Title: Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830
Author: J.H. Elliott
Categories: Empire, Atlantic World, Mexico, Spain, Caribbean, Social History, Political History, Synthesis
Place: North and South America
Time Period: 1492-1830
Elliott writes a comparative history of the British and Spanish American empires by "playing an accordion" - at times pushing them together and seeing similarities and other times having to pull them apart to highlight differences. Instead of viewing the colonies as being immobile and static (Louis Hartz) or as providing a nurturing ground for individualism and freedom (Turner), he wants to see the overlaps between them and see them on their own terms. He ends up looking towards major structural differences (geography, politics, economy) to explain overlaps and differences. The book is divided into three sections: Occupation, Consolidation, and Emancipation.
I. Occupation: 1492-1650s
Elliott points out that both empires faced environmental and structural constraints on how they would operate and create institutions in the Americas. He outlines three processes necessary for mastering the Americas (symbolic taking of possession, physical occupation, and settling with people). Britain's colonies developed significantly later (early 17th century) than Spanish colonies (early to mid-16th century). Both faced problems with defining civilization and who were "civilized" people and not. Differences in this initial phase:
- More spatially diffuse and rural (especially in Virginia)
- Not as strong impetus for religious conversion of natives
- Issued charters to take physical control of the land
- Slavery not as defined in British law, but hardened quickly
- Despite more horrors and greater numbers of African slavery, there were also more opportunities for advancement and manumission
- Much more intent on conversion
- Spatially denser in urban networks and centered on dominating people and establishing towns
- Process of racial hardening and exclusion as time went on
- Both unquestionably assumed that colonies were to be used for the maximum benefit of the empire in face of growing fierce international rivalries
II. Consolidation: 1650s-1750s
Elliott argues that forming and ordering societies in the New World brought a host of questions and challenges about how best to maintain old hierarchies in a society in flux. There were challenges to the family (ex. male-dominant Chesapeake settler societies) along with class (newly wealthy). During this period Spain was much more active than Britain in establishing control and a hierarchical institutional reach over its colonies via government (local British officials had more autonomy), although by the 1670s and 1680s Britain began to tighten its control. Elliott places a lot of explanatory weight on this period of Stuart neglect as allowing British colonies to develop independently. Religiously, the Spanish church played the role of creditor in the markets while simultaneously being surprisingly tolerant in incorporating local traditions and beliefs. Racially, Spain had to incorporate a diversity of people under one banner, while in the British colonies a black-white dichotomy served to artificially tamp down class divisions. Culturally, both colonies struggled to overcome the perception of provincialism and backwardness, advanced by ideas about the degenerative environment of the New World. They did so by turning to art and culture, although Spain was head and shoulders above British colonists in using a "culture of display" vs. British "culture of restraint".
III. Emancipation: 1750s-1820s
British America witnessed massive growth in first half of 18th century, but still had far, far smaller cities than Spanish America (dwarfed). Elliott points out differences in mythology of the two areas, between the frontier myth of the British colonies and the conquest myth of Spanish colonies. The Seven Years War led to radically different outcomes for the two: Britain instituted massively unpopular and unsuccessful reforms, while Spain instituted more successful reforms under Bourbon transition to Charles III. By the 1760s and 1770s, saw a "psychological distancing" between colonies and mother countries, but Spanish colonists found it much harder to communicate and coordinate over greater distances than relatively more compact British colonies. Elliott makes the interesting argument that, if the goal of uprisings was to preserve liberties while remaining safely within the mother empire, the Spanish revolts were more successful. Other major differences between the two uprisings were that (chiefly) American colonists were able to secure foreign support from French and Spanish, whereas Latin American rebellions had to overcome major ethnic divisions (which heightened the degree of violence and destruction) and didn't have any tradition of colonial assemblies to fall back on for governance. The major ideological difference, however, was that British colonists saw themselves as curing/purging and adapting an essentially good political tradition that had been corrupted, whereas Spanish colonists turned first to universal principles to make a clean break and build a new nation.
Elliott ends with a counterfactual: What if Henry VII had financed Columbus's first voyage and an expeditionary force of British troops conquered Mexico for Henry VIII? Would England have come to depend on massive quantities of American silver and poured more attention and control into the Americas with creation of an imperial bureaucracy to govern them via an absolutist monarchy?
Key Themes and Concepts
- Comparative history is like playing the accordion - push together and pull apart
- British began as having more local control in colonies, but the crown moved to consolidate and centralize its control by the 1670s and 1680s and modeled it on a more Spanish model of control.
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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