A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France

In This Review

A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France

By Jennifer Pitts
Princeton University Press, 2005
392 pp. $39.50
Purchase

This splendid contribution to the history of political thought shines new light on one of the great contradictions of modern liberalism: how a philosophy of universal rights gets entangled in a defense of colonial imperialism and nationalism. Pitts, a young political scientist at Princeton, points out that British and French liberalism was at first fiercely critical of imperialism, with thinkers including Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Jeremy Bentham diagnosing "the problems associated with European imperial expansion." It is in the United Kingdom, with John Stuart Mill, that the "turn to Empire" is most manifest -- Mill accepted the idea of national character and the notion of "civilizing despotism." Pitts concludes that most liberals and radicals of the nineteenth century rejected racism, especially before the 1860s, but accepted the dogma of Europe's cultural, political, and economic superiority. This book should serve as a model for both intellectual historians and political scientists.