Jun 1, 1980
English Middle-Class Radicalism in the Eighteenth Century
“Joseph Priestley here, too, speaks for his age, for his religious brethren, and for his class.”
The Bourgeois Radicals—An Overview
The Honorable John Byng, fifth Viscount of Torrington, toured the Midlands in the spring of 1790. On the 18th of June he came to Cromford. What he saw there moved him deeply. It disturbed him, but it also filled him with awe. His was a response common to the men who governed England.
These vales have lost all their beauties; the rural cot has given place to the lofty red mill, and the grand houses of overseers; the stream perverted from its course by sluices and aqueducts, will no longer ripple and cascade. Every rural sound is sunk in the clamour of cotton works, and the simple peasant (for to be simple we must be sequestered) is changed into the impudent mechanic… the bold rock opposite this house [The Black Dog at Cromford] is now disfigured by a row of new houses built upon it; and the vales are everywhere blocked by mills. I saw the workers issue forth at 7. ‘o’ clock, a wonderful crowd of young people… a new set then goes in for the night, for the mills never leave off working… . These cotton mills, seven stories high, and filled with inhabitants, remind me of a first rate man of war; and when they are lighted up, on a dark night, look most luminously beautiful.
The giant man of war was Richard Arkwright’s cotton works. For a much angrier William Blake it was one of the “dark, satanic mills” that forever doomed England’s “green and pleasant land.”
Portraits of Middle Class Leaders
For the artist Joseph Wright of Derby, these mills were symbolic of a new world and as such fit objects to be put on canvas. He painted two versions of Arkwright’s Cromford mills. There is a matter-of-fact depiction by day and a night scene of exquisite beauty, the landscape bathed in the moonlight and in each of the hundreds of windows a naked candle ablaze. Wright was fascinated by the new England. He painted memorable pictures of technological exhibits and scientific experiments. Most significantly, however, he painted portraits and it is for these portraits that have endured for two centuries that Wright is renowned. In them he has frozen for eternity the faces of the men who were ushering in industrial civilization. There are the partners Thomas Bentley and Josiah Wedgwood, the textile magnates Arkwright, Jedediah Strutt, Samuel Crompton, and Samuel Oldknow. In this historical gallery are also the intellectual friends of these manufacturers, who gravitated to the circle around Joseph Priestley (1733–1804). There is the philosopher, poet, scientist Erasmus Darwin. There is the political radical Thomas Day.
Wright’s portraits are free of mystery and awe. There is no suggestion of majesty, no theatrical evocation of grandeur or charisma. No aristocratic adornments or symbols clutter the canvas and there is no use of the classical themes or modes that so intrigued the Frenchman David. Instead there is a penetrating steady light that reveals plain men in sober and simple settings. The counting house not the manor house, the mill not the drawing room was their milieu. They mean business. Wright’s subjects were not princes, statesmen, or orators. They were entrepreneurs, men of business, and the intellectual spokesmen for that class. They were not cosmopolitan public men from London or Bath. They were provincials from Derby, Manchester, and Birmingham. They were industrious men hard at work changing the face of English society and were perceived as such by their contemporaries. A writer for the Edinburgh Review noted:
In the West of England, in particular, there has been a succession… who seem to have fancied that they were born to effect some mighty revolution in the different departments to which they applied themselves. We need only run over the names of Darwin, Day, Beddoes… and Priestley. It is… chiefly, we believe, for want of that wholesome discipline of derision to which everything is subjected in London… . There is something… in the perpetual presence of the more permanent aristocracies of wealth, office, and rank which teaches aspiring men to measure their own importance by a more extended standard. Dr. Priestley, however, and his associates, were to all intents and purposes provincial philosophers: they took no cognizance of any sort of excellence or distinction but their own… They naturally fell headlong into those miscalculations, from which it is difficult to escape where self is the subject of computation.
The characterization of this written portrait is uncannily accurate, despite its sneering smugness. These were indeed aspiring men who had set themselves against the inherited world of aristocratic rank. Their concern was not the “extended standards” but the private world of self. Their own excellence, their own self was, indeed, their subject of computation. They were characteristically honest and straightforward about what they were up to. In his letters Wedgwood described how he had “fallen in love” with and “made a mistress” of his new business. Jedediah Strutt was convinced, “whatever some Divines would teach to the contrary,” that the “main business of the life of man” was the “getting of money.”
The Middle Class Cultural Revolution: Homo Oeconomicus
A fundamental and momentous shift in values is implicit in the works and words of the circle that Wright painted in the Midlands. A new cultural ideal was taking shape. Homo civicus was being replaced by homo oeconomicus. This, too, was apparent to contemporary observers. In her essay “True heroism,” Anna Barbauld, a member of Priestley’s circle, wrote that great men were no longer “Kings, lords, generals, and prime ministers.” There were new heroes, men who instead:
invent useful arts, or discover important truths which may promote the comfort and happiness of unborn generations in the distant parts of the world. They act still an important part, and their claim to merit is generally more undoubted, than that of the former, because what they do is more certainly their own.
A pamphleteer of 1780 spelled out even more clearly who these new heroes were. They were the men whose portraits Wright painted.
Consider the gradual steps of civilization from barbarism to refinement and you will not fail to discover that the progress of society from its lowest and worst to its highest and most perfect state, has been uniformly accompanied and chiefly promoted by the happy exertions of man in the character of a mechanic or engineer!
This is no Victorian journalist waxing philosophical on the wonders of the Crystal Palace exhibition. It is an eighteenth-century pamphleteer criticising machine breakers in Lancashire. What the machine seemed to provide was a concrete basis for the emerging belief in unlimited progress and improvement. While some might react with fury to the pain and hurt, homo oeconomicus had seemingly few regrets at the corrosive and unsettling impact of the machine. Tradition, custom, all of the status quo must give way to the felicitous path of progressive change. There is an ominous foretaste of Social Darwinism in the vision of endless innovation and improvement conjured up in 1780.
Every new invention, every useful improvement must unavoidably interfere with what went before it and what is inferior and less perfect must give way and ought to give way, to what is better and more perfect. The transition indeed cannot always be made without inconvenience to some individuals, but this proceeds from the progressive nature of things, and the general order of Providence; and cannot be prevented without destroying the main springs and first elements of the moral world.
The machine is the new standard of value. In terms that speak strikingly to later themes of reification and alienation Wedgwood calmly informs a correspondent that he has “been turning models, and preparing to make such Machines of the Men as cannot err.”
Invention, useful improvement, comfort—these are the central preoccupations of the age. No surprise then that a cult of Benjamin Franklin emerged in Wright’s and Priestley’s circle. For Anna Barbauld he was a fit model for “true heroism.”
Few wiser men have ever existed than the late Dr. Franklin. His favorite purpose was to turn everything to use, to extract some potential advantage from his speculations. He understood common life and all that conduces to its comfort. He left treasures of domestic wisdom that were superior to any of the boasted maxims of antiquity.
Such men had no need for the teachings of the past. The Annual Register, commenting in 1800 on the accomplishment of the century past, echoes this theme. Prodigious change had occurred in England during those 100 years.
Whence this happy change? Not from the progressive effects of moral disquisitions and lectures: not even from the progressive effects of preaching, trimmed up by the artifices of composition taught by professors of rhetoric; but from the progressive intercourse of men with men, minds with minds, of navigation, commerce, arts and sciences.
Josiah Wedgwood had a better way to assess the achievements of men like himself. In 1783 he summoned his young workers to a large meeting in a field near his works in Staffordshire. Food was scarce that winter in nearby Lancashire, and what little was available bore prices too dear for most of the workers in the new factories. The workers rioted in Lancashire, breaking machines and sacking shops of bakers and grocers. Wedgwood called the meeting to warn his workers against following the lead of their mates in the cotton mills. “The late tumultuous proceedings,” he cautioned, “were contrary to their own real interests.” The workers would do well, instead, he went on, to ask their parents to compare the countryside as it now stood with what they once knew. Had not poverty been replaced by workers earning double their former wages? Had not miserable huts, poorly cultivated land, and nearly impassable roads been replaced by new and comfortable homes and “the land, roads, and everything else by pleasing and rapid improvements?” There was but one explanation for this transformation, industry, a word laden with meaning for the pious unitarian Wedgwood. “Industry has been the parent of this happy change—a well directed and long continued series of industrious exertions, both in masters and servants.” The foundation of a new England was being laid by those who saw hard work as a command of God. Wedgwood, in fact, expanded the decalogue, heaping praise on those “very good in keeping my eleventh commandment—thou shalt not be idle.”
Dissenters as Apostles of Modernization
Wedgwood’s friends, who zealously obeyed this divine injunction were transforming Britain in the way that Burke saw all Europe heading. “The age of chivalry is gone,” he wrote, “that of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded. The glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.” Throughout most of his career, even in the Reflections, Burke was convinced, it should be remembered, that England was the principal evidence of this most unfortunate transition. He singled out one group as the major modernizing agent in his England—the sectarian protestant dissenters. He was right. While many strands of English life contributed to the modernity that undermined the ancient regime, even parts of the aristocracy itself, the cutting edge of change came from these dissenters, from the likes of Wedgwood. They were the boldest voices attacking the traditional order; they were the secular prophets, the vanguard, of a new social order. These talented and industrious protestant dissenters played the decisive role in transforming England into the first industrial civilization.
By the 1760s and 1770s large numbers of the English dissenters, the subdued and rather quiescent descendants of the nonconformist sects that had waged revolution under Cromwell, had already emigrated to the American colonies. Those Baptists, Presbyterians, Independents (Congregationalists), Unitarians, and Quakers who remained in England constituted only seven per cent of the population. But this seven per cent was at the heart of the progressive and innovative nexus that linked scientific, political, cultural, and industrial radicalism. The mnemonic scheme used by generations of English school children to personalize the industrial revolution, for example, the three Ws, Watt, Wilkinson, and Wedgwood, are dissenters to a man. Each of the new manufacturing industries was presided over by dissenters.
Joseph Priestley: Representative Dissenter and Modernizing Bourgeois Radical
An equally strong case can be made for the central and crucial role played by these dissenters in scientific and political innovation, personified best in the career of Joseph Priestley, who more than anyone else qualifies as the pivotal intellectual figure among the bourgeois radicals. Radical in politics, laissez-faire theorist in economics, innovator in science and technology, founder of the modern Unitarian movement, Priestley schooled England’s new men of business in the series of dissenting academies at which he taught, while personally serving as the critical link between virtually every aspect of the progressive and innovative bourgeois nexus. Brother-in-law to Wilkinson, friend of Price and Wollstonecraft, “guide, philosopher, and friend of Boulton, Watt, and Wedgwood at Birmingham,” he was “gunpowder Joe” to Burke and the “Church and King” mob that burned his laboratory and home in 1791 sending him to finish his days in dissenter paradise—America.
