Victorian Writing about Risk: Imagining a Safe England in a Dangerous World

By Elaine Freedgood | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Banishing panic: J. R. McCulloch, Harriet Martineau
and the popularization of political economy

In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, a number of British liberal intellectuals attempted to popularize the “laws” of classical political economy in the hope, as the statistician William Farr put it, that “knowledge [would] banish panic. ” 1 There is a sense, in many of these works, 2 that knowledge of economic laws might quiet the growing unease of the middle and upper classes and the growing unrest of the laboring classes in regard to the increasingly industrialized market economy. Among the most successful popularizers of classical political economy were Harriet Martineau and J. R. McCulloch who both wrote best-selling 3 works that attached abstract “laws” to their concrete correlatives, in an attempt to make them more easily understood and accepted by the reading public. Martineau's Illustrations of Political Economy is a collection of stories, the plots of which reveal the happy endings that await those who place their faith in a market left to its own “natural” workings. McCulloch's Statistical Account of the British Empire supplies numbers, tables, descriptions, comparisons, historical surveys and expert opinions that illustrate the supremacy, when compared to both other places and other times, of the natural resources, industry, commerce, education, government, religion, poor laws, and vital statistics of Britain. In both works, England is represented as self-sufficient and secure. The risks of Britain's new economy and social structures disappear in the predictability offered by the regularities of McCulloch's numbers and the resolutions of Martineau's plots.

The words of William Farr's aphorism – “knowledge will banish panic” – resonate with particularly Victorian meanings. “Knowledge, ” in the increasingly empirical nineteenth century, is valued in proportion to its content of information and facts; other kinds of knowledge, the more abstract processes associated with speculation, or with the ability to theorize, recede in prestige. Facts conferred respectability: J. R. McCulloch defined and defended political economy as “not a science of

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