The Fifth Nation in the Four Nations Approach?

The Fifth Nation in the Four Nations Approach?

Dr Edward Bujak (Harlaxton College) uses representations of Britain’s 18th century North American wars to ask how many nations we should include in our approach.

            Teaching American undergraduates taking one semester of study in the UK (as currently constituted) about the UK, has made me wonder whether the four nations model should be extended to five. In studying the construction of the British state in the 18th century, and the mechanisms that bound together a new sense of British identity, we ask students to consider the painting The Death of General Wolfe by the American artist Benjamin West. The painting, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771, depicts the death of General Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec in 1759, dying, conveniently, under a furled Union flag. The iconography is unequivocal. Here is a martyred British general, in a red-coat, making the ultimate sacrifice to secure Britain’s dominance of North America – hence the Native American posed in deference to the scene.[1] The other figures stand mournfully over the body of Wolfe. If Britons were going to develop patriotic feelings about a state forged together in 1707 by expediency and pragmatism, then they were going to need national heroes. In this “intricately composed narrative, West effectively expressed the growing nationalist orientation of his countrymen”[2] whether they were English, Scottish, Welsh, or colonists.

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe (1771)

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe (1771)

            Great Britain was, after all “an invented nation superimposed, if only for a while, onto much older alignments and loyalties … in response to conflict with the Other”[3], namely France. In the painting the redcoats are joined in mourning by colonial militiamen. In the Seven Year’s War (1756-1763), two-thirds of Britain’s troops were “provided by the very people who, with French military help …defeated her in 1781”.[4] Painted in 1771, this was a powerful, if soon to become redundant, attempt to remind Britons on both sides of the Atlantic that only twelve years previously they had fought together under the same flag.

For very different motives Wolfe was claimed by the American colonists. In 1775, in the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, Thomas Paine published a Dialogue between General Wolfe and General Gage in a Wood near Boston in which Wolfe’s ghost appears before Gage:

 Gen. GAGE.  I am glad to see you my dear Mr. Wolfe, but what has brought you back again to this world?

  Gen. WOLFE.  I am sent by a group of British heroes to remonstrate with you upon your errand to this place …You have come here to deprive your fellow subjects of their liberty.

Gen. GAGE.  God forbid! I am come here to execute the orders of my Sovereign …

Gen. WOLFE.  Strange language from a British soldier! I honour the crown of Great Britain as an essential part of her excellent constitution. I served a Sovereign … yet such was the free spirit of the troops under my command, that I could never animate them with a proper martial spirit without setting before them the glorious objects, of their King and their COUNTRY.

  Gen. GAGE.  The orders of my Sovereign have been sanctified by the Parliament of Great Britain … They will fight for their country as well as their King.

  Gen. WOLFE.  The wisest assemblies of men are as liable as individuals, to corruption and error … The American colonies are entitled to all the privileges of British subjects. Equality of liberty is the glory of every Briton. He does not forfeit it by crossing the Ocean …[5]

            In this dialogue Paine harks back to a liminal space in which it was possible to wear a red-coat, be a British hero, and be a supporter of the colonists. In class, the notion of West, an American artist born in Pennsylvania, choosing a British general as his theme, or Paine, choosing a British general as his protagonist can be perplexing given a memory of Britain and America at war. Historically, the war was more complex as Linda Colley discusses in her review of Liberty’s Exiles by Maya Jasanoff:

When war erupted between Britain and its 13 North American colonies in 1775, a fifth (possibly as many as a third) of American colonists, as well as large numbers of indigenous peoples and free and enslaved blacks … aligned themselves in support of a continuing transatlantic imperial and regnal connection … A war involving high political ideals … was also – as civil wars generally are – bloody, arbitrary and extremely cruel … For a very long time, loyalists were often left out of patriotic American histories of the revolution. Or they were caricatured as upper-class Tory reactionaries, or – rather like the Jacobites – made the subject only of nostalgic antiquarianism.[6] 

At the other extreme, as Nick Cohen explains in his review of Brendan Simms, Three Victories and Defeat: “Simms is refreshingly unsentimental about the revolution, seeing it, quite rightly, as a clash of imperialisms. Benjamin Franklin and many others had been empire loyalists. When they realised that the Tory policy of avoiding conflict [with France] would stop the 13 colonies expanding across the continent, they revolted.”[7]

Britain was, and still is, a composite state. The four nations approach allows for multiple combinations to be considered, but up to 1783, Britain was a transatlantic state comprising a fifth nation – the 13 American colonies. Britain, having replaced France as the Other in the colonial setting, ultimately lost the American War of Independence, or the American Revolutionary War. Or was this a constitutional civil war that culminated in partition as well as independence?

[1] Vivien Green Fryd, “Rereading the Indian in Benjamin West’s ‘Death of General Wolfe.’” American Art, Vol. 9, No. 1. (Spring, 1995), p. 78. See also Philip Buckner and John G. Reid, Remembering 1759: The Conquest of Canada in Historical Memory (Toronto, 2012)

[2] Dennis Montagna, “Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe: A Nationalist Narrative”, The American Art Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Spring, 1981), p. 80

[3] Linda Colley, Britons, Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, 1992), pp. 5-6

[4] Keith Perry, British Politics and the American Revolution (London,1990), p. 95

[5] Thomas Paine, “A Dialogue between General Wolfe and General Gage in a Wood near Boston” in Life and Writings of Thomas Paine (1908), See also  Alan McNairn, Behold the Hero: General Wolfe and the Arts in the Eighteenth Century (Liverpool, 1997), p. 215

[6] Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff, review by Linda Colley

[7] Nick Cohen, “Lessons in Independence”, The Observer, 4 November (2007),

Dr Edward Bujak is Associate Professor of British Studies and Chairs the British Studies programme at Harlaxton College. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Royal Society of Arts and the Higher Education Academy. He is the author of England’s Rural Realms: Landownership and the Agricultural Revolution (I. B. Tauris, 2008) and Reckless Fellows: The Gentlemen of the Royal Flying Corps (I.B. Tauris, 2015).


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