The Eighteenth-Century Constitution, 1688-1815: Documents and Commentary

The Eighteenth-Century Constitution, 1688-1815: Documents and Commentary

The Eighteenth-Century Constitution, 1688-1815: Documents and Commentary

The Eighteenth-Century Constitution, 1688-1815: Documents and Commentary

Excerpt

Victorian historians assumed that the eighteenth-century political system was a dress rehearsal for their own polished performance, and condemned any divergencies they found as failures to come up to the demands of the script. Misinterpretation was the result; for the attribution to other people of our own aims and motives, customs and conventions is bound to lead to distortion. Irrelevant questions are asked and wrong answers are found; words are used with anachronistic meanings. During the last fifty years, however, much has been done to clarify the vision and rearrange the pattern. Patient labour by a generation of historians inspired by the genius of Sir Lewis Namier has given solid grounds for confirming what a minority of writers have been saying all along. It has been a question, in the main, of delineating the political structure of the period as it existed in the minds of the men who were involved in it. Political structure is not the whole story, of course, any more than psycho-analysis is biography; but both require the illumination that the others provide. This selection of documents attempts to give an idea of eighteenth-century institutions as they are seen by historians today. Much of the British constitution notoriously exists only in the minds of men, and it is hoped that this volume will enable some glimpses of it to be seen in the language men used from William III to William Pitt.

I am glad to count myself among the number of students who are fortunate enough to receive the warm interest and skilled guidance of Dr J. H. Plumb. I have also had the privilege of consulting Dr G. Kitson Clark, the distinguished scholar in constitutional history, for whose generous help I am most grateful. I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness also to the staff of the British Museum, the Public Record Office, the Leicester Museum, and the Library of the University of London; and to the Vicar of West Thurrock in Essex, who kindly allowed me to use his parish records. I must also record my appreciation of the efforts of my wife in transcribing and typing; a schoolmaster could not produce a work like this in his spare time without such help. And, finally, I wish to thank my colleagues, and also several generations of pupils from whose questions, pertinent and impertinent, I have learned so much.

E.N.W.

DULWICH

September 1959 . . .

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