As many Americans no longer believe in American exceptionalism and others believe America's greatness is guaranteed to extend perpetually, we could all benefit by reviewing the history of the British Empire, the realm from which we sprung and acquired so much.
By the time most baby boomers were born, the British Empire had declined. The Nazis and Japanese had been defeated in World War II, and two major military powers -- the United States and the Soviet Union -- were faced off at the beginning of a nearly half-century-long struggle we call the Cold War.
The great British Empire, which dominated the world mere decades before, was rarely in our current events radar, and it got little better treatment in our history courses, except as the villain we had to defeat in two wars to attain our independence and as the waning world power whose chestnuts we had saved from Adolf Hitler's fire. Oh, how much we missed, not just of British history but of our own, because we can't fully appreciate our greatness without understanding much more about our immediate ancestor.
But there's an easy way to make up for all that lost time, a way to fill in the gaps and much more. My friend Harry Crocker's "Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire" has just been released, and it's a one-stop shop for telling us all we should have learned about that empire and precisely how much we owe it.
We remain in awe of the enormity and dominance of the Roman Empire -- and rightly so -- but did you realize that at its height, the British Empire was the largest empire ever, covering a quarter of the world -- even half, if you consider its control of the oceans -- and governing a quarter of the people on the planet?
Though it is de rigueur today to condemn British colonialism, Harry not only defends the Brits' colonial achievements but also unashamedly champions them. "The empire," he writes, "was incontestably a good thing. The fact that it is controversial to say so is why this book had to be written. In the groves of academe, colonialism and imperialism are dirty words, the fons et origo of Western expansion with all its alleged sins of racism, capitalism, and ignorant, judgmental, hypocritical Christian moralism."
In keeping with the book's title, Harry rejects this politically correct view. To him, "to hate the British Empire is to hate ourselves, for the United States would not exist if not for the British Empire." Harry means that the British not only established our chartered colonies but also largely populated those settlements and gave us our language, culture, government and, most importantly, our ideas of liberty and the rule of law, including our critically important common law heritage.
The empire has far from a perfect record, and Harry doesn't hide the blemishes, but he also gives us the other side -- finally -- and that other side is impressive.
Long before continental Europe went through its turbulent revolutionary period, which ultimately led to republican government, the British had firmly established the roots of free institutions, limited government and impartial justice. And if not for the British command of the high seas and its fierce resistance to French imperialism -- a wholly different kind of imperialism from the British variety -- Napoleon Bonaparte might have completed his world conquest and we could be speaking French today -- a circumstance that many of our liberal elites would undoubtedly welcome.
Moreover, despite America's essential intervention in World War II, there was a point in that war in which Britain, led by the extraordinary statesman Winston Churchill, stood alone against Hitler's Third Reich, which was backed by the Soviet Union, Benito Mussolini's Italy and Imperial Japan. Had Britain lacked just a little bit of resolve, the war might have been over before we entered. I shudder to think what might have happened, how different our own history would have been.
There is also no question that Britain did more to abolish the slave trade (1807) and slavery itself (1833) than any other nation or empire. It also led the pack in the Industrial Revolution, which did more to accelerate the advance to modernity than the advent of democracy in continental Europe.
We read a lot about the evils of British colonialism, but it's time to look at the other side of the coin. There's no doubt that in their colonial expansion, the British were partially (and justifiably) guided by their self-interest -- pride, profit and patriotism -- but the ultimate justification for retaining the empire was the benefits it brought to the governed.
This book is thorough -- covering all periods and all territories of the empire -- and it's refreshing. And, as is the case with all of Harry's books, it is eminently fascinating and highly readable.