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October/November 2013: Remaking the British Atlantic: The United States and the British Empire after American Independence

remakingBritishAtlanticReviewed by: Simon Hill, Liverpool John Moores University

P.J. Marshall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 335 pp. £35 (hardback).

One of the highlights of the 2011 British Scholar Conference was the Keynote Address delivered by A.G. Hopkins, entitled ‘The United States, 1783–1861: Britain’s Honorary Dominion?’ In it Hopkins noted that although the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 undoubtedly ushered in major changes, not least American political independence from the British Empire, major continuities remained. For example, despite the horrors of the said conflict, many Americans continued to draw their social tastes from British culture. Both nations also remained significant trading partners. Intrinsically associated with the theory of ‘Gentlemanly Capitalism’, Hopkins could not resist making the point that investment from the City of London played a crucial role in financing the construction of American railroads during the nineteenth century. Hopkins also went on to suggest that these continuities after 1783 had sizable implications. Despite the creation of a Republican system of government, the United States arguably became ‘Britain’s Honorary Dominion’ – although Hopkins stopped short of categorising the United States as part of Britain’s ‘Informal Empire’. In an audience that contained many American and British academics, these conclusions raised more than a few hands in the subsequent Questions and Answers session (including my own). It left me wanting to know more about Anglo-American relations after Independence.

P.J. Marshall’s Remaking the British Atlantic goes a long way towards satisfying my appetite. The author requires little in the way of introduction to those in the historical profession. Now Emeritus Professor at King’s College London, P.J. Marshall has written numerous articles and books. Many of them are required reading for courses on the British Empire during the long eighteenth century. Whereas Hopkins surveyed an eighty year period in his lecture, Marshall’s book concentrates specifically upon the years from 1783 up to approximately 1790.

There are several themes interacting with each other in this publication. The first section broadly deals with the concept of ‘Transatlantic Politics’. Marshall shows that immediately after the war many politicians on both sides found it difficult to establish a harmonious working relationship. This was evident during the peace negotiations and with subsequent disputes over commercial policy. Moreover, both sides believed that the other posed a ‘challenge’ to their respective political system. This section also looks at the process of ‘Imperial Remaking’. British defeat in the War of Independence invariably required the policy-makers to rebuild the empire. P.J. Marshall goes on to argue that this reconstruction involved less change than is often thought, and uses the examples of Canada, the Caribbean and Ireland, to prove this point. The westward movement of the United States also ensured that a new empire was about to be spawned on the North American continent.

The second half of the book analyses the concept of ‘Transatlantic Communities’. Despite lingering tensions after 1783, many of the pre-war links were restored. The United States continued to draw large numbers of immigrants from the British Isles, Britain remained America’s dominant trading partner, and all levels of white American society continued to import and consume British manufactured goods. Perspectives on decor, education, law, religion and science, remained tantalisingly similar. Despite the obvious change with the advent of American political independence, why was it that elements of continuity still remained after 1783? Marshall writes that ‘There can be no doubt that, especially in the early years of the war, many in the British Atlantic world were passionately committed to political causes… Yet for most people at most times, politics was probably a secondary consideration.’ (pp. 320–1). Instead, people on both sides of the Atlantic were generally more concerned with getting on with their lives, and sought a return to normality after the war by continuing the socio-economic links that had long existed between Britain and America.

To help produce this book, the author has utilised a variety of secondary sources. He has also drawn upon manuscript collections located in several key repositories, including the British Library and the National Archives in London and Edinburgh. The one weakness of this book, which Marshall himself readily concedes, is that he used fewer archival materials relating to the American perspective (p. v). That is not to say, of course, that they are entirely absent from his work. On the contrary, Marshall’s references indicate that he has read edited collections of the works of key Founding Fathers, and that he has worked at the William L. Clements Library in Michigan. These sources are put to excellent use in the text, and clearly substantiate the arguments made by the author. Although Marshall no doubt had an academic audience in mind when he wrote this book, his writing style is such that it is accessible to a broader readership.

In conclusion, this publication makes for a very thoughtful and engaging read. It is certainly par with the best of P.J. Marshall’s previous works, and goes part of the way towards answering what the author describes as the ‘central problem of the American Revolution … how had the political cultures of Britons and Americans come to deviate so sharply that they eventually went to war with one another, while they remained indispensable to one another in many other respects?’ (p. v). After 1783 a new balance of power had emerged, which was both potentially exciting and frightening. In order to offset the latter, Americans and Britons, sometimes begrudgingly and with mixed results, rekindled what John Adams referred to as the ‘old good humour’. There is clearly scope for a successive volume to Remaking the British Atlantic, which covers the period after 1790 up to the War of 1812. Furthermore, as A.G. Hopkins had shown, this study could potentially be extended well in to the nineteenth century. If such a monograph is to be produced, then P.J. Marshall will have made a substantial contribution towards it. I thoroughly recommend Remaking the British Atlantic.

 

 

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