Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Idea of Police in Eighteenth-Century England: Discipline, Reformation, Superintendence, C. 1780-1800

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Idea of Police in Eighteenth-Century England: Discipline, Reformation, Superintendence, C. 1780-1800

Article excerpt


Recent years have seen considerable interest in the idea of "police" in the eighteenth century.1 "Police" in this archaic sense did not mean a uniformed force employed by the state to govern law and order, it implied a much more general system of government, the task of which was to regulate broad aspects of communal existence with the aim of establishing the common good of the community and was closely associated with maintenance of the moral order, security and the maximization of national resources.

Police in this wider sense has long been understood as central to European political thought, but it was generally assumed that England did not possess a comparable concept or system. Historians of policing have recently demonstrated that this is mistaken, detailing the gradual development of English policing practices over the period 1660-1830, accelerating from the 1780s.2 But this work largely focuses on the relationship between particular institutional reforms and local needs and politics. What this work does not do is engage with police on the broader conceptual level, particularly its relation to wider changes in the "mentality" of government, by which I mean "a way or system of thinking about the nature of the practice of government (who can govern; what governing is; what or who is governed), capable of making that activity thinkable and practicable both to its practitioners and to those upon whom it was practiced."3 Although discussed briefly in histories of policing, and more substantially in Andrew's work on philanthropy, English discourses on police are nowhere engaged with on their own terms, as arguments for the reorganization of a general system of urban government.4

Discourses on English police do, however, surface occasionally in the work of several sociologists, who locate the transformation of English government in the eighteenth century in relation to several dominant explanations for this process common in social science: the emergence of modern governmentality, the "disciplinary society," or "social control." However, there remains scope for an historical engagement with, and deepening of this work.

Mitchell Dean, focusing on the English police of poverty, writes the subject into the Foucaultian narrative of the emergence of modern governmentality, arguing that eighteenth-century police passed from an earlymodern concern with reforming the social order, to a desire to augment national power and prosperity through the enforcement of industry. Here, police was not concerned with reconstructing the old order but with achieving new national goals through the administration of the population. This was superseded by a "liberal" concept of prevention, where police means not the condition of order, but institutions for the prevention of threats to order, based around the management of the circumstances of its occurrence.5

Mark Neocleous, in work closely aligned with, but extending traditional histories of social control, offers a Marxist account of the establishment of mechanisms of urban discipline in the late eighteenth century, arguing they constitute the assumption of bourgeois control of the state, which not only saw an assault on traditional work practices in favor of the capitalist wage economy, creating the working class as a body, but simultaneously saw an attempt to inculcate bourgeois social values along with the new economic order.6

We can contribute to these sociological accounts with an historicist exploration of the emergence of "police" in England, avoiding the problem of locating English governmental practices in relation to German discourses, and at the same time extending the range of our study of English discourses on police. Dean and Neocleous, for example, draw principally on the work of Colquhoun and Gilbert, while mentioning Blackstone and Adam Smith as authors on police.7

John McMullan does focus directly on eighteenth-century English police discourse, writing it into a second Foucaultian narrative: the emergence of "disciplinary society. …

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