An Empire of Freedom

Blue Water Imperialism

The dominant 17th- and 18th-century British ideology of blue water imperialism was founded on the values of commerce and freedom—for some.

Learning Objectives

Define blue water imperialism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The dominant 17th- and 18th-century British imperialist ideology was founded on a liberal conception of freedom and commerce —however, this freedom was only conceptualized in terms of white Anglo-Saxon men.
  • British political principles and cultural practices were extended to the colonies through overseas trade.
  • The British hoped that commercial relations and a shared culture would bind the colonies and the metropole in a harmonious relationship.
  • The British liberals' preference for commerce over territorial acquisition was largely driven by the desire to avoid the economic costs of military expansion.
  • British liberals (who were primarily Protestants) thought that Protestantism was associated with political liberty, whereas Catholicism (the state religion of Spain and France) was associated with political despotism.
  • The American "language of liberty" refers to individuals' right to life, liberty, and property, and the duty to participate in civic affairs; this language, however, did not apply to American Indians, women, or slaves, who were denied civic and political rights.

Key Terms

  • metropole: The parent-state of a colony.
  • blue water empire: A name for the British empire that stretched across the Atlantic and was characterized as "Protestant, commercial, maritime, and free."
  • despotism: A term used to describe tyranny (dominance through threat of punishment and violence), absolutism, or dictatorship (a form of government in which the ruler is not restricted by a constitution, laws, or opposition).

An Empire of Liberty: Blue Water Imperialism

The dominant 17th- and 18th-century British imperialist ideology was founded on a liberal conception of freedom and commerce—however, this freedom was only conceptualized in terms of white Anglo-Saxon men. Theoretically, British imperialists envisioned a " blue water empire," in that the British empire stretching across the Atlantic was "Protestant, commercial, maritime, and free." In practice, this meant that British "liberties" and cultural practices were extended to the colonies through overseas trade, weaving the colonies together while forcefully displacing American Indians from their land and building the economy on the exploitation of slave labor.

Protestant Values

Broadly, blue water imperialists aimed to use the power of the metropole to enforce the proper conditions that would allow for commercial and maritime expansion. Therefore, blue water imperial ideology was not necessarily expansionist in terms of acquiring a territorial empire; rather, it aimed for an institutional framework of commercial, international trade in the Atlantic, which the imperialists believed would function as a mechanism for extending British imperial influence to the colonies.

British liberals considered this framework of blue water empire to be anti-despotic—the government sought trade markets abroad in order to extend imperial influence commercially, without arbitrary territorial expansion. Such an empire therefore could not be Catholic because (in the 18th-century Protestant political worldview) Catholics owed allegiance to one ruler, the Pope. The Vatican claimed unlimited spiritual authority over all Catholics, regardless of national identity, which Protestants feared could translate into unlimited political authority as well. Furthermore, Catholicism was the traditional state religion of Spain and France—nations that, according to British liberals, were traditionally ruled by authoritarian, despotic, monarchical power.

British Protestants thus claimed that Catholicism tended to lead to political despotism. They perceived their own religion of Protestantism, on the other hand, to be the religion of liberty. For instance, British liberals viewed their government as the model of Protestant spirit because of its representative legislative body—a parliament that functioned as a check on the authoritarian tendencies of the Crown. British liberals viewed representative government as a hallmark of Protestantism because it counteracted the despotic, authoritarian, and "Catholic" tendencies of monarchy and arbitrary power.

Commercial Values

Blue water empire ideology also hinged on the expansion of international commerce and national wealth. For most 18th-century liberals, commerce was considered to be of utmost importance, rather than territorial expansion. The building of blue water British empire required only human labor and human interaction—large armies were not needed as they were for maintaining territorial acquisitions. Instead, they believed commerce could be conducted peacefully—since it would create a fair market for mutually beneficial trade that required little government interaction.

Furthermore, through overseas commercial markets, British influence would extend rapidly, linking colonies and other nations to British interests without directly occupying foreign territories. Hence, commerce should be an unfettered enterprise: the colonies and the metropole would weave together a common culture and identity through mutual and harmonious trading interests as opposed to conquering foreign territories with expensive armies and engaging in conflict with colonized peoples.

