'Social Gravity' and the Translatio Tradition in Early American Theories of Empire

Article excerpt

The complex relationship between language and theory has long proved a fruitful area of inquiry, illuminating how the use of metaphors and images has an impact upon perceptions of historical development. When considering the linguistic choices and tactics available to individuals at certain historical moments, it is important to keep this fact in mind, as the recognition of these options may help to elucidate how historical events were perceived and acted upon. By highlighting the conceptual framework within which historical incidences were placed, it becomes possible to better understand why certain courses of action may have been privileged over other seemingly equally legitimate alternatives.

One area of research that has benefited from this insight is the study of theories of empire in the Atlantic World. A number of able historians, such as Anthony Pagden, David Armitage, and Peter Miller have helped to outline some of the discursive options available to eighteenth-century political theorists as they sought to explain the nature and extent of the British Empire.1 Whether expressed in political, commercial or religious terms, writers of this period articulated a series of overlapping (and at times conflicting) views concerning the sources of Britain's imperial grandeur. In many cases, the concerns of these writers intertwined these levels of analysis, producing composite explanations of Britain's strength. A particularly insightful contribution to this literature was the work of the one-time governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Pownall (1722-1805). In The Administration of the Colonies (1764), Pownall used the Newtonian concept of "attraction" to form the basis of his political and commercial theory of empire.2

Pownall argued that the mutual political and economic interdependence of Britain and the colonies could be seen as harboring a "natural center" that should govern the whole. According to Pownall, it was the duty of statesmen to identify this point and use it to direct the operations of empire into a "grand marine dominion." The key point, in this view, was Pownall's belief that it was essential for Britain to foster ties between herself and individual colonies, thereby preventing the development of potentially dangerous affinities between the colonies themselves. He contended that "Great Britain, as the center of this system...must be the center of attraction to which these colonies...must tend. They will remain under the constant influence of the attraction of this center; and cannot move, but that every direction of such movement will converge to the same.'" If this system were maintained, Pownall thought it was possible for Britain to form a beneficial economic and political "association" spanning the Atlantic.

While describing his vision of empire, Pownall also pointed to threats facing British hegemony. Again using Newtonian language, he noted that the seat of empire could move away from Britain. In light of the economic and political potential of America, Pownall suggested that the "center of power, instead of remaining fixed as it now is in Great Britain, will, as the magnitude of the power and interest of the Colonies increases, be drawn out from the island, by the same laws of nature analogous in all cases, by which the center of gravity in the solar system, now near the surface of the sun, would, by the encrease of the quantity of matter in the planets, be drawn out beyond the surface."4 Through this application of Newtonian gravity to the system of empire, Pownall's vision provided an important explanation of the mechanism by which colonial theorists understood the possibility of empire being "transferred" from one state to another. Furthermore, between 1764 and 1777, The Administration of the Colonies went though six editions, each of which incorporated massive changes and additions reflecting contemporary political realities.5 As such, this text provides a unique window into understanding how an important concept of empire shifted prior to the American Revolution. …