John Robert Seeley

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For other people of the same name, see John Seeley (disambiguation).

Sir John Robert Seeley, KCMG (10 September 1834 – 13 January 1895) was an English essayist and historian.


He was born in London, the son of R. B. Seeley, a publisher and author of several religious books and of The Life and Times of Edward I. Seeley developed a taste for religious and historical subjects. He was educated at the City of London School and at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he was head of the classical tripos and senior chancellor's medallist, was elected fellow and became classical tutor of his college.[1] For a time he was a master at his old school, and in 1863 was appointed professor of Latin at University College, London.[2] He was made Regius Professor of Modern History, Cambridge in 1869.[3]

In August 1869, he married Mary Agnes Phillot,[4] who survived him. He is buried in the Mill Road cemetery, Cambridge, with his wife.


His essay Ecce Homo, published anonymously in 1866, and afterwards acknowledged by him, was widely read and prompted many replies, being deemed an attack on Christianity. Dealing only with Christ's humanity, it dwells on his work as the founder and king of a theocratic state, and points out the effect which this society, his church, has had upon the standard and active practice of morality among men. Seeley intended the book as "a fragment" and the text did not deny the truth of those doctrines it did not address, but many critics still found fault with its treatment of Christ. Many considered the book to be valuable not only in its content but also in its style, which is characterised by relatively terse and fluid writing.

His later essay on Natural Religion, which denies that supernaturalism is essential to religion and maintains that the negations of science tend to purify rather than destroy Christianity satisfied no one[citation needed] and excited far less interest than his earlier work. In 1869 he was appointed professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge. He was a popular instructor; he prepared his lectures carefully and they were largely attended. In historical work he is distinguished as a thinker rather than a scholar. He valued history solely in its relation to politics, as the science of the state. He maintained that it should be studied scientifically and for a practical purpose, that its function was the solution of existing political questions. Hence he naturally devoted himself mainly to recent history, and specially to 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 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 it devotes to subsidiary matters render it unattractive.

Far otherwise is it with his The Expansion of England (1883). Written in his best manner, this essay answers to his theory that history should be used for a practical purpose; it points out how and why Britain gained her colonies and India, the character of her empire, and the light in which it should be regarded. As an historical essay the book is a fine composition, and its defence of the empire was, at the time, very persuasive. Seeley's defence of the Empire consists largely of the claim that British rule is in India's best interest. Seeley also questioned the usefulness of India to the power and security of Britain whilst claiming that there was 'no doubt' that India vastly increased the responsibilities and dangers to Britain. The book contains the much-quoted statement that "we seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind". Expansion of England 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 Britain's empire in the East. It was reprinted ten times between the year it was published and many more times in later years. Seeley was rewarded for this public service by being made a Knight of the Order of St Michael and St George, on the recommendation of Lord Rosebery.

Seeley Library, Cambridge

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.

In 1897, the history library of the University of Cambridge was named the Seeley Historical Library in honour of Sir John.

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 Sir John, including that relating to the publication of and reactions to Ecce Homo, is held by the archives in Senate House Library.[5]

Significance of Empire[edit]

He 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 Burke had succeeded in this endeavour, the stain of commercial origins could be removed, the special mix of economic and political interests realigned as the expression of national interest, 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, for he complained that this very transformation had made possible a national amnesia about the significance of empire for the history of England itself. He began his lectures 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"

Empire justifications and alibis[edit]

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

Most imperial historians have argued that the East India Company was drawn reluctantly into political and military conflict in India, only taking an interest in territorial power and revenue as a last-ditch effort to protect its trading activities. Among the narratives of empire historians, Seeley too concurred and wrote that India "lay there waiting to be picked up by somebody." What happened in India in the late eighteenth century was therefore an "internal revolution" rather than a "foreign Conquest", according to Seeley.

Seeley's extraordinary capacity to appreciate the constitutive significance of empire for modern Britain thus must regrettably be seen as the flip side of his failure to accept the integrity of India's own history.[6]



  1. ^ "Seeley, John Robert (SLY852JR)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  2. ^ Newman, John Henry; Tolhurst, James (2004). Discussions and arguments on various subjects. Gracewing. ISBN 978-0-85244-453-5. 
  3. ^ Gosse, Edmund (1906). English literature: an illustrated record. W Heinemann. 
  4. ^ Deborah Wormell (1980). Sir John Seeley and the uses of history. CUP Archive. ISBN 978-0-521-22720-9. 
  5. ^ Senate House Library online catalogue, UK: Lon .
  6. ^ Dirks, Nicholas B (2006), The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain, Cambridge, MA, USA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-02166-5 .
  7. ^ Henry Smith Williams (1909). The historians' history of the world. Hooper & Jackson. 


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