England: The Big Change


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.

Dickens did not exaggerate. In the new system, the poor had to be coerced into looking after themselves.

The Parliament that passed the New Poor Law was the first held after the great Reform Act of 1832, which increased the size of the electorate by some 45 percent, a figure that seems less impressive when we realize that it still enfranchised only 4.7 percent of the population. Just as important as parliamentary reform was the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (1828) and Catholic Emancipation (1829), which irrevocably changed relations between the Church of England and the state by granting both Dissenters and Catholics civil rights. For Church and State Tories this was a seismic shift. As one quoted by Hilton put it, “The world seems altered in every way. It seems that seasons, people, and principles, are so altered that I can hardly believe that I am still in poor Old England.” The response of Anglicans was twofold: some sought to make the Church more open and more liberal; others, most notably the so-called Oxford Tractarians, rejected such liberalism for a strict piety that drove some of them, most notably John Henry Newman, into the Catholic Church.

How can we explain these different changes in a period that seems, on the surface, to be dominated by conservative politics (the inheritors of Fox’s liberal politics were out of power for almost the entire period) and deep apprehension about the forces of change? Hilton’s analysis is framed by his view

that neo-conservative (“Throne and Altar”) ideology, so far from representing an ancien régime, was a new development following the American and French revolutions; that it was a reaction against the “progressive” ideologies associated with those events; and that “a real change in sensibility” occurred at that time.

Conservatives opposed what he calls “two competing versions of liberalism.” One concentrated on civil rights and political reform; the other “was a socio-economic version based on market values, and it too provoked a backlash in the form of a revived paternalism.” But as he shows, the heady new mixture of political and economic liberalism not only brought out the assertion of “traditional values” exemplified in the High Tories, but created new combinations of conservatism and liberalism. The big political story that dominates Hilton’s narrative is of the rise and fall of a liberal Toryism that was politically conservative but economically liberal, embodying tensions —between gung-ho free marketers and paternalists—that can still be seen in the British Conservative Party today.


Hilton begins his analysis with the regime of the younger Pitt, which dominated national politics even after his untimely death in 1806. Here he emphasizes the structure of the “Pittite” regime rather than the younger Pitt’s political and administrative skills, of which he is rather skeptical. He dismisses the myth of Pitt the war leader, “the pilot in the storm,” and emphasizes the parlous state of the British war effort, the constant great and present danger not just from Revolutionary France but from forces within Britain.

Bad harvests (1795–1796, 1800–1801), invasion scares (1797–1801, 1803– 1804), financial crises (notably 1797), together with food riots, mutinies, and domestic insurgence created a constant sense of crisis and imminent catastrophe. What saved the Pitt regime and provided its social foundations, argues Hilton, was a substantial “upper-middle class” whose defining characteristic was “not to own real property but to possess or have access to capital assets for investment,” which they put not just in the public funds (and therefore paid for the war) but in new ventures such as canal schemes, utilities, and insurance. These returned a profit but were vested in the nation. From early on these investors were the bedrock of the Pitt regime:

The American debacle discredited the aristocracy and created a moral vacuum, which the moralistic upper-middle classes were able to fill, thanks in part to the fact that the staggering growth of the national debt had placed them as fundholders in a creditor, that is morally superior, relationship to the State.

These people, the backbone of provincial society, were marked by a high seriousness. More interested in learned societies than the arts, inclined to prefer private life to public assemblies, the upper-middle class was also a key force in the Evangelical Revival.

Evangelicalism became not only the white noise of politics but the force behind such voluntary associations as the Society for Promoting the Religious Instruction of Youth (1800) and the Society for the Suppression of Vice (1802). It fueled the antislavery movement, seeing abolition as a test of national virtue. (The concern of the moment was as much with the guilty involvement of the British in the slave trade as with the misfortunes of the enslaved.) Overall, evangelicals

emphasized spiritual conflict, the active agency of the Devil, individual sinfulness in all its intensity and virulence, the possibility of redemption through and only through faith in Jesus Christ, and the certainty of future Judgement.

Like evangelicals today, they stressed the importance of conversion, though this was no guarantee of salvation “since there was the ever-present danger of backsliding, of succumbing to the temptations of the world and the Devil.” Evangelicals were therefore ever on the watch, scrutinizing their own behavior and that of others, always worrying about salvation. Hilton’s upper-middle classes were plagued with anxiety: “Spiritual insecurity… complemented commercial insecurity.” Pitt’s regime, then, was fretful, pious, conservative, and patriotic. Forged through the conflicts with France, it was to dominate national politics until midcentury.

