Burke and Britons: Edmund Burke and the contested emergence of an imperial British identity

Johnathan Michael Pettinato, Fordham University


In the late eighteenth century, the British people refashioned their relationship with empire in the context of imperial crises in America, India, and Ireland. While British identity had rested uneasily alongside the less savory aspects of empire throughout the early modern era, it grew increasingly accommodating during the late eighteenth century toward the holding of an extensive empire and the necessary means to retain it. Edmund Burke, a central figure in public debates over the future of the empire, provided spirited and substantive contributions to popular discussions over crises in America, India, and Ireland. His controversial policy prescriptions for these imperial regions typically did not prevail. Often viewed narrowly today as an inchoate conservative or reactionary figure, Burke was at least a traditionalist in his conception of the empire as held together not by force but by shared customs, religion, sentiments, and mutually beneficial trade. In the course of expostulating against a chauvinistic, authoritarian response to imperial unrest, Burke was often excoriated as a traitor to Britain and its ineluctable imperial mission. During the public debates over the empire, Burke was a public interface and the chief intellectual for the Whigs. Given this prominence, Burke's public denunciation as a figure of suspicion laid bare how British popular attitudes, which were accustomed to a rhetoric of liberty, were evolving to accept the practice of authoritarianism abroad. Political attacks on Burke, drawing heavily on his Irish origins, foreground in part the exclusions from the British nation that helped to define the other for Britons in the late eighteenth century. Burke's arguments on behalf of a conception of empire associated with early modern Englishness and then Britishness were now the suspect pronouncements of a foreigner who had infiltrated the political establishment in order to initiate Britain's collapse. Empire and Irishness, drawn together in Burke's person and throughout his political career, emerge as significant factors in the evolution of Britishness in the late eighteenth century.

Subject Area

European history|History|International Relations

Recommended Citation

Pettinato, Johnathan Michael, "Burke and Britons: Edmund Burke and the contested emergence of an imperial British identity" (2014). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3630175.