The Enlightenment’s national contexts in global perspective

15 April 2024

** This is the first in a series of three reviews of James Stafford’s The Case of Ireland: Commerce, Empire and the European Order, 1750-1848Each day this week one review will be published, and Professor Stafford will then respond on Thursday. **


Isaac Nakhimovsky

James Stafford’s The Case of Ireland offers a vivid account of Ireland’s predicament in an age of intensifying commercial rivalry among expanding European empires. Instead of revisiting more familiar narratives of confessional conflict, civic values, or the origins of modernity, Stafford focuses on the shifting patterns of argument that emerged in response to the practical questions and problems generated by Ireland’s experience of British power. What emerges from this approach are “points of connection” and “fields of conflict” that place Ireland at the center not only of British history, but of European history amidst its global connections.


One way of explaining what makes The Case of Ireland such an exciting book to read is to point out how it builds on an approach to intellectual history associated with the eminent twentieth-century Italian historian Franco Venturi. In his 1971 masterpiece, Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment, Venturi declined to define eighteenth-century political thought in terms of a set of abstract philosophical or theological questions, or to place it within a grand historical narrative generated by such questions. On the contrary, Venturi set out to investigate it in relation to “the direct experience” of a wide range of eighteenth-century polities, with attention to their particularities as well as their interconnections. In this spirit, Stafford has set aside the conventions relegating “the case of Ireland” to the periphery of British history or confining it within a more narrowly drawn national historiography. Comparable studies in Venturi’s spirit have been undertaken, with great success, in the cases of Scotland and Naples, by John Robertson, and in the case of Geneva, by Richard Whatmore. What makes Stafford’s investigation into The Case of Ireland such an important contribution to this genre is the importance that so many contemporary observers across Europe attached to the Irish predicament. As Stafford persuasively documents, Ireland’s plight was identified by a wide range of writers – including famous and not-so-famous French lawyers, Swiss economists, and German diplomats – as the central case for understanding the nature of Britain’s growing power, and for determining the possibilities for coexisting or competing with it, defeating, dismantling, or even transforming it.


Stafford takes his title from a tract published in 1698 by William Molyneux, a friend of John Locke’s. Molyneux wrote the original The Case of Ireland to reassert the independence of the Irish Parliament in the face of English measures to suppress Irish exports, which seemed poised to capture the market for English woollens and, in doing so, to undermine England’s capacity to lead the struggle against French domination. An earlier generation of scholars has extensively explored the significance of this Irish precedent for the political thought of the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707. In turn, Stafford follows how reflection on the outcomes of the Union of 1707, in the hands of Adam Smith and his contemporaries, turned into a remarkably rich source of arguments about Ireland and its future possibilities. As Stafford goes on to show, these arguments went on to shape debates about the Anglo-Irish Union of 1801 and its outcomes, while also proliferating through a wide range of European political thought and political economy all the way down to 1848.


Two recurring poles of eighteenth-century debate emerge from this complex and nuanced account. From one perspective, the way out of Ireland’s predicament was through some mechanism for replicating Scotland’s post-union path of greater integration into British imperial markets and finance, creating the material conditions for incorporating Ireland’s suppressed Catholic majority into a more expansive and inclusive imperial community. The economic claims associated with this strategy raised difficult political questions. Did the path to prosperity and political stability presuppose intervention from Westminster against the extractive Anglo-Irish elite, or the reassertion of the Irish Parliament’s independence? Was it possible to combine legislative independence with a common or aligned commercial policy, as envisaged by Pitt’s Commercial Propositions of 1785, or did the path to prosperity and political stability require the kind of political union that eventually transpired in 1801? At the opposite pole from a strategy predicated on integration with Britain was a different set of arguments about why the path to Irish prosperity and political stability lay through a comprehensive land reform, designed to eliminate the feudal power of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and establish a broad-based land-holding peasantry. From this perspective, closely tied to the bids for independence mounted by the United Irish in the late 1790s, the tangled legacy of conquest and plantation made Ireland utterly unlike eighteenth-century Scotland; and it was French power, rather than British, that carried the potential of liberating Ireland from its past, integrating it into a more prosperous and stable future.


As Stafford shows, these debates continued to reverberate in nineteenth-century assessments of both the United Irish risings and the Union of 1801. Did Ireland’s growing prosperity in the early nineteenth-century signal the success of the Union model, perhaps even supplying a prompt for other countries to pursue opportunities for economic growth in an international trading system that remained under British control? Or was Ireland’s boom a wartime anomaly masking deeper pathologies which were implicated in the increasingly precarious, and ultimately disastrous, conditions of the Irish peasantry, which could only be cured through comprehensive land reform? Stafford’s far-reaching conclusion is that the fundamental problems unmasked by these eighteenth and early nineteenth-century debates make the case of Ireland an enduring model for “other political communities – both within and beyond Europe – who have been shut out from the main centres of power and accumulation in the hierarchical orders of global capitalism.” What makes this claim such a compelling one is the historical specificity and detail of the arguments that Stafford examines – and his well-documented demonstration of their significance for so many contemporary observers across Europe. From that perspective, it is no mere rhetorical flourish to conclude that “in the increasingly multi-polar world of the twenty-first century, small and middle powers are once again grappling with the same problems that confronted eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Ireland.”

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