Global Encounters and the Archives: Britain’s Empire in the Age of Horace Walpole

Political Economy

Anonymous, The Able Doctor, or, America Swallowing the Bitter Draught (April 1774)

Unlike its French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch rivals, the British Empire was never governed by one universal imperial vision.  Instead, debates occurred about the nature of Empire in the political arena, but also in wider social circles through newspapers, political caricatures, pamphlets, correspondence and even in paintings.  From the beginning, political economy become one of the most salient and central points of contention for the organization of the Empire as Britons fundamentally disagreed over the role of her inhabitants.  Was it more prosperous to exploit labor to produce goods in the West Indies, India and even England herself for the economic benefit of the landed elite?  Or was it more important to have an Empire of freedom, where the emphasis would be placed on the consumption, rather than productive, patterns of its people?  At the heart of this debate were concerns over the economic prosperity of the Empire as well as the rights and status of its colonists.  These questions drove the protests throughout the entire Empire, including the Stamp Act protests, the Boston Tea Party, and pushback against the diwani, or right to tax in India, that called not for a breakdown of imperial governance, but rather for imperial reforms.  The items in this section of the exhibit demonstrate the thought processes of ministers in the highest circle of politics to reflections by those outside of that realm regarding questions of colonial expansion, taxation and imperial vision through art, printed pamphlets and private ruminations in manuscript.  At stake was the future shape of the British Empire.

Further Reading: Political Economy