Navigating the Age of Revolution [A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846, Boyd Hilton, Oxford University Press, 757 pages] Navigating the Age of Revolution
REVOLUTION AND WAR have defined the experience of most European countries from the mid-18th century, but Britain stands apart in having avoided revolution and fought its wars abroad. Britain's evolutionary narrative contrasts sharply with the story of other countries traumatized by revolution, civil war, or conquest and occupation. Europe's ancien regime faced a profound general crisis as institutions failed to meet demands they faced, and the French Revolution in 1789 marked the most prominent instance of a wider pattern. China followed a parallel trajectory with revolts that pushed it into a spiral of decline and vulnerability over the coming century. Even the fledgling United States faced challenges to its cohesion from the 1780s through 1830 that adumbrated the catastrophe of the 1860s. So what made Britain different?
Boyd Hilton offers a sophisticated answer in the latest volume of the New Oxford History of England series focused on Britain's perilous journey through the age of revolution. As a distinguished specialist in the history of finance and economics who has also written on the relationship between religion and public culture, Hilton is well placed to explore the period in context. His title draws on the famous description of Byron by his lover Lady Caroline Lamb-wife to the future Prime Minister Lord Melbourne-as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Britain's elite at this time lived atop a fault line that threatened to produce the kind of earthquake seen in France, and the Whig clergyman and wit Sydney Smith captured the spirit of the age when he remarked in 1840 that "the old-fashioned, orthodox, hand-shaking, bowel-disturbing passion of fear" underlay the political reforms of the era.
Instability went beyond fear of the mob. Technology and developments in industrial organization brought unprecedented growth, but cycles of boom and bust heightened risk and unease. Economic depression threw angry workers onto the streets without unemployment provision to prevent utter destitution. Change benefited some while leaving others dispossessed, and economic policy created a zero-sum game with political consequences. New interest groups in the provinces demanded a voice with greater urgency and challenged established interests with metropolitan ties. War with France from 1793, with the threat it brought of invasion and subversion, imposed heavy strains that peace after 1815 did not immediately raise. It shifted patterns of demand and investment while leaving a financial hangover of debt.
Hilton makes a strong case that the absence of a shared civic culture marked the defining characteristic of the age. At the time when pubic opinion first became a national phenomenon, neither the public nor elites shared a common idiom for expressing it. Political, religious, and intellectual disputes cut deeply enough to create almost unbridgeable divides with opposing sides viewing each other as agents of anarchy or despotism. Rivalry between Whigs and Tories revived party politics, and religious dissenters clashed with defenders of the Church of England's authority. Some Englishmen sympathized with revolutionary movements abroad, but loyalists viewed them as an assault on Christian civilization.
Britain had emerged from the Seven Years War in 1763 with an enviable position of strength that collapsed in the crisis of the American Revolution, which undermined Britain's position in Europe and overseas-risking a defeat far worse than losing the 13 American colonies-and had serious consequences at home. Opposition Whigs led by Charles James Fox sided with the Americans, accusing George III and his ministers of trying to revive Stuart absolutism and subvert English liberties. Friends of the crown attributed the conflict to an alliance of infidels, religious dissenters, republicans, and Whigs seeking to overthrow kingly government. One Tory clergyman, William Jones, invoked the Puritan legacy by labeling the conflict "a Presbyterian war." The anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780, which caused more damage to London than the French Revolution later did to Paris, marked a symbolic loss of control. Repealing laws against Catholics in 1788 had aroused Protestant fears of foreign subversion and royal absolutism, and a crowd that had gathered to accompany a petition to parliament degenerated into a mob that sacked embassies and churches, opened the Fleet Prison, and terrorized London for five days. By 1783, George III had been forced to accept a coalition government led by Fox and Lord North.
Hilton describes the emergence of a "new conservatism" as a backlash against these developments, but it might better be understood as the revival of older trends submerged by the Whig supremacy. England's landed interests and Anglican clergy had been politically marginalized until George III ended their exclusion in the 1760s. Tory squires and parsons, whose sentiments prefigured the militant loyalism stirred by the French Revolution, joined politicians like Charles Jenkinson to drive out the Fox-North coalition and install William Pitt the Younger as prime minister in 1784. Pitt's skill pushed the Foxite Whigs to the political wilder-ness, and his financial policies revived British fortunes. Prosperity in Britain contrasted with the "political frenzy or dread of it" found across the English Channel-but war and revolution shattered that calm by 1793.
