A Tale of Two Empires

The polymath and politician Francis Bacon wrote his “Short View to Be Taken of Great Britain and Spain” in 1619. At this point, Spain laid claim to the largest, most widely dispersed, and by far the richest empire in the world, but Bacon detected frailties in the giant. Philip III, king of Spain, might be “accounted the greatest Monarch of Christendom,” he argued, “yet if his estate be enquired through, his roots will be found a great deal too narrow for his tops.”

As Spain’s wealth and military power subsequently contracted over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this idea—that its stupendous imperial fabric had always been interwoven with characteristic failings—became a polemical commonplace, not least among Britons eager to define and legitimize their own rival empire. David Hume took it for granted that New World gold and silver had only vitiated Spain’s domestic economy, lured too many of its people into emigration, and rendered its government still more arbitrary and corrupt. Whereas British settlers in North America engaged in wholesome agricultural toil, the economist Arthur Young wrote in the 1770s, Spain’s colonists were easily bewitched by “mountains of precious metals… exchanging the small profits of industry for the imaginary great ones of idleness.” And whereas Britain had exported its ideas of political and religious freedom to its Atlantic colonies, Spain stamped its empire quite differently, with cruelty and backwardness. In Mexico, Peru, and Quito, claimed Thomas Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), “the tyranny, superstition, and vices of the mother-country were introduced in ample quantities among her children.”

As J.H. Elliott points out in Empires of the Atlantic World, such notions were already widespread among Britain’s American colonists before 1776. But as the new United States developed into an overland empire and an economic titan, the apparent unmitigated contrast with the warfare, political instability, and uneven development afflicting onetime Iberian colonies in the Southern Hemisphere gave additional currency to the belief that Spanish imperialism—unlike Britain’s—had been flawed and contaminating from its outset. Perhaps the fullest version of this thesis was R.B. Merriman’s four-volume The Rise of the Spanish Empire in the Old World and in the New.1 An eminent Harvard professor, from an English family that had crossed over to New England in the 1630s, Merriman sought to document how “Spain and its empire had failed because of their backward-looking religion and inhibiting, indolent absolutism, whereas Britain and its empire had succeeded because of their forward-looking religion and vigorous, liberating democracy.”2

That these Protestant and Whiggish pieties have been substantially modified in recent decades is partly the result of large shifts in power across the world, of the end of Franco’s regime in Spain, and of demographic and religious changes within the US itself. It is also the result of a historiographical revolution. Whereas Britain’s imperial record is now more often than not the subject of critical and disapproving scrutiny, Spain’s imperial experience has been reappraised, and in some respects—and especially…

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