Maritime Policies

Since trade was to be international and mutually beneficial to all Atlantic nations and colonies, blue water empire was thus a maritime project. If the British empire was not going to be based on territorial acquisitions, then it was necessary to control the seas through naval superiority to protect commerce. By definition, blue water empire was an empire of the seas, and the expansion of Britain into the Atlantic was of paramount importance to expanding British trade influences. Hence, for liberals, maritime meant using the navy to establish British superiority over the seas so that commerce and colonization could occur, as they perceived, peacefully. British citizenship and freedoms therefore extended to the Atlantic colonies through British maritime superiority, where merchants could securely exchange goods because of royal naval protection.

Freedom in blue water empire ideology was the defining characteristic that reconciled the inherent tensions between the notion of empire and liberty for 18th-century British liberals. Blue water empire was lauded by its proponents as a non-coercive enterprise because it used the seas as an environment for mutually beneficial commerce, did not seek mass territorial gains and did not require a large standing army to maintain. Liberals believed that through Protestant, commercial, and maritime policies, Britain extended liberties to the Atlantic colonies rather than creating a coercive, territorial empire of (political) "slaves." By using commerce as a vehicle for maritime colonial expansion, Britain extended its values culture to the Atlantic world on a massive scale while simultaneously forging an empire that proclaimed itself as one of liberty.

The Language of Liberty in the Colonies

The American language of liberty is a concept deeply rooted in the Anglo-American colonial experience as well as the American Revolution. It is invoked to describe the fundamental rights of citizens as would be defined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Broadly, the "language of liberty" includes widespread political participation, the duty of the citizen to safeguard against arbitrary despotism, and the right of citizens to life and liberty. Significantly, the language of liberty did not apply to American Indians (who were not considered citizens), women (who were largely considered property of their husbands), and slaves (who were deemed as chattel property).

Colonial Period: Voting, Civic Duty, and Representation

American colonial governments were a local enterprise, with deep roots in a given community and with elected assemblies directly influencing the development of a wide range of public and private businesses. Therefore, Anglo-American colonies were extensive communal cultures, centered on the civic and political sphere. Participation in civic life—through festivals, commemorations, the militia, and court trials—was prevalent, and most free white males in the colonies were expected to partake in some facet of public civic life. Public colonial elections were events in which all free white males were expected to participate in order to demonstrate proper civic pride. Elections became the main forum in which men could publicly profess political allegiances, demonstrating local civic pride to a community that placed high importance on it.

Such widespread participation in local community governments was characteristic solely of the Anglo-American colonies. Compared to Europe, where aristocratic families and the established church were in control, the American political culture was somewhat more open to economic, social, religious, ethnic, and geographical interests.

Slavery and the Language of Liberty

Despite the values inherent in the language of liberty, this language did not apply to slaves, and colonial culture safeguarded American slavery as a fundamental right of white men to their property. As slavery flourished throughout the 18th century, many contemporaries remarked on the institution as a "necessary evil" or a "positive good" to American society and economy. Necessary evil referred to the fear of many whites that if black slaves were emancipated, the social and economic consequences would be more harmful to American liberty than the continuation of slavery. This fear was most prevalent in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, when ex-slaves in Haiti massacred their white masters and established a subsistence economy based on peasant proprietorship.

Other pro-slavery advocates claimed that slavery was a "positive good" as it was a beneficial scheme of labor control. This view was embodied in a famous and highly problematic speech by John C. Calhoun. It claimed that in every civilized society one portion of the community must live on the labor of another; learning, science, and the arts are built upon leisure; the African slave, kindly treated by his master and mistress and looked after in his old age, is better off than the free laborers of Europe; and under the slave system, conflicts between capital and labor are avoided.


Sugarcane lithograph by Theodore Bray: This 19th century lithograph depicts colonial sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean.

The Concept of Civic Duty

After the Glorious Revolution, British and Anglo-American intellectuals contended that (white) men had inalienable rights to liberty and property.