The dissenters were proud of their achievements and unafraid to note their wealth. Self-congratulation, in fact, was often paired with threats to leave, should Anglican and aristocratic England bear down too hard on dissent. According to Priestley’s calculations, “one-half of the wealth of the nation has been the acquisition of dissenters.” Their secret was one that, he argued, would guarantee success for anyone. “The habits of industry and frugality which prevail among them will not fail to make any set of men rich.” Priestley echoed Tom Paine’s Rights of Man by holding out the possibility that if pushed too far the dissenters and leading manufacturers would leave England, which of course he himself would do in 1794. The irony is, of course, that it was just such a sense of potential mobility and lack of identification with the soil and traditions of England that further encouraged the very hostility against them that Priestley warned against.
I shall just mention three other men now living, and all of them Dissenters, whose spirit has so much improved, they may be almost said to have created, their several manufactures, from which this country already derives the greatest honour and advantage, Mr. Wedgwood, Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Parker. Such MEN AS THESE ARE THE MAKERS OF COUNTRIES; and yet such men as these, if not these men themselves, would the mad bigotry of this country exult in seeing depart for France, America, or Ireland.
The Dissenters’ Legal Disabilities, Marginality, and Creativity
The dissenters operated at the margins of English life, and this sense of alienation had concrete foundations in the objective world. For most of the eighteenth century it was technically illegal, for example, to carry on a unitarian service. But much more onerous than this were the Test and Corporation Acts, the most humiliating of the badges the dissenters had to wear indicating their difference. This legislation, dating from the Restoration and originally directed against Catholics, required all holders of offices under the Crown to receive the sacrament according to the rites of the Anglican church. The Acts also excluded nonsubscribers to the Anglican creed from any office in an incorporated municipality. In addition, only Anglicans could matriculate at Oxford and Cambridge. Exclusion from public jobs was the most serious impact of the Acts, however, for it meant that legions of these talented dissenters were denied one of the most important means a society has to reward its successful: public office in the military or civil establishment.
The radical and innovative role that the dissenters played in the decades after 1760 was in part related to their marginality, and the dissenters themselves sensed that their creative role in English life was related to their exclusion from its mainstream. Anna Barbauld made the connection clear in herAddress to Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts (1790). You have disqualified us, branded us, and kept us separate, she shouts at the establishment. “You have set a mark of separation upon us, and it is not in our power to take it off.” But in doing this the Anglicans had also carved out the unique mission of the dissenters, she hastens to add.
You have rendered us quick frighted to encroachment and abuses of all kinds. We have the feelings of men. We have no favours to blind us, no golden padlock to our tongues, and therefore it is probable enough that, if cause is given, we shall cry aloud and spare not… . It is perfectly agreeable to a jealous spirit of a free constitution that there should be some who will season the mass with the wholesome spirit of opposition.
The dissenter not blinded by establishment rewards, and not silenced by the financial advantages of mouthing orthodox truth, is uniquely capable of seeing the appeal of novelty and speaking the words of criticism. Some two decades earlier Priestley had made the same point. “We dissenters,” he wrote, “consider it as our singular privilege, that our situation, how unfavorable soever in other respects, is favorable to free inquiry; and that we have no such bias upon our minds, in favour of established opinions.” Even after his laboratory had been destroyed by the mob in 1791, Priestley proudly asserted his dissenting nature. “I bless God,” he wrote to his friends in Birmingham, “that I was born a dissenter, not manacled by the chains of so debasing a system as that of the Church of England and that I was not educated at Oxford or Cambridge.” To the minister and radical, Richard Price, it was indeed his having been spared Oxford and Cambridge that explained the dissenter’s innovative and radical disposition. The ancient universities, he wrote, were “fortresses erected for the security and preservation of the Church of England and defended by Tests and Subscriptions.” Free from this training in orthodoxy, the dissenters did not believe that truth was founded 200 years ago. They were not bound to “vile dogmatism,” they were not given to “notions of sacredness in disputable doctrines and stuffing the mind with prejudices.” Dissenters, Price concluded, had a peculiar calling made easier by their exclusion; it was “to suspect our public creeds and forms.”
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke would, of course, proudly proclaim the English a people who, in fact, cherished ancient and sacred doctrines, or prejudices, as he called them. Ideas were worthy simply by dint of dogged persistence over time. Dissenters like Price had no truck with the self-evident truth of ancient ideas, however; theirs was seen as a messianic mission to, as Barbauld put it, “destroy the empire of prejudices, that empire of gigantic shadows.” Like the Hebrews, they were chosen by God for their task, and their oppression for their difference was proof of their selection.
It is to speculative people, fond of novel doctrines, and who by accustoming themselves to make the most fundamental truths the subject of discussion, have divested their minds of the reverence which is generally felt for opinions and practices long standing, that the world is ever to look for its improvement or reformation.
The Dissenters’ “Novel Doctrines”: Careers Open to Talent
Self-consciously, then, the dissenters saw their mission not only as patrons of scientific and industrial modernity but as enemies of established opinions, vile dogmatism, public creeds, the reverence for opinions and the empire of prejudice. Freed from restraining golden padlocks on their tongues, they were a people “fond of novel doctrines.”
These novel doctrines, the ideology of bourgeois radicalism, are at work in the effort throughout this period to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts. This issue more than any other preoccupied the writings of the dissenters and it is here that one finds the ideological core of dissenting social thought. These Acts interfered with religious liberty, to be sure, but even more onerous to the dissenters were their invasion of civil liberty. While they violated the natural religious rights of believers, they also intruded the state into the free competitive market of careers and rewards by right due the talented and industrious. These laws violated the fundamental assumptions of the ethos of the self-made individual and of society disinterestedly rewarding people of merit and talent, people of hard and useful work. By excluding dissenters from public office, the Acts were assailed as the major buttress of an aristocratic order of received and unearned status and rank. They rewarded idle and unproductive people of leisure and lineage. In an essay attacking the Acts, Priestley ridiculed the values and the individuals they favored. They were designed to reward “the gentlemen born,” those “with family and connections respectable… of polished and engaging manners.” It is the demand for careers open to the talented and the charge that aristocratic society blocks such advances that Priestley intones in his mocking comments that “the door of preferment is so open to him [the gentleman born] that he hardly needs to knock in order to enter.” No matter how superior the dissenter was it seemed to some of them that the English would always have more respect and rewards for the old order’s incompetents. Robert Bage, the dissenter and bourgeois radical novelist, wrote:
In this country it is better to be a churchman, with just as much common sense as heaven has been pleased to give on average to Esquimaux, than a dissenter with the understanding of a Priestley or a Locke. I hope, Dear Will, experience will teach thee this great truth, and convey thee to peace and orthodoxy, pudding and stability.
Priestley warned that if preferment would not come to the talented and successful dissenters than as “citizens of the world” they would get up and go to where their virtuous achievements were recognized and rewarded. This was shorthand for America and so, indeed, he went. The fiery Anna Barbauld did not leave, however, and in making her case for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts she addressed the social issue straight on. It was no favor for which she asked but “a natural and inalienable right,” which she claimed was hers and every dissenter’s. It was not the religious issue that alone bothered the opponents of the Acts nor, indeed, she added, was religion the main concern of the dissenters. The issue was “power, place and influence.”
To exclude us from jobs is no more reasonable than to exclude all those above five feet high or those whose birthdays are before the summer solstice. These are arbitrary and whimsical distinctions… . We want civil offices. And why should citizens not aspire to civil offices? Why should not the fair field of generous competition be freely opened to every one… . We wish to buy every name of distinction in the common appelation of citizen.
Barbauld articulates the very core of bourgeois radical social theory. In the competitive scramble of the market place all citizens are equal in terms of their opportunity to win; no one has built-in advantages of birth or status. Freedom involves unrestrained competition and equality, an absence of built-in handicaps. In the vulgar rhetoric of the bourgeoisie, life is competition, a race for goods and offices, and in this race all have an equal opportunity to win. It is, in fact, these dissenters who popularize the metaphor of the race of life. John Aikin, brother of Anna Barbauld, for example, writes in a letter published for his son: “For what is the purpose of equal laws, equal rights, equal opportunities of profiting by natural and acquired talents, but to annul artificial distinctions, and cause the race of life to be run fairly.”
Talent vs. Privilege
It was privilege and pride against which middle-class radicals, the useful members of the state, waged war. The fundamental sin of the privileged order was their violation of what Thomas Cooper, the dissenting industrialist, and friend of Priestley and Wedgwood, called “principle of talent.” Government required “talents and abilities,” which were not assigned at birth, but which manifested themselves in personal merit and achievement. While the privileged ruled the state,
the business of the nation is actually done by those who owe nothing to their ancestors, but have raised themselves into situations which the idleness and ignorance of the titled orders incapacitate them from filling.
Moreover, Cooper argued, the privileged who acquire their control of politics and the social order by dint of birth have no motives to industry or hard work. Everything they need or want is theirs from their station in life. “Take away these inducements by giving them in advance, and you stop the growth of abilities and knowledge and you nip wisdom and virtue in the bud.” Public virtue does not flow from the sated ranks of the privileged but from “insatiable ambition,” and as a “reward for extraordinary talents or great exertions.” The aristocracy by their monopoly of public offices blocked the virtuous citizen from the rightful fruits of his industry. Cooper’s rhetoric is vintage bourgeois radicalism.
The privileged orders are not required to earn their envied distinctions… . They have no concomitant duties to fulfill in consideration for the privileges they enjoy, their inutility is manifest… they are of no avail to any useful purpose in society… . It is well known that where business is to be done, it is best done with competition, and always comparatively ill done, by those who are careless of public approbation, because they are independent of public opinion. The privileged orders are unjust also to men of experience and abilities who are deprived in a great measure by the due reward of meritorious attainment.
