Global Encounters and the Archives: Britain’s Empire in the Age of Horace Walpole
Coming in the wake of a long period of peace, the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) engulfed Britain’s empire in the most expensive war in its history to that date. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended conflict in 1748, was therefore not simply a diplomatic accord but also an economic blueprint for future prosperity in trade. Here Charles Hanbury Williams captures this interplay of diplomacy and political economy, writing that “trade is a tacit war” and expressing concern over “how far a commercial people, oppress’d with debts & loaded with taxes, ought or ought not to meddle upon the continent.”
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Sir Charles Hanbury Williams (1708-1759) was a vitally important cultural and political figure in mid-18th century Britain and Europe. This collection of his papers, with over 90 volumes and 6,000 texts, provides insight into Britain’s diplomatic relations at a key moment in Britain’s formation as an Empire. Hanbury Williams was a diplomat and a successful satirical poet who published several best-sellers in the eighteenth century. While the majority of the collection centers on the lifetime of Hanbury Williams, there are documents as early as 1584 and as late as 1808, so the collection spans over two centuries. The collection comprises personal and diplomatic correspondence in English and French as well as papers on a variety of topics, including the parliamentary debates in the 1740s and 1750s, personal correspondence with his children, correspondence with Sir Sidney Godolphin and the Duke of Marlborough, social and cultural life in Vienna in the 1740s, diplomatic travels to Poland, library catalogues and unpublished poetry.
In this print, the author draws a stark contrast between the concerns of Britain’s ministers and those of European monarchs. In the top frame, monarchs of France, Spain, Prussia, and Austria stand poised to dismember Britain’s global empire in a “Treaty for the Partition of the Dominions of Great Britain.” The bottom frame, by contrast, features British ministers so obsessed with their own domestic and imperial issues—from the Stamp Act repeal to Parliamentary legislation—that they remain unaware of the international plot. This contrast satirizes the nearsightedness of Britain’s politicians, who faced a mounting imperial crisis abroad and ministerial instability at home in the wake of the Seven Years’ War. It also captures the alienation by Britain of its key diplomatic partners, which would leave Britain without European allies in the American Revolution.
The year 1759 may have been Britain’s annus mirabilis in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), but it was the 1763 Treaty of Paris that cemented Britain’s position as a global empire on which the sun never set. This letter from Secretary of State Lord Bute to George Grenville on the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris affords insights into the delicate nature of treating with France for peace. In addition to contending with the unpredictability of other European courts, Britain’s ministers of state relied on their ideas about the political-economic potential of specific colonial holdings when making their concessions to France and Spain. John Stuart, Lord Bute received appointments as secretary of state in 1761 and prime minister in 1762. Bute was a close relative of Clan Campbell, the government’s primary indigenous Highland ally in the eighteenth century. His central role in the 1763 Treaty of Paris exemplifies the rising influence of Highland clan chieftains and their relatives to the highest levels of state governance in the 1760s—a controversial development that led many to conceive of Bute and others as “Scottish Intruders” in ministerial politics.
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The five volumes of the Grenville Papers contain 322 letters of George Grenville (1712-1770), Britain’s leading minister in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War and the author of the Stamp Act. Dated from 1742-1787, they span the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years’ War and the entirety of British political and martial conflict with America and the aftermath of the American Revolution. While some of this collection has been published in edited volumes, these contain only excerpts and so much of the material remains unstudied. These letters do more than simply offer a robust view of the life of an absolutely central political figure of the mid-eighteenth century, but they help to reconstruct a global view of British political economy and diplomacy during a series of European and colonial conflicts that helped to forge Britain’s global identity.
By this deed, a Native Tunxis man by the name of Thomas Curricomp along with “Abigail his wife” sold to “Timothy Root and his Heirs and Assigns forever” the parcel of land on which the Lewis Walpole Library now sits. The land deed arising from this 1785 transaction serves as both a material artifact of contractual Euro-Indigenous relationships in the eighteenth century, and a reminder that the land that this exhibition itself stands on was formerly inhabited by indigenous people.
Tunxis Sepos, what is now Farmington, Connecticut, had been inhabited by the indigenous Tunxis groups prior to English settlement. By the mid-17th Century, however, as English settlement encroached upon Native space around the nearby town of Hartford, the Tunxis actively assimilated their displaced Indian neighbors, a strategy that expanded their numbers, strengthened their political influence in Central Connecticut Indian Country, and, most likely, insured their continued presence on the land. Living among English neighbors burdened the Tunxis with continuous anxiety over land loss and violence, but such close proximity also offered tribal members access to English schooling and military training. These encounters, together with exposure to the ideas of George Whitefield during the First Great Awakening, fostered an 18th Century Indian cultural and intellectual renaissance in Southern New England, in which Farmington became one of the more important tribal hubs. While the political organization of the Tunxis may not have survived, descendants of the men and women who once occupied Tunxis Sepos surely have. Please visit the Yale Indian Papers Project for more information about indigenous groups native to Connecticut.
The origins of the Stamp Act lay not only in Seven Years’ War debt, but above all in the staggering new costs of frontier defense and the devastating impact of Native American warfare on colonial frontier settlements in Pontiac’s War (1763–1764). Despite Prime Minister George Grenville’s enthusiastic support, the Stamp Act met with an avalanche of protest from Patriot Whigs in the American colonies and in Britain. This circular, which informed American colonists of the Stamp Act’s repeal by Parliament in 1766, shows that Britain’s mainland North American colonies were not the only ones expected to finance governance; the Caribbean colonies, too, found themselves facing the Stamp Act, but unlike the reactions in the thirteen colonies further north, these tensions never led them to declare independence from Britain.
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Henry Seymour Conway (1721-1795) was at the center of British politics in the run-up to the American Revolution as a self-described British patriot and a famous advocate for the American cause. His testimony paints a less familiar portrait of the American Revolution and British-American political conflict. This collection of Henry Seymour Conway Papers consists of three sections: 9 volumes of diplomatic correspondence; 4 volumes of military correspondence; and 61 letters to his brother, Francis Seymour Conway (1718-1794). These letters contain exciting firsthand accounts of contentious debates in British Parliament in the years of conflict with the American colonies. However, Seymour Conway’s interests extended outside of the rising conflict in America. He wrote extensively about military campaigns in the Seven Years’ War, his own feud with George Grenville, diplomatic relations with Russia, Poland, Prussia, Spain, Germany and Canada and the problems facing the status of Ireland in the Empire.