Boyd Hilton’s archly titled A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? covers English history from the loss of the first British Empire in 1783 to the dramatic repeal of the Corn Laws that until 1846 had protected the landed classes from the chilly blast of free competition in the international grain markets. It is the latest volume in the New Oxford History of England, a series intended to replace the original thirteen volumes of the Oxford History of England published between 1934 and 1965. Edited by the venerable Sir George Clark, these appeared at a time when academic history was still a cottage industry and when there was broad agreement about the subject matter of English history. This first series, which focused on the political history of the nation, offered the student and general reader a canonical account of the subject as seen from the academy. Only the final volume, written by the maverick A.J.P. Taylor on the twentieth century, betrayed much of the individuality of its author. (I recall much derisory comment about one of Taylor’s footnotes on the use of contraception.)
The New Oxford History, whose nine volumes have been published either side of the millennium, appear in very different times. Academic history has become a major industry with a daunting output of monographs, articles, and theses, and the subject matter and the very idea of English history have come under dispute. The New Oxford Histories have adapted to these changed circumstances. Faced with the almost impossible task of summarizing the mass of modern scholarship, many of them aspire to interpretation rather than synthesis, and admit to partiality rather than comprehensiveness. But like any creature that evolves, they still betray some of their earlier features, most notably a preference for political history and a claim to authoritativeness that comes with the imprimatur of Oxford University Press. The success of the series is partly explained by the selection of authors, nearly all of whom are best described as at the peak of their powers. Certainly this is true of Boyd Hilton. Few books show to more effect the erudition and brilliance of the author, and few bear such a distinctive authorial stamp.
Hilton is best known for his studies of Tory economic policy after the Napoleonic Wars and of the effect of evangelical religion on early-nineteenth-century economics, philosophy, science, and politics. His chief interest is in the workings of parliamentary politics and their relationship to larger religious, moral, and social values. So though he begins with a summary of economic history and ends with the radical Chartist movement that advocated the enfranchisement of the working classes, most of his account consists of alternating chapters dealing with parliamentary politics and with the values of the ruling classes.
Readers of A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? can be forgiven if they do not realize that late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain was the first great laboratory of the so-called “new social history,” which concentrated, in E.P. Thompson’s famous words, on “history from below.” Hilton’s history is definitely “history from above” in which British society and economy, their misfortunes and discontents, are problems to be sublimated, managed, avoided, or reformed. But the book’s great strength is the vivid way in which it conveys the complex and ambiguous responses of the political classes—the politicians and their supporters and followers—to unprecedented circumstances.
For this was a period of rapid and radical change. Between the 1780s and the census of 1841, the population of England and Wales doubled, and by 1850, more than 50 percent of the people lived in towns. Exports overall increased sevenfold in current prices, manufacturing exports more than eight times, and imports increased at the same rate. The production of coal, iron, and cotton grew far faster. Cultivated land increased from ten to fifteen million acres; the economic infrastructure was transformed by turnpikes, canals, and, most radically, railways; new technologies and new forms of industrial organization—above all the textile factory— astonished contemporaries with their scale and power.
Yet historians in recent years have become reluctant to call this change an industrial revolution. They have downgraded rates of growth and argued that large structural changes in the economy actually occurred earlier, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and emphasized the importance of workshops and small units of production rather than the factory in industrial growth. Nevertheless the change between the 1780s and the 1840s had profound effects—it made Britain the world’s premier industrial nation; it destroyed entire occupations like handloom weaving, and changed the English landscape forever.
As Hilton emphasizes, most people in Britain were troubled rather than pleased by what the Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi famously called “The Great Transformation,” the emergence of a market economy in tandem with the modern state. The vagaries of the business cycle, the fragility of financial institutions, and the fluctuations of the harvests made for a life of great uncertainty, and not just for the poor. The major theorists of the early-nineteenth-century economy—Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo—saw only demographic crisis and unending low wages as the products of modern capitalism. Though there were a few who believed in economic progress, the predominant mood was gloomy, and with some reason. The issue was survival rather than growth. As Hilton shrewdly points out:
In developing capitalist systems there is often a point at which inequality and absolute poverty peak before both are reined back. In Britain the second quarter of the nineteenth century marked that point, intensifying anxieties over what [Thomas] Carlyle called the “Condition-of-England question.”