Middle Class Political Reform for Equal Opportunity: William Godwin and Figaro’s Politics
These men of “meritorious attainment” were the bearers of an ideology of equal opportunity. The bourgeois radical demanded political reform in order to destroy forever the aristocratic world of patronage and ascribed status. The demands of the reformers that the suffrage be extended to industrial and commercial wealth, that the new manufacturing centers like Manchester and Birmingham be granted parliamentary representation, that expensive aristocratic institutions be streamlined or eliminated, that dissenters be free to serve as municipal and governmental officials, all involve the vision of careers opened to the talented. A public order managed by men of merit and achievement would in turn reward others for industry and effort. Poor laws would be abolished, taxes decreased, government withdrawn from the market and the pulpit, luxury discouraged, thrift and other middle-class values encouraged. Equality of opportunity was a social ideal that assumed that given a freely competitive environment, the talented would move to the top, a victory for virtue as well as for merit.
Equal opportunity dominated the thought of the bourgeois radicals of late eighteenth-century England. William Godwin, former dissenting minister, and “the philosopher” of the English radicals during the French Revolution is one such example. In his immensely popular and influential Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), he attacked the aristocrat as someone with “no motive to industry and exertion; no stimulus to rouse him from the lethargic, oblivious pool, out of which every human intellect originally rose.” Privilege, Godwin wrote, enables a few to monopolize the rewards “which the system of the universe left at large to all her sons,” and it “kills all liberal ambition in the rest of mankind.” Godwin’s treatise, justly remembered as the first important anarchist statement, is a manifesto for the liberal individualistic world view that lashed out at the still powerful remnants of the corporate and hierarchical polity defended by Burke. Godwin proclaims:
It is this structure of aristocracy, in all its sanctuaries and fragments, against which reason and morality have declared war… . Mankind will never be, in an eminent degree, virtuous and happy till each man shall possess that portion of distinction and no more, to which he is entitled by his personal merits.
Godwin’s plea for equality is that of the bourgeois radical. He does not demand leveling and arbitrary equalization, only equality of opportunity. He, too, invoked the metaphor of the race, the competitive symbol of self-reliant liberalism. In Political Justice (1793) Godwin anticipates and sets the pattern for later anarchist ambivalence. While much of his argument for equality expresses itself in images of communal solidarity, it is also expressed in the language of radical and competitive individualism. One dimension of his assault on inequality is couched in the language of bourgeois liberalism. The enemy is aristocratic privilege. In Political Justice some of Godwin’s most vitriolic prose is directed at the feudal notions of rank and status. In their place he pleads for the liberal principles of careers and rewards open to talent, industry, and merit. He speaks directly of equality of opportunity, as he makes the classic liberal argument for a fair race, free of special advantages, and with victory assured the best runner:
Remove from me and my fellows all arbitrary hindrances; let us start fair; render all the advantages and honours of social institution accessible to every man, in proportion to his talents and exertions.
In passages such as these, Godwin echoes the progressive bourgeois ideology found in the writings of men like Priestley and articulated in the circles of industrial religious dissenters around Wilkinson and Wedgwood.
How fitting, then, that Thomas Holcroft, the dissenter and radical novelist, Godwin’s closest friend, and the acquitted conspirator in Pitt’s treason trial of 1794, should have been the Englishman to translate Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro in 1784. For in Figaro we find the pristine articulation of bourgeois radical ideology. Figaro’s denunciation of Count Almaviva in Act 5 captures the spirit of the age.
Just because you’re a great Lord, you think you’re a genius. Nobility, fortune, rank, position—you’re so proud of those things. What have you done to deserve so many rewards? You went to the trouble of being born and no more.
Bourgeois radicalism was the politics of Figaro’s kinsmen in Britain. It was the political program of men and women who were convinced that they had done more, and that they more than anyone else deserved social and political rewards. Bourgeois radicalism was the ideological vision of industrialists, scientists, and their intellectual spokesmen who set out in late eighteenth-century Britain to destroy the political, social, and cultural hegemony of those who had only gone to the trouble of being born.
Long before Marx, observers assumed the interdependence of the economy and the polity. The likes of Priestley, Barbauld, Wedgwood, Price or Paine saw themselves harbingers of political as well as economic change. Contemporaries had numerous concrete symbols of this linkage within even the same family. None the least impressive were, of course, the Cartwright brothers, Edward, the inventor of the power loom, and John, the indefatigable campaigner for adult male suffrage, annual Parliaments, payment for M.P.s and equal electoral districts. Conventional wisdom, in fact, had it that economic change naturally begat political change. Hume and Smith shared Montesquieu’s conviction that commercial societies had more political liberty. Economic determinism was a common feature of Scottish historical analysis and it presumed, too, the liberalizing tendencies of economic growth. Sir James Stewart wrote:
In countries where the government is vested in the hands of the great Lords, as is the case in all aristocracies, as was the case under the feudal government, and as it still is the case in many countries in Europe, where trade, however, and industry are daily gaining ground, the statesman who sets the new system of political oeconomy on foot, may depend upon it, that either his attempt will fail, or the constitution of the government will change. If he destroys all arbitrary dependence between individuals, the wealth of the industrious will share, if not totally root out the power of the grandees.
Henry Fielding was not the scholar Stewart was, but the novelist was an astute observer of his times. For him, too, it was beyond doubt that economic change would produce political change. “Trade,” he wrote, “hath given a new face to the whole nation, hath in great measure subverted the former state of affairs.” Only the ignorant and the socially blind could not see the political consequences of this transformation, according to Fielding.
To conceive that so great a change as this in the people should produce no change in the constitution is to discover, I think, as great ignorance as would appear in the physician who should assert that the whole state of the blood may be entirely altered from poor to rich, from cool to inflamed, without producing any alteration in the constitution of man.
The Scholarly Gap in the Development of Eighteenth-Century English Middle-Class Ideology
1. The Marxian reading of British historical development is some-what different from that offered in this essay. To be sure, both Marx and Engels identify the beginnings of the bourgeois epoch with English developments. They describe it as the nation to experience the first “of the revolutions of modern times,” the first bourgeois revolution, as Marx insisted in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and the German Ideology. England and its industrial revolution also form the basis for Marx’s description of the transition from landed property to moneyed capital in his Das Kapital and Engels’s similar argument in On Historical Materialism. England was, of course, the home of Marx and Engels for much of their creative lives.
The revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie, of which the British branch was the most eminent example, was an event of world historical significance, according to Marx. In the volumes of obloquy that he heaped on the bourgeoise, it is easy to overlook, however, the unabashed enthusiasm and praise with which Marx also wrote of that class. Das Kapital may portray the factory owner as the malevolent evil force in the grand morality play that pits Mr. Capitalist against Mr. Collective Worker, but there are very few appreciations of the achievements of bourgeois capitalism that compare with Marx’s discussion in the Communist Manifesto. Even Josiah Wedgwood pales as a rival apologist. The bourgeois class has done much more than simply carry history to its next inevitable stage of development, it has “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’.” It has been “the first to show what Man’s activity can bring about,” and “has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” Finally, of course, capitalism “has rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”
What is surprising, given this importance of the bourgeoisie’s achievement, is that neither Marx nor Engels was that concerned with describing its historical and political dynamics. To be sure, there is The Eighteenth Brumaire, a brilliant description of the political context of bourgeois politics in Napoleon III’s France. But for England, while the intricacies of bourgeois economic development is traced with painful care, the political and historical framework (and context) is seldom dealt with. When this is discussed, both Marx and Engels tend to comment on either the beginnings of the bourgeois era in seventeenth-century England or its highest stage of development (and therefore its putative imminent demise) in nineteenth-century England. This is most clearly evident in Marx’s discussion of the bourgeois ideology par excellence, utilitarianism, which, according to him, subordinates all relations “to the one abstract monetary-commercial relation.” His discussion as it relates to England concentrates first on Hobbes and Locke, where Marx contends the concept of utilitarianism emerges concurrent with the English bourgeois revolution. He then turns to Bentham and Mill who enshrine it for the “ruling developed bourgeoisie.” For the intervening eighteenth-century England is not mentioned, (there is a passing reference to Hume), and the discussion centers on the French physiocrats, on Helvetius and D’Holbach.
More recent scholarship, Marxian and non-Marxian alike, persists, as we shall see, in this preoccupation with bourgeois ideology as expressed either in seventeenth- or nineteenth-century England. There is little or no discussion in either Marx or more recent scholarship of bourgeois ideology as it developed in eighteenth-century England. What makes this preoccupation with the alleged beginning and culmination of the bourgeois era in England most surprising is its indifference, therefore, to the critical early decades of the industrial revolution which more than anything else one would assume produced the clear-cut contours of a bourgeois society.
Neglect of Middle-Class Ideology: Engels’s Incomplete Analysis
This indifference to the ideological and political developments of the early years of the industrial revolution (conventionally dated by Marx, Toynbee, and other economic historians as 1760–1800) is apparent in, and perhaps partially explained by looking at, Engels’s On Historical Materialism, which contains the most extensive treatment of the development of the English bourgeoisie in the corpus of Marx’s and Engels’s writings. Engels suggests here that the revolution of 1640 ended with the setback of 1688. The “Glorious Revolution” represented a compromise between the classes, the reactionary aristocratic classes retaining political power and the progressive bourgeois class retaining its economic victory in the sense that the general principles of a bourgeois economy became the prevailing principles of English economic life.
The “compromise” of 1689 (economic influence and minimal entrée into the corridors of power) was surprisingly successful, according to Engels, persisting for nearly 100 years. It is this presumption which may well explain the relative indifference to the intervening years of the eighteenth century and the quick turn to the nineteenth. After a discussion of the French Revolution, Engels notes that his description of the emerging revolutionary middle class must “return to our British bourgeoisie.” Where he rejoins them is with the events of the 1830s and 1848, the agitation for the reform of Parliament and the repeal of the Corn Laws. Until these developments of the nineteenth century, the English bourgeoisie were content with the compromise, Engels suggests. Only then did they strive to seize total hegemony—political as well as economic.
Engels does, to be sure, give some credit to the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century. What increased the wealth and assertiveness of the bourgeoisie and, especially within it, of the manufacturers was the work in England of Watt, Arkwright, and Cartwright. But the ideological and political correlate of their achievement, the demand by a strengthened bourgeois class to take over the political control of the English state, is totally reserved for the post-Napoleonic years and the assault on the aristocracy symbolized by the Great Reform Bill and the rejection of protectionist corn tariffs.
