Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought

Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought

by Uday Singh Mehta

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We take liberalism to be a set of ideas committed to political rights and self-determination, yet it also served to justify an empire built on political domination. Uday Mehta argues that imperialism, far from contradicting liberal tenets, in fact stemmed from liberal assumptions about reason and historical progress. Confronted with unfamiliar cultures such as India, British liberals could only see them as backward or infantile. In this, liberals manifested a narrow conception of human experience and ways of being in the world.

Ironically, it is in the conservative Edmund Burke—a severe critic of Britain's arrogant, paternalistic colonial expansion—that Mehta finds an alternative and more capacious liberal vision. Shedding light on a fundamental tension in liberal theory, Liberalism and Empire reaches beyond post-colonial studies to revise our conception of the grand liberal tradition and the conception of experience with which it is associated.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226519180
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/29/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 245
File size: 834 KB

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Philosophers ... have wanted to furnish the rational ground of morality — and every philosopher hitherto has believed he has furnished this rational ground; morality itself, however, was taken as "given". ... It was precisely because moral philosophers knew the facts of morality only somewhat vaguely in an arbitrary extract or as a chance abridgement, as morality of their environments, their class, their church, the spirit of their times, their climate and zone of the earth, — it is precisely because they were ill informed and not even very inquisitive about other peoples, ages and former times, that they did not so much as catch sight of the real problems of morality — for these come into view only if we compare many moralities.


This book studies British liberal thought in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by viewing it through the mirror that reflects its association with the British Empire. Liberalism in those centuries was self-consciously universal as a political, ethical and epistemological creed. Yet, it had fashioned this creed from an intellectual tradition and experiences that were substantially European, if not almost exclusively national. In the empire it found a challenge to this creed, even before nationalism along with other responses expressed that challenge, because there was no avoiding the strange and unfamiliar. This book considers the various responses of liberal thinkers when faced with the unfamiliarity to which their association with the British Empire exposed them.

The empire was a complex phenomenon informed by the multiple purposes of power, commerce, cultural and religious influence, and the imperatives of progress, along with the myriad subsidiary motives of pride, jealousy, compassion, curiosity, adventure, and resistance. These purposes and motives bear on this book only to the extent that they are relevant, as indeed they often are, to understanding how liberal theorists responded to parts of the world with which they were largely unfamiliar but which also intensely preoccupied them. Unfamiliarity is not ignorance. In fact, all the thinkers considered in this work were knowledgeable about the parts of the empire on which they wrote; indeed, many of them met the most fastidious standards of that knowledge. Of course, some of what they took to be knowledge is today viewed as incorrect or jaundiced by some prior perspective to which they held. Still, it was not ignorance, and the charge of having prior perspectives is both a condition of knowledge and one that no doubt awaits our own contemporaneous claims regarding it. By unfamiliarity, I mean not sharing in the various ways of being and feeling that shape experience and give meaning to the communities and the individuals who constitute them — in a word, not being familiar with what was experientially familiar to others in the empire. Understood as such, unfamiliarity is obviously a relative and shifting condition. But the mere fact that the boundaries between the familiar and unfamiliar are fuzzy is no reason to deny that there is, and in the case of the liberal preoccupation with the empire was, a vast arena where the distinction is quite clear.

This concern with unfamiliarity leads to a secondary and derivative query that also informs this book. That query might broadly be classified under the heading: the liberal justification of the empire. As a general matter, it is liberal and progressive thinkers such as Bentham, both the Mills, and Macaulay, who, notwithstanding — indeed, on account of — their reforming schemes, endorse the empire as a legitimate form of political and commercial governance; who justify and accept its largely undemocratic and nonrepresentative structure; who invoke as politically relevant categories such as history, ethnicity, civilizational hierarchies, and occasionally race and blood ties; and who fashion arguments for the empire's at least temporary necessity and foreseeable prolongation.

In contrast, Edmund Burke — who is commonly designated as a leading modern conservative — expresses a sustained and deep reluctance toward the empire whether it be in India, in Ireland, or in America. He did not demand, as did none of his major contemporaries and few in the century that followed, that the British dismantle the empire altogether. Nevertheless there is, I think, no question that of all the British thinkers and politicians who wrote and spoke on imperial and colonial issues in this period, it is Burke who is most sensitive to the complexities of imperial links and to the strengths and vulnerabilities upon which they draw at both ends. Similarly, no thinker or statesman of the eighteenth or nineteenth century expresses anything like the moral and political indignation that Burke voiced against the injustices, cruelty, caprice, and exploitation of the empire. And finally, no other thinker, not even John Stuart Mill in the mid-nineteenth century, reflected with such depth and moral seriousness on the issues raised by the composition of the constituency over which British power and dominion were being exercised. The left-wing critic Harold Laski rightly commented that "[on] Ireland, America, and India, he [Burke] was at every point upon the side of the future" and that "he was the first English statesman to fully understand the moral import of the problem of subject races."

