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Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 by…

Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837

by Linda Colley

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523430,886 (3.79)3
In this splendidly wide-ranging and compelling book, Linda Colley recounts how a new British nation was invented in the wake of the Act of Union between England and Wales and Scotland in 1707. She describes how a succession of major wars with Catholic France - culminating in the epic conflict with Napoleon - served as both a threat and a tonic, forcing the diverse peoples of this deeply Protestant culture into closer union and reminding them of what they had in common. She shows how the world-wide empire, which was the prize of so much successful warfare, gave men and women from different ethnic and social backgrounds a powerful incentive to be British. In the process, she not only demonstrates how an overarching British identity came to be superimposed on to much older regional and national identities, but she also illumines why it is that these same older identities - be it Scottishness or Welshness or Englishness or regionalism of one kind or another - have re-emerged and become far more important in the late twentieth century. An integral part of Colley's story are the aspirations, ambitions and antics of individual Britons. She supplies masterly vignettes of well-known heroes and politicians like Horatio Nelson and William Pitt the Younger, of bourgeois patriots like Thomas Coram and John Wilkes, and of artists and writers who helped forge our image of Britishness - William Hogarth, Benjamin West, David Wilkie, J.M.W. Turner, Charlotte Bronte and Walter Scott. She draws on paintings, plays, cartoons, diaries, almanacs, sermons and songs to bring vividly to life an array of men and women who have previously been left out of the historical record, from the British army officers who staged a medieval tournament in Philadelphia to defy the American 'rebels', to the women who raised money for a nude statue of the duke of Wellington, to the hundreds of thousands of working men who volunteered to fight the French in 1803. Throughout, she analyses patriotism rather than assumes its existence, and shows it to have been a remarkably diverse and often rational phenomenon. Finely written and lavishly illustrated, this highly original and timely book is a major contribution to our understanding of Britain's past and to the contemporary debate about the shape and identity of Britain in the future.… (more)



