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The Imperial Nation: Citizens and Subjects in the British, French, Spanish, and American Empires.

The Imperial Nation: Citizens and Subjects in the British, French, Spanish, and American Empires. By Josep M. Fradera and translated by Ruth MacKay. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018. Pp. 422. $39.50.)

In this revised, condensed, and updated English version of a two-volume study first published in Spanish in 2015, Fradera lays out an impressive framework for considering the history of the European--and American--empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He distinguishes three phases. The first is the period of the "monarchic empires," the ancien regime empires that were pioneered by the Portuguese and the Spanish in the sixteenth century and continued by the Dutch, the French, and the British in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These empires were "composite monarchies," that is, they allowed for varied patterns of rule in the different parts of their empires. This applied to rule in the metropolis itself, as well as in the colonies. Thus even after the unification of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1479, there were different kinds of constitutions in Catalonia, Valencia, and even Aragon and Castile, whose union had become the core of the new state. This meant that there was nothing special about the types of rule in Spain's overseas colonies in the New World. All parts of the empire shared in a "corporate" political culture that accepted difference and hierarchy, "privilege" and particularity, as normal. Uniformity was not a feature of monarchic empires, nor was it desired by any of the parties.

This changed radically with the onset of the revolutionary period of 1780-1830, marked especially by the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. This introduced the second phase, which Fradera calls the era of "imperial constitutions" and "national empires." Here the hallmark was the attempt at imperial unity, based on the revolutionary principles of universal rights and equality of citizens. All--metropole and colony alike--were to be citizens of united republics, co-nationals of "national empires." The French constitutions of 1793 and 1795 are seen to be exemplary of this principle.

It was the French also who led the way to the third phase, the era of "colonial constitutions" and the "imperial nation." Fradera sees the turning point, and the decisive example, in the "Constitution of Year VIII" (1799) introduced by Napoleon as First Consul following the coup d'etat of 18 Brumaire (9-10 November 1799). Its principal feature was the doctrine of specificite, "specialness," the idea that there must be one constitution for the metropolis and another, or several others, for the colonies. "Nation" and "empire" were to be separated--thus reversing the unifying principle of the "imperial constitutions" of the revolutionary period--but since the nation possessed and administered the empire, this made the nation an "imperial nation."

In 1802 Napoleon re-imposed slavery in the French colonies, even though it had been abolished in 1795. For Fradera, slavery is the epitome of specificite, the most glaring example of the difference between the treatment of metropolitan citizens and colonial subjects in the "imperial nation." Even after slavery had been abolished in most of the European empires between the 1830s and 1880s, freed slaves continued to be subject to exclusionary laws, both formal and informal. Imperial governments established "dual constitutions," one for the metropolis, and others--"colonial constitutions"--for the colonies. But there was never any pretense of equality. Fradera describes this dual regime as a "liberal dictatorship": liberal at home, in the metropolis, but instead authoritarian in the colonies.

A notable, and welcome, feature of Fradera's account is the inclusion of the United States as an empire, as it seems similar in many ways to the other empires--French, British, and Spanish--discussed in this book. Indeed Fradera treats the continental United States as "the best example of the impetial nation" (237). In this case "nation" and "empire" occupied the same geographical space. But the rule of the specificite characteristic of the imperial nation emerges clearly with the treatment of slaves, ex-slaves, and the indigenous Amerindians situation.

Fradera has opened up a new and important vein in the investigation of empires. He displays continuities but also important disjunctures and discontinuities in their development. In the nineteenth century, clearly the idea of the nation, and the equality of condition that it implied, brought a new tension in the relationship between metropole and colony. A novel degree, and a new kind, of disparity arose. The imperial nation tried to resolve this with the device of the dual constitution. But this was bound to be temporary. The revolutionary period had unleashed ideas and forces that constantly crossed the divide between rulers and ruled, citizens and subjects, metropole and colony. The revolutionary period may have failed in its immediate aim. But its ultimate effect was to launch a tidal wave that a hundred years later began the process of dissolving all the empires.

Krishan Kumar

University of Virginia
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Author:Kumar, Krishan
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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