A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France

A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France

by Jennifer Pitts


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691115580
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2005
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Jennifer Pitts is Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University. She is the editor and translator of Alexis de Tocqueville: Writings on Empire and Slavery.

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A Turn to Empire

The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France
By Jennifer Pitts

Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12791-3

Chapter One


IN THE CLOSING YEARS of the eighteenth century, a critical challenge to European imperial conquest and rule was launched by many of the most innovative thinkers of the day, including Adam Smith, Bentham, Burke, Kant, Diderot, and Condorcet. They drew on a strikingly wide range of ideas to criticize European conquests and rule over peoples across the globe: among others, the rights of humanity and the injustice of foreign despotism, the economic wisdom of free trade and foolishness of conquest, the corruption of natural man by a degenerate civilization, the hypocrisy required for self-governing republics to rule over powerless and voiceless subjects, and the impossibility of sustaining freedom at home while exercising tyranny abroad. European explorers, wrote Denis Diderot in 1780,

arrive in a region of the New World unoccupied by anyone from the Old World, and immediately bury a small strip of metal on which they have engraved these words: This country belongs to us. And why does it belong to you? ... You have no right to the natural products of the country where you land, and you claim a right over your fellow men. Instead of recognizing this man as a brother, you only see him as aslave, a beast of burden. Oh my fellow citizens!

While Diderot's criticism of empire was among the most radical and thoroughgoing, skepticism about both particular imperial ventures and the general project of unlimited European expansion was, by the 1780s, widespread among intellectuals. Just fifty years later, however, we find no prominent political thinkers in Europe questioning the justice of European empires. Indeed, nineteenth-century liberals, including most prominently Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, turned decisively from the earlier thinkers' skepticism about empire and supported the expansion and consolidation of European rule over non-European subjects. "Despotism," wrote Mill, "is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end." Mill and Tocqueville were joined in their support for empire by many of their liberal contemporaries as well as by other political thinkers of their age, including Hegel and even Marx to some degree. But while both British and French liberals in the nineteenth century undertook to advocate and justify imperial rule, they did so in divergent ways that reflected their countries' different degrees of international power and reputation-Britain was secure, dominant, and culturally confident, while France, which had lost much of its earlier empire by the end of the Seven Years' War, was politically unstable at home and had not yet regained power abroad-and that also reflected the somewhat different courses taken by liberalism in each country.

This book examines several important moments in the development of a strand of British and French political thought that appeared, by the 1780s, to hold the promise of a critical approach to European expansion, and its displacement by an imperial liberalism that by the 1830s provided some of the most insistent and well-developed arguments in favor of the conquest of non-European peoples and territories. This sea change in opinions on empire accompanied an increasingly exclusive conception among European thinkers of national community and political capacity. The liberal turn to empire in this period was also accompanied by the eclipse of nuanced and pluralist theories of progress as they gave way to more contemptuous notions of "backwardness" and a cruder dichotomy between barbarity and civilization.

The historical and theoretical questions addressed in this inquiry include the following: What were some of the theoretical underpinnings of the criticism of empire we find expressed in the late eighteenth century, and what changes accompanied the decline of such critiques and the emergence of new justifications of empire? What intellectual dispositions have been conducive to skepticism about empire, and what beliefs and modes of moral judgment have led to the conviction that the conquest and despotic rule of other peoples is justified? How did discourses surrounding the conceptions of progress and nation change in ways that led to support for imperial rule?

This book considers the thought of British and French political thinkers of the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, paying particular attention to figures-Burke, J. S. Mill, and Tocqueville-who were not only political philosophers of the first order but also active in the politics and administration of the British and French empires. Edmund Burke viewed his sustained condemnation of British actions in India as the most important political work of his life. John Stuart Mill worked from the age of seventeen for the British East India Company; he rose quickly to one of its most influential posts; and he fought for the Company's continued rule there, resigning only after the Company lost its battle to maintain control over Indian affairs when Parliament assumed direct rule over India in 1858. Alexis de Tocqueville established himself, early in his parliamentary career, as the Chamber of Deputies' expert on Algeria and as a prominent defender of French conquest and settlement there. The work of all these thinkers combined engagement in concrete debates over imperial conquest and governance with broader philosophical reflections: on the nature of Europe's relations to the non-European world, on the duties of powerful countries toward more vulnerable societies, on the relationship between responsible representative government at home and despotic rule abroad. This study also addresses thinkers-Smith and Bentham-who, although not legislators or colonial administrators, followed the progress of their countries' empires closely and critically.

Liberalism, Pluralism, and Empire

The thinkers considered here, for all the great differences in their thought, can be said to have shared a commitment to the values of equal human dignity, freedom, the rule of law, and accountable, representative government. They were universalists in the sense that they adhered to the principles that all human beings are naturally equal and that certain fundamental moral principles are universally valid. All eschewed both biological racism and the relativism that regards cultures as mutually incomprehensible or founded on irreconcilable values. As we shall see, their different universalisms-their different negotiations of the tension between a belief in human unity and a recognition of cultural, social, and political variation-had remarkably different implications as they responded to the political questions surrounding the imperial expansion of European states.

