Little Englander Histories

Linda Colley

  • A Mad, Bad & Dangerous People? England 1783-1846 by Boyd Hilton
    Oxford, 757 pp, £21.00, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 921891 2
  • Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1780-1939 by James Belich
    Oxford, 573 pp, £25.00, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 929727 6

What is ‘national history’, and what is it for? Who and what should be included in it? And where does it take place? For all that it may appear to offer a uniquely intelligible account of a clearly demarcated political and geographical space, national history is intrinsically problematic. Territorial and maritime boundaries are usually porous. The frontiers of virtually all self-proclaimed nations have fluctuated considerably over the centuries, while claims to a single, all- embracing nationhood are often contested from within, and/or sporadically overwhelmed or denied from without. In some countries, at some point, politicians and state intellectuals may succeed in propagating a unitary version of national history that wins widespread domestic acceptance. But such linear and unalloyed master narratives rarely withstand detached scrutiny, and professional historians have increasingly come to regard them with impatience and suspicion.

In the British case, there are particular reasons why national history has proved challenging, progressively so over the centuries. As its shifting nomenclature proclaims, this is a composite polity. The Treaty of Union of 1707 amalgamated England and Wales, on the one hand, and Scotland, on the other, into a single parliamentary kingdom of ‘Great Britain’, while leaving most of their respective local government, educational and religious organisation intact. In 1800, Westminster diktat converted the name and composition of this unit into the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’, which was reduced by the Irish Revolution of 1916-22 into the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, a designation which has never commanded unanimous support or easy comprehension. National history was also muddied by British dynastic politics. Only in 1800 was a longstanding claim to the French crown formally abandoned; while from 1714 to 1837 successive British monarchs also ruled the German electorate of Hanover, a Continental connection that had minimal effect on mass perceptions and identities in these islands, but which sometimes exerted an influence on British diplomacy and high culture. Far more complicating – because it went on for much longer and all social levels were ultimately involved – was the impact of runaway formal and informal empire. By the 1820s, a fifth or more of the world’s population, in Asia, Australasia, Africa, mainland North America, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean world, were in a position to describe themselves as ‘British subjects’, along with the miscellaneous inhabitants of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and myriad small islands off their coasts.

The late John Roberts, himself a pioneering exponent of world history, acknowledged some of these complexities in his editorial preface to the New Oxford History of England, the even more multi-volume successor, still in progress, to the original and influential multi-volume Oxford History of England (1934-65). The aim of the new series, Roberts declared, was to ‘give an account of the development of our country in time’ (my italics). It was ‘hard’, he admitted, to ‘treat that development … within the precise boundaries of England’. But there was, he insisted, an ‘institutional core’ to the story: ‘the English monarchy and its effective successor, the Crown in Parliament’, which provided ‘the only continuous articulation of the history of the peoples we today call British’. The defensive note, and the slippage between ‘precise’ and ‘peoples’, and between ‘English’ and ‘British’ remain suggestive.

In part because of the chronology he was allotted, these ambiguities become particularly pronounced in Boyd Hilton’s contribution to the series, A Mad, Bad & Dangerous People? England 1783-1846. Trenchant, vivid, massively researched and very well written, it begins in the year that saw both the formal end of what was erroneously called the ‘First British Empire’, and the fall of the Fox-North coalition over the regulation of the East India Company. It goes on to span an era in which, in Hilton’s words, ‘Britain’s military and diplomatic prestige touched a pitch it has never reached before or since,’ and in which its commercial, cultural, financial, warlike and imperial incursions into other territories were relentless and more often than not successful. So how, given these busy entanglements in momentous transnational and transcontinental happenings, as well as all the domestic complexities, is a history specifically of ‘England’ in this period to be isolated and reconstructed? And what is it for?

