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British Scholar Conference features keynote address by historian A.G. Hopkins

The fourth annual British Scholar Conference brought together over 80 participants from 50 different universities and seven different countries to consider the history of Britain’s interactions with the world.

Posted: April 7, 2011
Prof. A.G. Hopkins delivers keynote address

Prof. A.G. Hopkins delivers keynote address

The conference was held at the Harry Ransom Center on The University of Texas (UT) at Austin campus from March 31 through April 2. It featured 20 panels on topics ranging from the Atlantic world to the end of Empire and from Victorian literature to interwar politics. (Watch keynote address.) For the second straight year, the conference included three stand-alone lectures along with the plenary panel sessions.

Professor A.G. Hopkins, the Walter Prescott Webb Chair of History in the university’s Department of History, gave the keynote address provocatively titled “The United States, 1783-1861: Britain’s Honorary Dominion?” to a packed assembly at the Ransom Center’s Prothro Theater on Friday afternoon.

Considering the historiography of the United States up to the Civil War, Hopkins argued that historians have created a standard account of America’s rise that is “a self-contained and neo-Whiggish story of the spread…of liberty and democracy,” and remains “largely insulated from comparative references and fails to incorporate, systematically, external influences.”

Hopkins suggested historians view the early United States, with reference to the historiography of imperialism, as a newly decolonized country. He argued that this view allows us to see the United States in a wholly new light: not as a confident, independent nation striding into the future, but instead as a wary and diffident country that relied heavily on Britain for leadership in culture, finance, and politics.

Hopkins asserted that from this new viewpoint one can find greater continuity between America as colony and America as independent state. In addition, he sees in the United States of the nineteenth century precursors of the decolonization of the British Empire in the twentieth century.

As Hopkins concluded, his story “is unfamiliar and perhaps unappealing, but it gives the United States a new distinction by placing it at the head of the process of decolonization that was to reach its climax in the second half of the twentieth century.”

Professor Peter Clarke from the University of Cambridge delivered the Frank M. Turner Memorial Lecture on Thursday afternoon.

Clarke traced the origins of the phrase ‘the English-speaking peoples’ and revealed that the concept, commonly associated with Winston Churchill, became a significant term during the nineteenth century. Using the databases of leading British and American newspapers, Clarke showed how the phrase was used both to defend British expansion and later to soften the blow of decolonization.

Professor Reba Soffer, California State University at Northridge, in a Saturday lecture entitled “Intellectual History, Life, and Fiction,” considered the usefulness of fiction for understanding the intellectual history of the British world by studying the life and work of Evelyn Waugh.

British Scholar Society Conference 2011 panelBest known for his novel Brideshead Revisited, Waugh “combined dedicated dissipation, travels to very exotic places, uncompromising conservative beliefs, Catholicism, and romantic nostalgia for an imaginary aristocratic past.” Soffer argued that Waugh’s work provides historians with an important record of popular and elite thought during the interwar period because it was inspired by Waugh’s own life.

The characters in his satires represented not only his views of the decay of society, but also portrayed in salacious and scathing detail the lives of his closest friends and worst enemies. For Waugh then, the signs of impending doom were not exclusive to newspaper headlines, but instead could be found in one’s own personal life.

In addition to the panels, conference participants were treated to several outings around Austin, including a happy hour in downtown Austin at Icenhauer’s, a dinner party in the Texas Hill Country, and for the final evening, food and drinks at the famous Driskill Hotel.

The conference organizers concluded the meeting by thanking the participants and sponsors, and announced that the fifth British Scholar Annual Conference will be held in the United Kingdom at the University of Edinburgh from June 21-23, 2012.

The 2011 British Scholar Annual Conference was made possible by generous donations from the following organizations: British Studies Program; Center for European Studies; Department of English; Department of Government; Department of History; Edinburgh University Press; Harry Ransom Center; Institute for Historical Studies; the Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professorship; Palgrave Macmillan; Piatra Inc.; and the Graduate School.

For more information about the British Scholar Society, its journal Britain and the World, and its book series with Palgrave Macmillan, please visit www.britishscholar.org.

By Robert Whitaker, doctoral candidate in UT History Dept.

British Scholar Annual Conference 2011 Keynote Address

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"The United States, 1783-1861: Britain's Honorary Dominion?"

A.G. Hopkins, Ph.D.
University of Texas at Austin

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