Marxian Gap: the Denial of Political Ideological Activity in the Eighteenth-Century English Middle Class
Where were the English bourgeoisie between 1760 an 1830? The sense one gets from Marx and Engels’s rather cursory treatment of these years is quite clear and in a way rather “un-Marxian.” The English bourgeoisie were preoccupied with business. They were busy building economic empires on steam and spinning jennies. If there was political conflict and assertiveness, it occurred, according to Engels, within the bourgeoisie itself, between new manufacturers and older bankers, or in the international sphere with the quest to solidify empire and profit via the wartime wresting of markets and trade supremacy from France. Only after this long period of economic preoccupation, do the bourgeoisie, according to Engels, look to national politics and seek to break the compromise of 1689 and seize “the political power still left to the aristocracy.” Then only in the heyday of nineteenth-century Manchester bourgeois hegemony, does it seek to spread its values and create a bourgeois culture and civilization.
What is suggestively “un-Marxian” here is the notion that late eighteenth-century bourgeois man in England should have been any less concerned with the political realm and the political and cultural expression of bourgeois ideology than was seventeenth-century or nineteenth-century bourgeois man. Marxism, one assumes, depicts the impact of the economic realm on the political and cultural superstructure as an ongoing continuous process, not one of fits and starts. One would expect, then, vigorous ideological activity in the formative years of the Industrial Revolution, in which bourgeois principles would be applied to the whole system, seeking to transform its values and its political structure to a closer match with economic reality.
This essay suggests that such a vigorous ideological enterprise did, in fact, occur in England between 1760 and 1800. The English bourgeoisie sought to break the compromise of 1689 long before the 1830s and 1840s. The entire span of English social and political thought and history between 1760 and 1800 can, indeed, be characterized by Engels’ categories, but not his timing. These years saw the sustained effort of the English bourgeoisie to take over political power in order to replace what it considered to be the prevailing aristocratic social, economic, and cultural values with radical bourgeois values. The latter objective, the replacement of aristocratic values with bourgeois values was relatively successful. The former, the political one, nearly succeeded in the early 1790s, but for Pitt’s repression, the spread of Methodism and evangelical religion, and the felicitous diversion of foreign war.
Marxian Overemphasis on the French Revolution: the Neglect of the Middle Class during 1760–1800.
The French Revolution may, in fact, help account for the relative indifference of Marx and Engels to the assertive bourgeoisie of late eighteenth-century England. In tracing the rise of bourgeois ideology as well as of the bourgeoisie in general, both of them seem caught in a chronological set that sees the march of events in a single column. In the German Ideology, Marx describes, as we have noted, the ideology developed by Hobbes and Locke moving to France where it is picked up by the physiocrats and some of the philosophes. It then returned to England in Bentham and Mill. So, too, Engels describes first the revolution of 1640, then the compromise of 1689. He then moves the chronological description of the rise of the bourgeoisie to France and the Revolution and then also “returns” to England where thenext step occurs in the 1830s. It is as if this development can not occur simultaneously in different places. More simply, perhaps, there is the obvious fact that the French Revolution commands the near total attention and interest of any student of bourgeois development in the eighteenth century. Harold Laski, too, in The Rise of European Liberalism, is preoccupied with French bourgeois thought in the late eighteenth century since it culminates in the drama of the Revolution; and he pays little attention to bourgeois ideology in England during the birth of industrialism. The primary concern with France and its revolution is by no means misplaced. Still, any comprehensive description of the development of bourgeois ideology should take into serious account the relatively unexplored years in England when the industrial revolution produced an assertive and highly articulate group of bourgeois ideologues.
E. P. Thompson’s Submerging of the Middle Class in the Lower Class
The contemporary socialist historian, E.P. Thompson, is also looking elsewhere, not at the French Revolution, but at the development in England of what he calls “plebian radicalism.” In the course of his writings, he, like Marx, is relatively uninterested in describing the emergence of a bourgeois radicalism in late eighteenth-century England. Thompson tends to see England in the eighteenth century characterized by what he labels “essential polarities.” He writes of the “POOR” AND THE “great,” the “popular” and the “polite,” the “plebs” and the “politicians.” Like Fielding he sees the “high” and the “low,” the “people of fashion” and of “no fashion.” Occasionally he sees this as equivalent to the non-propertied and the propertied, or the lower class and upper class. There is little discussion in his work of a third group, a middle class of propertied who saw themselves as by no means allied with the great, the polite, or the patricians. Thompson is preoccupied with “the polarization of antagonistic interests and the corresponding dialectic of culture.” It is in light of this that his spledid resurrection of working-class and popular ideology must be read. It is here that Thompson finds “resistance to the ruling ideas and institutions of society.” The direct, turbulent actions of the popular crowd were where hegemonic control was challenged.
My contention is that there are in the last half of the eighteenth century antagonistic interests and conflicting ideologies that require more than the dichotomy of plebeian and patrician. A selfconscious third group asserted its interests as quite different from the ruling aristocracy and gentry at the same time it sought eagerly to differentiate itself from what it considered the less virtuous poor beneath it. This middle class also repudiated the ruling ideas and institutions of aristocratic England. It may well be, as Thompson argues, that, by the 1790s and Pitt’s repression, middle class interests were frightened by the vogue of Paine and revolutionary sentiment among the poor (although I would argue this break was less dramatic than Thompson argues), and turned to an alliance with the gentry and aristocracy through the Napoleonic period. But this should not by any means deny the very real class antagonism that existed from 1760 on between the middle class and the aristocratic-gentry ruling class. To grant this, simply involves abandoning a polar view of English society.
In reality, the differences between Thompson’s analysis and that suggested in this essay are ones of emphasis only, and very understandable at that. His sense of “gentry-pleb” relations captured in his vivid metaphor remembered from school physics, does acknowledge at least the existence of a third force.
This is very much how I see eighteenth-century society, with, for many purposes the crowd at one pole, the aristocracy and gentry at the other, and until late in the century, the professional and merchant groups bound down by lines of magnetic dependency to the rulers, or on occasion hiding their faces in common action with the crowd.
Just when is late in the century? In noting the hold of paternalist assumptions over all segments of society, Thompson insists that one cannot exclude the middle class. He rejects the view “that this parasitism was curbed, or jealously watched, by a purposive, cohesive, growing middle class of professional men and of the manufacturing middle class.” Such a class, he adds, “did not begin to discover itself until the last three decades of the century.” His picture of the middle class assumes that for most of the century it “submitted to a client relationship” with the great. Tradesmen, attorneys, and intellectuals were deferential and dependent on the great. Thompson is willing, however, to be more precise on the timing of this break. He suggests that the gentry-aristocratic hegemony was unchallenged until the “intellectual radicalism of the early 1790s.” He grants that when the ideological break from paternalism occurred “in the 1790s it came in the first place less from the plebeian culture than from the intellectual culture of the dissenting middle class.” The emphasis of Thompson’s work has been on the ideology of plebeian radicalism, in this essay the concern is the rejection of paternalism and patronage by bourgeois radicalism, the “intellectual culture of the dissenting middle class.”
We differ then only on the timing and the intensity of this bourgeois ideological assault on the “ruling ideas and institutions of society,” and of course in our basic interest in it. Still, we agree on its central credo, for Thompson notes that what most infuriated this professional and merchant group about aristocratic and gentry hegemony were “its attendant humiliations and its impediments to the career open to talents.” My perspective is not unlike Thompson’s. His work in articles and books (and that of his students) has provided a powerful eighteenth-century first chapter to what most have previously considered the wholly nineteenth-century story of the making of the English working class. My concern is similarly to develop an eighteenth-century first chapter in what is conventionally seen as a nineteenth-century story— the tale of the making of a “purposive, cohesive, growing middle class of professional men and of the manufacturing middle class.”
2. Perkin’s Tory Interpretation: the Submerging of the Middle Class in the Upper Class
A very different version of this story is offered in Harold Perkin’s The Origins of Modern English Society. His is a profoundly different reading of the bourgeoisie and its place in English political and social life. Far from seeing it as in any way cohesive, purposive or assertive in the eighteenth century, he finds it instead reluctant “to abandon paternalism and be provoked into class antagonism.” The “birth of the middle class,” occurs only in 1815 when, according to Perkin, the northern manufacturers who had hitherto been uninterested in meddling into politics and who had been “loyal and quiescent” during wartime turned against Britain’s “ancien regime.” In 1815, Perkin contends, the middle class resolves to “assert its own power through its own representatives.” It turns then for the first time against the “old society compact by which the landed interest ruled on behalf of all the rest.” Proof of its “birth” is that “for the first time,” the middle class gave an appreciative audience and positions of leadership to emancipated and alienated intellectuals the likes of Bentham, Ricardo and James Mill.
That for three decades before the war and even for some time during the war important segments of the manufacturing community were politically active and often critical of the old order, and that they patronized and eagerly read the works of intellectuals like Burgh, Priestley, and Price is not part of Perkin’s story. These prenatal signs of middle class vitality are ignored because they point to an assertive revolutionary class which is very far from his sense of the period. The middle class reluctantly comes into existence in 1815 only because of the Corn Law of that year, which convinced it that the landowning aristocracy governed only in its own interest. In this Tory reading of British history, there would have been no assertive middle class but for ruling class ineptitude. Historical change is produced not by rebellious classes on the make but by the mistakes of the elite and privileged classes. It was, Perkin concludes, “irresponsible use of aristocratic power [which] then provoked the middle class into existence.”
Perkin on Interest Groups vs. Classes
Class does not figure in British society in the eighteenth century because the bonds of patronage and dependency prevented any class feelings from emerging, or as Perkin puts it, any “vertical antagonism between a small number of horizontal groups.” The old order with its ruling principles of patronage and connection was characterized by “horizontal antagonism between vertical interest pyramids.” By this Perkin means interest politics. Not class but competing interests, the various estates, corporate, geographical, and religious interests, the connections and factions of court, country, “ins” and “outs” was the stuff of English politics until 1815. The agitation for parliamentary reform that begins in the 1760s and continues in rising crescendo into the 1790s is written off “as characteristic of the old society.” The reformers were merely an interest group of “outs,” seeking office or at best lost rights. These reformers were neither interested in nor responsible for industrializing England. It was, in fact, Britain’s landed aristocracy, its “extraordinary elite” which took the initiative here and “used it to create all the preconditions of an industrial revolution,” which would ultimately radically disrupt the very traditional order over which it presided.
Perkin’s Neglect of the Middle Class and His Overemphasis of a Modernizing Aristocracy
It is for making this case that Perkin’s book is most often cited. And it is a fascinating case he makes, documenting aristocratic involvement with banking, commerce, transport, and manufacturing. Their role in the abandonment of wage fixing and apprenticeship clauses as bearers of a new laissez-faire ideology is also an argument well made. Perhaps less valuable is the suggestion that the elite deserves the credit for the industrial revolution because after all their landed policy of enclosures drove the workers into the factories. Of a similar questionable value is his suggestion that the aristocracy helped bring about the industrial revolution because their dominance in politics and the church “helped to divert the energies of the Dissenters away from politics and towards labouring in their vocations of industry and trade.”