Learning Objectives

Generalize Anglo-American colonial civic ideology

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • After the Glorious Revolution and inspired by Enlightenment thinkers, British thinkers forged a national political identity based on the ideas of freedom and accountable government.
  • In the Anglo-American colonies, intellectuals were inspired by the Glorious Revolution and by the local, majoritarian forms of government in the colonies.
  • Widespread political participation and the concept of American civic duty mingled with British liberal values to form a distinct Anglo-American colonial identity; this identity would become influential during the conflicts leading to the American Revolution.

Key Terms

  • Enlightenment: A 17th- and 18th-century philosophical movement in European history that emphasized rationalism; also called the Age of Reason.
  • Glorious Revolution: The overthrow of King James II of England (James VII of Scotland and James II of Ireland) by a union of English Parliamentarians with the Dutch William III of Orange-Nassau (William of Orange).

British Patriotism, British Identity

The Glorious Revolution

In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, many British intellectuals reevaluated the identity of Britain as a nation and empire. When James II attempted to impose taxes without parliamentary approval and converted to Catholicism, Parliament offered the crown to Mary and William of Orange, which affirmed the supremacy of Parliament and Protestantism over Monarchy and Catholicism, and was perceived as authoritarian. For many British subjects, the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution ushered in a period of pride and reevaluation of national identity.

Enlightenment Thinkers

The events of the Glorious Revolution reaffirmed that Parliament was the highest authority in the nation, and more significantly, that the monarch could not rule without parliamentary consent and approval. Furthermore, as emphasized by 17th-century Enlightenment thinkers, Parliament was considered the least corrupt form of government because governments derived existence from the consent of the governed, and the elected representative body was answerable to its constituents.

The highly intellectual Enlightenment was dominated by philosophers who opposed the absolute rule of the monarchs of their day and instead emphasized the equality of all individuals and the idea that governments derived their existence from the consent of the governed. For instance, in 1690, John Locke (one of the fathers of the English Enlightenment) wrote that all people have fundamental natural rights to "life, liberty, and property " and that governments were created in order to protect these rights. If they did not, according to Locke, the people had a right to alter or abolish their government.

Portrait of John Locke

John Locke: John Locke is often credited for the creation of liberalism as a philosophical tradition.

The Rights of Englishmen

The ensuing language of the " rights of Englishmen " that dominated 17th- and 18th-century discourse in Britain and the North American colonies thus gave rise to a sense of national identity that revolved around the belief that (white) men held certain "inalienable" rights of liberty and property that could not be violated by any political power. For instance, even though most British males did not meet the property ownership requirements for suffrage, the representative traits of Parliament were praised by many intellectual contemporaries who believed that such a political system best embodied the "social contract" that men used to create civilization and political authority.

Anglo-American Colonial Identity and Civic Duty

While British intellectuals and leaders formulated a concept of "British identity" in the 17th and 18th centuries, Anglo-American colonists in North America also developed an identity that drew heavily on both British liberalism and the colonial American experience. Unlike the colonial mother state of Britain, Anglo-American colonial representative government was an intensely localized process where elections and participation in assemblies and court trials were a fundamental aspect of proper civic life. For instance, public colonial elections were events in which all free white males were expected to participate in order to demonstrate proper civic pride. Public office attracted many talented young men of ambition to civil service, and colonial North American suffrage was one of the most widespread in the world at that time, with every man who owned a certain amount of property allowed to vote. The widespread availability of property in the 13 colonies provided most white males with the opportunity to own some amount of property; therefore, while fewer than 1% of British men could vote, a majority of white American men were eligible to vote and run for office.

Participation in public and political life was remarkably widespread, at least for white men and especially when compared with the more rigid, elitist systems in Europe. American colonial politics revolved around the notion of public civic life and responsibility, an ideology that included:

  1. Civic duty: Citizens have the responsibility to understand and support the government, participate in elections, pay taxes, and perform military service.
  2. United opposition to political corruption.
  3. Democracy: The government is answerable to citizens, who may change the representatives through elections.
  4. Equality before the law: The laws should attach no special privilege to any citizen, and government officials and wealthier citizens are also subject to the law. This markedly only applied to equality for white men and excluded slaves, American Indians, and women.
  5. Freedom of religion: The government can neither support nor suppress religion.
  6. Freedom of speech: The government cannot restrict the citizen's right to criticize authority or voice opposition to the government.