Hilton’s strategy is to focus intensely and at length on particular subjects and locations, and on particular, usually privileged groups and individuals, while ruthlessly excluding and marginalising others. Of his eight thematic chapters, four are given over to high political narrative, an organisational device that knits this huge book together and gives it momentum. A further chapter addresses ‘the social and psychological foundations’ of ‘Pittism’ and the plutocracy; while two more chapters are devoted to political, religious, economic and scientific thought among the upper and middle classes and the clerisy. Only in the penultimate chapter do the overwhelming majority of men and women, those whom E.P. Thompson chose to style for this era the ‘English working class’, receive concentrated attention.

This format allows Hilton to focus mainly on London and the Home Counties. It also shapes his prime overall argument. Despite the economic, social, demographic, technological, intellectual, political, warlike and imperial changes that are conventionally and rightly associated with this period, and for all that some scholars have claimed for it an international Age of Revolution, and even a ‘global crisis’, Hilton contends that in England the disruptions involved in multiple changes lessened and/or were effectually contained after the 1780s and 1790s. ‘It is probably not the case,’ he suggests, ‘that someone who went to sleep in 1783 and woke up in 1846 would have felt significantly out of place.’

Well, it would rather have depended on who you were, and on where exactly you woke up. Hilton is certainly correct in insisting both on significant continuities, and on large dashes of creativity as far as the high political classes were concerned. By 1846, fire had destroyed most of the old Houses of Parliament; Westminster had absorbed the Dublin Parliament; the Reform Acts of 1832 had effected the first extensive alteration in the representative system since the mid 17th century; and, as Hilton concedes, MPs and the peerage formed a more integrated UK-wide category, with more Scotsmen and Irishmen representing English constituencies than before 1783. Nonetheless, much had endured. The landed and non-landed propertied classes joined forces and ideologies, and cleaned up their act, so as to keep down and keep out that ‘phantasmagoria of a mad, bad and dangerous people’ summoned up by the American and French Revolutions. So successful was this propertied revanche, Hilton suggests, echoing F.M.L. Thompson, that by ‘about 1850’, the onetime ‘mad, bad and dangerous people’ had themselves come increasingly to embrace ‘an ethos of self-improvement and respectability’.

Presiding over these political and propertied elites were a succession of tough, able, socially conservative, but modernising and moderately reforming political leaders, of whom Pitt the Younger, Canning and Peel appear here as the most interesting and significant. Hilton dissects the machinations and especially the political, fiscal and economic ideas of these high political actors superbly well and with marked insight. In a section on ideas about gender, for instance, he notes that – while Pitt and his successors presided over a style of high politics that eroded earlier opportunities for elite female influence – a growing interest in economics and fiscal thrift led simultaneously to a new application of ‘household virtues to government’. Hilton sums up well-known late Georgian and early Victorian establishment figures with wit and colour, evidently relishing the theatricality he ascribes to them. Pitt, he remarks, liked ‘to order hair shirts but did not wish to wear them’; Nelson ‘had not been a nice man’; Palmerston ‘like many compulsive womanisers … was in most social contexts a man’s man’, and so on.

Hilton’s treatment of more radical and deviant players, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Jeremy Bentham and Tom Paine, is noticeably sharper and less evocative, and this points to the main limitation of his analysis. Any survey of such a crowded period of history has to be selective: but here selectivity and boisterous epigrams result, on occasions, in reducing phenomena that at the time were complex and multivalent into one convenient thing. This happens in part because Hilton’s concentration on intellectual history and on high politics comes at the cost of sociological depth. Generalisations about the ‘national’ are advanced on the basis of writings and statements by privileged and highly educated actors, often without any serious attempt to investigate the wider reception of these ideas. We are assured, for example, that, in matters of religion, ‘the temper of the times was generally tolerant.’ Yet Hilton admits, almost glancingly, that ‘it was generally agreed’ in 1829 that ‘a reformed Parliament’, more representative of electoral opinion, ‘would not have passed Catholic emancipation’.