It was only after 1848 and in the optimistic rhetoric of political thinkers like Richard Cobden, the leader of the Anti-Corn-Law League and a founder of the idea of free trade, that the notion of a beneficent and ameliorating capitalism became commonplace.
The period from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century was also a time of radical change in the political sphere. In 1783 the most famous (as well as infamous) politician was Charles James Fox, a witty cosmopolitan Enlightenment libertine, the leader of a political group, the Foxite Whigs, united by kinship, a common commitment to gentlemanly pleasure, and a belief in their historic role as a bulwark against the power of the Crown. Fox, never described as a man of faith, much less of God, tumbled out of the gaming house or the bed of his mistress and onto the floor of the House of Commons, which he entertained with rambling but brilliant impromptu speeches. He had little grasp of economics, and his knowledge of money was limited to his ability to spend it.
In 1846, by contrast, the most famous (as well as infamous) politician was Sir Robert Peel, the son of a manufacturer, a piously Christian liberal Tory determined to inculcate “moral discipline” and tame “the unruly passions and corrupt natures of human beings.” A consummate calculator with a degree in mathematics, he was a firm believer in the systematic reasoning of political economy. One could never imagine Fox writing, as Peel did, that “industry, sobriety, honesty, and intelligence will as assuredly elevate the low, as idleness, profligacy, and vice will depress, and justly depress, those who are in high stations.”
Fox and his followers believed in friendship and hated human suffering; they were sentimentalists at heart. A half-century later, Peel and his followers were united by a worldview, a creed that saw God’s hand in human success and misfortune, and coolly contemplated human distress as nothing more than another sign of God’s providence. Of course not every eighteenth-century politician was like Fox—his great rival William Pitt had qualities that resembled those of Peel; nor was every nineteenth-century parliamentarian like Peel. But the contrast between them accurately captures how politics changed, becoming at once more religious and more based on economics, more systematic and more ideological.
Here the crucial event was the French Revolution in 1789 and the European war that it brought in its wake. The threat of an irreligious republicanism that promised universal political rights not only excited reformers and radicals in Britain —as in much of the rest of Europe—but stiffened the resolve of monarchists and conservatives whose instinctive resistance to the spread of rights acquired ever more sophisticated religious and political justifications. It also placed unprecedented pressure on government administration, making demands on its military and financial organization that were of a new order of magnitude. By 1803 more than one in five of the male population of military age was in armed service. Between 1813 and 1815, during the final effort to defeat Napoleon, the British paid a staggering £26 million in subsidies to its military allies Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, and Austria.
This was the high point of what the late Lawrence Stone described as the warfare-welfare regime of the British state, but much of that regime was to be dismantled in the nineteenth century. The first British Empire in North America, whose loss in the American War of Independence opens Hilton’s account, had been sustained by the Navigation Laws, a protectionist system of imperial preference whose regulation of trade was enforced by the British navy. In the eighteenth century, Britain’s domestic economy was ordered by legislation much of which dated back hundreds of years. Both the labor market and bread prices, for example, were subject to statutory regulation, and the Poor Laws sustained a national system of poverty relief, which helped the poor, able-bodied or not. The part of the nation entitled to take part in politics was tiny: about 3.2 percent of the population could vote in parliamentary elections. Neither Protestants outside the Church of England (Dissenters) nor Roman Catholics had political rights; they were barred from local and national political office.
Nineteenth-century reforms reshaped the relations between state and society, church and state. Guild restrictions on work were removed in 1814; price regulation ended the following year. The East India Company lost its monopoly in the subcontinent, tariff reform eroded the Navigation Acts, and the repeal in 1846 of the Corn Laws, introduced to protect the landed classes against imports of cheap grain in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, marked the triumph of the ideology of free trade. The New Poor Law of 1834 set out to end relief for the able-bodied. It took as its cardinal principle the view that, as the Poor Law commissioners put it, “A right in one man to be supported out of the industry or property of another is destructive of providence, frugality, and diligence.” The system was not paternalist but punitive. Hilton quotes one commissioner, Nassau Senior, who was a political economist:
No relief shall be given to the able-bodied, or to their families, except in return for work, and that work shall be as hard as it can be made, or in the workhouse, and that workhouse as disagreeable as it can be made.