Politics and Literature in the Eighteenth Century

Politics and Literature in the Eighteenth Century

Politics and Literature in the Eighteenth Century

Politics and Literature in the Eighteenth Century

Excerpt

The work of Sir Lewis Namier and his disciples has had an immense impact on the study of eighteenth-century British politics. It has done much, for example, to dispel myths about the absolutist aims of George III and about the existence of organized Whig and Tory parties in the mid-eighteenth century. This 'Namierite' preoccupation with the structure of politics, however, with its emphasis on the mechanical and manipulative aspect of politics, has sometimes been taken too far. In less skilful hands than those of Namier it has led to a failure to understand the operative force of political ideas. Robert Walcott, for example, was able to write English Politics in the Early Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 1956) without reference to the works of such political writers of the day as Swift, Defoe, Addison or Steele. Even Namier himself paid scant attention to the writings of Bolingbroke or Burke when writing about mid-eighteenth-century politics. The Namierite approach, while undeniably offering valuable insights into the nature of the eighteenth-century political system, neglects the political climate which influences or restricts what politicians do. It reveals much about political actions and ambitions, but it ignores what politicians and commentators of the time actually thought and felt about what was happening. For a full understanding of eighteenth-century politics we need to appreciate not just what historians now believe to be the objective reality, but how men at the time regarded the situation. This kind of understanding can only be achieved by studying the whole range of political ideas and political literature of the period.

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