Sir John Robert Seeley, KCMG (10 September 1834 – 13 January 1895) was an English Liberal[1][2] historian and political essayist. A founder of British imperial history,[3] he was a prominent advocate for the British Empire, promoting a concept of Greater Britain. This he expounded in his most widely known book The Expansion of England (1883). While he was an early advocate of the establishment of political science as a distinct academic discipline, he retained a theological approach in which this was embedded.[4]


John Robert Seeley

Seeley (photograph by Philip Crellin, 1866)
Born(1834-09-10)10 September 1834
Died13 January 1895(1895-01-13) (aged 60)
EducationCity of London School
Alma materChrist's College, Cambridge
Notable workThe Expansion of England (1883)
SpouseMary Agnes Phillot
AwardsKnight of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George

Early life Edit

Seeley was educated at Christ's College, Cambridge

Seeley was born in London. His father was Robert Benton Seeley, a publisher who issued books under the name of Seeley, Jackson and Halliday, was a strong advocate of Evangelical Anglicanism, and was the author of several religious books and of The Life and Times of Edward I. His mother was Mary Ann Jackson (1809–1868), who shared her husband's religious views. Her brother, John Henry Jackson, was a partner in Robert Seeley's publishing company. John was related to the chemist Arthur Herbert Church, a cousin through his mother.[2]

John was educated at City of London School, where he enjoyed history, theology and literature. While there, he wrote two essays comparing Shakespeare and classical Greek drama in 1850 and 1851,[5] the latter of which won him a Beaufoy Prize, now held by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.[6] He went on to Christ's College, Cambridge, at which he was head of the Classical tripos and senior Chancellor's medallist. His education at Cambridge was interrupted by illness and he only completed his exams in 1858. During his time at Christ's he became friends with Charles Stuart Calverley, John Wesley Hales, Walter Besant, Walter Skeat and Walter Sendall.[2] He was elected a fellow of Christ's and subsequently became a classical studies tutor at the college.[7] He published an anonymous book of poetry and then went through a personal crisis during which abandoned many of the conventional beliefs of his youth and sought to replace them with more well-founded and secure beliefs. He left Cambridge in 1860.[5]

Life in London, 1860–69 Edit

Seeley returned to his old school, where he became a teacher. In 1863, he was appointed professor of Latin at University College, London.[8] That drew him into quite different intellectual circles.

In August 1869, Seeley married Mary Agnes Phillot (1839–1921), who was a granddaughter of William Frend and a sister of Constance Phillott.[2] He is buried in the Mill Road Cemetery, Cambridge, with his wife.

Ecce Homo: A Survey in the Life and Work of Jesus Christ (1865) Edit

Seeley's first published book was Ecce Homo: A Survey in the Life and Work of Jesus Christ, which was published anonymously in 1865. It was controversial because it focused almost entirely on Jesus's moral character and his historical actions, as a founder and king of a theocracy, and it excluded discussion of the theological interpretations of his life. The work attempted to demonstrate the consequences that Christ's theocracy and its Church and society had upon the standard and active practice of morality of men.

Seeley intended the book as an incomplete analysis of the subject. His text did not deny the truth of the doctrines, which it did not address, but many critics objected to its representation of Christ.

Many considered the book to be extraordinary in its prose style in addition to in its content. It is characterised by relatively terse and fluid prose. Its anonymous status also added a significant dimension to the controversy surrounding its publication, as readers sought to discover the author's identity. George Eliot, John Henry Newman, William Ewart Gladstone and Napoleon III were some of the more well-known figures believed to have written the book. Seeley was eventually discovered as the author, and from November 1866, his authorship became an open secret. However, Seeley declined to acknowledge publicly his authorship of Ecce Homo, which was first officially stated only in a posthumous edition that was produced in 1895.[9]

Regius Professor in Cambridge Edit

Seeley was made Regius Professor of Modern History, Cambridge, in 1869.[10] He described himself as a Liberal in politics, but a Radical in education; he made important contributions to education reform, including the admission of women into the ancient universities.[1][2]