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No one would argue that the history of Briton is under represented, history sections in most good bookstores have a shelf or two devoted to the long and influential story of England, Scotland and Wales. Author Linda Colley feels that a new approach is needed, too often British history is told through the eyes of the elite, royalty or oppressed fringe groups. What is missing, she feels, is the viewpoint of the common Protestant man and woman (p. 4-5). And here Colley shines. Beginning her discussion with the dominant religion of Britain, Protestantism, Colley’s thesis is that these countries became truly British because of constant wars with Catholic France. The Protestant “worldview allowed…Britons to see themselves as a distinct and chosen people” (p. 368). This attitude contributed to an “us and them” mentality, which strengthened Briton’s belief that they are the new Israel (pp. 5-6, 30-33, 368-369).
The question Colley asks is why do civilian Protestant Britons in this era “become patriots and with what results?” (p. 7) The answers she supplies are given with more than fifty illustrations, political cartoons, portraits and monuments and tell the story of the founding of British nationalism. The average Briton expected to profit in some way from their patriotism, either monetary or by gaining prestige and higher social standing (p. 371). God chose this Protestant nation to be the new Israel, they are certain of this, and with this knowledge the common man begins to participate in creating a unified nation. Support could come from volunteering to serve in Briton’s military, to accepting the common “dual nationalities” model. Which is remain culturally Scottish, Welsh or English, but hold onto the concept of a Great Briton for profit, military and religious reasons (p. 373).
Colley’s theme based approach for discussing contributing factors to British nationalism is similar to the approach taken in Roger Lockyer’s, Tudor and Stuart Britain: 1485-1714, 2005. Colley like Lockyer guides readers through Briton’s history in a somewhat chronologic order with what she feels is the most influential argument first, in this case, Protestants.
Diverse in culture, united by faith, England, Scotland and Wales becomes a fused country in 1707 with the signing of the Act of Union by Parliament. With this one action, Protestants become a cohesive unit with a shared interpretation of the past and perception of future events. Briton as the new Israel becomes the theme, ordained by God, the chosen land. No matter how poor he may be, he knows he is part of God’s bigger plan to work towards the light and fight against the Antichrist.
Colley gives us many examples to support her reasoning for Protestantism being the supreme explanation for a united Briton, one being music. German-born, later British royal composer, George Frideric Handel’s emotional operas and concerto grosso’s inspires the elite as well as the masses, to religious zeal. Performing across Briton to fashionable crowds, Handel’s work appeals to the faithful and arouses the twofold sensation of British patriotism and God bestowing His love on His great people (p. 32).
Religious art as propaganda serves the dual purpose of appealing to the literate and illiterate equally. The author uses contemporary artwork throughout this chapter, some quite gory to illustrate her point. John Foxe’s, Book of Martyrs, 1563 with his detailed portrayals of burning at the stake are reprinted throughout the 1700’s, and are commonly found along with the Bible in most working class homes (pp. 25-28).
Righteous Protestants feel the fervor stronger when propaganda focuses on anti-Catholic passions. Individually Catholics live quietly amongst their Protestant neighbors with little resentment, as a group Catholics are viewed with suspicion and anger. Jacobitism, with its threat of returning a Catholic monarch and thusly to a Catholic Briton, looms over the Protestant nation, making Catholics the scapegoats whenever the need arose (pp. 76-77). Colley’s description of, Protestant Almanak for the year 1700 is an excellent example of anti-papacy. Years since deliverance from crimes committed by the unlawful Catholics, for example, “141 years since, Our second deliverance from Popery by Q. Elizabeth”, are prominent on the cover and have nothing to do with cycles of the moon and the planting guides farmers purchased the almanac for originally (p. 21). Clearly, anti-Catholic forces aim to influence the common man to continue to support a Protestant Briton.
Following the chapter on Protestantism, she devotes a section to commercial trade, profits, Scottish prominence in the new Briton and anti-Scot, John Wilkes (ancestor to the infamous John Wilkes Booth) and his Scottophobic Wilkites. Exporting into England and Wales, free of tariffs not only cotton and other wares, but also now talent. Edinburgh blossoms into an enlightened city, rivaling London in architecture and intellect. Great minds begin to move into England, men like Hume, Watts, and Adam Smith challenge the notion that Scotland is a backward country. Doctors and skilled workers find jobs in England, taking care to support their fellow Scots, thusly advancing Scottish interests. The 1707 Act of Union, Colley explains, is a giant boon to the nation of Scotland (pp. 125 – 126).
The geography of this island nation plays an important role in establishing nationalism, the sea may keep enemies out, but it also holds people together. As France and Spain’s borders move with each new engagement, Briton’s “walls” do not move. This feeling of being somehow different, even as outsiders to the rest of Europe, strengthens British patriotism. (p. 17-18). Other considerations the author deems important are free trade, plentiful printing presses and inexpensive newspapers. This openness gives free reign of thought through the very urban England and Scotland. Briton’s belief that they alone sat at the top of the world’s commercial and economic food chain, fuels their knowledge of supremacy, and strengthens their nationalistic pride.
The Seven-Years war followed by the rebellion of the American colonies broke the heart of Briton, soldiers fought to protect their American cousins from their French enemies and France’s Native American allies. When asked to pay their fair share, the Colonies refused and ambushed their protectors. Britain, now forced to regroup and look internally at this treachery by the new, “republic which…proclaimed itself…freer, better and more genuinely Protestant than the mother country” (p.4) could not understand why the colonies not only rebelled against its betters, they allied with France. Briton, never before having lost a war since the Act of Union in 1707, lost against the American Colonies the only war fought against another Protestant nation, a fact not lost on many (p. 52).
Only after four chapters worth of arguments does Colley discuss Royalty. Here she explains the love-hate relationship Britons have for their monarchs. Colley exposes the three Georges not as the God-anointed Kings that fewer and fewer Britons believe in, but as real men; madness, adultery, scandal and all. Using contemporary political cartoons, illiterate and literate Britons are exposed through newspapers and handbills to the warts of the Royal Majesty of Briton, [judging from some of the lampooning cartoons printed, warts are not the only things exposed (pp. 209, 211, 229, 234).]
While this book is very comprehensive, some areas are not touched, the Irish experience, nationalism from the view of military officers, and political theory. Catholic voices and other dissenting opinions are not included as Colley feels that historians have, “drown out the…conventional voices…” who support British patriotism. (p. 4). In this book the reader will feel that no stones were left unturned in her search for the common British opinion. Colley feels much remains to be done concerning British nationalism. Researchers interested in this subject should explore, “fine art, theatre, literature and music.” (p. 8).
Linda Colley has gathered an impressive amount of primary sources for her discussion of British nationalism in this era. This comprehensive work is well researched, and written in a style for both the casual British history enthusiast, as well as scholarly researchers focusing on nationalism. While she feels there remains a lot of work to be done, this reviewer feels she has earned a long rest from the years this must have taken her to complete, sit back Linda, and enjoy the accolades I am sure will follow.