The continuing grip on this society of a Protestant world-view illustrates something else: namely, that in so far as top-down ideologies and perceptions did inflect public opinion, this could have disparate and sometimes contradictory results. Thus, Hilton observes that liberalism in this era took a ‘socio-economic’ form, ‘based on market values’, and that it also found expression in some quarters in a commitment to wider civil rights, for Catholics, Jews, black slaves and more. In addition, though, and as Matthew Arnold argued in Culture and Anarchy, late Georgian and early Victorian liberalism, far from diluting Protestant complacencies, as some of its leading proponents hoped, actually reinforced them, because Protestantism was so often posited as the natural ally of modernising reform. As Hilton shows, evangelical Protestants were disproportionately active in the period’s multitudinous reforming pressure groups. A self-regarding, reforming Protestantism also contributed to what he rightly views as a growing British interest in Latin America. Cheering and accelerating the fall of Spanish and Portuguese rule in South America in the 1810s and 1820s appealed in part because these were Catholic empires, and consequently – it was generally (and erroneously) believed – inescapably reactionary.

Such complacencies about a superior Protestant capacity to reform, redeem and rule over others were never confined to the English. Anti-slavery activists, a Scottish cleric, Thomas M’Crie, declared in the 1830s, had a right and duty to speak out ‘with the freedom of Britons and Protestants’. Unsurprisingly, Scots and ideas originating in Scotland abound in Hilton’s account, so much so that he does not quite know what to do with them. The illustration on the front cover is by a Scottish artist, David Wilkie. John Rennie makes an appearance as one of ‘the most iconic figures of the age’. Thomas Chalmers features as the ‘spiritual guide’ of the Liberal Tories. Adam Smith, of course, is ‘central’. Mechanics institutes open first in Glasgow, and then in London. Phrenology infiltrates England ‘via Scotland’. The Edinburgh Review, founded in 1802 by a group of Scottish Whigs, together with the Quarterly Review published by John Murray, a firm established by a Scot, are described as setting the tone of ‘early 19th-century politics’. So how exactly does all this make up a history of England? Hilton brushes the question aside: ‘All that was admirable about Scotland was subsumed into Englishness.’ Yet, as the names adopted by many of this period’s pressure groups suggest, it was hardly that simple: the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the British Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts, the British Society for Promoting the Religious Principles of the Reformation, the British Anti-State Church Association, and many, many more. It is interesting how many of these self-proclaiming ‘British’ societies were to do with cross-border Protestantism. It is no less interesting how few of the societies mentioned by Hilton chose to style themselves as ‘English’.

This did not mean that attachment to England and Englishness was unimportant: far from it. But these loyalties were necessarily combined with other identities, and sometimes had to compete with them. Political discourse to do with Englishness jostled with a language of British subjecthood, a point missed by Hilton because, for all his close attention to high politics, he neglects the roles and resonance of the monarchy in this society. As John Belchem and James Epstein have shown, there was also an influential language of rights and constitutionalism that was British-wide and British in emphasis. When a radical named Joseph Gerrald, on trial for his life, told an Edinburgh jury in 1794, ‘You are Britons – you are freemen,’ he was manifestly not in the business (pace Hilton) of employing ‘Britons’ as an interchangeable term for ‘Englishmen’. To be sure, some Westminster politicians such as Palmerston (who was Anglo-Irish) did repeatedly refer to ‘England’ when they meant the UK as a whole. But this only underlines how tricksy and impractical it can be to write a history of England that focuses only on the stretch of land bounded by Herefordshire and Shropshire to the west, and Cumberland and Northumberland to the north.