In terms of the contemporary associations of the categories liberal and conservative, there is therefore a striking irony in the writings by British political thinkers from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century that deal with the British Empire. We rightly think of liberalism as committed to securing individual liberty and human dignity through a political cast that typically involves democratic and representative institutions, the guaranty of individual rights of property, and freedom of expression, association, and conscience, all of which are taken to limit the legitimate use of the authority of the state. Moreover, at least since the mid-nineteenth century, liberal theorists have tended, though by no means universally, to champion the claims of minority groups, and have respected religious bodies as entitled to the same toleration as other groups, so long as they did not threaten social peace and order. In general, liberals have looked with favor on the idea of national self-determinism — though often they have done so without reflecting deeply on the wellsprings of nationalism and the imperatives of nationhood under conditions of modernity. In terms of its mood or culture, as distinct from its doctrine, liberalism has often had a flavor of romanticism that allows the subjective to tilt in an anarchist breeze by insisting that the seeds of social good stem from individual and even eccentric initiative. These claims are of course not the exclusive reserve of liberals, and conservatives can rightly argue that they share in the defense and promotion of many of these accolades. Nevertheless, the irony of the liberal defense of the empire stands, because in some at least intuitively obvious sense, that defense vitiates what we take liberalism to represent and historically stand for.


The liberal association with the British Empire was extended and deep. Indeed, if one considers Locke's significant, even if only occasional, remarks on America and the constitution he wrote for the state of Carolina, the liberal involvement with the British Empire is broadly coeval with liberalism itself. With scarcely any exceptions, every British political thinker of note wrote on the empire and most of them wrote on the British Empire in India. More often than not, these writings were copious, as in the cases of Edmund Burke, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, Lord Macaulay, Sir Henry Maine, and John Stuart Mill; and when they were of a more occasional nature, as with Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and David Hume, they are nevertheless marked by a seriousness of purpose.

This fact should not be surprising. After all, following the British conquest of Ireland during the Tudor period the idea of the British as an "imperial" people was an ascending one all the way into the twentieth century. From 1 January 1600, when fifty-eight merchants incorporated themselves to form the East India Company and received a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth to have a monopoly on trade with the East, the idea of an empire in the East was already a prospective hope and a faint image. By 1606, when the first charter was given to Virginia and shortly thereafter others along the North American eastern seaboard, the empire there was an incipient reality. By the eighteenth century, when British settlements on the eastern coast of North America had been consolidated and the East India Company had assumed political and revenue-collecting authority in eastern and parts of southern India, the empire had clearly grown in extent and political significance. Following the Seven Years' War (1756–63), the establishment of Fort York in the East Indies, Saint Louis, Fort James, and Cape Coast Castle in west Africa, Manila in the Far East, and the transferring to the crown of much of the Caribbean, the British Empire now included French Catholics in Quebec and millions who were neither Christians nor white. Referring to this period the avowedly nationalist and imperialist historian J. R. Seeley said, "[T]he history of England [was] not in England but in America and Asia." By 1920, the British Empire included much of eastern Canada in the northwest of the globe, the Falkland Islands, the South Orkneys and Graham Land in the southwest, Australia and New Zealand in the southeast, Hong Kong in east Asia, India, Afghanistan, Burma, and Ceylon in south Asia, much of Africa and the Middle East, and small islands sprinkled across all the oceans. Of this vast collection of places and peoples, it was true to say that the "sun never set on it." It is hard to imagine any feature of British political, social, economic, and cultural life, except perhaps the purely municipal, not being somehow affected by this grand predicament. This was no doubt in part what Lord Curzon, the governor general and viceroy of India, meant, when he said in 1898, "Imperialism is becoming everyday less and less the creed of a party and more and more the faith of a nation."

It is therefore only to be expected that British political thinkers, especially those of a cosmopolitan cast of mind, should have found their thoughts almost ineluctably engaging with this vast scene of British action. And yet, this fact belongs to that peculiar set of facts that are strangely hidden from a canon that presumes on obviousness as its basis. Despite the chronological correspondence in the development of liberal thought and the empire, the unmistakable political gravity of the latter, and, most importantly, the clear, if complex, link between the ideas that were central to the former and those that undergirded practices of the latter, the relationship between liberalism and the empire has scarcely been considered in recent times by political theorists.