The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 initiated a long period of peace, but the transition from war, after such a long period of hostilities, brought new problems. Eager to placate both the landowning classes and the fundholders who were its main supporters, the government brought in the Corn Laws and returned to the gold standard. Neither policy prevented agricultural and social unrest and financial instability. The worst financial crash of the nineteenth century took place during 1825 and 1826. There were riots in the industrial regions; food prices rose; profits and wages fell. Critics of the regime increasingly drew a contrast between the productive and unproductive classes, between, on the one hand, fundholders, rentiers, and the clients of the state, and, on the other, the industrialists and farmers together with their laborers who sustained the economy.

As Hilton makes clear in several remarkable chapters that analyze the ideologies of the post-Napoleonic age, political disputes over how to deal with these problems reflected fundamental differences of belief. There was no consensus even among the ruling class. Taking his lead from John Stuart Mill’s remark that “every Englishman of the present day is by implication either a Benthamite or a Coleridgian; holds views of human affairs which can only be proved true on the principles either of Bentham or of Coleridge,” Hilton draws a contrast between a vision of man, society, and, indeed, the workings of the world as utilitarian, mechanistic, and ahistorical and one that was committed to an organic, gradualist traditionalism. The contrast captures an important difference in sensibility, but as Hilton himself shows, it cannot accommodate all of the wide variety of views in the decades from the defeat of Napoleon to the midcentury.

Politically, the crucial influence was the new science of political economy, which saw the world as a self-regulating natural system. As formulated by Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, or David Ricardo, theories of political economy had different emphases, and they were often radical or Whig; but the most important development of the 1820s was the penetration of ideas of political economy among a powerful and influential section of the Tory Party, particularly among the allies of Sir Robert Peel. Their version of political economy was Christian but unforgiving. Its providentialist view of the natural order saw God as the “moral governor” dispensing natural justice. According to the liberal Tories who subscribed to this view, it was improper to interfere with the natural workings of the economy, which was, in some sense, God’s instrument. Hence liberal Tories’ support for the punitive New Poor Law, and, eventually, their support for the repeal of the protective Corn Laws.

Ranged against the different versions of political economy were those who believed in some version of paternalism and protection. This produced some strange bedfellows. Radicals concerned about work conditions and the miseries of the working class allied themselves with Tories like Michael Thomas Sadler in favor of legislation regulating working hours and conditions in factories.

The threat of political economy to paternalism, whether conservative or radical, was paralleled by the threat of new scientific ideas to religion, producing by the second quarter of the nineteenth century what Hilton describes as “a national crisis of faith.” He traces the debates between (often evangelical) Christians who saw both the social and material world as a cyclical or self-equilibrating mechanism and those, like the materialist Charles Darwin, who were beginning to see man, society, and nature as subject to gradual, evolutionary change.

He shows how disputes in the 1830s about the history of the earth, the truth of biblical chronology, and the nature of the human body were all implicated in political and religious disputes whose ferocity was as great as their intricacy. In an age that had, as Hilton puts it, “the taste for apocalypse,” even attitudes toward the Second Coming of Christ were linked to ideas about the legitimacy of state intervention. Paradoxically those who saw the millennium as a distant event that would happen when the earth was ready for it took the noninterventionist line of political economy, while those who thought the world headed rapidly toward wickedness and chaos were socially interventionist.

It is hard to imagine a more accomplished and wide-ranging analysis than Hilton’s exposition of the prevailing and conflicting beliefs of the early nineteenth century. But he never flinches from the sort of complexity that may tax the general reader. His account helps us to understand what was at stake in the debates about the great political issues—civic rights, parliamentary and social reform, trade liberalization, the place of the Church and religion—that dominated parliamentary politics, but it does not explain the passage of particular pieces of legislation like the 1832 Reform Act or the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws. Instead Hilton emphasizes a series of contingent circumstances—the errors of politicians like the Duke of Wellington, or the vagaries of character such as the sententiousness of Peel—that sometimes produced radical and unintended change. He is emphatic that the first half of the nineteenth century was a period of profound ideological and religious dispute, but equally sure that one cannot explain the history of legislative change simply as an ideological struggle.

In fact Hilton writes political history in that distinctively English way in which political and ideological figures in the past are described as if they are friends or colleagues “alive and kicking among us.” He castigates Benthamite utilitarianism for its insensitivity to the vagaries of character, but no such accusation could be leveled at him. His parliamentary sketchbook is full of deftly drawn vignettes. About the Whig politician Lord Melbourne, who was prime minister in 1834 and from 1835–1841, he writes:

[His] personal life was problematic. Spanking sessions with aristocratic ladies were harmless, not so the whippings administered to orphan girls taken into his household as objects of charity…. He had always been irresolute, having been smothered from birth by a protective cocoon of sisters, cousins, and aunts who took all important decisions for him…. He became a serial cuckold…[and] seems to have shriveled emotionally,

but recovered to “seem the most composed, detached, kindly, and sagacious of counsellors.”

