Colley, Linda: Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837

book coverSince Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is, in part, about the hierarchies and inequalities of British society, I asked the Internet for a social history of Britain during this time period and was recommended Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837.

Britons starts with the Act of Union that joined Scotland with England and Wales and ends with Queen Victoria’s accession, particularly emphasizing the last fifty or so years of that time. It argues that during this period, people in Great Britain [*] formed a British identity that supplemented existing identities. This was the result of multiple factors, including being a Protestant island threatened by Catholic invaders, actual or potential; the pervasive importance of trade; reaction to losing the American war; and the changes wrought by widespread military mobilization that allowed limited increases in participation in public life for men and women.

[*] Not the United Kingdom; this is not a book that attempts to grapple with Ireland, except to discuss Catholic emancipation. Relatedly, this is not a book concerned with the morality of imperialism.

I read this like the homework it is, skimming for the important bits (and making extremely, extremely brief notes to myself summarizing each chapter, which I’m putting behind the jump). It seemed readable to a non-historian, and puts a useful emphasis on primary sources such as popular political art and government surveys; because of the way I read it, I can’t really say whether the level of detail was illuminating or excessive.

At any rate, a useful overview for my purposes, and as relevant today as it was in 1992, when the first edition was published (there’s a 2009 revised edition, which was not the one I had library access to). Colley is still writing about this topic: see her archive at The Guardian.

Notes-to-self summarizing the chapters


“men and women came to define themselves as Britons — in addition to defining themselves in many other ways — because circumstances impressed them with the belief that they were different from those beyond their shores”

1. Protestants

Protestants v. Catholics: viewed selves as God’s Elect, threatened by Catholics around them (Jacobites; French), but more, “Suffering and recurrent exposure to danger were a sign of grace, and, if met with fortitude and faith, the indispensable prelude to victory under God.” Identification of Britain with Israel: pride in comparative wealth, literacy, and geographical mobility. Religion used to tie together Hanoverian monarchy and Parliament, the latter of which became also figure of reverence and respect.

2. Profits

“different classes and interest groups came to see this newly invented nation as a usable resource, as a focus of loyalty which would also cater to their own needs and ambitions.” Landed class remained predominant politically for long time, but was actively concerned with protecting and encouraging commerce, especially foreign commerce, because of importance to gov’t revenues (through Navy, colonies, monopolies).

3. Peripheries

Argues for disproportionate Scottish, especially ex-Jacobite, influence in British imperial service and in “accelerating that drift toward greater authority in political style which became so marked after the American war,” because: (1) that was were the opportunities were for employment; (2) “If Britain’s primary identity was to be an imperial one, then the English were put firmly and forever in their place, reduced to a component part of a much greater whole”; and (3) they were used “to presiding over thousands of unrepresented subjects” because of small electorate and strong military tradition in Scotland. (Tone of this section makes me raise eyebrows though cannot judge independently.)

Re: American war, extremely divisive, but defeat contributed to nation formation through (1) Scotland, as noted above; (2) people “could now unite in feeling hard done by”; (3) American colonies had been closely linked to England because established before Act of Union, but Empire afterward would be British. “In the wake of the Seven Years War, some leading Britons had been embarrassed by the weight of empire, even going so far as to question its morality. By 1783, however, many of those scruples and uncertainties had gone. The result was a series of imperial reforms designed to clarify and strengthen London’s control.” (Here would be one of the points where I felt the lack of a discussion about the morality of imperialism.)

4. Dominance

Post-American war, British elites were both in a strong position to resist challenges — homogeneous, compact, wealthy, powerful — and vulnerable to radical critique because of same factors. Low birthrates among landed elites led to massive transfers of land & intermarriage between English and Celtic families, creating new unitary ruling class; that class also shaped by new uniformity in education through public schools, which emphasized patriotism and physical toughness. Fed into cult of heroic individualism (popular paintings borrowing from classical and Biblical poses; uniforms). Expanded out of military side into idealisation of the statesman (William Pitt the Younger) via expansion of peerage, especially to military heroes (Wellington).

5. Majesty

Hanoverians were not very popular prior to George III. Shift during his reign attributed to (1) avoiding blame for American war through alliance with Pitt to become symbol of stability; (2) public pity for his illness in 1788 (which led to the two sides of the coin that still exist today, royal family is “just like everyone else, yet at the same time somehow different”); (3) mechanism to differentiate Britain from Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Large-scale celebrations of royal events became more splendid and firmly non-partisan.

6. Womanpower

Post-American-war period saw increase in rhetorical vehemence about women staying out of politics and taking subordinate role, prompted in part by stereotypes about Britain v. France and roles of women in French Revolution, and in part by instability of British gender roles in practice. Many British women were appalled by public execution of Marie-Antoinette and subsequent French restrictions on women’s politics and rights, creating high investment in war against France. Increased emphasis on domesticity led to limited but real abilities for women to participate in politics: volunteer contributions to war effort; public efforts to defend separate spheres (huge campaign against trial of Queen Caroline); extension/subversion of Rousseau’s idea that political virtue is linked to the morality of family (Hannah More; ladies’ anti-slavery societies).

7. Manpower

“this was an era which saw the mobilisation of British working men on a scale that would not be attempted again until the First World War.” Detailed surveys in 1798 & 1803 in which local officials asked men whether they would be willing to fight in case of invasion: Wales, Scotland, England all different (early on, poorer parts of Wales & Scotland were more likely to produce volunteers; later, see next point); more industrialized & urbanized regions were more likely to produce high numbers of volunteers; numbers were high generally across board. Accounts of resistance to recruiting seemed to be focused on arbitrary compulsion (press-gangs, ballot) than fighting itself (see: cult of heroic individualism; real contemporary fear of invasion). Lasting effects of volunteer corps: broadening of perspectives because of geographic mobility; sporadic protests; and the “obvious risk of encouraging demands of political change in the future” created by depending on broad base of volunteers.

8. Victories?

Disorientation and unrest post-Waterloo: between 1815 and 1837, seen in three issues: (1) Catholic emancipation; (2) Parliamentary reform; (3) anti-slavery movement. Catholic emancipation extremely divisive, prompting nationwide protests (as would be expected from ch. 1), but no major riots unlike reaction to 1778 Catholic Relief Act. Parliamentary reform movement was nationwide and “made extensive use of the languages of patriotism.” British slave trade was abolished in 1807, partly prompted by loss in American war: divine punishment for moral failing, also way to establish superiority over USA; thus move to stop slavery in West Indian colonies became patriotic as well as moral (and safe; the black population of the UK “was tiny, little more than 20,000, and concentrated in London and the major ports,” thus “Slaves, in short, did not threaten, at least as far as the British at home were concerned.”). Politicians had similar motivations with addition of a “propaganda coup” that gave UK “a reputation for moral integrity” to go with its imperial power. But end result ultimately conservative: “when political and economic conditions improved in the mid-nineteenth century, the memory and mythology of the [broad] anti-slavery campaign . . . became an important part of the Victorian culture of complacency in which matters of domestic reform were allowed to slide.” Yet collectively these three things “were, in some respects, both successful and transforming,” in terms of what specifically accomplished and in terms of nationwide mobilisation.


“Great Britain . . . must be seen both as one relatively new nation, and as three much older nations — with the precise relationship between these old and new alignments still changing and become more fiercely debated even” in 1992.


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  1. I can’t remember any of the details now, but I took a class with Colley on college and lived it. This book has been in my to-read list since then. One day…

  2. How cool! I can definitely see the traces of a great classroom teacher. And yeah, that ever-present to-read list . . .

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