Summer Book Club: Seeley’s The Expansion of England

You are asked to think over English history as a whole and consider if you cannot find some meaning, some method in it, if you cannot state some conclusion to which it leads.  Hitherto perhaps you have learned names and dates, lists of kings, lists of battles and wars.  The time comes now when you are to ask yourselves, To what end?  For what practical purpose are these facts collected and committed to memory?  If they lead to no great truths having at the same time scientific generality and momentous practical bearings, then history is but an amusement and will scarcely hold its own in the conflict of studies…. No one can long study history without being haunted by the idea of development, of progress.

J.R. Seeley wrote these words as part of a series of lectures he gave at the University of Cambridge in 1881 and 1882, published as The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures in 1883.  Seeley was a professor of modern history at Cambridge from 1869 to 1895.

NPG Ax17824; Sir John Robert Seeley by Philip Crellin Jr

John Robert Seeley – photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Seeley examined modern British history with the goal of answering the question of what direction the world was headed.  His answer? Toward liberty, democracy, and the advancement of “greater” Britain.

There is something very characteristic in the indifference which we show towards this mighty phenomenon of the diffusion of our race and the expansion of our state.  We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.

He argued that eighteenth-century Englishmen looking on this expansion as it occurred, and nineteenth-century historians analyzing the expansion did not see the bigger picture of what had happened.

They do not perceive that in that century the history of England is not in England but in America and Asia.  In like manner I believe that when we look at the present state of affairs, and still more at the future, we ought to beware of putting England alone in the foreground and suffering what we call the English possession to escape our view in the background of the picture.

Writing in the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century, Seeley looked for a different take on opportunities to be found in the British empire and the wider English-speaking world.  Debates over “Greater Britain,” Teutonism, imperial federation, Anglo-American rapprochement, and the democratic reform of the United Kingdom government (including Irish Home Rule) formed the context in which Seeley worked and contributed.

186 Caius

Seeley’s college at Cambridge, Gonville and Caius – photo credit: L. Flewelling

With British victories over France from the time of Louis XIV to Napoleon, Seeley reasoned, Britain had secured possession and influence of the “New World.” Seeley considered that if the colonial empire broke up, Britain would be on par with other Continental European states but below Russia and the United States, putting trade at risk.  On the other hand, the British could follow the example of the United States and try to “hold together in a federal union countries very remote from each other.  In that case England will take rank with Russia and the United States in the first rank of state, measured by population and area, and in a higher rank than the states of the Continent.”  (India, Seeley conceded, needed to be considered in an entirely separate light.)

England has left Europe altogether behind it and become a world-state, while, considered purely as a nation, – that is, as speaking a certain language – she has furnished out two world-states, which vie with each other in vigour, influence, and rapidity of growth.

With the “shrinking” of the Atlantic due to improved transportation and communications technology, Seeley argued that the British should put thinking that governed the conditions of the American Revolution behind them, and stop assuming that all colonies will rebel once reaching maturity.

At any rate all the conditions of the world are altered now.  The great causes of division, oceans and religious disabilities, have ceased to operate.  Vast uniting forces have begun to work, trade and emigration. Meanwhile the natural ties which unite Englishmen resume their influence as soon as the counteracting pressure is removed – I mean the ties of nationality, language, and religion…. It seems possible that our colonial Empire so-called may more and more deserve to be called Greater Britain, and that the tie may become stronger and stronger.  Then the seas which divide us might be forgotten, and that ancient preconception, which leads us always to think of ourselves as belonging to a single island, might be rooted out of our minds.

Observing a world-wide trend toward greater union, especially embodied in the United States surviving as a single country following the Civil War, Seeley believed that a “Greater” Britain could flourish under a federal system and drawing upon common heritage within its colonial empire.

Seeley’s book was wildly popular and highly influential in its time. A few additional thoughts/questions:

-How did this view ultimately impact wider political philosophies concerning imperialism, and how did this relate to policies put into place?

-Does such thinking about the British colonial empire as containing fellow nationalists relate to the ways in which the French conceived of their empire?

-Did this have an impact on the ultimate way in which the Commonwealth system developed?

-How different would such views have been if the North had not been victorious in the American Civil War?

See also:

John Kendle, Federal Britain: A History; Ireland and the Federal Solution: The Debate over the United Kingdom Constitution, 1870-1921; and The Round Table Movement and Imperial Union

Christopher Harvie, The Lights of Liberalism and Floating Commonwealth

Michael Burgess, The British Tradition of Federalism

Duncan Bell, The Idea of Greater Britain

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