A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France

A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France

A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France

A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France


A dramatic shift in British and French ideas about empire unfolded in the sixty years straddling the turn of the nineteenth century. As Jennifer Pitts shows in A Turn to Empire, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Jeremy Bentham were among many at the start of this period to criticize European empires as unjust as well as politically and economically disastrous for the conquering nations. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the most prominent British and French liberal thinkers, including John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, vigorously supported the conquest of non-European peoples. Pitts explains that this reflected a rise in civilizational self-confidence, as theories of human progress became more triumphalist, less nuanced, and less tolerant of cultural difference. At the same time, imperial expansion abroad came to be seen as a political project that might assist the emergence of stable liberal democracies within Europe.

Pitts shows that liberal thinkers usually celebrated for respecting not only human equality and liberty but also pluralism supported an inegalitarian and decidedly nonhumanitarian international politics. Yet such moments represent not a necessary feature of liberal thought but a striking departure from views shared by precisely those late-eighteenth-century thinkers whom Mill and Tocqueville saw as their forebears.

Fluently written, A Turn to Empire offers a novel assessment of modern political thought and international justice, and an illuminating perspective on continuing debates over empire, intervention, and liberal political commitments.


In the closing years of the eighteenth century, a critical challenge to European imperial conquest and rule was launched by many of the most innovative thinkers of the day, including Adam Smith, Bentham, Burke, Kant, Diderot, and Condorcet. They drew on a strikingly wide range of ideas to criticize European conquests and rule over peoples across the globe: among others, the rights of humanity and the injustice of foreign despotism, the economic wisdom of free trade and foolishness of conquest, the corruption of natural man by a degenerate civilization, the hypocrisy required for self-governing republics to rule over powerless and voiceless subjects, and the impossibility of sustaining freedom at home while exercising tyranny abroad. European explorers, wrote Denis Diderot in 1780,

arrive in a region of the New World unoccupied by anyone from the Old World,
and immediately bury a small strip of metal on which they have engraved these
words: This country belongs to us. And why does it belong to you?…You
have no right to the natural products of the country where you land, and you
claim a right over your fellow men. Instead of recognizing this man as a brother,
you only see him as a slave, a beast of burden. Oh my fellow citizens!

While Diderot's criticism of empire was among the most radical and thoroughgoing, skepticism about both particular imperial ventures and the general project of unlimited European expansion was, by the 1780s, widespread among intellectuals. Just fifty years later, however, we find no prominent political thinkers in Europe questioning the justice of European empires. Indeed, nineteenth-century liberals, including most prominently Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, turned decisively from the earlier thinkers' skepticism about empire and supported the expansion and consolidation of European rule over non-European subjects. “Despotism,” wrote Mill, “is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.” Mill and Tocqueville were joined in their support for empire by many of their liberal contemporaries as well as by other political thinkers of their age, including Hegel and even Marx to some degree. But while both British and French liberals in the nineteenth century undertook to advocate and justify imperial rule, they did . . .

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