England in the Eighteenth Century

By J. H. Plumb | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
RADICALISM AND REFORM 1770-84

A GAMING, robbing, wrangling, railing nation without principles, genius, character or allies; the overgrown shadow of what it was. ( Horace Walpole in 1771.)

All was not well. Each year brought fresh disaster and increased the national debt. From the early sixties there had been a steadily mounting volume of criticism of every aspect of English life. Adam Smith, and his Scottish precursors, maintained that the root of the trouble lay in the organization of England's economy, and the immediate need was to replace mercantilism with free trade. To Jeremy Bentham the trouble was the nature of British institutions, which were built on false principles. The whole administrative machinery, and the entire corpus of legislation, needed drastic reformation on the principle of utility, whose guide was to be the greatest happiness of the greatest number.* Wesley, Whitfield, and their evangelical sympathisers in the Established Church called for a change of heart, for a return to Christian principles and to a Christian life. Opposition politicians believed that George III and his advisers were responsible for the national decay. But the most effective body of men, at least in public propaganda, were the Rational Dissenters, who agreed with Smith, with Bentham, and with Wesley, with Fox and Burke, but limited their horizons and engaged in practical activity. They dominated the first movement for radical reform.

____________________
*
Adam Smith Enquiry into the Wealth of Nations and Bentham Theory of Legislation were both published in 1776, which also witnessed the introduction of the first comprehensive measure for Parliamentary Reform.

-133-

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