The Social Conscience of the Early Victorians

The Social Conscience of the Early Victorians

The Social Conscience of the Early Victorians

The Social Conscience of the Early Victorians


In 1830, the dominant social outlook of the early Victorians was a paternalism that looked to property, the Church, and local Justices of the Peace to govern society and deal with its ills. By 1860, however, the dominant social outlook had become a vision of a laissez faire society that relied on economic laws, self-reliance, and the vigorous philanthropy of voluntary societies. This book describes and analyzes these changes, which arose from the rapid growth of industry, towns, population, and the middle and working classes.

Paternalism did not entirely fade away, however, just as a laissez faire vision had long antedated 1830. Both were part of a social conscience also defined by a revived philanthropy, a new humanitarianism, and a grudging acceptance of an expanded government, all of which reflected a strong revival of religion as well as the growth of rationalism.

The new dominance of a laissez faire vision was dramatically evident in the triumph of political economy. By 1860, only a few doubted the,eternal verities of the economists' voluminous writings. Few also doubted the verities of those who preached self-reliance, who supported the New Poor Law's severity to persons who were not self-reliant, and who inspired education measures to promote that indispensable virtue. If economic laws and self-reliance failed to prevent distress, the philanthropists and voluntary societies would step in. Such a vision proved far more buoyant and effective than a paternalism whose narrow and rural Anglican base made it unable to cope with the downside of an industrial-urban Britain.

But the vision of a laissez faire society was not without its flaws. Its harmonious economic laws and itshope in self-reliance did not prevent gross exploitation and acute distress, and however beneficent were its philanthropists, they fell far short of mitigating these evils. This vision also found a rival in an expanded governme


In 1830, the dominant theme defining the social conscience of the early Victorians was a paternalism that looked largely to property, the Church, and local authorities to govern society. By 1860, the dominant theme of the early Victorian social conscience had become a vision of a laissez-faire society that looked largely to economic laws, self-reliant and benevolent individuals, and voluntary associations to govern society. It was a vision that remained in the ascendance until it was forced to share its dominance with the collectivism of the twentieth century.

Alhough the emergence of a laissez-faire vision was a decisive and significant event, it was not revolutionary: paternalism continued a strong part of the social outlook after 1830, just as a vision of a laissez-faire society had long been a growing force before that date. Also still vigorous was the philanthropic outlook that emerged after the Reformation and that humanitarianism that arose in the eighteenth century. The social conscience of Britain, like its geological structure, consists of various and lasting layers and deposits. Two of the oldest of these deposits, for example, were a belief in a harmonious order ruled by a Divine Providence and the conviction that property was sacred, beliefs dating from medieval times, which eventually formed part of the laissez-faire ideal, although not without first being a crucial part of that early Victorian paternalism with which this study of the social conscience of the early Victorians begins.

The paternalism that the early Victorians inherited was unlike that which existed on the Continent. It was a paternalism based not on monarchy but on land. The English looked to no czar or Kaiser as “father of the people.” Queen Victoria was seldom called the “mother of the people”; nor were her predecessors, the sailor king William IV and the profligate George IV, often thought of as “father of the country.” Promises of a paternal monarchy suffered grievous harm in 1649 with the beheading of Charles I and died in 1688 with the flight of his son. In the seventeenth century, the landed classes dis-

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