wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Robert Kagan

Dangerous Nation

Thomas Jefferson was a land speculator by inheritance: his father bequeathed to him and his brothers and sisters a share in the Loyal Land Company, the main competitor of the Ohio Company, which had been 'granted' eight hundred thousand acres by the Virginia House of Burgesses. Another prominent Virginian, Patrick Henry, also had speculative interests in western land. Nor was it strictly a Virginia phenomenon. In Pennsylvania Benjamin Franklin served as agent for powerful colonials seeking their own concessions in the Ohio Valley, spurred in part by fear that Virginia would grab everything and leave Pennsylvanians locked out of the West. Connecticut competed for western lands, too, as did Massachusetts, where even evangelical missionaries like Jonathan Edwards were tied up with land speculation, either through their powerful patrons and congregants or, like Edwards, as 'owners' of western lands themselves.

The problem was that the British colonies were not alone in wanting the Ohio Valley. The King of France claimed it with equal if not greater justice, for he had actually implanted French settlers, and French forts, on the contested lands. And then, of course, there were the Indians who actually dwelled on the lands that the colonists and their imperial backers were granting to themselves. Any new Anglo-American settlement in the Ohio Valley would come with a struggle and probably war. As American speculators and would-be settlers well knew, therefore, all this land and the great opportunities it afforded could not be obtained without the aid of the powerful British Empire.

Mid-eighteenth-century Anglo-Americans thus became the most enthusiastic of British imperialists. This was no great leap. Most colonists had long been proud and loyal members of the British Empire, despite the tensions and resentments that occasionally flared up between the colonies and the London authorities. By the middle of the eighteenth century, colonial elites, far from seeking separation from the Old World, aspired to be more British in their habits, their manners, and their dress. Washington furnished Mount Vernon with such specimens of English luxury and taste as he could afford. As a young man rising in prominence in Virginia, he yearned for a commission in the British regular army, an achievement that would have laid the basis for a comfortable and successful imperial career. Only lack of influence in London prevented him from attaining this ambition. Benjamin Franklin, too, was 'intellectually and culturally...an Englishman,' who aspired for many years to settle down in England permanently or, failing that. to win a position working for the imperial authorities in the colonies—as a tax collector. Jonathan Edwards considered himself 'first of all as a British citizen.' His closest ally in the revival movement on both sides of the Atlantic was the British preacher George Whitefield, and Edwards made no distinction between New and Old England, calling them together 'our nation.'

Edwards's strong sense of British nationalism provided a window on the way colonists both prided themselves on their Britishness and counted on the strength of the empire to further their interests, both material and spiritual. In the mind of Edwards, and probably of many of his followers, the success of the international Protestant mission depended entirely on the success of the British Empire. Since the accession of the Protestant Hanoverian line to the British throne in 1714, 'New Englanders had shed their Puritan outsider image and identified themselves with the Protestant and British cause.' Great Britain was the great champion of international Protestantism, and Edwards believed that God worked His will through favored nations and empires. In this sense the New Israel, God's chosen instrument, was not America but the British Empire.

Some scholars have argued that the Anglo-Americans were the earliest and most ardent advocates of the idea of a British Empire, more so than their English brethren across the Atlantic. Certainly the colonists found nothing objectionable in the idea of empire. The word did not connote to them despotic and arbitrary rule by a superior power over weaker and inferior peoples. To the contrary, in the colonists' conception of the British Empire, they were coequal with those who lived in the British Isles—a perception that would take on revolutionary significance in the 1760s when the imperial authorities acted according to a different conception of the relationship between colony and mother country. Before the colonial crisis of the 1760s, most leading Americans were content to pursue their great destiny, both individually and collectively, as Britons. Indeed, the British Empire was the vessel that colonists counted on to deliver them into a prosperous and secure future.

Close identification with the empire was especially desirable when it served immediate expansionist and commercial interests. Anglo-American leaders knew their disunited and jealous colonies were unlikely to succeed in pushing back the French and Indians and capturing the Ohio Valley on their own. The colonies were 'like the separate Filaments of Flax before the Thread is form'd,' Franklin complained, 'without Strength, because without Connection.' A colonial union might 'make us strong, and even formidable.' But that union seemed hopelessly elusive. Failed attempts to organize the colonies into a cohesive force, such as in the abortive Albany Plan of Union in 1754, served only to convince ambitious colonials like Franklin that they needed the unity, the guidance, and the muscle that only London could provide.

Promoting the idea of empire was useful in the colonists' effort to sway the British public and authorities. Anglo-Americans hoped to give Britons on the other side of the ocean a sense of pride in their imperial mission in North America. The people of Great Britain and the people of the colonies, Franklin suggested in the early 1750s, should 'learn to consider themselves, as not belonging to a different community with different interests, but to one community with one interest.' The 'colonies bordering on the French are properly frontiers of the British Empire,' he insisted, 'and the frontiers of an empire are properly defended at the joint expense of the body of the people in such an empire.'

The idea of a territorial empire on the North American continent was not what most imperialistic Britons initially had in mind in the eighteenth century, however. Before the Seven Years' War with France, their fascination was with maritime empire. Britannia ruled the waves, not the wilderness. Political theorists believed maritime empire better suited to Britain's political economy and its special genius as a commercial nation. And it was compatible with British liberty. Vast landed empires tended toward despotism, or so it was widely believed. Roman republicanism and freedom had been undone by territorial conquest. In the modern era the Bourbons and absolute monarchies on the Continent dreamed of creating a 'Universal Monarchy' there. Britain's great destiny lay along a different path, on the oceans. James Harrington offered a compelling vision of a British Empire at once powerful, prosperous, free, and, what would later be of keen interest to revolutionary Americans, republican. His imaginary 'Commonwealth of Oceana' would be 'a commonwealth for increase,' a producer of wealth both for itself and for others, benevolent in its strength and beneficial to all it touched with its commerce.