Author Response: Ireland, Empire, and the future of Europe

18 April 2024

** This is James Stafford’s response to our forum on his book The Case of Ireland: Commerce, Empire and the European Order, 1750-1848.**


By James Stafford

I’d like to start, first of all, with a round of thanks: to Columbia’s Heyman center, for hosting an in-person roundtable to launch The Case of Ireland last year; to David Klemperer, Angus Brown and all at Tocqueville 21 for editing and hosting this forum; but most of all to Isaac Nakhimovsky, Susan Pedersen, and Anna Plassart for their comments on the book. It’s a great honour to have this book discussed by three such distinguished scholars of British imperial history and European political thought.


It is a particular pleasure, though, to have this discussion occur in such a fitting venue. The ideas of Tocqueville, developed in conjunction with his travel and writing partner Gustave de Beaumont, are in many ways at the origin point of this book. Reading Beaumont’s Irlande (1839) during the first year of the doctoral research that The Case of Ireland is based on reinforced my developing conviction that the crises and transformations of British rule in Ireland occupied a significant position within European political and social theory in the post-revolutionary era. For Beaumont, Ireland was ‘a little country, through which the greatest questions of politics, morality and humanity are debated.’ It formed a bridgehead for what Tocqueville and Beaumont understood to be ‘democracy’: an egalitarian social system based on the elimination of clerical and aristocratic privilege and the free circulation of property, within the ‘aristocratic’ social order of early nineteenth-century Britain.


Beaumont used the case of Ireland to make a political argument that was fundamentally about law and institutions in the France of the July monarchy (though it also, as Michel Drolet and others have suggested, had lessons for the conduct of French colonialism in Algeria). Britain’s early nineteenth-century political and economic system, which combined consolidated landholding, a powerful aristocracy, and a breakneck pace of industrialisation and urbanisation, did not provide any kind of model for France or the rest of continental Europe to follow. The egalitarian legal and economic reforms of the French revolution –  exported to large parts of Germany and Italy through Napoleon’s armies, and imitated in part by the Spanish & Prussian monarchies – were irreversible. For Tocqueville and Beaumont, Ireland proved that there could be no European future that followed Britain’s distinctive, aberrant path. Daniel O’Connell’s agitation for Catholic political rights, and repeal of the Parliamentary Union of 1801, arose from the incompatibility of an emergent ‘democratic’ society with the anachronistic governing institutions of Europe’s last great aristocracy.


Beaumont’s Irlande thereby provincialized Britain’s historical experience, while elevating Ireland’s to the plane of what for him was a more genuine – because French-inspired – universalism. This remains a jolting historiographical provocation: a direct inversion of standard British (and Irish revisionist) readings of an Irish history defined by economic backwardness and ideological extremism relative to the rational and ‘liberal’ prosperity of Britain. For Beaumont, at least, it was British aristocracy and inequality, rather than the Irish political mobilisation achieved by Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association, that appeared atavistic and unsustainable in a modern era of ‘democracy’.


Instead of thinking of Britain’s ‘Irish Question’, Beaumont thought in terms of Ireland’s — and Europe’s — ‘British Question’. As Susan Pedersen kindly observes, this is a perspective that can make the inter-relation of Irish and British histories something more than a laborious task of inclusion and recognition. It becomes instead something creative and dynamic, with the potential to tell us new things about Britain as well as about Ireland.


In The Case of Ireland, Tocqueville and Beaumont represent a terminus for a narrative that begins with Enlightenment critiques of British government in Ireland in the mid-eighteenth century. As Isaac Nakhimovsky and Anna Plassart set out in their generous and incisive summations of the book’s core concerns, it recounts debates about how and to what extent the colonial government and society created in Ireland through seventeenth-century conquest and plantation could be reformed. It also seeks to understand what the spectacle of imperial crisis and reform within Ireland meant for larger prognostications about the British empire and its role in European politics.


Pursuing this line of inquiry required me to both re-evaluate canonical thinkers on commerce and empire – from Montesquieu to Smith, Malthus, Sismondi, and Tocqueville – while expanding and modifying that canon to include a range of neglected thinkers (many of them Irish) who contributed to the vast pamphlet and periodical literature that developed debating questions of Irish policy from the 1780s onwards. In so doing I have sought, as Nakhimovsky perceptively notes, to follow in the footsteps of scholars like Whatmore, Robertson, and Venturi, who have understood the political thought of the Enlightenment from the perspective of peripheral or endangered European polities: forced to confront the dangers as well as the possibilities opened for them by the major colonial powers’ increasing exploitation of the world’s resources and peoples.


Despite this, I fear that Plassart flatters the book in describing its scope as ‘global’. If anything, my ambition has been to curtail, or at least to structure, how Ireland’s history might be understood in global terms. This also speaks to Susan Pedersen’s question about the absolutely priority of the Irish ‘optic’ for understanding questions of commerce and empire in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe. The book does not rehearse the old debate about whether Ireland was a ‘colonial’ society or a European ‘ançien régime’: it was clearly both, and neither (I rather like Beaumont’s characterization: ‘semi-feudal, semi-colonial’).


It was this, in my view, that led Ireland to occupy a distinctive position in a specifically European debate, focused on the question of what colonial wars and rivalries meant for the continent’s own balance of power. Did Britain’s global commercial and naval hegemony, confirmed after 1815, mean that Europe’s other states would – as French wartime propagandists had claimed – be reduced, like Ireland, to the lowly status of extra-European colonies and dependencies, subject to the whims of provincial mercantile lobbies and the devious machinations of the ‘Court of St. James? Or did the Union of 1801 prove that British and broader European interests were in fact aligned: that Britain was the leading edge of a shared European project of colonisation, commerce and ‘civilisation’?


Other conquered, liberated or dependent territories, such as Haiti, Poland or Belgium, may have generated a greater volume of printed matter over the period in question. Yet none spoke as directly to a specific set of concerns about how other European states might coexist with –  or defeat –  Britain’s expanding mercantile empire. As Britain’s first colony, and the only one to be constitutionally assimilated to the metropole, Ireland’s significance to Europe’s history and future seemed obvious to all who cared to look.

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *