In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party 1714–60
The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England
Industrialization before Industrialization: Rural Industry in the Genesis of Capitalism
Augustan England: Professions, State and Society, 1680–1730
Bath 1680–1850: A Social History, or, a Valley of Pleasure, yet a Sink of Iniquity
The Impact of English Towns, 1700–1800
The Georgian Triumph, 1700–1830
The Experience of Labour in Eighteenth-Century English Industry
Marriage Settlements, 1601–1740: The Adoption of the Strict Settlement
Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Hogarth's Marriage À-la-mode
Strict Settlement: A Guide for Historians
The “long eighteenth century” from 1660 to 1800 has always been something of an enigma in English history. Before it, there came world exploration, the first settlements in North America, agricultural, commercial, industrial, and demographic growth, the Reformation, the rise of Puritanism, the formation of the Tudor state, and its temporary collapse in the violent upheavals and astonishing intellectual ferment of Europe’s first Great Revolution. But what happened next? What filled the mysterious century between the end of feudalism and the establishment of capitalism, to use Marxist terminology, between the century of revolution and the Victorian age of radical improvement and reform?
In some ways it could be argued that England blew it. It first conquered an empire, then lost it; it fought the first half of a new hundred years’ war with France for world hegemony, but failed to achieve clear victory; it was the first great power to consolidate political liberties with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but then declared the constitution, laws, and institutions to be perfect—a doctrine perfected by “everything-as-it-should-be Blackstone,” as Bentham later described this great mid-eighteenth-century legal pundit. As a result, for a century the elite resisted all suggestions of a need for any further change. During the middle and late seventeenth century England had adumbrated or developed all the basic ideals of the Enlightenment: rationalism and religious toleration; a rejection of superstition and a horror of enthusiasm; a disclaimer to any God-given mastery over nature and a recognition of man as a part of the natural world; economic and affective individualism and sexual libertinism; contractual sovereignty and propertied democracy; empirical scientific investigation and Newtonian cosmology. Having accomplished all this, England left it to the French and Scottish intellectuals of the eighteenth century to adopt and develop the ideas, invent the name Enlightenment, and take the credit.
On the other hand, England was the country most admired throughout Europe in the eighteenth century for its political freedom, its respect for the law, its widely diffused opulence and ostentatious luxury, its talented novelists, the cultivated douceur de vivre of its elite, and its huge naval power. It was also the country where from 1770 onward the industrial revolution first began in cotton mills, ironworks, and coal mines, and where, at about the same time, there can first be detected the beginnings of the great tidal wave of the Victorian moral and religious backlash. The era was, and in part still remains, a puzzle, but much has been clarified by an astonishing surge of historical research over the past two decades.
Thirty years ago the historiography of eighteenth-century England was a desert dominated by a monopolistic corporation, Namier, Inc., named after its founder and director, the historian Sir Lewis Namier. The corporation based its program on a series of hypothetical propositions: first, the only history worth studying is political history; second, political history is the exclusive concern of an elite of male power-brokers, a subject in which popular opinion counts for nothing; third, politicians…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.