Perkin’s modernizing aristocracy is still for the most part a well-made case, and a necessary and useful corrective to accounts (like this very essay) which tend perhaps too much to the other extreme. But surely revisionism has run riot in Perkin’s Tory version of a modernizing, innovative, cohesive aristocracy and an utterly irrelevant and quiescent bourgeoisie playing little if any role in “the breakdown of the old order.” To be sure, Perkin sees some place in the story for the disenchantment with patronage and dependency on the part of the “middle and lower ranks or orders.” Still, he is convinced that this itself was “indeed provoked by a rejection on the part of the higher ranks” of their paternal and protective responsibilities. Like Carlyle, Sadler, and Disraeli, Perkin is convinced that the old order was done in by “the abdication on the part of the governors.”
The Alleged Irrelevancy of the Middle Class: A Comparison of Perkin’s Tory and Thompson’s Socialist Readings
While they differ radically in their vision of historical change, the Tory Perkin and the Socialist Thompson share a common reading of the virtual irrelevance of the middle class in the social structure of the eighteenth century. Both tend to see it too submerged in the complex world of deference and connection to be playing any critical (in both senses of the word) role. Both are preoccupied with the polarity of gentry/aristocracy ruling class and all the rest. The one sees one pole as vital and innovative while the other sees it as regressive and the agent of hegemonic control. The one sees no class feelings in the century at all, the other sees plebeian radicalism in a culture and politics of rebellion. But both are convinced of the un-importance of a class conscious third force, a radical bourgeoisie.
It may well be that Perkin’s very concern in answering Thompson, in fact, forces him to duplicate Thompson’s oversight of any important middle class consciousness. Thompson was wrong, Perkin contends, in labelling Paine, Hardy, and the English Jacobins of the 1790s as class spokesmen. “Were they a class,” he asks, “were they emancipated from the system of dependency?” No, he answers, because they were self-evidently not “consciously proletarian,” and the workers clearly did not flock to their tents. But this assumes the only options are privilege or proletarian. They were, indeed, out “to apply the axe to the old society” and they were, indeed, spokesmen for a class, but for a radical middle class.
Like Thompson, Perkin tends to see class and class consciousness as meaningful issues or even concepts in the eighteenth century only in terms of working class. The bourgeoise don’t count. How else does one explain a passage in which Perkin dismisses the agitation of a Cartwright and Wyvill as “highly respectable—that is, they did not assume the character of a class attack upon the aristocracy.” Can it not be both? Can a class attack on the aristocracy not be respectable? It can not be only if one’s reading of class is constrained within a polarity of respectable notables and revolutionary workers. That there was a third force at work, highly respectable men and women out to destroy the world of patronage and paternalism, is the claim of this essay.
To his credit, Perkin also recognizes and brilliantly describes this ideological assault on the old order when he turns to the “entrepreneurial ideal” which he sees emerge in the nineteenth century. Its idealization of competition, hard work, talent, and frugality; its condemnation of idleness, patronage, aristocratic corruption, and jobbing are vividly depicted in the rhetoric of Brougham and James Mill. But this glorification of the middle class as the nation, “the glory of England,” the “wealth and glory of the British name,” is not new. Nor is the antagonism of that class to the ruling ideas and institutions of aristocratic England. The roots of that class and that antagonism go deep into the previous century to the Midland’s factories, the provincial philosophical societies, and the dissenting schools and chapels of Warrington, Hackney, and Stoke Newington.
3. Pocock’s Anti-Ideological Interpretation: the Cultural Continuity of Classical Republicanism and Civic Humanism
Perkin’s interesting book does not exhaust the alternative readings of this period. A much subtler and more intriguing variant is found in the work of J.G.A. Pocock and other revisionists who in recent years have been at work reinterpreting Anglo-American eighteenth-century political thought. They emphasize continuity not discontinuity; rather than class or class ideology they concentrate on intellectual and cultural traditions which they consider more appropriate to the conceptual language of politics used in the eighteenth century. This school sees no insurgent bourgeoisie lurking behind the ideas of the late eighteenth century, they see Republicanism—a political tradition with roots deep in western history. There is a sense, indeed, in which the entire enterprise seeks to unmask ideological readings of history, to demystify, to free scholarship from the passion and errors of, as one of these revisionists has called them, “those who come to bury capitalism as well as those who come to praise it.”
Bolingbroke’s Civic Humanism vs. ‘Corruption’
In place of class ideology Pocock persuasively makes the case for the hegemony of “classical republicanism,” or “civic humanism.” Part Aristotle, part Cicero, part Machiavelli, civic humanism conceives of man as a political being, whose realization of self occurs only by participation in civic life, by active citizenship in a republic. The virtuous man is concerned primarily with the public good,res publica, or commonweal, not with private or selfish ends. Seventeenth-century writers like James Harrington and Algernon Sidney adapt this tradition, especially under the influence of Machiavelli, to a specifically English context, according to Pocock. This significantly English variant of civic humanism, “neo-Machiavellism,” or “neo-Harringtonianism,” becomes, through the writings of early eighteenth-century English Augustans like Davenant, Trenchard, Gordon, and especially Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, the ideological core of the “country” ideology as it confronted Walpole and his “court” faction. My earlier work on Bolingbroke and His Circle (1968) provided an important link in this intellectual chain, for in it Bolingbroke’s preoccupation with corruption was linked to social and political themes. Corruption becomes, in fact, a critical concept in the language of eighteenth century politics. Much richer than simple venality or fraud, the concept is enveloped by the Machiavellian image of historical change. Corruption is the absence of civic virtue. Corrupt man is preoccupied with self and oblivious to the public good. Such failures of moral personality, such degeneration from the fundamental commitment to public life, fuel the decline of states and can be remedied only through periodic revitalization or returnings to the original and pristine commitment to civic virtue. Calls for such renewals, for “ridurre ai principii” (Machiavelli’s phrase) are the response to corruption.
Bolingbroke’s achievement was to appropriate this Republican and Machiavellian language for the social and economic tensions developing in Augustan England over the rise of government credit, public debt, and central banking, as well as for political issues such as Walpole’s control of Parliament through patronage or concern over standing armies. Themes of independence and dependence, so critical to the Republican tradition (the former essential for any commitment to the public good), were deployed by Bolingbroke into a social map of independent country proprietors opposing placemen and stock jobbers and a political map of a free Parliament opposing a despotic court.
Pocock’s Dialectic of Virtue vs. Commerce and Country vs. Court
In the hands of Pocock and others, this reading of eighteenth-century politics through Bolingbroke’s dichotomy of virtuous country and corrupt court does not stop with Augustan England. It becomes the organizing paradigm for the language of political though in England as well as America throughout the century. Analyses that refer to class consciousness or the conflicting class ideologies, that use concepts such as aristocracy, capitalist, feudal, or bourgeois are dismissed as simplistic and proleptic. Challenges to the “primacy” or “omnipresence” of “civic ideology,” of “Aristotelian and civic humanist values,” come not from “simple bourgeois ideology,” or visions of “economic man,” or “capitalist man,” but from a court ideology, part commercial, part elite and by no means representative of a class in any conventional sense. There is no dialectical tension between middle and upper classes, or even between patrician and pleb. These involve “much distortion of history.” But there is for Pocock a proper dialectical reading of the eighteenth century, one which sees everywhere “the dialectic of virtue and commerce.” The American Revolution and the English reform movement of the last four decades of the century involved “a continuation, larger and more irreconcilable of that Augustan debate.”
Pocock’s Interpretation in Light of Bailyn, Wood, and McDonald
Prior to or independent of Pocock’s own work, the seminal studies of Bailyn and Wood have made important contributions to this Republican revisionism. Bailyn’s The Origins of American Politics andThe Ideological Origins of the American Revolution directed attention to the continuity with earlier English oppositional themes in the revolutionary mind set and read the revolutionary debates in the earlier language of corruption and virtue. Gordon Wood in The Creation of the American Republicalso stressed the importance of the notion of Republican virtue for the American revolutionaries. Popular government requires a virtuous “public spirited, self-sacrificing people,” ever watchful against the spread among them of the dreaded English disease of corruption. Pocock, too, sees the American revolution in these terms. The country ideology ran riot in America.” Her Revolution is a Machiavellian “rinnovazionne in a New World,” a “ridurre ai principii,” a “republican commitment to the renovation of virtue.”
But virtue/commerce revisionism has not stopped with the Revolutionary era. More vigorous of late has been Pocock’s own suggestion and endorsement of the work of others which, as he notes, makes it clear that in America “to a quite remarkable degree, the great debate on his [Hamilton’s] policies in the 1790’s was a replay of court-country debates seventy and a hundred years earlier.” Hamilton, with his central Bank, his governmental credit system, his fondness for patronage, his advocacy of a professional army to protect commercial interests, is “a thinker in the direct court tradition.” Hamilton’s views were those “Robert Walpole had been attacked for holding.” The Jeffersonians, on the other hand, “spoke the language of the country and knew that they spoke it.” In their polemics “the spirit of Bolingbroke stalked on every page.”
A host of scholars in recent years have followed the lead of Pocock (and to a certain extent of Wood and Bailyn) in recasting American politics of the 1790s in terms of the nostalgia/modernity split in Augustan England. In The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, Forest McDonald writes that “just about everything in Jeffersonian Republicanism was to be found in Bolingbroke.” John Murin applies the seal of a latter-day Bolingbroke on the Jeffersonians with his verdict that they “idealised the past more than the future and feared significant change, especially major economic change, as corruption and degeneration.” What other historians do with this revisionist packaging of late eighteenth-century politics with Augustan labels remains to be seen, although the partisans of Jefferson as a not-warmed-over Bolingbroke are beginning to reply. I will have occasion to comment on this reading only in passing where it impinges on my main concern. One might note, for example, that by no conceivable stretch of the imagination can the Jeffersonian, Joel Barlow, who spent several years vigorously writing about and pursuing radical politics in the London of the 1790s, be painted as a nostalgic St. John. He was a bourgeois champion of the market to his fingertips. What I am concerned with directly in this essay, however, is the depiction of English reform in the late eighteenth century as also Augustan politics redivivus.
