Enduring questions concerning liberty have long galvanized my historical pursuits. The long-eighteenth century drew my attention in regards to this concept, and continues to do so. During research, I came across an intriguing theory: colonialists, during the American Revolution, fought defending their “British” liberties. Looked at in this way, the whole of the Atlantic suddenly opened, and liberty became a global term.
However, the rise of modern liberty coincided with the rise of the nation-state. How could liberty, then, be transnational and borderless, and yet used – with stunning effect – to shape and craft numerous national identities? Liberty may cross borders, but liberty firmly cemented beliefs in one’s identification toward a particular nation. To add even more complexity, European imperial ambitions arose in the eighteenth century. Liberty and nationhood traveled together with the Atlantic as its conduit.
This progression of thinking led me to explore the Seven Years’ War. I searched for traces of nationalistic rhetoric, iconography, balladry, and other expressions in three locations: Britain, France, and colonial America. It was in mid-eighteenth-century Britain that I found ample evidence of nationalistic utterances embedded within the outrage over the loss of Minorca – a British possession in the Mediterranean taken by France in 1756.
This finding confirmed the transatlantic basis of three terms: liberty, nation, and empire – plus the lucidity in which these three could be shaped and defined in the middle of the eighteenth century. Using microhistory as methodology, I immersed myself in the arrest, trial, and execution of the man accused of losing Minorca: Admiral John Byng. Past histories have demonstrated the Byng affair as largely a political crisis concerning London. In contrast, I found that Minorca’s loss reached across the Atlantic. From Massachusetts south to the Carolinas, anti-Byng rhetoric ran in tandem with anti-London politics. Admiral Byng came to reinforce a transatlantic perception that Parliamentary politics had become overtly corrupt, and that liberties accrued at the conclusion of the English Civil War, reestablished at the accession of William III, were well on the wane by the 1750s.
The resultant work, “Admiral John Byng’s “British” Execution: A Case of Community, Nation, and Empire, 1756-1757,” is thus a multifaceted and cross-disciplinary piece that turns the current political purview of Minorca’s loss upside down. This dissertation connects cultural history to that of social, economic, empire, and politics. A turn toward anthropology helps to better flesh out crowd histories. The loss of Minorca coincided with a major impressment as well as a severe dearth. Anti-Byng demonstrations occurred in tandem alongside food riots and violent resentments against impressment. This anthropological turn brought to the fore nuances of crowd actions resulting in a deeper understanding of either riotous or planned crowd behaviors.
Having since defended this dissertation in late June of 2015, I have re-analyzed and condensed my fourth chapter and submitted that work (“‘Hot Water’: Assessing the Impacts of the 1755 Channel Campaign”) to the English Historical Review. I am awaiting feedback through the peer review process. In addition, I am re-crafting portions of my second chapter (a piece that brings religion back into the Minorca story) which will demonstrate a thriving transatlantic and interdenominational network of Presbyters, Baptists, and Unitarians bent on affecting London politics. Fleshing out my dissertation into a book is also important to me. I am nearly done with my book proposal and hope to send it to Yale University Press soon.
My next research venture is to dive into the transatlantic networks of the Great Awakening. I wish to understand how common sailors and tars – on both sides of the pond – reacted to the notion that their souls were as equal as any. This is my Marcus Rediker meets Frank Lambert exploration.
Thus, as I continue to view the eighteenth century, I am coming to believe that colonial America’s troubled relationship with Britain is deeper than I (or any) have imagined. This matters especially in terms of the 1776 revolution. The transatlantic nature of liberty and nation likely pushed those from below to defend and demand their liberty-based birthrights, especially in the face of a new set of accreting economic realities that began to discard the older set of reciprocal norms in an increasingly globalized world.