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John Robert Seeley, Liberalism and empire

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Parry, Jonathan 

Abstract

In 1883, a historical survey of the British Empire became a publishing hit: 80,000 copies were sold in two years. The book was The Expansion of England by John Robert Seeley, an academic historian who had been Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge since 1869. The timing was excellent. Its publication coincided with newspaper excitement about the European competition for territory in Africa - the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The book played an important role in explaining the empire to the British public in attractive terms, and therefore popularising the imperial idea in the late nineteenth century. It had a major impact on the thought of Lord Rosebery, who arranged for Seeley to be awarded the KCMG while he was Liberal Prime Minister in 1894. After Seeley’s early death in 1895, there was a campaign to commemorate his legacy as a public intellectual. In Cambridge, a fund was established in his name, which was attached to the library of the Cambridge History Faculty. Until 2008, his imprint was visible in the study of history in Cambridge in another way too: the main undergraduate course on territories outside Europe and the United States was called ‘The Expansion of Europe’.

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Journal of Liberal History

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