While country ideology ran riot in America, according to Pocock, actually succeeding in a renewal of republican virtue, in England it was less successful. Still it looked out at a despotic court, pitting nostalgic concern for lost rights, lost virtues, and a lost simple economy against the corruption and complexity of an unreformed and imperial government mired in national debt. Such is Pocock’s reading of English reform in late eighteenth-century England. No class ideology, it was simply an expression of civic humanism and country rage. “Georgian radicals in the era of the Revolutionary war and its aftermath used a language indistinguishable from that of their American peers.” That same language of corruption and virtue were being used “against the ministries of George III,” by the foes of Bute “and the friends of Wilkes.” This was no casual flirtation with the language of civic humanism by the radicals. According to Pocock, the country ideology of republican virtue which the Americans used “had originated in England and was still very much in use there. In the minds of James Burgh, John Cartwright, or Richard Price, it was as obsessive and terrifying as in any American mind.” It was “the conceptual framework” behind “radical demands for parliamentary and franchise reform.” In Pocock’sMachiavellian Moment, it is Wyvill, Price, and Cartwright who “employed a vocabulary of corruption and renovation little different from that of their American contemporaries.” In an earlier article on “Virtue and Commerce,” it is Burgh, Wilkes, the Yorkshire Movement, the Society for Constitutional Information, Cartwright, and miracula mirabilis John Thelwell who are placed in the tradition of country and civic humanism. They are “key points in the long continuous history of a political language and its concepts.” To this group has recently been added Priestley, who, along with Price, is firmly placed in the camp not of a class-conscious bourgeoisie but of those who used “the language of the ‘classical republican symbolism’ (or Old Whig, “country” or “commonwealthman”) tradition,” albeit with some Christian and republican millenialism thrown in. Gordon Wood, it should be noted, also tends to see Price, Burgh, and even Paine, in this camp of virtue-obsessed republicans.
Pocock’s Stress on the Civic Humanist Tradition
Important in Pocock’s reading of these late eighteenth-century radicals is the pessimism he senses in some of them, especially Price and his oft repeated fears over the national debt. Here is no optimistic modernizing spokesman for an insurgent bourgeoisie, according to Pocock, but an anti-market skeptic steeped in civic humanism’s “Renaissance pessimism” over the direction of social change and the inevitability of degeneration and decline. Following directly the lead of Davenant and Bolingbroke, it is a mood which, of course, breaks through the writings of Hume and Smith as well. Also important in Pocock’s dismissal of any innovative, ideological or discontinuous role for those in the radical camp is his endorsement of the earlier historical findings of Herbert Butterfield and Ian Christie, whose readings of radical agitation in this period emphasize its backward looking quality, its quest to break the Norman yoke and return to the Saxon constitution with its Gothic balance and its popular rights of all Englishmen.
Pocock’s Depreciation of Locke’s Influence on Radical English Ideology
If the spirit of Bolingbroke and country ideology dominates radical American and, more specifically for our purposes, radical English political thought in the latter part of the eighteenth century, then the conventional wisdom on Locke’s intellectual influence has to be revised. And so it is that Locke and his influence is exorcised from this tale of eighteenth-century thought. He is summarily dismissed from his alleged stranglehold over American and English ideas, in what Pocock describes as “a shattering demolition of his myth.” Deemphasizing Locke involves recognition that “his greatness and authority have been wildly distorted.” The predominant language of politics for eighteenth-century radicals even when concerning “the idea of power reverting to the people,” according to Pocock, is “one of virtue, corruption and reform, which  is Machiavellian, classical, and Aristotelian, and in which Locke himself did not figure.” The campaign against Locke is total. Salvoes are levelled against “the image of a monolithically Lockean eighteenth century” and against our thought “dominated by a fiction of Locke.” He is assailed as uninterested in history and, even worse, if analyzed carefully “he would rank on the Court side.” On the whole, Pocock concludes, to understand the debates of eighteenth-century politics does “not necessitate reference to Locke at all.”
The depreciation of Locke from the seminal role that writers as diverse as Leslie Stephen, Carl Becker, and Harold Laski, had given him was by no means begun by Pocock. Implicit in Bailyn’s entire corpus is a vast deemphasis of Locke. He is, even more than progressive historiography, the major victim of Bailyn’s preoccupation with the language of corruption and virtue in the American Revolution. John Dunn’s important article, “The Politics of Locke in England and America in the Eighteenth Century,” dealing with Locke’s reputation, is another landmark in the debunking of Locke, and one cited often by Pocock. Gordon Wood also suggests that “eighteenth-century English political thought perhaps owed more to Machiavelli and Montesquieu than it did to Locke.” Finally, there is Gary Wills’s recent argument in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence which replaces Lockean influence on Jefferson with that of Hutcheson and others of the Scottish Enlightenment. Locke has been banished from the eighteenth century.
4. Donald Winch’s Pocockian Revisionism of Adam Smith and Liberal Bourgeois Ideology
Adam Smith, at least as conventionally read, appears to be the next candidate for revisionist attention. Donald Winch’s recent book on Adam Smith’s Politics is a convenient summing up of this entire revisionist movement, for it makes quite clear its overriding anti-ideological commitment. Winch declares his debt to the “remarkable body of revisionist literature” which has the “finesse, richness and subtlety” of Pocock’s work at its core. What this literature has done is rout both the Whigs and Marxians, those who “came to praise” as well as those who “came to bury capitalism.” A “major casualty” of recent work on eighteenth-century political thought, Winch contends, are those misguided ideologues who are committed “to the enterprise of constructing a genealogy of liberal or bourgeois individualism which is continuous from Locke to the nineteenth century and beyond.” Locke is, of course, “of strictly limited significance to many of the most lively as well as profound developments” in eighteenth-century, Anglo-American political thought. There are, Winch notes, a very “limited number of eighteenth-century doors of any interest that can be opened by reference to Locke’s political writings alone.”
What Winch makes perfectly clear is that not only does clearing the air of Locke make way for Bolingbroke and civic humanism, but it also rids the century of ideology, specifically class-bound ideology. His book and the revisionist scholarship which informs it is the antidote to those who feel the need “for stories with heroes or evil geniuses.” Pocock’s work, Winch insists, takes us beyond analysis informed “by the liberal capitalist perspective and its Whiggish tendency to search for clues as to what later opponents or defenders of liberal capitalism and Marxian socialism have considered relevant.” Such misguided scholars are convinced they know how the “progressive forces in society must be, or came to be, aligned.” They see all history and thought “from Locke to Marx” as “in the grip of some hidden historical force.” It is theorists dogmatically committed to some notion of a “tradition of liberalism or bourgeois ideology” running from Locke to Smith and into the nineteenth century that Winch most dislikes. It is against them he writes his book, to rescue Smith from their dogmatism and their simplicity.
Smith, in Winch’s reading, is no liberal capitalist, no believer in acquisitive individualism. To read him as such is proleptic, to attribute nineteenth-century categories to a thinker whose concerns were “the well-established public language” of the eighteenth century. He is to be read not as a nineteenth-century liberal but as a skeptical thinker grappling with eighteenth-century themes of decline, corruption, national debt, militias, nostalgia and rapacious merchants. Winch has pulled off a revisionist coup d’état. Ideological readings of the eighteenth century are toppled, replaced forever by civic humanism and skeptical Whiggism.
Critique of Winch’s Interpretation of Bourgeois Ideology
It is the accusation of prolepsis at the heart of Winch’s critique that this essay questions. This study rejects Winch’s notion that to read Smith as bourgeois ideology is to use a public language unavailable to the last half of the eighteenth century and found only in the nineteenth century of James Mill et al. Such an ideological language was available in Smith’s lifetime. Winch’s Smith is a valuable corrective and reminder of the complexity of Smith’s thought. It is important to be aware of continuity in Smith’s preoccupation with eighteenth-century themes, but this need not sweep away all received wisdom on the role of Smith in the evolution of bourgeois thought. One can be both a bourgeois radical and a thinker concerned with themes important to the civic humanist and country tradition. A new language of public discourse can be acquired alongside the continued use of older words and concepts. To insist that the older language is the only language available produces a dogmatism which sees civic humanism and country ideology lurking behind every text and between every line. It is there, to be sure, and so are newer themes and a newer language of politics, which did not have to wait for the nineteenth century.
Middle Class’s Lockean and Radical “Class Ideology”
Informing this new language were older writers. Locke was indeed alive and well in the thought of English radicalism, and not only for Thomas Hardy who wrapped himself in Locke during his treason trials of 1794. Tucker and others attacked the Lockeanism of Price and Priestley. Burgh, Price, Priestley, Paine and countless others were less country ideologists than apologists for a radical bourgeois vision. If Aristotle was meaningful to their circle, it was less as a theorist of Republicanism than as champion of the moderate and superior mean, the theorist of a middle class polity. In fact, the major quoters of Aristotle were the Tory clergy who used him to demolish the Lockean arguments of the state of nature and social contract found in radical thought. Burgh and Price, far from nostalgic critics of a new commercial order, accepted a market ideology and the moral supremacy of a talented hardworking middle class.
Weaknesses of Pocock’s Court/Commerce Dichotomy
Bourgeois Radicals as Market Advocates Opposed to Court Privilege
Pocock is quite right to see the court/commerce connection. But in the late eighteenth century the country reform tradition came to terms with the market and, indeed, in the hands of middle-class industrial dissent turns that reform tradition into a wholehearted ideology of the market. The ideological picture is not quite as clearcut as Pocock paints it. The court, while bound to the market and commerce from Walpole on, was enmeshed in the principle of patronage which ultimately flew in the face of market notions of careers neutrally open to talent and hard work. It is here the conflict emerges. Patronage and privilege are principles which pit the court against the bourgeois reformers. Bourgeois radical inveighed against corrupt patronage, but it was a new sense of corruption, the corruption of jobs and places going to undeserving untalented men of birth. It was the privileged court which in this period responded with a nostalgic defense of the ancient constitution, hierarchy, and paternalism. Its defenders ridiculed the leveling ideas of monied men and provincial bumpkins.
The Middle Class Shift to Virtuous Commerce vs. Corrupt State Privilege
A court-country reading of the later eighteenth century becomes quite strained. The principal reason for this is the emergence and eventual supremacy within the country “outs” of a class-conscious bourgeoisie which makes the court/commerce linkage obsolete. In the eyes of the bourgeois radical “outs”, the earlier equation is reversed. The “ins,” the court and all it stands for are identified not with the market and commerce but with idle, unproductive privilege. The state credit and financial revolution stood behind the court/country split of the Augustan era. Its relevance recedes with the industrial revolution when new dichotomous distinctions capture the fancy of reformers, none the least of which, indeed, is virtuous commerce versus corrupt privilege. The marriage of industrial England with dissenter reform dooms court/country politics and introduces class politics.
