Navigating the Age of Revolution

By Hay, William Anthony | The American Conservative, September 11, 2006 | Go to article overview

Navigating the Age of Revolution


Hay, William Anthony, The American Conservative


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.

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