25-2008 ( )
  sgerbic | Oct 8, 2008 |
A notable book which exposes how Britons are tied together by what they aren't as much as what they are. Notable for its use of artistic as well as conventional documentary sources. ( )
  jontseng | Jan 31, 2007 |
Owing a debt to Benedict Anderson's anthropological historicism, Linda Colley's "Britons: The Forging of a Nation" is instructive as a history text compiled through comprehensive study. But “Britons€? is not a mere Andersonian examination of England, Wales, and Scotland's union in the years 1707-1850. Her arguments construct a very wide variety of cultural documents and arguments found in secondary sources into an overwhelming conclusion. Colley asserts that Great Britain was forged above all by war. It was not just any war, but a series of wars against a particular Catholic nation, which made British Protestantism unifying. Echoing Anderson's importance of print-capitalism, Colley notes that Scotland (and Edinburgh in particular) was amazingly prolific in printing. And she goes on to state that economic growth was seen as compatible with religion in this new nation, thereby circumventing Anderson’s need for Religious influence to wane for Nationalism to rise.
Importantly the ruling body inspired respect throughout the nation. It is likely that Parliament inspired respect chiefly because it oversaw successful wars which increased trade, which was a key component of the growing British culture. Colley shows a two-way street between traders and the state. The traders needed the state for safety, and also for expanding markets and trade routes. The state needed the traders, conversely, for both the fiscal investment and the manpower needed for war. However, I believe Colley’s chapter “The Peripheriesâ€? to be perhaps her weakest and most unfocussed chapter. Here was a chance to explore what the Colonies and Colonial subjects were perceived by Britons and changed their own identity. But Colley uses this only to argue that war with the American Colonies gave the Celtic fringe a chance to use patriotism to advance their own interests in England. This almost entirely abandons her statement in her introduction that the Britons “defined themselves in contrast to the colonial people they conqueredâ€? (p.5) as she never explores this paradigm, and even seems to abandon the entirety of Ireland and its people from Great Britain as a “colonyâ€? (p.8)
Colley’s exploration of British patriotism is indeed a very valuable look at a concept that is often painted of as mere demagoguery, but she shows it to be a dynamic in which the less-powerful utilize to prove their worth, advance their material interests, and use even to reform Parliament. A vulgar, but I do not believe inaccurate, subtitle of the book could well be “Patriotism Pays!â€? In the chapter “Manpower,â€? Colley (after showing the tremendous need Britain had for a huge mobilization) says as much for one of the prime motivating factors in recruitment. In the chapter “Womanpower,â€? Colley demonstrates how women, restricted from political access due to war, Francophobia, and a transitional economy, utilized patriotic activism to carve out a place in the public sphere, practicing public roles, organization, and demonstration of economic power.
Colley’s citations had been anecdotal to some extent, but exploring the meaning contained in paintings, the press, music, politics, and cartoons made for a seemingly exhaustive study. She certainly gathered enough evidence to support her points, but her cultural research can seem inconclusive. But the fact that economic rivalry was high with that foremost Other, that Republican and Catholic French regime made highly instrumental (if inaccurate) concepts in forming the ideas of Britishness. Religion then became a crucial unifying force, and Great Britain’s geography, swift urbanization, and wide literacy and access to print made reliable patriots. The very real threat of France helped force the empowered English elite to make concessions to lower classes while combining themselves with the Celtic fringe to create the new British elite. And as final support for her argument, Colley points to the lack of war, that is war with a real danger of foreign invasion, from 1830-1914 as the primary reason that social progress was also stunted in that same time period.
Colley mostly abandons Benedict Anderson’s ideas other than the Nation as the Imagined Community being a cultural construct. She brings together much anecdotal evidence to paint a picture of the forming British culture, but we are relying on her selection nonetheless. She mentions concepts like the printing press and colonization being important, but does not deeply explore their impact in everyday British life. While she seems to both explicitly and implicitly stick to themes of geography & freedom when discussing Great Britain, another significant criticism is that she does not consider the Irish example at all, which seems very perplexing. But Colley does draw from an extremely diverse range of primary and secondary sources, using both original documents and references to other historians for support. Overall, this is an overwhelming piece of research that makes a good read both historically and with a readable narrative. ( )
  Devin | Jul 6, 2006 |
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Yale University Press

3 editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0300059256, 0300107595, 0300152809

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