A History of Britain, Volume 2: The Wars of the British, 1603 – 1776

A retro review from November 28, 2008.

Review: A History of Britain, Volume 2: The Wars of the British, 1603 – 1776, Simon Schama, 2001.A History of Britain

Even more than its predecessor, this is a fine companion to the tv series of the same name. Partly that’s because Schama isn’t trying to do 4,600 years of history in one volume. And, besides constricting the time covered, Schama largely restricts the book to one theme: the notion of how the civil wars of the British, starting in the Stuart monarchies and ending with the American Revolution, led to a particular notion, an English notion of liberty.

In the Preface to the book, Schama describes himself as a “born-again Whig”. He not only seems to mean an agreement with the gist of Victorian historians like Carlyle and Macauley – if not the details of their scholarship — but what’s been called the Whig notion of history, that great men matter.

Throughout the high points of the book, Oliver Cromwell and his reign, and the escalation of tensions before the American Revolution, he emphasizes history as often pivoting on the peculiarities of individual personalities. Cromwell, we see, may have been a theocrat, but he ultimately didn’t think anyone, including himself, should have the power to sustain his regime. The loss of the American colonies was not inevitable – though Benjamin Franklin thought their eventual political and economic domination of the Empire was – but the result of stubborn personalities in the British government.

Besides the coverage of Cromwell and the English Civil War, the most interesting part of the book is how British culture and government went from, about circa 1740, explicitly rejecting a Roman style empire of occupation and all its attendant burdens and injustices, to Richard Wellesley’s proconsulship in India. (The book really ends in 1800 India, not 1776, and the American Revolution is covered in full.)

Yes, Schama mentions the baser motives, deeds, and evils of this time including, of course, slavery. They have to be mentioned in such a general history, but the amount of time he spends on them is about right and not the obligatory genuflection to the modern Church of Imperial Guilt.

The broad outlines of this history were not new to me, but I learned many details I didn’t know including some about the American Revolution. Since I’m not well-read about any of the events or personalities involved, I don’t know what errors or questionable descriptions Schama has committed. (Though I do note that it is unlikely “The World Turned Upside Down” was played at Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.)

As with the first volume, Schama’s experience as art historian and essayist serve him well. His chapters are long essays, ending and beginning neatly around a theme. He has a knack for picking vivid anecodotes and writing them up to neatly summarize a period. My favorite, the beginning of an account of the Glencoe Massacre: “In Williamite Britain, showing up late could get you killed.”

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