Linda Colley's Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 leans heavily on the understanding of a nation as an imagined political community of culturally and ethnically diverse peoples. Once the reader accepts this premise, Colley's central argument that religion and war served as primary movers in the creation of the British nation becomes palpable. Under this guise, Colley credits the Act of Union in 1707 that linked Scotland to England and Wales with creating the political framework into which Protestantism and persistent war with France supplied cultural coagulant and national bond.
Colley crafts a convincing argument that the world's most dominant nation of the eighteenth century was essentially established to be against something else, as opposed to being itself. To the reader's delight, Colley does not shy away from the complexities of British nationhood. She interacts with individual loyalties of Scottish, Welsh, and English villagers and concludes that "Great Britain was infinitely diverse in terms of the customs and cultures of its inhabitants" (17). In light of this glaring situation, the peoples' collective difference from the "Other" made the emerging sense of Britishness possible. Throughout the eighteenth century "men and women came to define themselves as Britons...because circumstances impressed them with the belief that they were different from those beyond their shores, and in particular different from their prime enemy, the French" (17).
One of the book's more interesting arguments appears in the opening section, in which Colley engages the role of religion in supplying Britons with a strong sense of shared identity. The Scots, English, and Welch positioned themselves over and against the Catholic French as the Other. Colley demonstrates a strong command of eighteenth-century British thinking on the Reformation, Catholic British monarchies, Catholic plots against Protestant British sovereigns, and French persecution of Huguenots. The history of Catholic atrocities, albeit somewhat distorted for effect, facilitated a British self-image as God's elect against the popish French. "The prospect in the first half of the eight century of a Catholic monarchy being restored in Britain by force, together with recurrent wars with Catholic states, and especially with France, ensured that the vision that so many Britons cherished of their own history became fused in an extraordinary way with the current experience" (25). Colley appreciates that the modern view of Protestantism in Britain creates an uphill challenge for this significant pillar of her overall argument. She, nevertheless, stands firm that "Protestantism was the foundation that made the invention of Great Britain possible" (54).
War served as the second major eighteenth-century cohesive of Britishness. For Colley, Great Britain "was an invention forged above all by war" (5). This characterization, at first glance, may seem overly simplistic. Yet, Colley brilliantly lays out a narrative that illustrates how the British nation found itself in war throughout its first century. The book does not contain an independent section on war; but, just as Colley argues that war spread over the book's examined period, war pervades every section of the book.
Colley devotes the book's second section to how the country's near-constant state of war affected the economics of British patriotism. For most of the century, the landed ruling class and a broad commercial community sustained a mutually beneficial relationship that, together, wielded influence over the legislature and policy-making. Though reigns of power remained firmly in the hands of the landed elite, the increased profits from imperial commerce granted the traders enhanced status, bringing together different regions of Great Britain and fattening the state's revenue. The rise in merchant clout against the ruling landowners provoked the creations of voluntary associations as a means for these powerful moneyed groups to coexist without creating new social and governmental structures.
Britons also offers an informative section on women. Great Britain throughout the century developed as a masculine culture opposed to an effeminate France. Within this culture, "woman was subordinate and confined" (256). But, Colley argues, as Mary Beth Norton has shown throughout the British American Colonies, in her brilliant work Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society, when eighteenth-century patriarchs confined women to a particular space, British and colonial American women showed uncanny ability to transform relegated space to spheres of influence. One important area where women demonstrate collective power was their support for the anti-slavery movement. Female skills--such as fund-collecting and detailed knowledge of how communities worked--"were drawn on to raise support for ending British participation in the slave trade, and then in the struggle to abolish slavery in the British colonies" (278). Colley weaves together a conclusion of how woman (political) power and the need of Britons to embrace anti-slavery as an emblem of national virtue after their American defeat came together to push the nation in favor of policies for the less fortunate peoples abroad. In British civil and military affairs, Colley points to a mutually binding contract between the sexes: "I, as a woman, will do my duty. But you, as men, must do yours" (263).
One can come away from Britons with the impression that without Catholic France constantly furnishing Great Britain with reasons for war, the British nation of the eighteenth century may not have survived. This is most likely not Colley's intent, but there is little evidence to the contrary in the book. The French nation makes cameo appearances in almost every section, driving the book's argument as a menacing counterweight. Colley, however, resists the temptation to purport French history. As fascinating as her argument is that British Protestantism led to constant war with the cross-channel Catholic neighbor, the argument remains unsatisfying. Moreover, Colley's decision to not address Ireland allows the analysis to hold together without a host of complications that a majority-Catholic country would bring to the idea of a nation forged together as Protestants against a Catholic foe. This editorial decision, nonetheless, may be unsatisfying for some.
The scope of Britons is impressive, and Colley's handling of massive amounts of historical material is nothing short of mastery. The effectively targeted use of eighteenth-century art and literature to complement sermons and trade figures provides the reader with an expanded view of the period. Colley demonstrates professional ingenuity and scholarly courage in this work, providing an essential read for scholars, undergraduates, and general historians who want a full view of British nation-building from its inception.