Hedeen on Fradera, 'Imperial Nation: Ruling Citizens and Subjects in the British, French, Spanish, and American empires'

Josep Maria Fradera
Jonathan Hedeen

Josep Maria Fradera. Imperial Nation: Ruling Citizens and Subjects in the British, French, Spanish, and American empires. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. 399 pp. $31.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-16745-9.

Reviewed by Jonathan Hedeen (University of Wisconsin-Stout) Published on H-Atlantic (March, 2020) Commissioned by Bryan Rindfleisch (Marquette University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54682 

Bridging the Legacy of Monarchical Empires to Imperial Nations

In The Imperial Nation: Citizens and Subjects in the British, French, Spanish, and American Empires, Josep M. Fradera provides a monograph that bridges the political history of Atlantic world empires in the turbulent and transitionary eras of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Fradera, primarily a historian of imperial Spain, paints an expansive analysis of four empires and offers a refined approach to the changes in the political establishments of imperial cores and peripheries. The exploration of these political and structural changes of empire is direct and requires no overly specialized academic background in imperial history. Being that this work offers a more generalist analysis of these national histories, Fradera engaged only limitedly with their respective historiographies. Yet this expansive analysis of empires does not leave the reader wanting attention to detail.

The preface outlines the core of the book’s narrative framework as well as the thesis, which posits the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a time when the imperial metropoles created greater connection with their colonial peripheries. Perhaps no term is more central to Fradera’s argument than the French “spécialité or “special laws”; the idea that colonies and empires were to be governed by separate or special laws outside metropolitan constitutional, political, and juridical areas. This particular legal invention is what redefined the imperial transition from old monarchies to imperial nationhood. Thus, chapter 1 “The Fall of Monarchic Empires,” begins on the eve of the French Revolution and highlights the emerging issues that confronted Atlantic empires—both European and American—at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Chapter 2 “The Collapse of Imperial Constitutions,” is dedicated to the Atlantic Revolutions as the transformative points for this transition from monarchic empires to imperial constitutions to colonial constitutions and finally imperial nations. The Atlantic Revolutions (1775-1830) thereby represented the end of monarchic empires with their power derived from loyalty, paternalism, and repression. Yet these revolutions did not do away entirely with the bonds of monarchic empire. Instead, they represent an evolution in imperialism and a change in the relationship between the colonies and the imperial core. As monarchical authority collapsed, it was replaced with select colonial constitutions representing a division between the core and the periphery, foremost represented by the “special laws” under the First Consul of the French Republic. These special laws established that the metropolitan center would be governed by a different system of laws than the colonial periphery.

The first two chapters set the stage for the more general transition from monarchical paternalism to imperial nationhood throughout the Atlantic world. In chapter 3, “The Genealogy of Napoleon’s ‘Special Laws’ for the Colonies,” Fradera analyzes the Constitution of the French Republic that attempted to continue the legacy of monarchial paternalism in the imperial constitution. Yet this presented problems to the colonies, where not all French subjects enjoyed similar rights and representation. Slavery remained the core institution that plagued this transition for the empire and was most necessary to the creation of special laws. Slavery and the uneven political institutions once maintained by monarchial authority thereby had to be coopted into a new form of empire. It was through institutions like slavery, Fradera argues, that special laws separated the metropolitan institutions of the rights of man and citizen from the periphery of the empire, which hinged upon the politics and economics of slavery.

Chapters 4 through 6 form the core of the author's supportive analysis and provide the framework to conceptualize the bridge between the collapse of monarchial empires and the rise of the imperial nations. Chapter 4, “Beyond the American Crisis,” details the creation of the British imperial nation within the remaining colonies in North America. The remaining subjects of empire in North America—the Francophone Canadians, First Nations peoples, and Caribbean slave colonies—all saw modifications to their systems of “specialness” as imperial subjects. Fradera provides a brief discussion concerning the establishment of responsible government in the colonies, the degrees of imperial control over them, and the abolition of slavery within them. Altogether, for the British Empire to evolve after the American Revolution, the design of British special laws required imperial authority within the empire to be both strong and flexible. This created an imperfect system of patchwork  governments with limited degrees of political and social agency moving forward into the nineteeth century. Further additions to the colonies such as Hong Kong, India, and acquisitions in Africa fell directly into this system of British “specialness.” Separate systems of government and representation came to define this “empire of strangers” that was neither given representation nor considered for assimilation into a single imperial system.

