A Free State of Mind: Ben Wilson Visits the History Today Archive to Examine Diana Spearman's Analysis of the British Constitution in the 18th Century, an Age Characterised by Liberty and Individualism

By Wilson, Ben | History Today, June 2010 | Go to article overview

A Free State of Mind: Ben Wilson Visits the History Today Archive to Examine Diana Spearman's Analysis of the British Constitution in the 18th Century, an Age Characterised by Liberty and Individualism


Wilson, Ben, History Today


The past 13 years have seen the biggest changes in our constitution in a century. Power has been devolved; the European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated into domestic British law; and the House of Lords underwent brief reform. At least this has been an open process. Constitutional evolution since the Second World War, the centralised power of the prime minister, the withering of collective Cabinet responsibility and the eclipse of Parliamentary sovereignty; the abundance of secondary legislation; the growth of the secret state, cut through the political landscape with little serious debate.

Much of our constitution is cherished in a muted kind of way. Similarly, the demand for radical reform is passionately advocated, but consensus is hard to find. It is a reminder that throughout British history constitutional anomalies and abuses have survived through inertia.

Similar thoughts occur on reading Diana Spearman's article from November 1955. It was written to counter the historiography of that time, which tended to treat the 18th-century constitution as 'either a sham or a joke'. But when Spearman claimed that there was a unanimous chorus of praise in favour of the constitution in the 18th century this took the argument too far in the other direction. Throughout the 18th century the history of the English constitution was well known and praised by people of all classes. It was not, however, uncontested.

Modern historiography is more subtle than Spearman's bipartisan clash. To gain a riffler picture of attitudes to the pre-reform constitution we must go back to the 17th century at least. Thanks to the work of Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock we can see how much republicanism penetrated British and American political thought, culminating in the American Revolution. Was the constitution the result of the wisdom of the ancients, be they virtuous Anglo-Saxons, barons who stood up to King John or ship tax rebels in the 1620s? Was it the result of a happy accident which occurred in 1688? Indeed, was the Glorious Revolution of that year unfinished business, foundations for which were laid but abandoned by complacent Whigs? Or, as David Hume argued, did modern commercial activity automatically defend against arbitrary government whatever the constitutional arrangement happened to be? Everywhere you look in the 18th century there was a fierce debate about the history of the constitution and, by implication, its future. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Free State of Mind: Ben Wilson Visits the History Today Archive to Examine Diana Spearman's Analysis of the British Constitution in the 18th Century, an Age Characterised by Liberty and Individualism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.