Hilton’s focus on the delicious eccentricities of human character and on the complexity of parliamentary politics has the effect of undercutting the importance of extraparliamentary pressure in explaining change. It is not that Hilton omits discussion of popular demands—indeed, in the case of the Anti-Corn-Law League founded in 1839, he concedes that the eventual repeal of the Corn Laws was “thanks to pressure from without”—but that it occupies a relatively small part of his narrative. Thus in the case of such crucial pieces of legislation as the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, Catholic Emancipation, and the First Reform Bill (1832) we learn about the hundreds of petitions and “22,000 broadsides stitched into the Quarterly and Edinburgh reviews” organized by the Protestant Dissenting Deputies in favor of repeal, the pressure of Daniel O’Connell’s Irish Catholic Association that convinced many (including Peel) that Catholic Emancipation was necessary to save the union with Ireland, and what Hilton calls “the sudden surge of feeling” in favor of parliamentary reform which produced a thousand petitions for change, and provoked riots when the House of Lords rejected the proposed legislation.

But the larger part of the story is about Parliament and personalities. Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts turned out to be a complex affair in which MPs passed the measure “in a fit of absence of mind, or rather with their minds on a different problem.” The account of Catholic Emancipation is dominated by the ineptness of Wellington, who opposed it, and the conversion of the Tory leader Robert Peel to support its passage. Parliamentary reform was about the divisiveness of the Tories, the errors of Peel and of Wellington (yet again), and the “partly accidental” collapse of the Tory regime.

Hilton is, of course, right to emphasize that popular pressure was not sufficient to secure change. The history of the movement to support the People’s Charter of 1838, drafted by the Working Men’s Association, proves the point. The Chartists, who wanted further political reform and the enfranchisement of the working classes, mustered a huge following. In 1839 their national petition in favor of the Charter contained 1.28 million signatures; three years later another petition was signed by 3.32 million, but the House of Commons rejected both by huge majorities. Despite fears of revolution and insurrection (fanned by the European uprisings of 1848), Chartism failed to secure reform and was dismissed by the legislature. As Hilton explains:

The final act of Chartism, though not a fiasco, was sufficiently diminuendo for the upper classes to present it as such. At once the myth of the country’s essential soundness began to be cultivated, a belief (which the working class seems to have swallowed) that revolution was a foreign disease. Macaulay said it was about as likely to happen in this country as “the moon dropping out of the sky.”

Popular pressure was not sufficient to explain the passage of reform and, in the case of some measures, like Poor Law reform, popular opinion was positively opposed to change. But though some reform movements failed, others were necessary conditions of political change. It is hard to imagine the passage of the legislation that transformed either the relations between church and state or the structure and operations of the electoral system without pressure from outside Parliament. Indeed, the concessions that were made by parliamentarians (and, as Hilton shows, they were never complete) stemmed from a recognition that the status quo would no longer be tolerated by large parts of the nation. Herein lay the impetus to change.


Hilton’s approach reflects the state of much nineteenth-century English political history since the 1960s. Most of this scholarship has rejected the once-dominant “Whig” interpretation of the period in which a conservative (even reactionary) regime is forced into reform by popular pressure and the return of the Whigs (the natural party of progress) to political power. Central to this Whig view is the account, first expressed by the likes of Macaulay and Lord Grey in their speeches in support of reform, that the Great Reform Act was an enlightened act of accommodation in which the legitimate demands of “the middle classes, who have made wonderful advances in property and intelligence” and “who form the real and efficient mass of public opinion” were given their legislative due.

This self-congratulatory and progressive view, a unilinear story with a happy ending, has rightly been criticized for its partiality and simplicity. The relationship it posits between parliamentary politicians and public opinion—its conception of politics—is naively optimistic. But the view of politics that has replaced it, for all its supposed hardheadedness and rigor, seems a parsimonious account of the complex relationship between parliamentary politics and society at large, because its perspective is so much that of the ruler rather than the ruled.

The impetus to revise the Whig interpretation of history has sometimes itself been political—several well-known scholars of this period, though this is not true of Hilton, have been avowed conservatives—but it is also symptomatic of the trends in academic history that the New Oxford History has had to confront. The immense amount of scholarship produced since the 1960s makes it virtually impossible to write an authoritative account of the early nineteenth century of such elegant simplicity as those that dominated Whig history written from the age of Macaulay onward. Faced with an almost impossible task, Hilton’s A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People?—immensely erudite, capacious yet with a distinctive voice, and written with considerable panache —is an outstanding contribution to a series whose approach to history, with its emphasis on parliamentary affairs, may seem old-fashioned, but which is saved by the quality of its contributors.