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9 - Empire

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 April 2017

Mark Bevir
Affiliation:
University of California, Berkeley
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Summary

This chapter analyses some of the ways in which time was conceptualised in imperial debate, focusing in particular on the diverse uses of classical models of empire. I argue that Victorian imperialists were usually keen to escape the gravitational pull of the ancients, because the resonant lesson they drew from history was that empires were self-dissolving. Roman experience taught that empires eventually collapsed in ruins, Greek experience that settler colonies only thrived when formally independent of the “mother country.” Neither vision appealed to those aiming to create a resilient imperial formation. Instead, they borrowed selectively from the past, arguing that unlike its predecessors and potential competitors the British empire was not condemned to repeat the ostensible pattern of all human history. I demarcate two popular argumentative strategies, both of which can be seen as instances of historicism. One attempted to reconcile progress and empire by insisting that the British were unique in some important respect – usually their purported ability to harmoniously combine “libertas et imperium” in a manner appropriate for an industrial, democratic age. The other was to argue that Greater Britain – the settler colonies plus the “mother country” – constituted a radically new type of political association. According to such accounts, empire was transfigured into something else: a federation, a transcontinental state, a multinational commonwealth. This novel form of polity was not subject to traditional anxieties about corruption and overextension but was instead a pioneering manifestation of political trends reshaping world order at the time.
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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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  • Empire
  • Edited by Mark Bevir, University of California, Berkeley
  • Book: Historicism and the Human Sciences in Victorian Britain
  • Online publication: 20 April 2017
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316711286.009
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  • Empire
  • Edited by Mark Bevir, University of California, Berkeley
  • Book: Historicism and the Human Sciences in Victorian Britain
  • Online publication: 20 April 2017
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316711286.009
Available formats
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Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Empire
  • Edited by Mark Bevir, University of California, Berkeley
  • Book: Historicism and the Human Sciences in Victorian Britain
  • Online publication: 20 April 2017
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316711286.009
Available formats
×