The British Atlantic Empire before the American Revolution

The British Atlantic Empire before the American Revolution

The British Atlantic Empire before the American Revolution

The British Atlantic Empire before the American Revolution

Excerpt

The dynamism within the American colonies in the fifty years or so before the outbreak of the crisis of the 1760s that was to lead to the Revolution has never been in doubt. Recent historical writing has amply demonstrated it. Population grew, new land was settled, economies expanded and diversified, social structures became more complex, colonial assemblies won more power and new political ideologies were formulated. By contrast, British imperial influence on the colonies has often been portrayed both as somewhat ineffectual in practice and as tradition-bound and unchanging in its aims, at least until the period of the Seven Years' War. This is the picture that emerges from the deservedly classic accounts of the imperial system written by Charles M. Andrews, George L. Beer and Lawrence Harper. They described how the institutions of trade regulation and constitutional supervision were devised in the later seventeenth century and pointed out the relative lack of institutional change before the 1750s. A number of recent scholars have, however, suggested that lack of institutional change does not necessarily mean that the imperial system was either static or ineffectual. It seemed to us that it would be valuable to devote an issue of this Journal to a reassessment of the imperial system before the revolution.

The articles written at our invitation suggest a number of ways in which the 'imperial factor' was of real importance in colonial life and show that there was dynamism on the British side as well as in the colonies. The links that bound mother country and colonies together were much more varied than the formal channels of authority set up in the previous century. For instance, both Professor Steele and Professor Olson show how London's spectacular growth enabled London-based interests, commercial, religious and ethnic, to exercise a powerful influence in the colonies. They stress that colonial elites were generally more inclined to cooperate with British interests than to oppose them. Three contributors concentrate on the important consequences for the colonies of the increasing scale of imperial warfare. Dr. Pencak and Professor Greene expose the political and social strains produced by war; Professor Gwyn emphasises economic opportunity. Finally, Dr. Langford shows that English Whig doctrine was not inert. Ideological change took place on both sides of the Altantic, as the Americans were to discover in the 1760s. Although none of these scholars would deny that important changes in British attitudes to the colonies took place in the Grenville era, they make it clear that Anglo-American relations developed on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the eighteenth century. Braudel's famous phrase applies to this as to an earlier period, 'L'Amerique ne commande pas seul'.

P.J.M.
G.W.

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