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Spencer A. Leonard



I am a historian of South Asia, the British Empire in India, and the politics of anti-imperialism. My scholarship specifically focuses on the economics and power dynamics of, as well as the liberal opposition to, the Indian Empire in the time from 1757 to 1858, the time prior to its being brought directly under the crown, when it was operated through the agency of the British East India Company.  

My current book, Adam Smith in Calcutta: The East India Company’s Defeat of Revolutionary Imperialism as the Foundation of Colonial State in Bengal, 1757-1785, represents a fundamental reconceptualization of the shifting dynamics of conquest and the changing character of European relations to Bengal’s political economy in the period of the 1740s–1780s. It illuminates how the aspirations of Bengali merchants and manufacturers were first raised, and then ultimately thwarted, by the East India Company’s consolidation of conquests initially motivated by a sub-imperialist English and Asian alliance of merchants and manufacturers. Allowing the great Scottish philosopher’s Wealth of Nations to serve as a guide, Adam Smith in Calcutta demonstrates how the conquest bore the hopes of a bellicose, yet liberal, cosmopolitan commercialism, hopes that were ultimately dashed in what became a full-blown crisis of the British Revolution and, with it, of the British Empire at a time when these themes are typically only developed with reference to the American crisis in the Atlantic.

Moving beyond nationalist and neo-imperialist frameworks, it shows that categories of colonizer and colonized were themselves historical precipitates of the new type of imperialism that first emerged in India in the 1760s. It argues further that in consequence of these origins the course of South Asian history as a whole was in subsequent decades critically redirected. Its aim is to de-provincialize the entire subject, leveraging the archive to wrench it out of the exhausted frameworks of imperialist apologetics and anti-imperialist castigation on to the plane of world history, from below.

Even as I work towards the completion of this book, I am also preparing a volume Marx and Engels on Imperialism: Selected Journalism, 1851-62, which is under contract with Rowman & Littlefield and due to appear in celebration of the second bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth next year. In addition, I am editing a volume of papers to be brought out by Hurst Publishers on the legacy of the first governor of the Bombay Presidency, the Scottish imperial scholar-administrator Mountstuart Elphinstone.

My scholarly papers have appeared or will soon appear in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, English Historical Review, and the Mumbai-based journal Economic & Political Weekly.

Before coming to the University of Tennessee, I taught History and/or Social Theory at the University of Virginia, James Madison University, the University of Chicago, Syracuse University, and the University of Notre Dame.


Ph.D., History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations (joint-degree), University of Chicago (2010)

M.A., South Asian Languages and Civilizations (Sanskrit Literature), University of Chicago (1999)

B.A., Astrophysics and Religious Studies, University of Virginia (1994)

Selected Publications

“‘This Transcendent Object’: Lord Chatham’s India Inquiry of 1767 and the Crisis of the First British Empire.” English Historical Review

“Do Imperialists Do Better Research? James Grant Duff’s History of the Mahrattas” in The Legacy of Mountstuart Elphinstone ed. Shah Mahmoud Hanifi (forthcoming)

“‘A Theater of Disputes’: The East India Company Election of 1764 as the Foundation of British India” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History

Contact Information

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