War strained Britain to the breaking point, with the compromise Peace of Amiens in 1802 providing only a brief pause between the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Ideological conflicts sharpened at home: Whigs and plebeian reformers alike labored under charges of being crypto-Jacobins or lackeys of Napoleon. The government rallied patriotic support, while its critics seemed to prefer foreign ways to those of their countrymen. If Britain ruled the waves, especially after Nelson's 1805 victory at Trafalgar, seapower and commercial wealth could not defeat France in Europe. Forming a coalition against France proved futile until 1813, and Napoleon's economic warfare combined with American embargoes damaged Britain's trade. Unprecedented spending had wider consequences for public finance and the general economy. Even if a return to pre-war conditions could have been made after 1815, it would have created disruptions of its own. Any government policy hurt as many vocal interests as it helped.
These tensions defined the postwar era. Lord Liverpool-prime minister from 1812-1827-whose reputation Hilton justly revives from obscurity, was painfully aware of the limits to what his government could do and relied on prosperity to solve the problems of social tension. His dismantling of mercantilist policies and the patronage networks reviled by critics as "old corruption" helped trade and deflected criticism, but reducing the patronage that made 18th-century government work smoothly presented more difficulties of management Liverpool, the only prime minister to win a major war and successfully handle peacetime crisis, stands out as a leading statesmen of the era The collapse of the Tory government after his untimely stroke in 1827 only underlines his achievement.
Where Liverpool found a solution in political management, his Whig counterpart, Henry Brougham, pioneered a new style of popular mobilization to break out of opposition. He linked provincial reformers and business interests with the Foxite Whigs in Parliament to force Liverpool's government to abandon controversial economic measures such as the postwar income tax in 1816. Limited early success gradually forged a coalition for systematic reform that made the Whigs a viable governing party by 1830.
An avalanche of reform in parliamentary representation had begun in 1828 and 1829 with the repeal of laws excluding non-Anglican Protestants and Roman Catholics from political participation. Since representation in the House of Commons had been unchanged since the 1600s, the system became unbalanced as major towns lacked representation while declining villages had too much. Piece-meal changes in the allocation of parliamentary seats to reflect current population trends before long gave way to demands for a wholesale reform. Tories like John Wilson Croker feared England would now follow the sorrowful path France had trod from 1789 with the meeting of the Estates General. Feckless Whig aristocrats and intellectuals like Brougham would soon lose control to the radical mob as their predecessors across the channel had done. Indeed, Croker described the situation leading to the 1832 Reform Act as "a revolution gradually accomplished by due form of law."
That revolution, however, actually reduced the number of voters and linked suffrage more closely with property. Appeals to the middle class masked the consequence of provisions that strengthened the landed interest by giving more seats to the counties. Although the Reform era may have dismantled the structure of the ancient regime and displaced the paradigm of patrician culture that sustained it, Croker's apocalypse never came to pass.
Reforms that standardized local governments and reorganized town corporations soon ensued. These developments involved a change within the political class following on the struggle for power between Whigs and Tories along with a perceived need to accommodate important groups beyond the old metropolitan elites. Chartism, a working-class movement in the late 1830s and '40s, was a challenge to the new political class that never gained the traction to win or force concessions. Its demands for universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and payment for MPs had precedent among radicals in the 1810s but lacked middle class support. Hard times and unemployment gave Chartism working-class support, but that constituency evaporated with growing prosperity and meliorist social reform. Hilton also discusses at length the religious revival that brought a revolution in manners across society. Victorian respectability antedated Victoria's accession in 1837, and it tamed that mad, bad, and dangerous people whose volatility posed such a threat.
Lord Shelburne likened Europe in the 1780s to the difficult period between winter and summer in cold climates where the spring thaw made terrain impassable. Society risked slipping into the morass created by perpetual change, and Shelburne lamented the failure to reconcile old institutions to new circumstances. Turbulence defined an era, but Britain, as Hilton's fine book recounts, found its way through the storm to set the paradigm for modern, liberal government. Its story shows that evolution, not revolution, provides the surest path to a stable and prosperous order.
THE ANTI-CATHOLIC GORDON RIOTS IN 1780 CAUSED MORE DAMAGE TO LONDON THAN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION LATER DID TO PARIS.
TORIES FEARED ENGLAND WOULD FOLLOW THE SORROWFUL PATH FRANCE HAD TROD FROM 1789 WITH THE MEETING OF THE ESTATES GENERAL.
William Anthony Hay teaches history at Mississippi State University and is the author of The Whig Revival, 1808-1830.…