Foreign Policy Blogs

Justifying Imperialism

A while ago I read the book, The Marketplace of Revolution, in which T. H. Breen writes of the British Empire:

Eighteenth-century writers seemed uncertain how best to describe Britain’s relation to its many overseas possessions.  Only tepidly did they employ the concept of “empire,” since for them it carried uncomfortable intellectual baggage from ancient history.  The traditional usage suggested that control over distant colonies and expansion into new territory depended on military might.  But the notion that Great Britain was a modern-day Rome, dispatching powerful legions to conquer the world, did not sit well with a people who celebrated liberty and rights, the blessings of living under a balanced constitution.  From the perspective of free modern subjects, what appeared to distinguish Britain’s empire from that of Roman times was commerce, a continuing source of prosperity and stability.

But another tactic for 18th century-ers interested in justifying British imperialism would be to claim that, in fact, the above conceptions about the Roman Empire were incorrect.  After recently reading The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I think this is what Edward Gibbon was up to.  He writes:

Domestic peace and union were the natural consequences of the moderate and comprehensive policy embraced by the Romans.  If we turn our eyes towards the monarchies of Asia, we shall behold despotism in the centre, and weakness in the extremities; the collection of the revenue, or the administration of justice, enforced by the presence of an army; hostile barbarians established in the heart of the country, hereditary satraps usurping the dominion of the provinces, and subjects inclined to rebellion, though incapable of freedom.  But the obedience of the Roman world was uniform, voluntary, and permanent… The legions were destined to serve against the public enemy, and the civil magistrate seldom required the aid of a military force.  In this state of general security, the leisure as well as opulence both of the prince and people, were devoted to improve and to adorn the Roman empire.

The West was always better than the East, claims Gibbon.  And to him, the 18th century world was no different:

The balance of power will continue to fluctuate, and the prosperity of our own, or the neighboring kingdoms, may be alternately exalted or depressed; but these partial events cannot essentially injure our general state of happiness, the system of arts, and laws, and manners, which so advantageously distinguish, above the rest of mankind, the Europeans and their colonies.  The savage nations of the globe are the common enemies of civilised society…

The Roman Empire specter haunted the legitimacy of British imperialism, and Gibbon provided another method of slaying the beast.