The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History

By McLain, Robert A. | The Historian, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History


McLain, Robert A., The Historian


The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History. By Emma Rothschild. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 483. $35.00.)

Prosopography, the study of a common historical group via the lives of its individual members, is a well-trodden scholarly path, one that some readers may consider too worn to travel. This view, as Emma Rothschild demonstrates, is shortsighted. Rothschild has produced a compelling "microhistory" based on the offspring of the Johnstone family, part of the lower professional class of eighteenth-century Scotland. The senior Johnstones, Barbara and her husband, James, produced fourteen children between 1720 and 1739, eleven of whom survived to adulthood.

Rothschild's book would fall flat if it was a "traditional" family biography. Instead, she has used the family's correspondence to reconstruct the complexities of empire at precisely the time when many Scots looked to assimilate into a "United Kingdom." Fortuitously, Great Britain found itself with an abundance of French territory in the Americas, the Caribbean, and India after the victories of the Seven Years' War [1756-1763]. Consequently, the Johnstone children became part of Scotland's imperial exodus, scattering about the empire in search of military plunder, business, or both. Alexander Johnstone served in Canada, New York, and Grenada, where he took over a French sugar plantation; brother George became governor of West Florida after a naval career in the West Indies. Siblings John, Patrick, and Gideon all went to India, where Patrick died in the Black Hole of Calcutta. Two sisters, Barbara and Margaret, chose the wrong side in the Jacobite uprising in 1745, the latter fleeing to France with her husband.

The Johnstones may have labored at the edges of physical empire, but they also lived during the high point of Scotland's Enlightenment; members of the family befriended Adam Smith and David Hume. …

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