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Published by EH.NET (June 2001)

Walter S. Dunn, Jr., The New Imperial Economy: The British Army and the New American Frontier, 1764-1768. Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2001. viii + 219 pp. $62.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-275-97180-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Shy, Department of History, University of Michigan.

The title of this short monograph is startling, suggesting that the British military presence in the North American West after the Treaty of Paris (1763) was somehow at the heart of “A New Imperial Economy.” But the contents of the book are disappointing. Instead of a focused account of postwar British troop deployment and of how each military garrison functioned as a market center, with some account of the complex network of government and private expenditures in exchange with western Indians and the European settlers, traders, and speculators trickling into the area, there are eight topical chapters, offering a generalized picture of the British and colonial American economies, and of their internal and imperial trading patterns. The argument of the title is asserted and repeated, illustrated by occasional anecdotes, but never developed on the basis of evidence and analysis. In particular, quantitative evidence, reported or estimated, is not used systematically. Much of this evidence exists in published records of Parliament, though it has to be extracted carefully from the annual ordinary and extraordinary Army estimates, which conflate categories, and from manuscript warrants for expenditures in the papers of General Thomas Gage, Commander in Chief for America, 1763-1775, at the Clements Library of the University of Michigan.

In fact, British expenditures for the peacetime garrisons and on Indian affairs (which were nominally controlled by General Gage), while distressingly large to those in New York and London who worried about cost containment, were never more than a very small proportion of the whole imperial economy. The idea that these expenditures and their ripple effects had a transformative effect on the British imperial economy, and that the abrupt reduction of those expenditures in 1768, when most of the Western garrisons were withdrawn, somehow exacerbated conditions leading to the American Revolution is implausible, and this book does nothing to make it plausible, much less persuasive.

The present book is a sequel to a 1998 monograph, Frontier Profit and Loss: The British Army and the Fur Traders. Both have similar weaknesses, of not adducing evidence that supports and clarifies the general argument. But both are filled with interesting anecdotes of traders and post commanders, stories gleaned for the most part from published sources. But notes and bibliographies indicate that little account has been taken of the considerable research published since the 1960s on the empire, its trade, and Indians and their relations with Europeans. It should be added that the author has also published several well-regarded books on the Soviet Army and the Russo-German War of 1941-1945.

John Shy is Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan, and is the author of the Toward Lexington: The Role of the British Army in the Coming of the American Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1965).

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