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British Empire, Concept of


BRITISH EMPIRE, CONCEPT OF. The concept of the British Empire holds more coherence for historians than it did for eighteenth-century Americans. The idea of empire was not clearly thought out by Americans or Britons until the intensification of British-colonial relations between 1763 and 1776 and the subsequent onset of the revolutionary war. The idea of empire initially connoted mercantilism, a nexus of political, military, and economic considerations directed toward the creation of a self-sufficient imperium where the colony would supply the mother country with raw materials, and the mother country would provide for the military defense of the colony. This relationship was codified through the various Navigation Acts passed between 1651 and 1696, as well as by numerous laws passed in the eighteenth century that tied the thirteen colonies to Britain as a dependent economic market. The concomitant political implication was that the thirteen colonies were subordinate to the imperial Parliament in London, a parliament in which they were not represented.

In practice, though, the imperial relationship was not always so rigorous. The colonial assemblies were granted a great degree of autonomy, and London often did not support its royal governors in disputes with local bodies. Two serious tremors destroyed the imperial relationship: the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), and the passage of the so-called Intolerable, or Townshend, Acts (1767). The Seven Years' War (the French and Indian War as it was known to the colonists) was a contest between France and Britain for supremacy in North America and set off conflict around the globe. Colonists fought the French and their Indian allies along side their British cousins, and indeed the imperial relationship remained a strong bond after the Treaty of Paris (implemented 10 February 1763). Nevertheless, the spirit of autonomy that had developed throughout the century led many colonists to conceive of empire as pluralistic, rather than a British imperium. As colonial desire for autonomy increased, the British Parliament exacerbated tensions by trying to reassert its hegemony through a series of acts, including the Stamp Act (1765), the Declaratory Act (1766), the Tea Act (1773), and finally the Quebec Act (1774). These measures were viewed by the colonists as punitive and provoked sporadic

violence, including the infamous Boston Massacre in 1770. Pontiac's War in 1763 further destabilized British rule in North America. Many colonial subjects, though, still wished to maintain the imperial tie, with their protests reflecting a desire to redefine the parameters of power rather than a call for independence.

More significantly for the dissolution of the imperial relationship, colonial voices such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams propagated the position that colonial assemblies enjoyed the same sovereignty as their British counterparts. This view was put to the Continental Congress, convened at Philadelphia in September 1774, and marked the ideological end of British imperialism in what was to become the United States. The outbreak of open hostilities at Lexington, Massachusetts, on 19 April 1775 permanently severed America from the British Empire. The concept of the British Empire was thus consciously rejected in America after the revolutionary war, with the United States assuming in the main an isolationist stance in world affairs.


Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in North America, 1754–1766. New York: Knopf, 2000.

James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. Rev. ed. London: Abacus, 1998.

Marshall, Peter, and Glyn Williams, eds. The British Atlantic Empire before the American Revolution. London: Frank Cass, 1980.


See alsoColonial Assemblies ; Colonial Policy, British ; French and Indian War ; Imperialism .

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