Chapter 5, “Theory and Practice of French Spécialité,” returns to the implementation of “special laws” across the French Empire after the Napoleonic Wars. However, Fradera offers readers a deeper analysis of special laws and the theory and application after the Napoleonic era, as the Bourbon restoration continued many of the elements of Napoleonic special laws. Ordinances in 1825-28 for French possessions in the Caribbean fell in line with Napoleon's vison for a new colonial status or special laws in this region. However, by the 1830, the French Empire started to transition away from the special laws surrounding the institution of slavery, as begun with the Constitution of 1833. Abolition provided free people with elements of citizenship including political rights and representation. With the establishment of the Second French Republic in 1848, though, emancipation prompted new questions about citizenship and plans for assimilation. However, plans for total assimilation were pushed aside in favor of a political system that placed select distinctions among the three groups of French “citizens,” “subjects,” and “nationals” (p. 118). Here is where Fradera unpacks the evolution of spécialité further among these groups, using the case study of Algeria. To the Republic, Algeria was designed as a system much like the patchwork governments of the British Empire, ranging from full participation and representation of its citizens to the exclusion and subjugation of other subjects and nationals. This second stage of special laws and the varying degrees of representation within the empire thus defined the French transition from monarchical authority to imperial nationhood.  

Chapter 6, “Spain and Its Colonies: The Survival of the Oldest,” is artfully placed after discussions of the French and British empires. Fradera uses the Spanish case to address issues concerning the changes to Spain after the Napoleonic era but before the disastrous war against the United States and subsequent and collapse of empire in 1898. Similar to the British Empire after the American Revolution, the loss of so many of Spain’s colonies precipitated a redefinition of the imperial relationship with its subjects in the remainder. The idea of special laws in the Spanish Empire came with the Constitutional discussions in 1836 that divided European empires between the metropole/core and periphery colonies. Fradera focuses on how this discussion in Spain prompted the idea of “peninsular Spaniards” and "American Spaniards,” a series of distinctions between metropolitan and colonial subjects, while France and Britain engaged in that same process (p. 129). In particular, he explores Spain in Cuba in the 1870s and other colonies as examples of an emerging Spanish imperial nation. Maintaining strict military rule over its remaining colonies and thereby distinguishing between citizens in Spain and colonial subjects altogether fueled discontent and eventual conflict that led to Spain’s imperial decline, namely at the hands of the United States.

Thus, chapter 7, “The Long Road to 1898,” highlights the emergence of the United States as an empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, born of the special laws that were codified in the Federal Constitution of 1787. Here Fradera scaffolds the system of American spécialité using discussions from chapters 4-6, providing readers with clarity on the evolution of imperial nationhood from paternalist monarchial authority by defining citizenship according to birth and “naturalization.The United States example redefined the meaning and application of special laws in the Atlantic world, as demonstrated in the annexation of the Louisiana territory and the expulsion of First Nations people from the territories claimed by the American empire. From the purchase of the Louisiana territory to statehood in 1812, the “Americanization” of Louisiana demonstrates the cultural and political conquest that transformed the region and its peoples into a new imperial citizenry: once French and now American. Such legal and governmental changes were accelerated by the reintroduction of slavery and the removal of Native peoples. Likewise, the analysis of Louisiana is key to understanding the new American imperial nation on the eve of the Civil War. Fradera utilizes the Civil War as a major moment in the development of an American empire, setting the stage for its dramatic expansion in North America and beyond during the second half of the nineteenth century. Fradera then examines how the America war with Spain in 1898 represented the culmination of a near century-long imperial evolution within the Atlantic world. In particular, Fradera emphasizes that the territories annexed by the United States in 1898, Puerto Rice and the Philippines, were placed in an imperial space that was administered by the United States, but its people were never considered part of the American citizenry, similar to the Native peoples of North America.

Chapter 8, “The Imperial Nation,” and chapter 9, “Ruling Across the Color line,” tie together the four empires moving into the twentieth century, when their respective systems of special laws created a confusing and conflicting state of being and identity within each empire. By comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences between French, British, Spanish, and American definitions and evolutions of spécialité, Fradera demonstrates how the members of these four imperial nations—defined as citizens, subjects, or nationals—were either considered a part of or apart from the empire. Therefore, political representation within these four empires was dictated by those in the metropole and involved distinguishing who was and was not a “citizen” via race, settler colonialism, and religion.

Fradera’s analysis of imperial structure and transition in the Atlantic world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries offers readers a general analysis of the imperial era as well as a succinct comparison and contrast between four different, quite complex, Atlantic empires. Central to this work is the importance of spécialité,” or “special laws” that paved the way for the modernization of empires in the Atlantic world. In terms of criticism, a deeper engagement with the existing historiography for each empire would only have enhanced the importance of this dynamic work. Still, that should not detract from the importance of Fradera’s transatlantic imperial study.

Citation: Jonathan Hedeen. Review of Fradera, Josep Maria, Imperial Nation: Ruling Citizens and Subjects in the British, French, Spanish, and American empires. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. March, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54682

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.