Hilton’s Little Englandism makes him as impatient of Britain’s empire as he sometimes seems to be of its so-called ‘Celtic fringe’. This is not because the conventions of the Oxford History of England require him to leave the empire out. Indeed, it is interesting to compare Hilton’s volume in this regard with the two older Oxford histories it partially replaces: J. Steven Watson’s The Reign of George III 1760-1815 (1960) and Llewellyn Woodward’s The Age of Reform 1815-70 (1938). Watson devoted two chapters to Britain’s war with its American colonies, plus large parts of another chapter to the war of 1812 and its effects on Canada; and he also allocated considerable space to India. Woodward’s book is similarly extrovert, with more than 200 pages devoted to foreign policy, Ireland and the overseas colonies. Hilton, though, gazes overwhelmingly and deliberately within. London may have claimed 43 colonies by 1816, he writes, but this was ‘not accompanied by what might be called an imperial mentality’.

This marginalising of the empire is to some degree refreshing. So much print has been devoted in recent years to discussions of how far empire was constitutive of Britishness and especially of Englishness, that it is useful to be reminded of the many other things that were going on. But Hilton overreacts against a would-be hegemonic and selective version of England as quintessentially imperial and racist, by insisting no less absolutely and inappropriately that the late Georgian and early Victorian English were simultaneously ‘citizens of the world’ and resolutely insular. Thus at one point he refuses to provide any details about Dost Muhammad Khan (1793-1863), a British ally during and after the First Afghan War, on the grounds that ‘it is certain that hardly anyone in England had a clue’ about him, a pugnacious but unfortunate assertion. As even a cursory search of Victorian newspapers online quickly reveals, the London and provincial press made hundreds of references in the 1830s and 1840s to ‘Dost Mahomed’, as he was styled. Men and women did not need to have a fully developed sense of what Hilton calls ‘imperial destiny’ in order to care at some level about imperial and global events. They didn’t even necessarily have to be able to read.

One of the major reasons why is brilliantly set out in James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939. Reading these two formidable and formidably long books back to back is to be alerted to how much the writing of British (and English) history has changed and diversified in recent decades. When the early volumes of the original Oxford History of England were published in the 1930s and 1940s, historians of Britain who hailed from other parts of the world, or worked there, tended usually to defer in their methods and interpretations to those prevailing in the ‘mother country’. Now, British-based historians are increasingly likely to find sections of their own past being rewritten and revised by overseas scholars in different, sometimes uncomfortable, but generally fruitful ways. Belich is a New Zealander of Croatian descent, and his book is an argument against both British and American historical exceptionalism and parochialism.

At one level, Replenishing the Earth helps to explain why the ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ people of England and its adjacent countries were usually kept within political bounds after the 1780s, despite exponential population growth and an explosion of new ideas and economic stresses. As Belich demonstrates, this was due not simply to the contrivances of political actors within Britain, but also to the fact that substantial numbers of its potentially ‘dangerous’ people moved somewhere else. Before the 1780s, British settlement overseas had lagged behind Spanish emigration to the Americas and elsewhere. But ‘after 1780, and especially after 1815’, ‘Anglos’ drew ‘ahead in the settler races’. Whereas some half a million souls emigrated from the ‘British Isles’ in the 18th century, at least 25 million did so between 1815 and 1924, of whom some 18 million never returned. A parallel mass movement of human beings occurred on the other side of the Atlantic. Before 1776, London had restricted westwards migration from its mainland American colonies, in the hope both of maintaining peace with indigenous peoples and of keeping a close eye on its own white settlers. But after the Revolution, American movement westwards surged, not steadily, but in explosive bursts. Between 1815 and 1930, 12 million American-born individuals migrated to the middle and western regions of their continent. So did millions of others born elsewhere. In 1830, Chicago contained half a dozen houses and a few Indian tepees. Sixty years later, it was home to more than a million people.

American migration westwards, and mass migration to the onetime British dominions, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and to a lesser degree South Africa, have generally attracted separate and distinct tribes of historians. Belich’s achievement is to examine these massive, predominantly Anglo migrations in tandem, show what they had in common, and document how far – in some respects – the US operated for much of the 1800s as a covert British dominion, part of the informal empire.