Works Edit

Subsequent work Edit

His later essay on Natural Religion, signed "by the Author of Ecce Homo," which denied that supernaturalism is essential to religion and maintained that the negations of science tend to purify rather than destroy Christianity, satisfied few and excited far less interest than his earlier work.[9] In 1869, Seeley was appointed professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge. He was a popular instructor and prepared his lectures carefully, which were well attended. In historical work, he is distinguished as a thinker rather than as a scholar. He valued history solely in its relation to politics as the science of the state. He maintained that history should be studied scientifically and for a practical purpose, the solution of existing political questions. Thus, he naturally devoted himself mainly to recent history, especially the relations between England and other states. His Life and Times of Stein, a valuable narrative of the anti-Napoleonic revolt, led by Prussia mainly at Heinrich Friedrich Karl von und zum Stein's instigation, was written under German influence and shows little of the style of his short essays. Its length, its colourlessness and the space that it devotes to subsidiary matters render it unattractive.

The Expansion of England (1883) Edit

Far otherwise was Seeley's The Expansion of England (1883). Written in his best manner, that essay answered to his theory that history should be used for a practical purpose and pointed out how and why Britain gained its colonies and India, the character of the British Empire and the light in which it should be regarded. As a historical essay, the book was a fine composition, and its defence of the empire was then very persuasive. His defence consisted largely of the claim that British rule was in India's best interest. Seeley also questioned the usefulness of India to the power and security of Britain and even claimed that there was 'no doubt' that India vastly increased the responsibilities and dangers to Britain. The book contains this much-quoted statement: "we seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind." It appeared at an opportune time and did much to make Englishmen regard the colonies not as mere appendages but as an expansion of the British state as well as of British nationality and to remind them of the value of the empire in the East. The essay was reprinted ten times in the year in which it was published and many more times in later years. Seeley was rewarded for public service by being made a Knight of the Order of St Michael and St George, on the recommendation of Lord Rosebery.

In the spring of 1883, Seeley started a debate over the Tripos bachelor's honours exam at Cambridge, wishing it to concentrate on political history, but historians Frederick William Maitland, George Walter Prothero, Henry Melvill Gwatkin and Mandell Creighton argued for a broader more scientific approach, reaching a compromise emphasising the reading of primary sources, requiring a compulsory paper on "Political Science", with required readings including Introduction to Political Science (1896) by Seeley and The Elements of Politics (1891) by Sidgwick.[11]

Seeley Historical Library, Cambridge

The Growth of British Policy Edit

His last book, The Growth of British Policy, written as an essay and intended to be an introduction to a full account of the expansion of Britain, was published posthumously.

Later matters Edit

Inagaki Manjiro dedicated his Japan and the Pacific and the Japanese View of the Eastern Question (1890) to Seeley, who had taught him at Caius College.

Correspondence to and from Seeley, including that relating to the publication of and reactions to Ecce Homo, is held by the archives in Senate House Library.[12]

In 1897, the history library of the University of Cambridge was named the Seeley Historical Library in his honour. In 1895 a memorial fund was raised to commemorate his services to the British Empire and to the University; the greater part of this fund was devoted to the endowment of the library. After moving from King's College and Caius College, in 1912, the collection relocated to the top floor of the newly reopened Arts School, Bene't Street, then in 1935 to the Old Schools. In 1968 the Seeley moved to the Sidgwick Site of Cambridge University as part of the new History Faculty building designed by James Stirling.

Significance of empire Edit

Seeley wrote that the first chapter of the history of British India "embraces chronologically the first half of George III's reign, that stormy period of transition in English history when at the same time America was lost and India won... [and] covers the two great careers of Robert Clive and Hastings... [T]he end of the struggle is marked by the reign of Lord Cornwallis, which began in 1785".

The trial of Warren Hastings had been the final act in the efforts spanning the eighteenth century to harness imperial power, along with imperial wealth and prestige, securely to Britain, both as a "nation" and as a "state". Once Edmund Burke had succeeded in that endeavour, the stain of commercial origins could be removed, with the special mix of economic and political interests realigned as the expression of national interest and the blot of scandal washed out, as the moral mandate for a new kind of imperial project was launched.