The virtue/republican and commerce/despotic equations were never universally accepted even earlier in the century. “Commercial Republicans,” like Montesquieu, Hume, and Smith rejected classical and Renaissance ideals of civic virtue and in their stead proposed, as Ralph Lerner notes, “a new model of political and social life.” Their vision of a commercial republic turned away from both classical ideals of citizenship and commitment to the public good and aristocratic ideals of pride, honor, and glory. In their place they saw the moral validity of pursuing economic self-interest and the enhancement of liberty in a people of temperance, industry, and frugality. This cultural and social ideal is unabashedly new.
Where the ancient polity, christianity, and the feudal aristocracy, each in its own fashion, sought to conceal, deny, or thwart most of the common passions for private gratification and physical comfort the commercial republic built on those passions… . the new model man of prudence followed a way of life designed to secure for himself a small but continual profit.
For Hume the self-denial and virtuous citizenship of antiquity were principles “too disinterested and too difficult to support.” Men were governed by other passions, “a spirit of avarice and industry.” In such a commercial society, liberty and a new social class flourished. Commerce and industry moved the “authority and consideration to that middling rank of men, who are the best and firmest bases of public liberty.” For Smith they increased “order and good government, and, with them, the liberty and security of individuals.” Not that Montesquieu, Hume, and Smith were unaware of the costs and “the disadvantages of a commercial spirit.” There was a price to be paid, an erosion of the community of citizens, a decline in the heroic spirit, a debasement of learning. But on the whole, like Aristotle’s polity, a commercial republic while not the ideal was more realistic, more moderate, and most conducive to stability, comfort and personal liberty.
One need not emphasize this school as much as Lerner has, pulling into its folds all varieties of Anglo-American social thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville. Still there is much merit, if only as a corrective to recent revisionism, in highlighting the praise of commerce and a commercial republic in the writings not only of Hamilton, but Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, and Adams. For our purposes, however, what is significant about “commercial republicanism” is its illustration of how diverse republican thought was in the eighteenth century. Some of the very intellectual giants of the civic humanist tradition were themselves intellectual spokesmen for ideas which in the hands of lesser thinkers would be developed into a fully articulate bourgeois ideology. To cite these republican giants is thus no sure evidence of country, anti-commercial sentiments. Most significantly, the commercial republicans were pathbreakers in the reinterpretation of virtue, which more than anything else calls into question the view that sees a dialectic of virtue and commerce dominating the social and political thought of the century.
The Middle Class Radicals’ Rejection of Civic Humanism’s Assumptions: A New Definition of Virtue
What emerges in the course of the eighteenth century and most vividly in the writings of the bourgeois radicals is a new notion of the virtuous man, one which dramatically rejects the assumptions of civic humanism as it does also the assumptions of the other classical reading of the virtuous man, the seeker and the promoter of transcendent ideals of goodness and value, much emphasized by Leo Straus and his students.
Citizenship and the public quest for the common good are replaced by economic productivity and hard work as the criteria of virtue. It is a mistake, however, to see this as simply a withdrawal from public activity to a privatized self-centered realm. The transformation involves a changed emphasis on the nature of public behavior. The moral and virtuous man is no longer defined by his civic activity, but by his economic activity. One’s duty is still to contribute to the public good, but this is seen as best done through economic activity, which in fact aims at individual gain. Economic productivity, not citizenship, becomes the badge of the virtuous man. On this score one might note that the early classics of children’s literature written in England from 1760 to 1800 contain few lectures or parables extolling civic responsibility (unlike Emile), but they are full of both praise of productive hard work and lessons in economics and science.
The Reinterpretation of Corruption: Merit vs. Privilege
Corruption is also a very different notion for the bourgeois radicals. A corrupt man was idle, profligate, unproductive, devoid of talent and merit. A corrupt system was one in which such drones held important public office, one where privilege, not merit, distributed the prizes in the race of life, where patronage insured the rule of unproductive corrupt men of no ability instead of the deserving men of talent. When Francis Place complained that “the whole system of our Government is essentially corrupt,” he was not invoking a court/country equation with commerce and modernity, he was using a new public language that saw government as a reserve for privileged parasites. These useless idlers presided over a system that denied careers to the talented. The real nation was outside that corrupt government, but it was not a warmed-over Augustan country. It was the virtuous hardworking and frugal middle class and artisanry. They were as uninterested in a Republican order of civic virtue as they were in an aristocratic order of deference and privilege. What they wanted was a meritocracy of talent. Only then would virtue triumph over corruption. No nostalgia or anti-modernity lurks behind their praise of virtue, no longing for a stable hierarchical ordering of the past. They are men of business who want to strip a bloated government of its idle retainers, its court and its taxes, and replace it with a streamlined, simple, and unobtrusive state run by hardworking, talented men who understood that government must be kept from intruding itself into the natural competition that is the race of life, a competition, which, if truly fair, would perpetuate the victory of virtue.
The Radical Middle Class’s Transcending of Country Ideology
This is not to dismiss out of hand the existence of lingering country content in radicals like Wilkes, Burgh, Cartwright or Sawbridge. It had been, after all, the ideological reflex of the excluded for a century. Calls for frequent elections, attacks on placemen, and a reformed suffrage were often still uttered in the Machiavellian language of corruption, resotration of first principles, and historical analogies from Roman history. But John Brewer is quite right in his contention that beneath the familiar surface of the new radicalism emerging in and after the 1760s was, as he put it, “a considerable advance on country-party ideology.” The new radicalism goes beyond the praise of wise and virtuous landed M.P.s independent of crown and independent of constituent pressure. It goes beyond the Rockingham Whigs’ sense that all was well with the political system and that only a change of leadership in which men of virtue replaced wicked men was needed to end “the present discontents.” In the new radicalism, there is a new dimension, the conviction that those now excluded, the urban and commercial interests, want in, want to be represented in Parliament and want their M.P .s to be their spokesmen, serving their interests, not serving as wise men independent of both the court and those who elected them. Thus, in their anger the new radicals turn on both the landed classes and the court/government.
Brewer’s Interpretation of the Post-1760s Middle Class Radicalism
My contention is that much of this shift is linked to the emergence of the industrial revolution. Brewer’s explanation is somewhat different but quite compatible with my own. He sees as critical in moving the radicals beyond country ideology the historical experience of the 1760s in which English radicalism took up the great debate over property and taxation, prompted in the colonies by the reaction to the Stamp Act. It threw into a whole new cast discussions over representation. Taxation was the curse of all, yet few were enfranchised. Emphasizing taxation flew in the face of ideas of virtual representation and expanded the notion of property beyond landed wealth or freehold. What this emphasis on moveable property did was enable radicals like Burgh and Cartwright to extend “the debate about parliamentary reform far beyond its previous confines.” It transcended the paradigms of country ideology to more radical, more class-based categories. Brewer’s analysis concludes with an assessment quite congenial to my thesis.
Prior to the 1760s parliamentary reform had meant, in effect, country-party measures designed, either by the removal of placemen or by holding more frequent general elections, to obtain an independent, politically pure lower House. The American debate, however, gave those urban and mercantile interests which had begun to resent the difference between their financial power and their political importance both the opportunity and the arguments with which to present a case for their greater participation in the political process.
Middle Class Radicals’ New Language and Values
These urban and mercantile interests spoke a new public language. Josiah Wedgwood approached civic life as a specialist in industry and commerce. “Sunk again I find into politicks,” is how he describes himself, reluctantly having to leave his business for citizenship. Not “fame” but “money getting” is his concern. When his friend the great engineer Brindley dies, Wedgwood notes that it is talents like his that truly benefit mankind. The public good done by such men of genius, the contribution to the commonweal by such men of “ingenuity and industry,” far surpasses the contribution of political men, of “many noble lords.” The economic benefactors “will be remembered with gratitude and respect” when the others “are totally forgotten.” For Thomas Cooper, the industrialist and scientist, who like Priestley would settle eventually in America, virtue and privilege were incompatible, as we’ve already noted. Only those with “insatiable ambition” could be able, wise, or virtuous.
The middle class wrapped itself in the cloak of virtue. They were “not adorn’d, it’s true with coats of arms and a long Parchment Pedigree of useless members of society, but deck’d with virtue and frugality.” When Jedediah Strutt in composing his own epitaph wrote of himself “he led a life of honesty and virtue,” thoughts of country purity and citizenship could not have been further from his mind. His life was virtuous compared to the corruption of the idle nobility and the wretched poor, for he worked hard and contributed with his talent, ingenuity, and industry to the increased productivity and wealth of his nation. He was prototypical of a new species of virtuous men, much like those seen in Birmingham by an eighteenth-century chronicler of the middle class.
I was surprised at the place, but more so at the people: they were a species I had never seen: they possessed a vivacity I had never beheld: I had been among dreamers, but now I saw men awake: their very step along the street showed alacrity: Everyman seemed to know and prosecute his own affairs: the town was large, and full of inhabitants and those inhabitants full of industry.
Middle Class Market Paradigm vs. Civic Humanism
When such middle-class men of alacrity, vivacity and industry addressed themselves to public issues, they did so less and less in terms of the paradigms and language of civic humanism or classical republicanism and more and more with the conceptual framework they know best, the market. Thus Joel Barlow, financial speculator, international entrepreneur, friend of Jefferson, Paine, Price, Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Priestley, when writing of the French Revolution in his Advice to the Privileged Orders in the Several States of Europe in London in 1792, begins: “It must be of vast importance to all classes of society… to calculate before hand what they are to gain or to lose by the approaching change; that like prudent stock jobbers, they may buy in or sell out, according as this great event shall effect them.”
