The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688–1783
Fourteen years ago, Professor John Brewer published a book that destroyed the prevailing interpretation of English political culture in the eighteenth century, constructed forty years before by Sir Lewis Namier. To Namier the only people who mattered historically were a tight little closed world of wealthy families, and their friends and dependents. But Brewer showed conclusively that not only were there at times powerful ideological issues at stake, but also that people of the middling sort, such as merchants, tradesmen, clerks, and small freeholders, who were officially excluded from the political process, were very successful in making their voices heard.
This was a dramatic and true revision of the historical record. Today, however, it has now become so much a part of the conventional wisdom that there is a tendency to lose sight of the fact that Namier had identified a basic historical truth. In all times and places politicians spend a large part of their energies on infighting for the spoils of office, and English politicians in the mid-eighteenth century were unusual only in being peculiarly obsessed with these narrowly self-serving concerns.
In his new book, Brewer attacks a second influential view about the eighteenth-century English state, which goes back all the way to the great Whig historians like Macaulay and Trevelyan. Until about 1975 historians had tended to compare the English state of the eighteenth century with that of its main rival, France, and to conclude that the former had a small, weak, decentralized structure of power, with a tiny bureaucracy and only a very small and closely watched standing army. It was ruled at the center by a handful of great aristocratic families, who not only controlled many seats in the House of Commons, but also provided a loose direction, through statute legislation, over the amateur gentry who managed the many-sided business of local government, administration, and justice. Internal order was maintained not so much by force as by an ideology of social deference, a relatively equitable sharing of tax burdens in times of crisis, and above all a uniquely generous and comprehensive system of poor relief. The result was a remarkable absence of violent social conflict, and a steady decline in both homicides and hangings.
The first limitations on the powers of the English state over its subjects were set by the Bill of Rights, by the decisions of liberal-minded judges, and above all by the stubborn reluctance of the landed elite in Parliament to give the officials who were appointed by the king and his ministers sufficient funds or authority to develop a large home-based standing army. One MP said at the time: ” ‘Tis money that makes a Parliament considerable, and nothing else.” One of Brewer’s great contributions is that he closely examines the reality of this …
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 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.