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The Two Thompsons

In response to:

Plebes and Patricians from the May 29, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Lawrence Stone [NYR, May 29] lists three points of what he claims to be the first major critique of the work of Thompson, Hay et al. on eighteenth-century England. The criticisms are that: (i) the Patrician/Plebeian dichotomy completely ignores the rise of “the middling sort”; (ii) it is misleading to treat law in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England merely as an instrument of class oppression; and (iii) the distinction between nefarious crime and “social” crime turns out to be sometimes hard to draw.

The “iconoclastic significance” of the critique is seriously diminished by the fact that the very points mentioned by Professor Stone are made by Thompson, Hay et al. in the works to which he refers. Far from ignoring “the middling sort,” Thompson’s article, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” (50 Past and Present 76, 1971), is replete with references to the merchants, corn dealers, and millers who were instrumental in the demise of the old economy and the introduction of new market practices against which the crowd was protesting. The middle class are an important part in its social dynamic.

The second and third points made by Professor Stone are more perplexing since they are points which Thompson and Hay et al. go to some pains to make.

In a long and sensitive discussion of the rule of law in Whigs and Hunters (Pantheon, 1976, pp. 258-269, Thompson specifically rejects the crude view that law is merely class power. Listen to his assessment of the eighteenth-century law at p. 265:

…this study has shown that for many of England’s governing elite the rules of law were a nuisance, to be manipulated and bent in what ways they could; and that the allegiance of men such as Walpole, Hardwicke or Paxton to the rhetoric of law was largely a humbug. But I do not conclude from this that the rule of law itself was humbug. On the contrary the inhibitions upon power imposed by law seem to me a legacy as substantial as any handed down from the struggles of the seventeenth century to the eighteenth, and a true, and important cultural achievement of the agrarian and mercantile bourgeoisie, and of their supporting yeomen and artisans.

This is clearly not the view of one who thinks of the law merely in terms of class oppression (nor does it overlook the role of the middling sort in the life of eighteenth-century law).

The third point of Professor Stone’s critique suggests that Thompson, Hay et al. are unaware that the distinction between nefarious and “social” crimes is not sharp. This too is inaccurate. It is clear from the essays in Albion’s Fatal Tree that the authors’ moral sense of what they describe ranges from approbation to distinct uneasiness. (E.g., Rule’s essay on coastal wrecking displays distinct uneasiness about some aspects of the wreckers’ conduct.) But we are not left to infer the problems as the authors are quite explicit. The preface to Albion’s Fatal Tree is devoted in large part to just this question:

But we should say that in our researches into legal archives and into the actual offenses and offenders it became less possible to sustain any tidy notion of a distinction between these two kinds of crime.

Their claim is that the distinction is valid at each pole, but blurred toward the center.

If indeed the critique discerned by Professor Stone has any “iconoclastic significance,” the icons to be torn down are not those worshipped by Thompson, Hay, and their colleagues. The points made are in truth not a critique of the Thompson model, but a reiteration of several points made by it.

David Neal

Jurisprudence & Social Policy Program

University of California, Berkeley

Lawrence Stone replies:

Professor Neal’s letter raises some important questions about the historical writings of Mr. Edward Thompson and his followers. The fact is that there are two Edward Thompsons: Thompson, the brilliant, subtle, and innovative scholar (TS for short) and Thompson the brilliant polemical ideologue (TI for short). The eleven pages about the gentry’s respect for the law, quoted by Professor Neal, are by TS. But they come as a total surprise to the reader after he has worked his way through 260-odd pages of TI, in which the squirearchy are called “banditti,” “brigands,” “safe-breakers,” etc. Since when did banditti, brigands or safe-breakers show respect for the law? The two characterizations of the elite, by the whiggish TS and the radical TI, appearing in the same book, directly contradict one another.

As for the Thompsons’ neglect of the “middling sort,” witness their major article about the eighteenth-century social scene, entitled “Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture” (Journal of Social History, 7, 1973-1974). The title accurately expresses the contents, which largely ignore the “middling sort.” TS and TI’s latest overview, “Eighteenth Century English Society: Class Struggle without Class” (Social History, 3, 1978), states bluntly that “this was a predatory phase of agrarian and commercial capitalism.” But TI concludes that “for at least the first seven decades of the century, we can find no industrial or professional middle class which exercised an effective curb upon the operations of predatory oligarchic power.” I find little room in this model for the “middling sort.”

As for the distinction between personal crime and social crime, the authors of Albion’s Fatal Tree certainly admit, in theory, to a gray area, but they do their best throughout the book to make the poor, however bloodthirsty, seem to be acting in a good social cause. Professor Neal’s weak claim that Mr. Rule displays “some uneasiness” at the pitiless savagery of the Cornish wreckers speaks for itself. As Mr. J. Stevenson has rightly observed, “one of the subtler forms of condescension in historical writing is to see all violence as ‘protest’ and all participants in riots as sober-sided and self-conscious proletarians” (J. Stevenson, Popular Disturbances in England, 1700-1870, Longmans, London, 1979, p. 4).

To conclude, I yield to none in my admiration for TS, but I have reservations about TI and still more about those who are swept along blindly in the latter’s wake. The great virtues of Brewer and his colleagues are, to my mind, that they do not start with the assumption that the rich were (nearly always) wicked and the poor (nearly always) virtuous; that they give due weight to the central social development of the eighteenth century, the rise of the “middling sort,” who are so strangely neglected in TI’s patrician/plebeian model of eighteenth-century English society; and that they unequivocally regard the law as a sacrosanct ideal which in the eighteenth century effectively curbed the selfish ambitions of the elite as well as those of the poor. There is no room for TI’s banditti or brigands within their law-bound society.

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