Who I am and what I do
I am a British-born historian, currently based at Princeton University, who started out working on 18th century England. Over the course of a long career, my interests have evolved and spread: into curiosity about the forging and the fractures of the United Kingdom; into explorations of aspects of, and individual actors in Britain’s overseas empire; and – in recent decades – into a fascination with how to approach and grapple with the demands of global history. Throughout, I have been intrigued with issues of identity and their fluctuations, and all my books touch on this in some ways. My first book, In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party 1714-1760 (1982), was about partisan identity under pressure. Namier (1988) was a short study of a major historian torn between his Polish and Jewish roots, his interest in Marx and Freud, and his growing desire for English acceptance and real and imagined stabilities. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1992), which won the Wolfson Prize for history and is now in its fifth edition, was a study of nation-makings and possible breakings. Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850 (2002) examined and re-interpreted sectors of the “British” empire by looking at some of the many English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish men and women who got caught out and trapped while crossing over into other peoples’ lands and seas, and the strains of these experiences on their birth identities. The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History (2007), chosen by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of that year, treated just one of these captives. It was also an attempt to write a different kind of biography: an attempt to track down the life-story of a possibly mixed race and incurably itinerant woman, while intermeshing this with passages in 18th century global history.
I have always sought to combine academic, archival and scholarly research with experimenting with different forms of writing and reaching out to different kinds of readers and audiences. My sixth book, Acts of Union and Disunion, was an expanded version of fifteen lectures commissioned by BBC Radio 4 and broadcast early in 2014 in advance of the referendum on Scottish independence. As with these talks (which are still available as BBC podcasts) this book seeks to elucidate, in short compass, the composite and shifting nature of what is now the United Kingdom. I anticipate that future revisions are bound to be needed.
Over the past ten years or so, however, my main interest has not been with matters British and Irish. Instead, I have been working on a big book spanning global history from 1750 until after the First World War, which seeks to re-vitalize and unpack constitutional history by connecting it with some of the histories of war. This book – The Gun, the Ship and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World – is set to be published on both sides of the Atlantic in March/April 2021. You can pre-order it here.