Mar 1, 1981

English Radicalism: Rights vs. War & Taxes

“The American crisis was the English crisis writ large. English radicals recognized the [Americans’] right of resistance…[in] common law and natural arguments.”

John Brewer
Yale University

“English Radicalism in the Age of George III.” In J.G.A. Pocock, ed., Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980, chapt. 10.


English Radicalism following George III’s accession in 1760 was built on the twin foundations of changing the political system at home and supporting the North Americans’ demand for freedom. Combining the study of ideology, political language and social context, Brewer’s analysis traces English radicalism’s roots to classical and Renaissance political thought as well as the Anglo-American radical Whig political ideas of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. At that time, the leading concepts of civic humanist-republican ideology were challenged. The mixed constitution of king, aristocracy, and commons which constrained power was threatened by the expanding financial power of the executive. Brewer notes that the power of “big government” assaulted liberty on many fronts. The flourishing of government deficit spending, through central banking (Bank of England) to finance a quarter century of war (1689–1714), permitted the large increase in government bureaucracy expenditure for both tax-collection and military activities. Taxes increased and tax collectors became familiar to Englishmen. “Mythic paper forms” of money likewise increased. The government reduced political participation through the 1716 Septennial Act which doubled the length of parliaments and cut the frequency of elections by more than half. Radicals responded by demanding annual elections for parliament.

To the Radicals, the social order of a commonwealth must be composed of men independent of the government. They accepted the political language of a dichotomy between Country ideology (those independent of the government) and Court ideology (government supporters). Country ideology gained its constituency from those men deriving their income independently of the government (generally from real property): whether the gentry from whom members of the commons were chosen or the freeholders whose property gave them the right to vote. The independent freeholder was viewed as the backbone of society; his virtue was contrasted with the corruption of an antagonistic constituency: those who benefitted from the government’s central bank, its national debt, and its taxing system to support the standing army. The government’s financiers, dealers in government bonds, collectors of government taxes, or contractors to supply the government’s army were viewed as implicated in the web of political corruption, and not independent.

Brewer explains why town-based later eighteenth-century English radicalism was founded on the Country ideology. This radicalism expressed the growth of the commercial and industrial middle class. The middle class was especially vulnerable to the abrupt fluctuations of the English monetary system. The government’s decision to engage in war was the dominant variable in the availability of money. This political-economic analysis thus enables readers of eighteenth-century English and American papers to understand why they were filled with day-by-day reports of diplomatic activities wherever these affairs might effect England’s war status. The middle class thus opposed public credit which during times of war competed savagely against private borrowers.

Government taxation was also a great burden on owners of moveable property. War exerted a major impact on taxation, including the postponed taxation inherent in the national debt. Brewer estimates that by the 1760s about 20% of England’s commodity output was siphoned off into taxes. This was twice the comparable French assessment. Opposition to taxation was opposition to taxes per se, as well as to the financing of the standing army and the bureaucracy. In addition, the middle class opposed the powers and means of law enforcement wielded by tax officials. Powers of entry, search and seizure were bitterly resented. The customs and excise officers ransacked the warehouses, stores, etc. of the middle class. Brewer believes the middle class had more personal, belligerent contact with revenue officials than any other social group. Especially hated was the use of summary procedures by which accused tax avoiders were denied trial by jury—a total violation of fundamental rights of Englishmen.

The innovations in revenue offenses reflected the novel growth of statute law as against common law. Increased power of the legislature reduced and demeaned the sovereignty of common law. Common-law traditions and rights were threatened by the growth of statues. In this legal struggle, the middle class sided with the inalienable rights in the common law against the unlimited and sovereign powers claimed by parliament. One of the leading expressions of middle class radicalism, the Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights (1769), drew heavily upon adherence from common-law lawyers as it did upon merchants, doctors, clergymen, and writers.

With the Americans, the English middle class opposed the growth of statute-based judicial discretion, summary jurisdiction for attacks on tax collectors, ex officio information and writs of assistance, viceadmiralty courts, and judicial equity in the court of King’s Bench. These devices enabled tax officials to attack the rights of the citizen which had been defended by the common law, with its strict construction of the law and trial by jury. The American crisis was the English crisis writ large. English radicals recognized the right of resistance which the Americans exercised through common law and natural arguments.