The History of England (abridged)

f019e13e6b24a025969336e6741444341587343The History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

The progress of history is ever moving forward, away from superstition and autocracy towards free-thought and greater liberty, at least that what Lord Macaulay believed. In his The History of England (from the Accession of James the Second), Macaulay brings forth “the Whig interpretation of history” for the first time that changed how history was interpretation for the next century.

This abridgment of Macaulay’s five-volume history of events leading up to the Glorious Revolution during James II reign through the death of William III begins with Macaulay’s purpose for his work. The first half of the abridgment covers how James II began his reign by slowly alienating his traditional supporters in the Anglican Church and Tory county squires by putting Roman Catholics in high positions and supporting the Irish against Anglo-Scot colonists. Even though he survived one rebellion early in his reign, James kept on escalating his efforts until both “Exclusionist” and Tory politicians—including moderate Roman Catholics—joined forces to invite William to take the throne. The second half of the abridgment covers William’s invasion and the Revolution in all three Kingdoms, not just England. While the English portion was political rather than martial, it was not the same in Ireland and Scotland as battles between those supporting James and William took place in bloody fashion though mostly in Ireland. Another bit of history was the religious aspect of the Revolution, while in England there was more toleration in practice which included Roman Catholics it was a different matter entirely in Scotland were Presbyterians retook control after suffering under Restoration policies for over 30 years. Finally, the effects of the Revolution on finance and Parliamentary corruption are examined before Macaulay’s final summing up.

While Hugh Trevor-Roper did an admirable job in selecting portions over five volumes into approximately 550 pages, it is also the main problem with the book. With such a reduction of Macaulay’s prose, the reader gets glimpses of his thoughts and intentions but without consistency the reader doesn’t get the importance of the overall work. As for the work itself, Macaulay’s bias of excusing his hero (William III) and aggressively character assassinating those he dislikes (Marlborough), is one of the biggest flaws.

The History of England is a glimpse into the larger work of Lord Macaulay that really doesn’t give the reader a constancy to see why it was such an important piece of historical literature. If given the choice, I would have chosen five books of the total work over a short abridgment.

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The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

031216985x.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The largest empire in history ended less than a century ago, yet the legacy of how it rose and how it fell will impact the world for longer than it existed. Lawrence James’ chronicles the 400-year long history of The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, from its begins on the eastern seaboard of North American spanning a quarter of the world to the collection of tiny outposts scattered across the globe.

Neither a simple nor a comprehensive history, James looks at the British Empire in the vain of economic, martial, political, and cultural elements not only in Britain but in the colonies as well. Beginning with the various settlements on the eastern seaboard of North America, James describes the various colonies and latter colonial administrators that made their way from Britain to locations around the globe which would have an impact on attitudes of the Empire over the centuries. The role of economics in not only the growth the empire but also the Royal Navy that quickly became interdependent and along with the growth of the Empire’s size the same with the nation’s prestige. The lessons of the American War of Independence not only in terms of military fragility, but also politically influenced how Britain developed the “white” dominions over the coming centuries. And the effect of the liberal, moralistic bent of the Empire to paternally watch over “lesser” peoples and teach them clashing with the bombast of the late-19th Century rush of imperialism in the last century of the Empire’s exists and its effects both at home and abroad.

Composing an overview of 400-years of history than spans across the globe and noting the effects on not only Britain but the territories it once controlled was no easy task, especially in roughly 630 pages of text. James attempted to balance the “positive” and “negative” historiography of the Empire while also adding to it. The contrast between upper-and upper-middle class Britons thinking of the Empire with that of the working-class Britons and colonial subjects was one of the most interesting narratives that James brought to the book especially in the twilight years of the Empire. Although it is hard to fault James given the vast swath of history he tackled there were some mythical history elements in his relating of the American War of Independence that makes the more critical reader take pause on if the related histories of India, South Africa, Egypt, and others do not contain similar historical myths.

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire is neither a multi-volume comprehensive history nor a simple history that deals with popular myths of history, it is an overview of how an island nation came to govern over a quarter of the globe through cultural, economic, martial, and political developments. Lawrence James’s book is readable to both general and critical history readers and highly recommended.

How the Irish Saved Civilization (Hinges of History #1)

0385418493.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The titular question of Thomas Cahill’s first Hinges of History book is one that gets people interested in picking it up. Yet the length of How the Irish Saved Civilization brings into question on if Cahill adequately answers his own question with such a slender book that promoted becoming a bestseller.

Cahill’s focus is on the end of the Western Roman Empire and how the literary tradition, in fact literacy itself survived the end of the Roman era and begin in the new Germanic aftermath of the fall of Rome. The survival of literacy in Europe is thanks to the efforts of the newly Christianized Irish, the people not considered worth the conquest by Rome that keeps the legacy of Rome alive in Western Europe. The Irish through the missionary effort of the future St. Patrick turn from a non-literate oral society into a literate and learning center in less than a century. The proud warrior-centered culture became “warriors” for learning that attracted scholars all over Europe to learn and read at the many monasteries, but then the Irish started spread away from their island home first across the Irish Sea to Great Britain than all across Europe founding monasteries as they went to continued their tradition.

Cahill attempts to create portraits of the Irish before and after their conversion to display how their culture changed, but also how it stayed the same and influenced the Celtic Christian tradition of the British Isles. In contrast, Cahill portrayed the Roman worldview and culture including how it influenced Roman Christianity. Although both these attempts were somewhat successful, the result in the book came off as a little disjointed in cohesion. The lack of firm historical data or sources for some of Cahill’s depiction of St. Patrick, acknowledged in the book’s bibliographic sources hurts of the quality of the overall work as well.

How the Irish Saved Civilization is a nice history for the general reader, however unlike later installments of the Hinges of History series it is lacking in a quality connected structure and solid sources. Cahill should be praised in giving readers understanding in how the society of Western Europe both changed and stayed the same with the fall of Rome and the beginning of the early Middle Ages, however the quality of the book is only so-so.

Cities of Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World

0805093087.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Cities of Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World by Tristram Hunt
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I received an Advanced Reader’s Edition of this book via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

The legacy of the economic and political practices of the growth of the British Empire and the implemented of those practices in colonial cities are at the root of Tristram Hunt’s Cites of Empire.  Instead of looking at the British Empire as either a good or bad “thing”, Hunt examines how it grew and the impact it has on our world today while not forgetting the motivations of those who implemented the policies in the first place.

Hunt examines 10 cities connected to the spread of Britain’s empire around the world, giving each city its own exclusive chapter.  While each city is given its own history, Hunt shows how the British experiences in one city affected their decisions in others he was writing about.  The history of a particular city is not the only thing covered with the individuals who impacted it; Hunt gives the reader a wonderful portrait of the cultural, social, and architectural developments along with those who promoted them.

While Hunt’s descriptive writing of the architectural are wonderful, the text would have been enhanced with illustrations of some kind of the building he was describing (thought as I was reading an advanced reader’s edition of the book there might be some in for sale edition).  The maps at the opening of each chapter helped to place the buildings and other geographical issues into context if one got confused for any reason.  Although Hunt’s insights into the society of the cities he writes about, at times the information he writes feels like a redux of previous cities’ and so slowed my reading as thought back on previous chapters.

Upon finishing Cities of Empire I had a better sense of the imperial history of British colonization, a topic in history that I have personally wanting to know more about.  Although not perfect, Tristram Hunt’s book gives the reader a history of the British Empire and its legacy in the 21st Century without judging or defending as good or evil.  I whole recommend this book to those interested in the spread of British culture around the world.