This neglect is evident in both historical political theory and contemporary normative scholarship. Historically, the fact that most British political theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were deeply involved with the empire in their writings and often in its administration is seldom given any significance or even mentioned in the framing of this intellectual tradition. As a consequence of this neglect, it is often overlooked that, for instance, the overwhelming majority of Edmund Burke's published writings deal with the British Empire, be it in India, America, or Ireland; that for the last twenty years of his life Bentham was preoccupied with issues of constitutional and legislative design for India (a fact that perhaps explains a comment he made toward the end of his life: "I shall be the dead legislative of British India"); that the major work of James Mill's career was the monumental six-volume History of British India; that John Stuart Mill — the author of over a dozen parliamentary and other reports on matters of imperial policy in India and Jamaica — did not just work at the East India Company, he worked there for thirty-five years (indeed, it was the only full-time job he ever held), and that apart from discussing the empire in all his major works, two of his best known writings, On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government, were originally conceived as responses to Lord Macaulay's "Minute on Indian Education"; and that finally, a similar concern with the empire is evident in the work of Thomas Carlyle, Lord Macaulay, Sir Henry Maine, John Bright, T. H. Green, Walter Bagehot, John Morley, and James Fitzjames Stephen. In terms of contemporary scholarship in the post-World War II era, that is, in the period of decolonization, with the exception of John Plamenatz's On Alien Rule and Self-Government published in 1960 and the second part of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, there is no book by a political theorist writing in English that deals with sustained focus on the empire.

All this is not to suggest that the terrain of modern political thought and the empire has not been studied — that is anything but the case. But the considerable and often theoretically subtle and powerful efforts that characterize research in this province have come primarily from the fields of history, including art history, anthropology, and more recently, literary criticism and cultural studies. It is obvious why an era marked by an extended and multifarious contact among people of often sharply contrasting perspectives, backgrounds, customs, traditions, and imaginations, and where that contact has had and continues to have enduring effects, should have elicited the attention of these disciplines and often led to the hybridization of their insights.

But this very obviousness makes the indifference of political theory all the more marked. After all, already by the eighteenth and certainly following the Reform Bills of the nineteenth century, Britain, in its self-image, was a democracy, yet it held a vast empire that was, at least ostensibly, undemocratic in its acquisition and governance; following Locke, there was a broad consensus that linked the exercise of political power with the rights of citizens, and yet the existence of the empire meant that British power was overwhelmingly exercised over subjects rather than citizens; again following Locke, and in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution (1688), the idea of the power of the state being limited and checked by the separation of the branches of government had taken hold, and yet imperial power, as George III and his ministers emphasized and as later liberals such as both the Mills concurred (at least with respect to India), had no such constraints placed on its exercise; similarly, by the mid-nineteenth century among radicals and liberals, the conditions for good government had been recognized as intimately linked with the conditions of self-government, and yet in someone like John Stuart Mill, who most forcefully articulated this argument, it applied only to the Anglo-Saxon parts of the empire. At a more general level, from the seventeenth century onward, the British, the Dutch, and the French rightly conceived of themselves as having elaborated and integrated into their societies an understanding of political freedom, and yet during this very period they pursued and held vast empires where such freedoms were either absent or severely attenuated for the majority of the native inhabitants.

My point is not that the existence of the empire and the political thought or even more specifically the liberal thought that emerged concurrently with it were obviously in contradiction. That claim is neither obvious, nor, I believe, ultimately true. In any case the language of contradictions is too precise an instrument to say anything of interest about generalities that range across centuries and involve the complicated intersection of ideas and practices, not to mention the differing logics of domestic and international imperatives. Moreover, contradictions, if they do exist, do not close the space on the complexities that emerge from the extended link between liberalism and the empire. They should be taken as an invitation to that space. Instead, my point is simply that there are prima facie factors that give the existence of the British Empire, especially in view of the extended and close link it had with leading political thinkers, a potential theoretical significance that has been largely overlooked. As Eric Stokes pointed out in a book that dealt with the Utilitarian connection to India, "it is remarkable how many of the movements of English life tested their strength upon the Indian question." Moreover, from the standpoint of liberalism, the "Indian question" was paradigmatically the issue of how a body of ideas that professed a universal reach responded to the encounter with the unfamiliar. There are, as I argue, reasons internal to liberalism why this question is not articulated with such starkness within this body of ideas. This denial is both a clue to the problem and a provisional indicator of its unsatisfactory resolution within liberal thought.


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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Strategies: Liberal Conventions and Imperial Exclusions
3. Progress, Civilization, and Consent
4. Liberalism, Empire, and Territory
5. Edmund Burke on the Perils of the Empire
Conclusion: Experience and Unfamiliarity

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