Modern Britain: 1688 to the present
Duke University, Fall 2011 


With imperial holdings on six continents, the British Empire was one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. As the saying went, at its peak in the early twentieth century, “the sun never set on the British Empire.” But what about the imperial nation itself, Great Britain? How did a nation that did not even exist in 1688 come to virtually rule the world two centuries later? This is the question that we will explore this semester. This class tells the story of how a small cluster of islands off the coast of continental Europe became the world’s greatest power, and what that meant for the people living in these islands and for British colonial subjects across the globe. In the process, we will focus on a number of themes: how Great Britain and eventually the United Kingdom came into existence and the internal colonial politics inherent to those endeavors; how the British state expanded and Britain became the dominant European power; how the loss of the American colonies led to an even larger empire throughout the nineteenth century; and how colonial peoples constantly challenged imperial rule and eventually gained their independence through decolonization. But this is not just a course on the empire; it is also a course about British society: about the development of a British national identity; about the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution; about the constant demands from various groups to be included in the polity—the middle and working classes, nonconformist Protestants, Catholics, the Irish, women, and immigrants, to name a few; and about the devastating effects of two world wars on the home front and British society’s struggle to recover from them. Towards the end of the class, we’ll look at Britain today. Is it still a world power, or has it returned to its former status as a small cluster of islands off the coast of Europe?

Select Readings

Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837
Elizabeth Haskell, North and South
Maya Jasanoff, Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World
Andrea Levy, Small Island: A Novel
Susan Pedersen, Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience