Four nations history beyond the four nations
What are the pros and cons of four nations approaches? PhD student Tim Worth considers how far these methodologies can extend.
There is one question which continues to perplex me as a transnational historian: where exactly do the ‘four nations’ end? At first glance the answer appears to be very simple. The four nations are England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, therefore four nations history is largely confined to the Atlantic Archipelago. The history of these nations is of course deeply affected by other countries, yet the ‘new British history’ perspective generally asserts that the experiences of the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish are uniquely entwined. The English, Scots, Welsh and Irish, however, do not always stay in this neat little geographical arena. When Britons and the Irish migrate, can a four nations approach to history follow them across the seas?
The prospect is often tempting, and sometimes seems like quite an appropriate course of action. Let’s consider, for example, the issue of national identity in British colonies overseas. My own PhD research examines Scottophobia (anti-Scottish sentiment) in Britain and America during the years surrounding the American Revolution. On both sides of the Atlantic Scots were accused of controlling the government in secret and inciting the colonists to Revolution through the imposition of despotic measures. The London Evening Post claimed that ‘it is the interest and security of Scotch tyrants to make Englishmen the butchers of one another’, and that ‘Scotch tyranny is the great object and ground of the present ruinous war’. The Connecticut Journal meanwhile called on England and Ireland not to butcher their ‘fellow subjects’ in America, and instead unite against the ‘beggarly Scotchmen [who] have been put into every place of profit and trust’.
In the British context, it’s hard to argue against taking a four-nations approach to this issue; it simply can’t be understood from the perspective of one nation alone. But what about in America? Colonial society certainly consisted of Scottish, Irish and Welsh settlers alongside the English, with large-scale migration from the Highlands increasing the diversity of ‘British’ America in the years preceding the Revolution. Migrants from across the four nations sometimes settled in communities according to their nationality or ethnicity, such as Highland Scots in North Carolina. Yet many colonial towns also consisted of settlers from across Britain and Ireland living alongside one another and interacting on a regular basis. The colonists often described themselves as British rather than American, hence the outbreak of Revolution when denied the parliamentary representation they viewed as the birth right of British citizens. For studies of national identity and ethnicity in early America therefore, a four nations approach makes a lot of sense.
Problems arise however when we consider that colonial American society was not solely ‘British’. The US national census of 1790 records just under 700,000 slaves and 60,000 non-white ‘free persons’, together accounting for almost a fifth of the national population. One third of Pennsylvania’s population meanwhile consisted of German settlers by 1775, whilst one only has to glance at eighteenth-century newspapers to see the significance of interactions with Native Americans to colonial society. Taking an exclusively four nations approach to colonial American history therefore risks marginalising vast sections of colonial society who have all too often experienced this very treatment by historians in the past. There is also the matter of ‘creolization’, the transformation of old world cultures into entirely new colonial identities. Gradually settlers may discard English, Welsh, Irish or Scottish labels and become Americans instead. Although historical research may focus on the interactions of British settlers in colonial America, this ‘fifth nation’ is continually shadowing the traditional four.
In his ‘plea for a new subject’, Pocock’s intention was to combat the Anglo-centricity which had plagued British history for decades at the expense of the ‘Celtic fringe’. The four nations approach breaks down this narrow perspective and views British history as the experience of those throughout the Atlantic Archipelago. Although it is tempting to apply this approach to colonial American history, we perhaps risk pushing other peoples to the side-lines instead of combatting marginalisation.
London Evening Post, May 2, 1776 – May 4, 1776; Issue 8444.
Connecticut Journal, April 29th 1775, issue 393
Tim Worth gained his BA and MA in eighteenth-century history from Aberystwyth University, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton. Alongside Scottophobia his research interests include James Macpherson’s Ossian poems and eighteenth-century satirical prints.