American manifest destiny was partially floated on British investment. Barings helped the US government purchase Greater Louisiana from the French in 1803, while ‘British money was crucial in the construction of American canals in the 1830s, of railways from the late 1840s, and in the rapid development of mining industries and cattle ranching thereafter.’ As had been true before 1776, the ‘British Isles’ also provided vital human capital. More than four million Britons emigrated directly to the US between 1820 and 1930, with yet more entering it by way of Canada. It mattered that Britain and the US were both majority Protestant cultures, with a shared language and – for a long time – similar prejudices. To be sure, Catholic Irish, as well as Ulster men, were soon flooding into the US as into the British dominions, but bias remained. For ethnic and religious reasons, German migrants, and especially Protestant Germans, were often treated as honorary Anglos, both in American and British imperial spaces. The licence fees normally demanded of ‘foreign’ migrant workers in San Franciscan gold fields, Belich notes, were rarely levied on German immigrants, any more than they were on incoming Britons. By the same token, Clifford Sifton, Canada’s minister of the interior after 1896, took in Anglo migrants whenever he could, but gave German-speakers priority over other Central or Eastern Europeans.

In other respects, too, the form and progress of these two concurrent mass migrations had much in common. In both the US and the UK, migration was fostered by a precocious expansion of press and postal networks that spread information, knowledge and official propaganda. Both migration streams expanded in sporadic bursts. The population of Melbourne, it was said in 1847, was like a kangaroo, jumping sharply, then resting. In both cases, and for all the legends of lone, heroic pioneers standing tall amid the wilderness of prairie and outback, migration resulted in a mushrooming of new, big cities. Sydney’s population grew from 16,000 in 1833 to almost 400,000 sixty years later. The ecological consequences were usually dire. Belich supplies vivid descriptions of how many animals (as well as humans) were slaughtered as a result of these mass movements of often needy and greedy men and women. Since the natural abundance of ‘new’ lands seemed staggering, it was easy to take it for granted. When animal species disappeared from one region, they were assumed simply to have migrated to another, just as people did. In the 1870s, a single bison-hunter in the Great Plains killed 20,000 of the beasts; and this was as nothing compared to the number of domestic and farm animals massacred for the sake of new people, new cities, new businesses and new fortunes. Cincinnati became ‘Porkopolis’, the ‘very Hades of the swinish tribe’; while the coming of efficient refrigeration meant that Kansas City, Chicago and Omaha were able to process even more cattle than before.

Belich displays considerable nerve both in showing how much US migration westwards owed to London’s financial empire, and in comparing these American migrations so systematically with Britain’s imperial diaspora. Although other scholars such as Howard Lamar and the late Leonard Thompson have also explored these comparisons, the ‘opening’ of the West – even before Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis – has always been an important part of a self-congratulatory and inward-looking version of American national history. But it is not just American history that Belich seeks to locate in a broader, transcontinental context. When he remarks that, although ‘you might think it from some oldland histories’, Anglo settlers ‘did not disappear permanently’ over the horizon, it is parochialism on this side of the Atlantic, in Britain, that he mainly has in his sights. So just how different do things look if emigration and emigrants are more fully integrated, as they should be, into British domestic histories?

The answer, as Belich shows, is quite a lot. Increased emigration after the 1780s acted as an important safety valve for social, economic, demographic and even political pressures; and without the food products and raw materials of their colonial dominions, and of their longtime unofficial dominion, the US, many 19th and early 20th-century Britons would have been less prosperous and hungrier. Mass migration also gave Britons who remained at home a wider and more personal sense of the world beyond. Think of the important role emigration plays in David Copperfield (1849-50): how many of the novel’s characters leave for Australia, Mr Peggotty, Martha, Emily and the Micawbers, and how they remain in David’s mind, not just in his memories of the past, but through a stream of letters, newspapers and visits. As Belich writes, it was only towards the end of the 19th century that notions of a ‘Greater Britain’, an Anglo-Saxon worldwide hegemony cum supra-nation, became influential in intellectual and high political circles. But, long before this, mass migration from the UK had prompted intense discussion about what constituted Britishness, Englishness, Welshness, Irishness and Scottishness, and how far these and other identities were truly portable. Most articulate settlers and their supporters at home were in no doubt. Upper Canada, it was argued in the 1820s, was ‘not a mere possession of Great Britain but part of the British nation overseas’. ‘We [are] a real and legitimate portion of the British people,’ a Hobart newspaper claimed in 1825.

