In the Nineteenth Century one Western democracy led all others—Britain. At its height Britain possessed the greatest empire the world has ever seen. Nineteenth-century Britain grew into a Greater Britain, and its domestic history was inextricably bound up in imperial history, as foreign affairs were yoked to economic and industrial developments.
In the age of nationalism and imperialism, it was Britain that most often laid the political foundations for the European balance of power—sometimes by war, sometimes by treaty, often by holding aloof from any commitment to either side in a threatened conflict. No one doubted this supremacy from 1815 to 1850; clearly, Britain had challengers in the last half of the century, and equally clearly, by 1914 Britain was no longer preeminent.
Both economic and political factors account for Britain’s leadership in the nineteenth century. Britain had become the first industrial nation, the first to experience the industrial revolution, with its attendant changes in demography, society, and politics.
Thus for a time Britain was in a position to control the spread of the industrial revolution. In turn, this meant that Britain was the financial capital of the world. In 1900 this first modernized state enjoyed a favorable balance of trade of £100 million. Such financial strength meant that Britain was in a better position to use free trade, fair trade (which generally meant free trade within the empire and protective tariffs, the last after 1880, as economic conditions appeared to demand them.
But British dominance was based on more than economic factors. The British parliamentary system became for a time the model for representative government, so that political maturity was taken to mean achieving independence or stability through parliamentary government on British lines. The growth of constitutional government in western Europe, in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and in some measure in Argentina and Brazil, owed a heavy debt to British political thought and practice.
Britain also enjoyed enormous prestige, not alone for its economic leadership and democratic attainments but also for its influence in statecraft. British diplomacy was the protector of European stability. Britain succeeded in forcing the other great powers into a position by which they could gain access to the world only by sea—a sea dominated by the British navy. Only Russia and the United States remained outside Britain’s circle of maritime dominance. British statecraft was thus translated into real power and genuine influence that endured into the 1890s.
This influence was reinforced by a very real humanitarian impulse. At its best this impulse led to the abolition of the slave trade (1807), to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire (1833), to an extensive network of missionary activity abroad, and to the founding of the world’s first systematic private philanthropic societies.
At its worst this impulse led to direct intervention in the affairs of African and Asian states, allegedly for the good of their people, to bring them the fruits of modernization—improved transportation, communication, sanitation, and education. Such intervention, however, was often quite destructive and could easily serve the cynical manipulation of power. The idea that Britain knew best what “native” people needed, that Africans or Asians were civilized only if they dressed and spoke as the English did—such ideas fed on and would feed racism.
Important to the reforming impulse at home were various movements associated with women. As English society moved increasingly from an economic order based on land to one based on money, women became restive over their second-class status. The women’s movement, which embraced many reforms, was essentially driven by the middle class. Beginning in evangelical sects, where women preachers were accepted, and moving on to the antislavery movement, woman played important roles in broad social change. However, as they became successful in these spheres, they found themselves increasingly marginalized once again, being pressed into segregated ladies’ associations, so that gains from the early nineteenth century seemed lost by the middle of the century.
In the last quarter century, however, in part because women realized that they would have to demand equality rather than achieve it more simply through doing good works, the “Woman Question” joined the “Irish Question” as a subject of intense public debate. Two organizations led the way for woman: the Ladies National Association, founded by Josephine Butler (1828-1906), and the British Women’s Temperance Association.
The latter showed how effectively women could organize, even when it was not in their economic interest (the majority of sellers of beer were women, and many were licensed as publicans). Thus women joined with many men to take on the “Drink Question” as well, arguing that alcohol was destroying the family and was a direct cause of the increase in crime. Between 1870 and 1890 women found their voice, speaking to often large audiences on a range of issues, establishing purely secular associations to achieve political change.
A crucial victory was won over the contagious diseases acts. On the continent many governments had passed laws recognizing and regulating prostitutes. Efforts to introduce regulation failed in Britain until military reform focused on the health of soldiers, who had suffered greatly from venereal diseases during the Crimean War. Soldiers were not permitted to marry, and they very often frequented prostitutes. An act passed in 1864 required the registration of prostitutes in military and port towns; any woman frequenting a public place alone was interpreted by local authorities as a prostitute.
A second act gave the police the power to pick up any woman suspected of being a prostitute; a magistrate could order a medical examination and registration. A special police force was created to enforce the law, a clear invitation to abuse. No men were examined. Josephine Butler, the wife of an ordained Anglican minister, took the lead against the discriminatory acts in the 1870s. In 1886 the contagious disease acts were repealed.
The leaders of the movement to end the discriminatory acts went out into other reform movements. The first women’s suffrage societies were formed in 1867. In 1888 they, with women from the United States, created the International Council of Women. The movement spread to New Zealand and throughout the empire. By the 1890s “Monster Public Meetings” focused on the franchise became commonplace. Women made it clear that the notion of British superiority must either include them or be seen as a discriminatory male preserve.
In part, British preeminence rested on the simple British conviction of their own superiority. It also rested on the presence of vast numbers of Britons around the world. The nineteenth century saw a mass movement of people from Europe, greater than the world had ever known. While much of this movement, especially after 1880, was from southern and eastern Europe, more of it was from the British Isles.
Nearly 23 million emigrants left Europe between 1850 and 1900; 10 million of these were from Britain. Thus the English language and English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish cultures were spread throughout the world in the nineteenth century, and entire new nations were founded on the basis of this great migration.
All these factors were reflected in, contributed to, and were supported by the British Empire. Emigrants went to it, founding new nations; the navy used its ports to dominate the seas; humanitarians sought to demonstrate within it the values of British, Christian society.
Trade, finance, and technology migrated to an empire that was both formal and informal (informal, that is, in areas never annexed, though in fact dominated by the British economy, such as Argentina, Uruguay, parts of China, or the cattle kingdom of the United States). Each cause of preeminence fed another. As Britain transformed itself, it transformed other societies, until World War I—a war that it won, and in the winning, lost the world.