Publick Benefits and Private Vices

Paternalism in Early Victorian England

by David Roberts
Rutgers University Press, 337 pp., $22.50

Barclay Fox’s Journal

edited by R. L. Brett
Rowman and Littlefield, 426 pp., $23.50

Aristocracy and the People: Britain 1815-1865

by Norman Gash
Harvard University Press (New History of England series), 384 pp., $20.00

Iron Bridge to Crystal Palace: Impact and Images of the Industrial Revolution

by Asa Briggs
Thames and Hudson, 208 pp., $16.95

Only seven or eight generations—a short span as human history goes—separate us from the start of the first industrial revolution. The first iron bridge in the world celebrated its bicentennial in 1979. It is natural that historians should turn their attention to the first phase of the first industrial society, from which we are all in various ways descended: early nineteenth-century Britain.

In spite of the preference of the ideologists of the period and of later historians for such terms as “improvement,” the transformation of Britain was revolutionary. How revolutionary it was is easy to underestimate, since political continuity was maintained under a flexible ruling class composed essentially of large landowners, and since by modern standards industrialization even by the middle of the nineteenth century was patchy, incomplete, and technologically rather archaic. The machines and buildings now being recovered and preserved are not only the subject of the discipline of “industrial archaeology”: they already look prehistoric.

Nevertheless, the new industrial society was based on the systematic reversal of the values by which human beings had previously lived in practically all societies of which we have record. Publick Benefits were produced by Private Vices, thought Mandeville, an untraditional thinker using traditional language. The hidden hand transformed Britain, it seemed, by means of antisocial behavior. Those who believed in an economy of unrestricted private pursuit of profit under the supremacy of the market were not immoral men; but their beliefs conflicted with most people’s idea of morality.

The strongest evidence for the revolutionary character of the new society comes not so much from the poor, who did not benefit to any extent from it until the middle of the century, as from the rich, who did, and very substantially. This is clearly demonstrated in David Roberts’s Paternalism in Early Victorian England, the first major study of the subject. There is no doubt that Britain was not, and could not work as, a paternalist society, i.e., a hierarchic and by definition unequal structure held together by the reciprocal bonds of authority and deference and by clearly defined rights and duties. But there is equally no doubt that the belief in such a society was widely held among the ruling classes as well as among the poor, even though it was increasingly unrealistic. As Roberts perceptively puts it:

The paternalist outlook was to the early nineteenth century what the free enterprise ideology was to the early twentieth century: a powerful ideology, widely held, important in politics, connected with vested interests, socially and economically useful, safely conventional, much esteemed, respectable, but in the face of disturbing challenges, defensive, inept, anachronistic.

Paternalism was certainly the over-whelmingly dominant ideology of Toryism, which was thus the exact opposite of the impassioned and resentful belief in competitive private enterprise, laissez faire, and the market which characterizes the British Conservative government today. Not Edmund Burke and Disraeli, but Richard Cobden and the popular French economist Frédéric Bastiat, author of The Harmonies of Political Economy, would …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.