Hirschman’s Study of Moral Aquisitiveness and Commerce
Pocock and the perspective his important work has given to eighteenth-century studies by no means exhausts interpretations which run counter to this essay’s emphasis on discontinuity between old and new, on sharp breaks from the past, on such new species of non-dreamers who inhabit such places as eighteenth-century Birmingham. Albert Hirschman’s argument in The Passions and the Interests, for example, is important for my purposes as a vivid account of the moral acceptability of the private acquisitive drive and of commerce, banking, and industry as virtuous enterprises. Indeed, his discussion of Montesquieu, Hume, Millar, Stewart, and Smith, of “man as he really is” complements Lerner’s in developing the notion of “commercial republicanism,” which is so critical in questioning the universality of a corruption/commerce connection. But Hirschman is also outspoken in his insistence that the abandonment of anti-money making, anti-commercial ideals or the decline of the heroic ethos of honor and glory were neither sudden nor unanticipated in the past. The most important divergence of his book from my approach, however, lies in his conviction that “this enormous change did not result from any single victory of one fully armed ideology over another.” Those who destroyed the traditional values were not offering new ones that “corresponded to the interests or needs of a new class.” They were not advocates “of a new bourgeois ethos.” The intellectual promoters of an expanded commerce and industry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were, according to Hirschman, not spokesmen for “marginal social groups,” or “an insurgent ideology.” Their ideas emerged at the centers of power as notables and intellectuals grappled with affairs of state, and sought new principles to curb chaos and constrain passion.
Hirschman’s argument is most appealing, expecially in his suggestive critique of Weber by linking the rise of capitalism to intended consequences. It is also a position not that seriously at odds with the argument of this essay. Even if one grants that the intellectuals he cites were not class spokesmen, what they articulated were the intellectual antecedents, the moral and theoretical arsenal that later armed ideologists could and would call upon. When men of industry in Birmingham, Sheffield, and Manchester used the legitimization of avarice and commercialism in their efforts to redistribute power in late eighteenth-century English society, it had become an insurgent ideology. When dissenters opposed the Test and Corporation Acts for the redistributive goal of opening careers to the talented and morally superior virtuous men of commercial success, the arsenal was being used by a restless and assertive marginal social group.
One can grant the nonbourgeois origin of these ideas, grant their genesis in “the industrial, managerial and administrative elite” without denying that their political impact became essentially ideological in the eighteenth-century hands of an insurgent group that used them to justify a new ideal of middle class consciousness and solidarity and to claim a new distribution of political power in society.
Neale’s Denial of a Self-conscious Middle Class in the Eighteenth Century
A final reading of this period that differs from my interpretation is R.S. Neale’s. Like Perkin, he sees landed and aristocratic wealth and power as much more the key to the modernization of Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “than any activity by a bourgeoisie.” There was no effort by the big bourgeoisie to question the political power of the landed aristocracy during the period of industrialization, Neale argues, and he offers the familiar reading of the reform movements as nondistributive in intent but simply fueled “by a sense of loss of liberties and political rights.” Neale does provide an extremely important and useful documentation of the role of landowners and the aristocracy in making possible eighteenth-century industrialization through his depiction of how their changing needs led to significant adaptations in property and business law, all of which were essential preconditions for both capitalism and industrialism. But like Perkin, Neale goes beyond redressing historiographic imbalance to writing off the bourgeoisie entirely. All traces of the middle class, of a bourgeoisie playing “a most revolutionary part”, are removed from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries “during the crucial period of industrialization.”
As a class for itself it certainly did not exist. English industrial capitalists or entrepreneurs (we must call them something) were either too busy making their economic fortunes, or spending them to gain entrée to the landowning and aristocratic class, to be conscious of themselves as a class in opposition to their rulers. As a class in itself it is also unlikely that it existed.
Like much of the anti-class revisionism at work in the scholarship on this period, Neale has taken a useful and significant contribution and applied it with a vengeance. The bourgeoisie did, indeed, exist and they played “a most revolutionary part.” In this its formative period, the bourgeoisie were very much “conscious of themselves as a class in opposition to their rulers.”
Priestley as the Symbol of the Radical Middle Class’s Culture, Mission, and Outlook↩
The Middle Class’s Societies as Voices of its Ideology
The seedbed for this radical middle-class ideology and culture in the late eighteenth century were the provincial societies, scientific, philosophical, literary, and constitutional, which sprang up all over England in Manchester, Derby, Birmingham, Sheffield, Norwich, and London. Here and in the dissenting academies, and in the burgeoning associations of manufacturers could be found the “wealth of interacting social relations” that produced family inter-marriage as well as solidarity and class consciousness. Here came together the capitalist and the intellectual, the bourgeois businessman, the political activist, and the religious dissenter. Here men articulated the ideology’s sense of itself as representing “the common interest of all members of society.” Here were conceived the formulas that sought “to give its ideas the form of universally valid ones.” These classes sought, as James Mill saw all classes sought, “to get up a system of morality for themselves, that is comfortable to their own interests, and to urge it upon other men.” These efforts would ultimately prove successful and they would fulfill John Stuart Mill’s similar prediction that “wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interest and its feelings of class superiority.” But that sense of moral superiority would emerge not in the nineteenth century but in the crucial early years of political struggle in the late eighteenth century.
The writings of the bourgeois radicals represent a vivid consciousness of the mission of the middle class in English society. Decades before James Mill and legions of Victorian apologists for the bourgeoisie, radicals of the 1770s, 1780s, and 1790s made the case for the superiority of men and women from the virtuous and industrious middle ranks. And who was more middle class than the protestant dissenters? John Aikin wrote of his radical associates: “Your natural connections are not with kings and nobles. You belong to the most virtuous, the most enlightened, the most independent part of the community, the middle class.” His sister, Anna Barbauld, was equally as insistent that the dissenters were fortunate to be “in that middle rank of life where industry and virtue most abound.” Mary Wollstonecraft lamented that women were not more like middle-class men. “The middle rank,” she wrote, “contains most virtue and abilities.” It is where “talents thrive best.” Indeed, her Vindication fo the Rights of Woman was written specifically, as she put it, for “those in the middle class, because they appear to be in the most natural state.”
Not only was the middle class more virtuous and more industrious, it was also the happiest. There are interesting echoes of Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness in Richard Price’s observations on the good fortune of the Americans. America is lucky, he wrote in 1784, because the “happiest state of man is in the middle state between the savage and the refined, or between the wild and the luxurious state.” Priestley, too, was convinced that middle-class existence was the most felicitous. For several years in the late 1770s he lived in the great house of Lord Shelburne as librarian to this aristocratic patron of bourgeois radicalism. Richard Price had held the job before Priestley, and later Shelburne would champion Jeremy Bentham. Looking back in his Memoirs on his years as resident intellectual for the great, Priestley noted that he was above temptation.
I was not at all fascinated with that mode of life… . These people are generally unhappy from the want of necessary employment on which accounts chiefly there appears to be much more happiness in the middle classes of life, who are above the fear of want, and yet have a sufficient motive for constant exertion of their faculties, and who have always some other object besides amusement. I used to make no scruple of maintaining that there is not only the most virtue and most happiness, but even most true politeness in the middle classes of life.
In these years there emerged a unique bourgeois pride that would later be expressed as its special mission as agents of regeneration and rebirth to fill the void between “an ignorant labouring population and a needy and profligate nobility.” The special trait of the middle class was its usefulness, its abhorrence of vice or idleness. The bourgeoisie saw themselves as a people set apart adrift in a sea of the great and the poor. Their chapels, their clothes, their hard work, and their provincialism set them apart as much as the Test and Corporations Acts did. They responded with a conviction of unabashed superiority, cloaked in a vigorous embrace of modernity and their critical role in its onset. They ushered in new notions of time and discipline, and several among them even sought to restructure the English language to rid it of its aristocratic and feudal qualities.
Joseph Priestley and Middle-Class Education
Central to this transformation and to the shaping of middle-class solidarity and its new consciousness was education. One of the most effective weapons in the assault on the old order were the schools which provided a preparation uniquely appropriate for the new age. The leaders of bourgeois England did not come from Oxford and Cambridge where classical and clerical education still dominated the preparation of gentlemen. Adam Smith noted their irrelevance. They were “sanctuaries in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices found shelter and protection, after they had been hunted out of every other corner of the world.” Where learning flourished in the eighteenth century was in Edinburgh and the dissenting academies set up by the sects in response to their exclusion from Oxford and Cambridge. And it was a particular kind of learning that flowered there, perfectly matching the needs of an emerging bourgeois civilization. These academies provided the middle class with a practical education.
The central figure in the development of this bourgeois education was Joseph Priestley, both through his writings and in the example of his many years as teacher in dissenting academies. Priestley’s goal was a worldly education in the affairs of society—economic, political, and scientific. “Why,” he wrote, “should youths be trained to be ministers, lawyers, and doctors, and not be trained to be merchants, clerks, and tradesmen?” His educational reforms, which soon spread to all the academies, not only produced businessmen and ministers who themselves preached to businessmen, but, as one might suspect, middle-class radicals in politics, restless with the restrictions they faced in a political and social order which they felt to be still very much dominated by the aristocracy and aristocratic principles.
Priestley and Middle-Class Economics
Priestley’s radical vision in a speech he delivered at Hackney contained the new economics of bourgeois radicalism, as well. Part of the “new light” and “rising gale” is a minimal and non-interfering state. This flowed quite easily from Priestley’s commitment to religious freedom, for there was a close relationship in the dissenting world view between religious dogma and the political and economic concerns of the bourgeoisie. In addition to the often noted importance in nonconformist doctrine of worldly success and its relationship to thrift, simplicity, frugality, and industry, there was a near unanimity among the dissenting sects in demanding the disestablishment of the church and the complete separation of church and state. Matters of religion and of conscience were held to be totally beyond the competence of the magistrate. The state, it was argued, ought not to interfere in religious matters, its concerns were purely civic. In a constant restatement of Locke’s doctrine of toleration, dissenting clergy and political writers insisted that the power of government be limited strictly to preserving the peace and protecting property. What happened in this period is that this constant invocation of the principle of religious laissez-faire, the withdrawal of the state from the realm of belief, became appropriated by secular arguments for economic laissez-faire. The centuries-old restrictions on economic activity inherited from medieval Christian dogma, guild-dominated feudalism, and Tudor paternalism were under attack by the entrepreneurs of industrializing England. Their arguments were reinforced by their religious brethren in the pulpit.
Joseph Priestley here, too, speaks for his age, for his religious brethren, and for his class. In his religious and political tracts, Priestley invokes the doctrinal notion of freedom of conscience, and in his economic writings he wrote of the need for the state to withdraw, the necessity of its being “as little expensive and burden-some as possible.” But, more importantly, Priestley also articulated the new bourgeois demand that government give up its traditional involvement in the economic process. Individualism was as crucial here as in the religious realm, he insisted. Man should be “left to himself.” All the restrictions on individuals should be undone so that they could “revert to that natural condition of man from which we have departed.”