Blinkers of English historiography Edit

Seeley was far more astute than many later imperial historians, as he complained that very transformation had made possible a national amnesia about the significance of empire in the history of England itself. His lectures were filled with a critique of the blinkers of English historiography: "They [our historians] make too much of the parliamentary wrangle and the agitations about liberty, in all which matters the eighteenth century of England was but a pale reflection of the seventeenth. They do not perceive that in that century the history of England is not in England but in Americas and Asia".

Justifications for empire Edit

Seeley's account of imperial wars and conquest repeats the justifications made first by the conquerors themselves: the sole objective of trade turned into political conquest by accident, rather than contrivance or calculation.

Most historians have argued that the East India Company was drawn reluctantly into political and military conflict in India, and took an interest in territorial power and revenue only as a last-ditch effort to protect its trading activities. Among the narratives of imperial historians, Seeley concurred and wrote that India "lay there waiting to be picked up by somebody". He considered that what happened in India in the late 18th century was thus an "internal revolution", rather than a "foreign conquest".

Notable quotations Edit

"History is the school of statesmanship".

"History without politics descends to mere literature".

He is often erroneously believed to have said, "History is past politics, and politics present history".[13]

Works Edit

Notes Edit

  1. ^ a b Bell, Duncan (2005). "Unity and Difference: John Robert Seeley and the Political Theology of International Relations". Review of International Studies. 31 (3): 559–579. doi:10.1017/S0260210505006637. S2CID 144096694.
  2. ^ a b c d e Wormell, Deborah (1980). Sir John Seeley and the Uses of History. CUP Archive. p. 74.
  3. ^ Elkins, Caroline (2022). Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-593-32008-2.
  4. ^ Bell, Duncan (2007). The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860–1900. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-15116-8. JSTOR j.ctt7sz6b.
  5. ^ a b Rein, Gustav Adolf (1987). Sir John Robert Seeley : a study of the historian. Wolfeboro, N.H. : Longwood Press. ISBN 978-0-89341-550-1.
  6. ^ "Coin Details 92647". Retrieved 15 March 2023.
  7. ^ "Seeley, John Robert (SLY852JR)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  8. ^ Newman, John Henry; Tolhurst, James (2004). Discussions and arguments on various subjects. Gracewing. ISBN 978-0-85244-453-5.
  9. ^ a b Hesketh, Ian (2017). Victorian Jesus: J. R. Seeley, Religion, and the Cultural Significance of Anonymity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9781442645776.
  10. ^ Gosse, Edmund (1906). English literature: an illustrated record. W Heinemann.
  11. ^
  12. ^ Senate House Library online catalogue, UK: Lon.
  13. ^ Hesketh, Ian (2014). "History is Past Politics, and Politics Present History': Who Said It?". Notes and Queries. 61: 105–108. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjt244.

Further reading Edit

  • Bell, Duncan SA. "Unity and Difference: John Robert Seeley and the Political Theology of International Relations". Review of International Studies 31#3 (2005): 559–579.
  • Burroughs, Peter. "John Robert Seeley and British Imperial History", Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 1.2 (1973): 191–211.
  •   Cousin, John William (1910), "Seeley, Sir John Robert", A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, London: J. M. Dent & Sons – via Wikisource
  • Greenlee, James G. "‘A succession of Seeleys’: The ‘old school’ re‐examined." Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 4.3 (1976): 266–282.
  • Hesketh, Ian. Victorian Jesus: J.R. Seeley, Religion, and the Cultural Significance of Anonymity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).
  • Hesketh, Ian. "Writing History in Macaulay's Shadow: JR Seeley, EA Freeman, and the Audience for Scientific History in Late Victorian Britain". Journal of the Canadian Historical Association/Revue de la Société historique du Canada, 22#2 (2011): 30–56.
  • Hunt, William (1911). "Seeley, Sir John Robert" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 580–581.
  • Hyam, Ronald. "The study of imperial and commonwealth history at Cambridge, 1881–1981: Founding fathers and pioneer research students", Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 29.3 (2001): 75–103.
  • Kenyon, John Philipps. The History Men: The Historical Profession in England Since the Renaissance (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984).
  • G. W. Prothero, Memoir prefixed to Growth of British Policy (London, 1895)
  • Wormell, Deborah (1980). Sir John Seeley and the Uses of History. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521227209.
  • Shannon, R. T. "Seeley, Sir John Robert", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/25025

External links Edit