Because of the shared political and philosophical commitments among the central thinkers considered in this book, all might be regarded as members of a liberal tradition, broadly conceived. To be sure, "liberalism" emerged as a self-conscious tradition only in the nineteenth century and is thus anachronistic as a description of earlier thinkers' self-understanding. While Tocqueville, Bentham, J. S. Mill, and Constant explicitly described themselves as liberals, Burke and Smith would not have recognized liberalism as a tradition or category of political thought. Still, while it is impossible and probably counterproductive to attempt anything like a definitive or narrow definition of the term, liberalism has been usefully evoked to describe overlapping strands of thought long prior to the term's invention at the turn of the nineteenth century. Cheryl Welch's definition of liberalism, following early-nineteenth-century usage-in which liberalism "connote[s] a commitment to certain individual rights (specifically equality before the law, freedom of the press, and religious freedom), opposition to the policies of the mercantilist state, opposition to monarchical power if not to monarchical government, and a certain expansiveness of social sympathies"-captures well the range of commitments shared by the thinkers considered here. While some might dispute an application of the last phrase to Burke's thought (a question addressed in chapter 3), this definition suits these thinkers remarkably well.

The question "what happens when liberalism encounters the world?" is more central to liberal thought than was long appreciated, as recent scholarship has begun to suggest. There has been considerable disagreement in the literature and in popular understandings of the tradition about what the "liberal" position on empire has been, and about what the implications of liberal thought are for international justice more broadly. Some have claimed that liberalism has always contained an imperialist core: that a liberal insistence on progress and establishing the rule of law has led liberals over and over again to support imperialist projects. In this view, nineteenth-century Britain and the French mission civilisatrice serve as typical examples of the imperialist logic of liberal political thought. Others suggest that liberalism is inherently anti-imperialist, given its commitment to human equality and self-government: in this account, otherwise liberal thinkers who support empire merely reveal an illiberal side or smuggle illiberal ideas into their arguments. Jeremy Bentham himself used this argument polemically when he wrote to the Spanish people that if they maintained their domination over their New World possessions, "in vain would you continue your claim to the title of liberals."

The first view cannot explain the many thinkers widely considered liberals who strongly opposed European imperialism, particularly in the eighteenth century. The second disregards the fact that many of the staple concepts of liberal political thought have indeed been mobilized in favor of the European imperial enterprise, and that European liberalism was forged alongside, and deeply affected by, imperial expansion. Liberals-in different times and under diverse circumstances in the history of the liberal tradition-have been among imperialism's most prominent defenders and its sharpest critics. No explanation that rests on some set of basic theoretical assumptions in the liberal tradition can possibly explain such flexibility on the question of empire: liberalism does not lead ineluctably either to imperialism or anti-imperialism. Rather, we must investigate the pressures and anxieties of certain historical moments to understand how thinkers whom we understand to exist within a broad but identifiable tradition could have disagreed so thoroughly about one of the most important political developments of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the expansion of European colonial empires.

While I want to insist that there is no logical necessity that liberalism be a tradition critical of empire, I also suggest that, if liberalism can be said to rest on a commitment to human dignity and equality, the support for empire among so many nineteenth-century liberals poses a theoretical problem that requires explanation. This is not to say that support for empire is ipso facto illiberal. Rather, the endorsement of radically different political standards for different people implied by imperialism requires theoretical justifications that form an often unexpected and indeed uncomfortable element in liberal thought in the nineteenth century. Nor should we believe that there is simply a gap between liberal theory and liberal practice, or that liberal practice, under political pressure, found itself unable to live up to its theory. Rather, this book examines the articulation of liberalism as a practice. Liberal theory has been constituted by its engagement in politics, and it is an important if often overlooked historical fact that the creation and consolidation of empires was central to that process.

The issue of empire draws out aspects of thinkers' theories in surprising and productive ways. It focuses our attention on certain blind spots or incisive moments that are not always apparent in their views on domestic politics. Writings on imperial politics allow us to answer more fully, for instance, who are the objects of a thinker's exclusions. John Stuart Mill was attuned to a degree remarkable for a man of his day to the ways in which European society and laws infantilized women, treating them as wards incapable of bearing adult responsibility. At the same time, he accepted with little question the view that Indians were similarly immature and incapable of self-government. In contrast, Burke is often considered the oligarchic thinker par excellence. As I argue in chapter 3, however, Burke's writings on international and imperial politics draw our attention to his powerful opposition to oppression by the few over the many and his own self-understanding as a reformer in the service of the vulnerable and excluded. These works suggest that what appears to be Burke's remarkable indifference to the sufferings of the French people under the ancien régime may be itself a blind spot in his thought, rather than an indication of broader and deeper commitments to aristocratic rule at any cost, as it is often taken to be.