Most of these principles evolved out of centuries-long colonial tradition (beginning with the Pilgrims fleeing religious restriction in England) rather than any collective, intended ambition to create a democratic society. By the mid-18th century, these civic ideals had been enshrined in the American colonial political system as a fundamental foundation of political rights and liberties. While inspired by inspired by British values, the political system was also distinct from them. With the building conflict with Britain in the 1760s and 1770s, these principles (particularly that the government is answerable to citizens and political representation is a requisite for implementing new taxes) were often invoked by colonists as justification for boycotting British goods and other forms of resistance that led to the American Revolution.

Classical Liberalism

Classical liberalism is a political philosophy committed to limited government, the rule of law, individual liberties, and free markets.

Learning Objectives

Define classical liberalism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Classical liberalism developed over the course of the 18th and 19th century in the United States and Britain, drawing upon Enlightenment sources from the 1700s and 1800s.
  • Classical liberalism was an intellectual response to the Industrial Revolution and the problems associated with urbanization.
  • Among individual liberties, classical liberalism put particular emphasis on property rights.
  • Classical liberalism was based on a theory of human nature that saw humans as egoistic and motivated by self-interest.
  • Classical liberals argue that society is best constituted when it allows individuals to freely pursue their self-interest.
  • Classical liberals believed that free international trade would lead to peaceful, harmonious international order.

Key Terms

  • classical liberalism: A political ideology that advocates limited government, constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, free markets, and individual liberties including freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly.
  • laissez-faire: An economic environment in which transactions between private parties are free from tariffs, government subsidies, and enforced monopolies, with only enough government regulations sufficient to protect property rights against theft and aggression.
  • free market: Any economic system in which trade is unregulated; an economic system free from government intervention.

Classical Liberalism and the Notion of Freedom

Classical liberalism is a philosophy committed to the ideals of limited government, constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, and liberty of individuals. These liberties include freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets. Classical liberalism developed over the course of the 1800s in the United States and Britain and drew upon Enlightenment sources (particularly the works of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Adam Smith ). It was an intellectual response to the Industrial Revolution and the problems associated with urbanization.

Portrait of Adam Smith

Adam Smith : Adam Smith was a Scottish moral philosopher, pioneer of political economy, and a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Core Principles

Human Nature

Classical liberalism places a particular emphasis on the sovereignty of the individual and considers property rights an essential component of individual liberty. Later in 19th-century political theory, this would encourage "laissez-faire" public policy that would not heavily interfere in commerce or industry. Most classical liberals argued that humans are calculating, egoistic creatures, motivated solely by pain and pleasure; humans make decisions intended to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, while in the absence of pain or pleasure, they become inert. Hence, classical liberals believed that individuals should be free to pursue their self-interest without societal control or restraint.

Classical liberalism determined that individuals should be free to obtain work from the highest-paying employers. In a free market, labor and capital would therefore receive the greatest possible reward, while production would be organized efficiently to meet consumer demand. Classical liberals also saw poor urban conditions as inevitable, and therefore opposed any income or wealth redistribution.

The Role of Government

Classical liberals agreed with Adam Smith that government had only three essential functions: protection against foreign invaders, protection of citizens from wrongs committed against them by other citizens, and the building and maintaining of public institutions and public works that the private sector could not profitably provide. Classical liberals extended protection of the country to protection of overseas markets through armed intervention. Protection of individuals against wrongs normally meant protection of private property. Public works included a stable currency; standard weights and measures; support of roads, canals, harbors, and railways; and postal and other communications services that facilitated urban and industrial development.

World Peace

Additionally, classical liberals believed that unfettered commerce with other nations would eventually eliminate war and imperial conflicts. Through peaceful, harmonious trade relationships established by private merchants and companies without government interference, mutual national interest and prosperity would derive from commercial exchange rather than imperial territorial acquisition (which liberals saw as the root of all wars). World peace, for classical liberals, was a real possibility if national governments would allow interdependent global commercial relationships to form.

Licenses and Attributions

More Study Resources for You

Show More