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The British Empire and International Affairs Expository Essay

Even before the American revolutionary war, which occurred from 1756-1763, Britain had already begun maintaining its global openness. Great Britain began reducing its trade barriers during the 1820s. Its international supremacy rose during this time.

Even though, Britain lost most of its colonies during the American Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, its economic policies rose above the United States as well as other European powers in the international affairs (O’Brien & Clesse 2002, p.352). In fact, the economic liberalization policies made it possible for Britain to maintain supremacy in the international affairs (Lance & Huttenback, 1986).

Hegemony can be described as the liberalization of international economic and financial systems. Conventionally, the term was used to describe the imperial euphemism. It was used to describe the role of a leader of the economic unions or an alliance primarily formed for economic reasons (O’Brien & Clesse 2002, p.321).

The major difference between hegemony and empire is that empires have absolute authority over the subjects. They control economic, political, and social well being of the subjects. In contrast, hegemonic powers do not go beyond borders. They majorly concentrate on the provision of international public goods (O’Brien & Clesse 2002, 321).

The major question is how Britain managed to maintain its hegemonic powers even after the cessation of most of its colonies. That is, after the American Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Britain lost these wars simply because of the economic constraints experienced in both debt and resources. However, the empire had good infrastructural facilities. The loyalty in most colonies were reasonably sound and stable (Bobbitt, 2003). During the American Revolution, a majority of the colonies maintained their loyalty to Great Britain.

In addition, most colonies that were annexed appeared to be in the political and economic disarray. In fact, these colonies were not unified. The colonies’ governments were largely economic and political impotent to have total control over the world in terms of economic and political affairs (Bobbitt, 2003).

The result was that Britain maintained their economic supremacy and political influence through alliances with its former colonies. America later came to have control over the international affairs. However, their relationship with Britain still suggested the role Britain played in the international affairs (Lance & Huttenback, 1986).

The way Britain maintained its control over the international affairs was based on the intellectual change in commercial policies that took place immediately after the Napoleonic wars (Paul, 1989). In other words, Britain changed its economic policy from the mercantilist foreign economic policy to the revolutionary laissez-faire economic liberalism initiated by Adam Smith.

This new trade policy played a crucial role in shaping the Britain hegemonic powers. This was after the loss of the American colonies and most of the European colonies during the Napoleonic wars. According to various scholars, Britain did not start pursuing its economic openness until the eighteen twenties (Lance & Huttenback, 1986).

However, this pursuit contributed largely to its current achievement in the control of the international affairs. In fact, Great Britain started to liberalize its economic policies during the seventeen eighties. This was after its powers were under constant threat. Britain was operating in a hostile and multi-polar system.

It was the time when Britain gave up its control over most European and American colonies. However, it was left with minimal control over the most powerful colonies. The Britain thus sought for economic openness and cordial political relations. These were meant to foster its international control (Lance & Huttenback, 1986). Besides, Britain took advantage of the political and economic instability in most of the relinquished colonies to have control over most of its affairs.

The Britain’s economic policies shifted towards free trade. It controlled the structure of interests, key institutions as well as powers both at the domestic and international levels (Fareed, 2007). However, the interest in the control of most institutions undermined the country’s commercial strategies during this period. Nevertheless, Britain had many economic strategies to choose from as it continued to pursue power.

Britain hegemonic shift during the American Revolution depended on the influence of its enterprising intellectual such as Adam Smith. According to literature, Adam Smith predicted that mercantilism brought about conflicts (Fareed, 2007). During this time, Shelburne, a leading member of British parliament, salvaged the opposition support. The intention was to control the government, grant independence to American colonies, and reform the British economic policy (Paul, 1989).

At first, Shelburne embraced the mercantile-economic system. The belief was that the system was the best to maintain the British Empire. He emphatically argued that the commercial regulations were the solutions to the American Revolution. This was contrary to the belief of most intellectuals such as Adam Smith. Smith believed that mercantile was the cause of constant conflicts that the empire was experiencing (Paul, 1989).

Nevertheless, his constant engagement with the enterprising intellectuals made him change his mind. Moreover, the public was in full support of the free trade policies. For instance, the Ireland uprising appeared to be in full support of the free trade. This made Shelburne change his assumption. When he later became the prime minister, he planned the post war resolution to exemplify Smith’s predictions (O’Brien & Clesse 2002, p.359).

Shelburne provided the American independence, embraced peace for Europe, and advocated for trade liberalization. Though his tenure was short, the initiatives he put in place provided a foundation for the liberalized economic reforms that ensured Britain’s perpetual control over the world affairs.

