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Crisis of Empire

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Crisis of Empire: Great Britain and the American Colonies 1754-1783
By Ian R. Christie. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1966. Pg. 120) ISBN: 0-3930-9650-5.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - February 3, 2001

In his book, Crisis of Empire, Ian R. Christie attempted to give a brief, but a thorough, chronological overview of the causes and the consequences of the American Revolution. Dealing primarily with the period from 1754-1783, Christie, also included a terse review of the historical background which precipitated the settlement of the colonies, their general histories, and the events which laid the ground work for the crisis. Within the greater scope of writing a historical survey of this period, Christie also attempted to chronicle the difficulties which the British government had in formulating an equitable, and viable plan by which to govern their holdings in North America. And most important, this book was written from a British perspective.

Christie's main purpose in writing this book was to provide a brief survey of a decisive moment in world history. Crisis of Empire was written especially for inclusion in the "Foundations of Modern History Series." This series was published with the intent of providing "...scholarly surveys of some of the fundamental developments which have influenced civilization..." (General preface, pg. v.) Adhering to the scope of this series, Christie was restrained from providing the surplus details and probing analysis that a book of greater length would allow, such as Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause. Therefore Christie had to narrow the focus of his history, and he did this by concentrating upon the actions and the motivations of ministries involved in precipitating the conflict such as Grenville and Townshend. And how those, such as Chatham and Rockingham, who sought to compromise with the colonies, were hampered by the machinations of the political factions within Parliament.

The book begins with a physical description of the British colonial empire in North America, as it existed in 1750. Christie also explained the economic and social make-up of the various colonies and the role they played as members of the empire. This introductory segment serves to provide the reader with the background necessary to understand the events which preceded the development of the crisis. The remainder, and the bulk of the book dealt with the events preceding the revolution: the Seven Years War (referred to as the Nine Years War in the book, pg. 23), Pontiac's Indian Uprising, British policies in the West, the reasons behind the imposition of the various trade and revenue Acts and the ever escalating violent response they generated in the American colonies. Crisis of Empire concludes with a concise analysis of the war and its aftermath. He shows why the British, despite possessing a superior military force, lost. And he explained the significance of the revolution, not only in regard to the colonies and Britain, but also in regard to the influence it was to have on other revolutionary movements which were to sweep Europe, such as the French Revolution.

Unlike other works on this subject, Christie went to great lengths to remind the reader that the British colonies did not consist solely of the thirteen that were to achieve their independence as a result of the revolution. Rather, British colonies in the America's included portions of what is now Canada and well as several Caribbean islands. This is important because it shows that Britain was able, at times, to maintain a workable relationship with its other colonies. This was made abundantly clear when Christie described the governing of Québec, and the political comprise which was eventually reached that allowed the colony to be governed by a mix of British and French legislative and legal practices. I found this extremely enlightening, as histories written by American's tend to treat the revolution as solely an American phenomenon, and seldom mention that other British colonies existed in close proximity to the ‘American' colonies, often subjected to the same regulations which the American found so onerous, and yet they did not rebel.

While the primary purpose of this book was to present the reader with a general survey of the period, Christie's principle point was to illustrate what he felt was the primary cause of the crisis. Had this point not been clear from the beginning, one could not help but accede that it was the main point in the book, when the reader read, "To a significant degree the story of the loss of the American colonies is a story of the misjudgements and the inadequacy of British politicians." (Pg. 111.) When reduced to its common denominator, the base cause of the ensuing crisis was the inability of each side to understand the motives and the concerns of the other. For example, while Parliament thought they had the constitutional right to tax the colonist, the colonist felt otherwise. And while the American's mistakenly feared that Britain was bent upon consigning them to slavery. Parliament could not understand these fears, after all, the revenues raised by such Acts as the Stamp Act were to be used solely in America. But by far, Christie achieved his objective of showing the extent to which misunderstandings lead to the crisis, especially by illustrating the role that propaganda played in deceiving both sides to the real goals and fears of the other. He also demonstrated this point by showing that Britain was not dealing with a single colonial government. Each colony had its own assembly, and Britain had to formulate her policies so as to abase each separate colony - as well as all the colonies as a whole. This problem was further exacerbated by the distances involved and by the political power plays which served to forestall any hope of a mutual understanding or compromise.

Christie also questioned the real motives behind the instigators for revolution. Were they truly men fighting for liberty, or where they merely merchants who felt that their profits would be increased when they were no longer under the regulatory hand of England? On the same hand, he also questions Britain's desire to keep the colonies within the fold. Could it be that this desire based primarily on the fear that if Britain lost the American colonies, she would suffer severe economic losses? Hence, did their desire to maintain control of the colony's stem from monetary reasons, rather then the often stated political and militaristic motives? Christie insertion of such tantalizing questions was one of the main strengths of the book. This is due to the fact that these unanswered questions, at least for me, whetted my appetite to delve deeper into the topic. As well, they amply illustrate the fact that not everything in history is known, or can be known. There will always be unanswered questions. Questions which if answered, may have the effect of entirely changing our outlook on a past event.

The biggest weakness of this book was inherent in its brevity. Fulfilling its stated goal of being brief, it was. While it provided an excellent outline of the events, it nonetheless left many questions that could have been answered, unanswered. One example of this was when he mentioned that the colonist believed that Britain would always back down when faced with armed resistance. However he failed to elaborate on why they felt that way, or what was the British opinion on the subject.

As a general survey, Christie provided a straight forward, chronological accounting of the events which transpired. This accounting is not only unambiguous, at least in regard to the actual events, but it also well written and thought provoking. Because this book provides such a detailed overview of the period in question, I would certainly recommend to a friend with an interest in this subject. However, my recommendation would come with one caveat, it is not a book which can stand alone. As an outline, it is outstanding, but as a complete history, too many questions are left unanswered. Rather, I see Crisis of Empire as a companion book to a larger work, such as The Glorious Cause. Personally, I wish that I had read it before starting on Middlekauff's book, as it puts the events in question into a clear and chronological order.

Related Reviews:

Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence, By Bernard Bailyn.
In Faces of Revolution, Bernard Bailyn has brought together a series of his essays on the American Revolution that not only illuminates the subject matter, but which serve to stir the imagination.

The United States, 1763-2001, by John Spiller, Tim Clancey, Stephen Young, and Simon Mosley.
An invaluable study guide on American history for students studying for their AS and A-level history exams.

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