This book asks how thinkers' views about cultural diversity, progress, and nationality affected their moral and political judgments regarding non-Europeans. I suggest that a strong conviction of the rationality of all people and the fundamental reasonableness of all societies was essential for robust resistance to imperial expansion and rule. Simple belief in human moral equality proved to be inadequate for genuine respect for unfamiliar people and insistence on humane and egalitarian relations with them. Condorcet, for instance, argued that European conquests had been cruel and wrong; but, believing non-Europeans to be, on the whole, backward and incapable of self-government or self-improvement, he hoped for a pacific settlement of Europeans throughout the world, leading to a partnership of unequals in which kind Europeans would take trusting savages into their care and tutelage. Although Condorcet's language, passionately critical of European depredations abroad, bore considerable resemblance to that of his more robustly critical contemporaries, his brand of what we might call a nonpluralist anti-imperialism proved to be a fragile construct.

A central concern of this book, then, is how the thinkers under study analyzed and judged unfamiliar societies. Did their views of moral judgment speak to the difficulty of understanding unfamiliar others in different social contexts, or address the biases that beset moral and cultural judgment? How critical were they about their sources of information on non-European societies, especially when invoking them to demonstrate "backwardness"? Did they regard personal observation of such societies as important for proper judgment? Many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, for instance, drew attention to the dangers of basing theoretical and political judgments on sources that were notoriously biased and unreliable. Tocqueville insisted on seeing Algeria for himself; he altered his views about what was practicable and appropriate for French Algeria as a result of his journeys, and forbore from writing about India because of his inability to travel there. James Mill, in contrast, boasted that his writing about India was the more impartial and well informed because he had not been distracted by the arbitrary observations that are the lot of a traveler and had instead confined himself to a thorough canvassing of the (English-language) literature on India.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations xiii

Chapter 1: Introduction 1

Liberalism, Pluralism, and Empire 3

Scope and Summary 7

Historical Contexts 11


Chapter 2: Adam Smith on Societal Development and Colonial Rule 25

The Causes and Complexity of Development in Smith's Thought 27

Progress, Rationality, and the Early Social Stages 34

Moral Progress and Commercial Society 41

Moral Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Judgments 43

Smith's Critique of Colonies 52

Chapter 3: Edmund Burke's Peculiar Universalism 59

The Exclusions of Empire 59

Systematic Oppression in India 63

Moral Imagination: Empire and Social Criticism 71

Geographical Morality and Burke's Universalism 77

The Politics of Exclusion in Ireland 85

Burke as a Theorist of Nationality 96


Chapter 4: Jeremy Bentham: Legislator of the World? 103

Utilitarians and the British Empire 103

Bentham's Critique of Colonial Rule 107

A Rereading of Bentham's Work on India 115

Chapter 5: James and John Stuart Mill: The Development of Imperial Liberalism in Britain 123

James Mill: An Uneasy Alliance of Utilitarianism and Conjectural History 123

J.S. Mill: Character and the Revision of the Benthamite Tradition 133

Nationality and Progressive Despotism 138

Civilizing Backward Societies: India and Ireland 146

Colonial Reform and the Governor Eyre Episode 150

Conclusion 160


Chapter 6: The Liberal Volte-Face in France 165

Shifting Political Contexts: Britain, France, and Imperial Projects 165

Condorcet: Progress and the Roots of the Mission Civilisatrice 168

Constant and the Distrust of Empire 173

Desjobert and the Marginalization of Anti-imperialism 185

Tocqueville's Sociology of Democracy and the Question of European Expansion 189

Expansion and Exclusion in America 196

Chapter 7: Tocqueville and the Algeria Question 204

Tocqueville as an Architect of French Algeria 204

From Assimilation to Domination: Tocqueville's Early

Colonial Vision 207

The British Empire as Rival and Model 219

Slavery in the French Empire 226

Universal Rights, Nation Building, and Progress 230

Chapter 8: Conclusion 240

Eighteenth-Century Criticism of Empire 242

Democracy and Liberal Anxieties in the Nineteenth Century 247

Late Liberal Misgivings about Imperial Injustice 254

Notes 259

Bibliography 343

Index 363

What People are Saying About This

Cheryl Welch

This rich and provocative book examines a subject of great current interest in fields from political theory to international relations to European history. It deserves and should receive a broad audience. The scholarship is both careful and persuasive, and Pitts has an appealing authorial voice. The passion to understand what makes a theorist reject or support foreign conquest drives her narrative and holds the reader's attention as the analysis unfolds.
Cheryl Welch, Simmons College, author of "Liberty and Utility"

David Armitage

Exhibiting depth of research, jargon-free prose, and intellectual acumen on every page, this book is a well-balanced, seamless whole that reveals the impact of empire on the genesis of modern liberalism. It is a work of first importance not only for political theorists but also for readers in philosophy, history, and literature.
David Armitage, Harvard University, author of "The Ideological Origins of the British Empire"

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