Such avowals of British identity and loyalty thousands of miles from London were also a way of making claims on its attention. Settlers remained for a long time heavily dependent on British capital subventions and military hardware, and successive governments poured very large sums into emigration schemes and colonial infrastructure. Providing roads, bridges, harbours and public buildings in Van Diemen’s Land, for instance, consumed more than £4 million of British taxpayers’ money. And British firepower and gunboats were always in demand to suppress indigenous resistance to white settler invasions. About half of the 2000 troops employed in 1830 to control and kill Tasmanian aborigines were supplied and paid for by London. This relentless outflow of public (and private) capital has to be borne in mind when considering Hilton’s treatment of late Georgian and early Victorian government expenditure and fiscal theories. As remains the case today, deflecting resources to overseas projects and adventures had sometimes damaging repercussions for policy options at home. By the mid 19th century, as Hilton notes, Britain’s educational expenditure had fallen well behind that of many other European states. Following the standard line, he attributes this to an ‘ingrained antipathy to centralisation’. Might not the fact that Britain was the only European power still funding an expanding global empire after 1815 also have had something to do with it?

One is brought back to the difficulties and drawbacks attendant on any attempt at a narrowly ‘national history’ of this society, and to the question of how feasible and useful it is to write Little Englander history of what was once the foremost global power. As some 19th-century commentators perceived, there was a degree to which expressions of Little Englandism were always the other side of unparalleled imperial dominion, a cleaving to the small and the relatively known in the face of alarm or fatigue or disgust at the prospect of the very large and very strange. Among historians, varieties of Little Englandism have long been an influence both on some right-wing practitioners of the trade, and on some scholars belonging to the left. Little Englandism has also, manifestly, sometimes been characteristic of the Oxford History of England enterprise, though not invariably so, or to the same degree in all volumes. ‘To hell with Scotland, Northern Ireland and still more the Empire!!’ A.J.P. Taylor wrote in 1961, as he contemplated writing his volume for the old Oxford History.

Yet as the marked difference in geographical spread and coverage between Boyd Hilton’s volume and the earlier Oxford histories of 18th and 19th-century ‘England’ suggests, Little Englandism among historians now may represent more than a mere continuance of long established patterns of thought. The revived interest in Englishness which Hilton’s book so clearly exhibits, like the current resurgence of Welsh and Scottish nationalistic history, has to be understood in part in the context of the political devolution that has been ongoing since the 1990s. In addition, the increasing grip of the EU, the end of Britain’s empire and fading of the Commonwealth, a rise in anti-Americanism – and perhaps professional pressures to produce far too many learned articles – have also worked to encourage a contraction of vision and geographical range.

This may be unavoidable, but there are explanatory costs as well as wider penalties. As Daniel Rodgers has written, every nation ‘is a semi-permeable container, washed over by forces originating from beyond its shores.’ For all their frequent bigotry and bias, the scale of their global power and transcontinental migrations made it easier for late 18th, 19th and early 20th-century Britons dimly to perceive this. Conversely, the contraction in British power and reach since the Second World War has at times resulted in a more resolute and self-conscious looking-inwards, in history-writing as in much else. It can be hard now to understand the scale of power and confidence possessed in earlier eras by sometimes mad and bad and frequently very dangerous Britons. But the past was another country. In the British case indeed, the past was a great many countries.