The process in which Britain kept its hegemony over the years did not explain the importance of the colonies as well as the wars that Britain fought during these periods. The American colonies were both beneficial and a burden to the British government (O’Brien & Clesse 2002, p.354).

However, the colonies were more of a burden to Britain than the benefit they brought with them. In the first instance, the colonies were expensive to maintain even though the British government would economically benefit in terms of resources and trade. In addition, the taxes that Britain was getting from these colonies were enormous.

Nevertheless, the taxes could not support the colonies both administratively and militarily. As a result, Britain ran into debts as well as the economic downturn (Fareed 2007, p.162). This was coupled with the economic policy of control that did not allow free enterprising and trade.

The fear that was expressed by the American Revolution supporters confirmed the suspicion that most of the American radical leaders had on the British government. Besides, most of the Americans were used to the substantial level of freedom and self-government (Lance & Huttenback, 1986). The French experience instilled some fear in most revolutionary leaders.

They decided to rail against the attempts by the British governments to impose taxes and pay the imperial defense costs. The costs were in the form of assorted taxes and duties. The revolutionary leaders also rejected the attempts by the colonial government. This government wanted to impose mercantilist economic regulations. It also wanted to put the colonial legislators second after that of London.

The American resistance led to the revolution and the fall of the British control in thirteen colonies. Even though Britain managed to maintain control over several states, the Americans did not surrender to the pressure. Immediately after the Saratoga victory, in seventeen seventy-seven, the civil war rocked the empire. Every colony in the empire agitated for economic and political freedom (Bobbitt, 2003).

The Dutch, French, and Spain all went against the empire. The British Empire became diplomatically isolated for the first time in centuries. Dutch, French, and Spain revolutions led to the Napoleonic wars while the American revolt led to the American Revolution. After seven years, the thirteen colonies were granted independence at the treaty of Paris. The European colonies however continued with their civil wars (Bobbitt, 2003).

In the wake of these revolutions, the British government reexamined most of the institutions. The economic reforms were proposed and passed in seventeen eighty-two. These economic reforms had bylaws that reduced the patronage powers of the king and his ministers (Lance & Huttenback, 1986). However, major economic reforms came during the Shelburne time. The revolution was essential for most of the reforms as well as new policies that ensured the continued control of the world affairs.

The Dutch, French, and Spain revolutions later merged into Napoleonic wars. This was when Napoleon Bonaparte took control over the French revolutionary government. During the Napoleonic wars, there was a boom in farm production in Britain and some industries. Although there was a boom in both the farm and industrial production, it led to the rise in inflation. The income rates lagged far behind the market prices (Lance & Huttenback, 1986).

The English central bank was forced to suspend the payment of gold for paper currency, and the income tax was imposed for the first time. After the annexation of Spain and Dutch as well as the defeat of Napoleon, Britain announced that, it had no interest in the control of Europe and America.

The revolution led to the moderation of the government economic policies. The most relevant thing was the abolition of the slave trade and the reduction in barriers to the formation of labor unions. The cessation was not only fought to free the Americans, but was also intended to reduce some of the most dangerous commerce such as the slave trade. Fair trade was encouraged since the trade barriers were reduced (Lance & Huttenback, 1986).

The successive governments embarked on rebuilding the economic torn caused by several wars, inflation, and low productivity. The economic policies, which embraced patronage system, were shelved. Nevertheless, the economic policies that promoted free trade were embraced. These wars played critical roles in shaping the British economic shift that led to its continued control over the universal dealings (O’Brien & Clesse 2002, p.354).

The economic and foreign policies majorly stemmed from the experiences witnessed during the American Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. However, the reforms that shaped the subsequent hegemony of the British governments did not result from the military defeat during the American Revolution.

In conclusion, the British hegemony occurred because of the influence of enterprising intellectuals, the economic conditions in Britain, as well as the situation in other colonies. The changes that took place immediately after the revolution and the Napoleonic wars prompted the British governments to change its policies. While the empire gave up control over some of its colonies, it had to find a way of continuous control over these states.


Bobbitt, P 2003, The shield of Achilles: war, peace, and course of history, Penguin Adult, New York.

Fareed, Z 2007, The Future of freedom: illiberal democracy at home and abroad, W. W. Norton, New York.

Lance, DE & Huttenback, RA 1986, Mammon and the pursuit of empire: the political economy of British imperialism, 1860 – 1912, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

O’Brien, PK & Clesse, A 2002, Two hegemonies: Britain 1846 – 1914 and the United States 1941 – 2001, Ashgate, Aldershot, Burlington.

Paul, K 1989, The rise and fall of the great powers: economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000, Vintage Books, New York, NY.

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