the 1770s and 1780s.

Yet within this ambitious and global approach are the seeds of some conceptual problems. The case-study chapters offer excellent perspectives on local context but leave systematic comparison of subjecthood to the imagination of the reader. It is difficult to fault the author for this. Any history of the British Empire must do the impossible and bring coherence to what was an ill-planned and incoherent plurality of institutions, legal systems, and administrations. Muller is keen to challenge...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2165-0624
Print ISSN
0190-731X
Pages
pp. 220-221
Launched on MUSE
2020-05-21
Open Access
No
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