A Turn to Empire

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

Jennifer Pitts
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    A Turn to Empire
    Book Description:

    A dramatic shift in British and French ideas about empire unfolded in the sixty years straddling the turn of the nineteenth century. As Jennifer Pitts shows inA Turn to Empire, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Jeremy Bentham were among many at the start of this period to criticize European empires as unjust as well as politically and economically disastrous for the conquering nations. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the most prominent British and French liberal thinkers, including John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, vigorously supported the conquest of non-European peoples. Pitts explains that this reflected a rise in civilizational self-confidence, as theories of human progress became more triumphalist, less nuanced, and less tolerant of cultural difference. At the same time, imperial expansion abroad came to be seen as a political project that might assist the emergence of stable liberal democracies within Europe.

    Pitts shows that liberal thinkers usually celebrated for respecting not only human equality and liberty but also pluralism supported an inegalitarian and decidedly nonhumanitarian international politics. Yet such moments represent not a necessary feature of liberal thought but a striking departure from views shared by precisely those late-eighteenth-century thinkers whom Mill and Tocqueville saw as their forebears.

    Fluently written,A Turn to Empireoffers a novel assessment of modern political thought and international justice, and an illuminating perspective on continuing debates over empire, intervention, and liberal political commitments.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2663-6
    Subjects: Philosophy, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xv)
  5. One Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    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...


    • Two Adam Smith on Societal Development and Colonial Rule
      (pp. 25-58)

      Adam smith was one of the eighteenth century’s most innovative and sophisticated theorists of societal development, one who believed that while commercial society was by no means perfect, it made possible material comfort, improvement of laws and government, and refinement of manners unavailable in earlier stages of society. At the same time, Smith articulated a moral and social theory that was broad-minded in its analysis of unfamiliar societies and practices and careful to avoid presumptions of European cultural or moral superiority. Smith managed, that is, to sustain a difficult balance between a belief that the rise of modern society constituted...

    • Three Edmund Burke’s Peculiar Universalism
      (pp. 59-100)

      Adam Smith’s moral philosophy enabled him, as we have seen, to view all human societies, however diverse, as rational responses to circumstances, and as deserving of respect. His complex understanding of social development led to the belief that development cannot and should not be foisted on a society from the outside, and to the idea that Europe’s advanced state of development, largely the result of historical accident, was neither an indication of moral superiority nor an authorization to rule others. Despite his commitment to commercial society as largely beneficial for welfare, efficiency, and even (though less emphatically) moral refinement, Smith...


    • Four Jeremy Bentham: Legislator of the World?
      (pp. 103-122)

      The pervasive influence of utilitarians in the nineteenth century on the justification and exercise of British imperial power in India has led many to conclude that utilitarianism was, from its inception, an imperialist theory.¹ Eric Stokes’s classic workThe English Utilitarians and Indiaestablished the important role that Benthamites—from James and John Stuart Mill, to colonial administrators, to the professors at Haileybury College who trained them—played in the expansion of British rule in India throughout the nineteenth century. Stokes relates an anecdote about Lord William Bentinck, who in 1827 had just been appointed governorgeneral of India. As James...

    • Five James and John Stuart Mill: The Development of Imperial Liberalism in Britain
      (pp. 123-162)

      For many readers, James Mill represents the classic instance of the utilitarian imperialist. As a highly placed member of the East India Company’s executive government from 1819 until shortly before his death in 1838, Mill was, as has often been observed, well situated to institute utilitarian reforms in judicial and land-use policy, among other areas.¹ Mill’sHistory of British India(1817), wholly dismissive of Indian society as barbaric and the Indian population as incapable of participation in their own governance, guided not only his own views about what was desirable and possible for the British to do in India, but...


    • Six The Liberal Volte-Face in France
      (pp. 165-203)

      In France, as in Britain, some of the most influential thinkers in the late eighteenth century—such as Diderot and Voltaire—not only criticized the violence of Europe’s imperial practices but also gave voice to a lively skepticism about Europe’s pretended superiority over other peoples. Indeed, the French thinkers most critical of European empire such as Diderot and some of his coauthors of theHistoire des deux Indeswere more categorical than the British critics I have discussed in their denunciation of empire, in part perhaps because it formed part of an uncompromising assault on ancien régime politics by thinkers...

    • Seven Tocqueville and the Algeria Question
      (pp. 204-239)

      Tocqueville followed the French colonization of Algeria, which he later described as “la plus grande affaire de ce pays,” from its inception.¹ In 1833, three years after the French army captured Algiers from the Ottoman Empire, the twenty-seven-year-old Tocqueville and his cousin Louis de Kergorlay, who had participated in the conquest, seem briefly to have considered purchasing land in Algeria and becoming settlers. Tocqueville sketched a list of questions he intended to pose to the venerable orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy, including: “Is spoken Arabic a difficult language to learn? How long would a man of average abilities and devoting himself...

    • Eight Conclusion
      (pp. 240-258)

      The sixty years straddling the turn of the nineteenth century witnessed a significant shift in understandings of empire among eminent political thinkers in Britain and France. Hostility toward and skepticism about empire appeared ascendant in the closing years of the eighteenth century: Adam Smith, Burke, and Bentham were among many to denounce European colonial rule as unjust and presumptuous, as well as politically and economically disastrous even for the conquering nations. Several generations later, however, Europe’s prominent liberals were determined supporters of European imperial expansion. Historical pressures and their own philosophical commitments led many thinkers in the liberal tradition, including...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 259-342)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 343-362)
  11. Index
    (pp. 363-382)