Coronavirus (Covid-19): Latest updates and information
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Introduction to Eighteenth Century Politics

Theme is one of continuity or change brought into focus because of the historiographical debates of the Whig historians and the revisionist right - especially J C D Clark and his thesis, English Society.

Society

Clark's view of the social structure is that it remained static throughout the long eighteenth century and change was only brought about because of a change of heart from within the aristocracy. England remained an ancien regime and the great mass of the population were unimportant. Alternative views are that powerful forces were at work within society and change came because of pressure from below; or that the elite managed to incorporate the new forces into their ranks and maintain and thus was constantly adapting and changing.

Social structure had changed from the late seventeenth century and Gregory King's survey although most power and wealth was still rooted in the land. There was an elite of about 400 wealthy families; the middling group numbered around 500,000 families and the remainder around 900,000 families - although these estimates are very sketchy. Historians' views on the 'openness' of the aristocracy differ but it is clear that the 'bourgeoisie' were managing to carve themselves out an exclusive niche in the new urban societies. Agriculture and rural society was dramatically affected by the enclosure movement which centred land ownership in the hands of a few.

Economy

Clark's thesis ties in with the new economic historians (eg Crafts, Wrigley and Cannadine) who seek to play down the scale and significance of Britain's industrialisation in the eighteenth century, thus linking her development to that of the European continent. Their view has been subject to a counter attack by historians such as Berg and Hudson who have sought to rehabilitate the 'industrial revolution' whilst admitting the confusion of the term.

Religion

Whilst accepting the view proffered by Clark that the established church was important it is vital to balance that against the opinions of the bulk of the population. Outside England the established church was under increasing threat as the century progressed and within England the power of Dissent was a focus from the 1730s.

The Glorious Revolution heralded a period of uncertainty for the Anglican establishment and the cause was taken up by the two opposing political parties - Tory and Whig. Whilst perhaps not quite 'the church in danger' as portrayed by the high church Tories the status of the church was in question in the years immediately following 1688. The issue came to a head with the trial of Dr Sacheverell in 1710. From then on religion declined as a disruptive force in British politics but the established church was faced with a new threat the potent force of Dissent which attacked the notion of Church-State interdependence. Conclusions

Clark's view of eighteenth century as static and unchanging clearly obscures the trends in economy, society and religion. However, Britain at the end of the century had much in common with the nation at the beginning; it is the enduring ability of the British aristocracy to cling on to power in the face of adversity that lies at the heart of this continuity.

Historiographical contexts - 'the desperate search for controversy'

The quote is from Elton, who accused historians of the eighteenth century in ' mildly desperate search for controversies' in Modern Historians on British History, 1485-1945: A Critical Bibliography (1970)

The lecture is a map of major historiography published in the field of eighteenth century politics. The major works mentioned are listed below, together with crude classifications and the dates of publication (so that Linda Colley's assertions on the preoccupations of 'present minded' historians can be tested out):

Whig histories T B Macaulay, A History of England (5 volumes, 1849-61) W H Lecky, A History of England in the Eighteenth Century (1978)

Namier and Namierites L Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929) L Namier, England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930) L Namier and J Brooke (eds) The House of Commons, 1754-1790 (3 volumes, 1964) John Brooke, George III (1972) I R Christie, Myth and Reality in Eighteenth Century British Politics; I R Christie, Stress and Stability I R Christie, Wars and Revolutions John Owen, The Rise of the Pelhams (1957) R Walcott, English Party Politics 1688-1714 (1958)

The assault on Namier J Brewer, Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III (1976) H Butterfield, George III and the Historians (1958) L Colley, In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party, 1714-1760 (1983) D Ginter, Whig Organisation in the General Election of 1790 (1967) B W Hill, British Parliamentary Parties, 1742-1842 (1985) G Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne (1967) G Holmes and W A Speck, The Divided Society: Party Conflict in England 1694-1714 (1967) A Mitchell, The Whigs in Opposition, 1815-1830 (1967) F O'Gorman, The Whig party and the French Revolution (1967) F O'Gorman, The Rise of Party in England 1760-1782 (1975) F O'Gorman, Voters, Patrons and Parties (1992) J A Phillips, Electoral Behaviour in Unreformed England J A Phillips, The Great Reform Bill in the Boroughs (1993) J H Plumb, The Growth of Political Stability in England (1967) W A Speck, Tory and Whig: The Struggle in the Constituencies (1970)

The 'radical' left C Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 (1961) E Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (1969) R Malcolmson, Life and Labour in England (1981) E P Thompson, Making of the English Working Class (1963) E P Thompson, Whigs and Hunters (1975)

The 'new right'? J C D Clark, English Society (1985)

Summary

[A] Whig historians: neglect the 18th century or view it as an era of corruption and decadence; emphasise the two aristocratic 'revolutions' of 1688 and 1832; see history as a linear, progressive trend towards the ideals of 'liberalism'

[B] Namierites: introduce a new rigour and methodology to history; emphasise place of monarch and aristocracy, much attention given to the structures and workings of the political system; none at all to public opinion; Namier wrote about the 1760s but his followers have applied his theories forwards and backwards

[C] Critics of Namier: dispute the position of monarch; question the role of party in politics in the eighteenth century from 1688-1832; give an alternative view of the electorate; emphasise the part played by public opinion; Marxist historians also introduced the social dimension

[D] The new right: emphasise continuity not change; stress the persistence of the old order and institutions; link Britain with absolutist ancien regimes abroad

[E] new cultural histories emphasise a more complex approach, focussing on political culture, identity and popular v elite politics