How Britain Made It

Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837

by Linda Colley
Yale University Press, 429 pp., $35.00

The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century

by Peter Linebaugh
Cambridge University Press, 484 pp., $44.95

The ancient Greeks used to debate whether the polis was natural or artificial. Nowadays, as states fall apart and boundaries are redrawn almost daily, it is not only the devotees of postmodernist jargon who accept that political societies are “invented” or “constructed.” States are not the spontaneous and inevitable product of “natural frontiers,” or “national character,” but emerge from conflict and are maintained by a mixture of physical force and a carefully nurtured myth of national identity. A nation is what Benedict Anderson famously called “an imagined political community.” In any such community there will inevitably be some groups who benefit from this arrangement and readily identify themselves with the prevailing myth, just as there will be others who take a subordinate place and feel estranged. The political unions will cohere so long as those in the former category are more powerful than those in the latter.

Eighteenth-century Britain is an example of just such an invented community. The Act of Union of 1707 joined Scotland to England and Wales to form the new United Kingdom of Great Britain. (Wales and England had been united since 1536.) Three countries which had long been divided by history, language, law, and culture were now expected to function as a single unit. They did so with spectacular success. By the end of the eighteenth century Britain was economically the most advanced of all nations. Its military and naval power would prove strong enough to defeat Napoleon and its overseas colonial empire became the largest the world had ever known.

How was it that this heterogeneous amalgam of peoples proved so effective a unity? What held it together as a community in face of so many obvious forces for disintegration? This is the problem that Linda Colley sets out to answer in a dashingly written and firmly unsentimental book, which consolidates her claim to be regarded as one of the leading contemporary interpreters of eighteenth-century Britain and a worthy successor to her former mentor Sir John Plumb.

But what of the underclass of this new nation? How did the proletariat of Hanoverian London fare under a regime which used the gallows as the ultimate sanction for the security of property and the growth of capitalism? Did the superficial unity of British nationhood not conceal a fierce underlying class struggle between haves and have nots? These are the questions posed in Peter Linebaugh’s bitterly sardonic study of the men and women who were hanged at eighteenth-century Tyburn. Based on closer research than Colley’s broad interpretative essay, but careless in detail and much less persuasively argued, it reveals its author as a committed practitioner of old-style Marxist history, following self-consciously in the early steps of E. P. Thompson, who nearly twenty years ago supervised the thesis from which his book has grown, and with whom he collaborated in producing Albion’s Fatal Tree, that eloquent manifesto of criminological history as then conceived by the Warwick Centre for the Study of Social History.[^2 …

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Letters

The London Hanged’ May 13, 1993