The nature of English politics in the late eighteenth century has suffered because historians, like voyeurs in a crowd, get hypnotized by the object of their preoccupation and pursue it with a concentration so intense that they ignore everything else that jostles them for their attention. For Sir Lewis Namier politics was the House of Commons and its members, rather than its activity. Who were these members? How did they get there? These were the grand objects of his passion. That artisans of Birmingham, the great manufacturing center of the English Midlands, were swarming to John Freeth’s coffee house and passing resolutions in favor of Wilkes and, later, of the American colonists mattered not one whit to him. The control of the Forester family of the nearby constituency of Much Wenlock obsessed his eye.
Yet public opinion and protest were not entirely ignored, particularly the Yorkshire Association Movement of the 1780s. This movement at least caught the fancy of Herbert Butter-field, Ian Christie, and half a dozen less historians but, again, they analyzed and discussed it almost entirely in relation to politics at Westminster, and particularly its involvement with the Rockingham group and the fall of Lord North. It required an American scholar, Miss Caroline Robbins, in The Eighteenth Century Commonwealth Man, to make us realize that radical political attitudes, rooted in the turbulence of seventeenth-century English politics, continued to flourish in the eighteenth century. As the years pass, the seminal nature of Miss Robbins’s book becomes more and more apparent. It entered fields too long ignored by fashionable scholarship—the rich nature of the English political experience, the deep sense of political freedom which the triumphs of the seventeenth century had bred, and the extent of the political nation in eighteenth-century England. Now we are looking into the provinces, not only the areas of new industrial or commercial growth, such as Birmingham, or Liverpool, but also the West and East where trade and industry were declining, and we are discovering an active, articulate political nation with its clubs, coffee houses, debating societies, and circulating libraries, with well-forged links with the London radical press. These lower-class politicians were often impressively preoccupied, as their betters no longer were, with the fruits of the Enlightenment; some were ardent evangelists of Voltaire and Rousseau.
Of course, the political discussion was incoherent, tinged with regret for a lost age as well as full of Utopian ideas of the future, and very readily distracted by paeans of adulation for old English freedom and liberty. But political passion abounded, political issues stimulated argument, and right down to the artisans men talked and lived politics. In the meanest market towns there were taverns where these provincial Hampdens met and thrashed out the issues: except maybe for casting a vote at an election, devoid of power they might be, nevertheless they possessed the freedom to talk, the liberty to denounce. Only the English, and their American cousins, were so free to utter their political views without harassment.
It is this background that all the books under review ignore, and yet it is vital to all of them. There are clear indications that should have led Drs. Hobsbawm and Rudé to it in their fascinating book on Captain Swing, a book of great value for the new material that it produces on the extent and nature of the great agricultural workers’ protest of the 1830s. Here they see that small-town radicals were active, but, I think, they both underestimate their importance and are unaware of the long tradition of radical groups even in the small market towns of East Anglia, such as Eye and Diss.
However, Hobsbawm and Rudé have quarried an impressive mass of new evidence, using very effectively the records of Quarter Sessions and the convict records of Tasmania and Australia, to which hundreds of agricultural laborers were transported in one of the most vicious acts of repression that England has witnessed. These laborers had, of course, rioted: they had fired hayricks and strawbacks and broken, or forced farmers to break, the new threshing machines. Their acts of violence had flashed across England south of a line drawn roughly from the Wash to the Bristol Channel, the great granary of pre-industrial England. These peasant riots (for small farmers, copyholders, and the like, as well as laborers, were heavily involved) have been regarded as the last dying convulsion of pre-industrial England. Certainly the agricultural laborers’ lot, with the growth of enclosure, the obstructions to social mobility caused by the old poor law, and the decay of the woolen industry in East Anglia and Wiltshire, had made their lives extremely wretched. The laborer lived on the edge of starvation and close to despair, and the extent both of his subjection and of his wretchedness is admirably depicted in this book. The violence of social change on ordinary lives is excellently demonstrated. It is one of the few studies that have attempted to reach the roots of radicalism, and as such it is remarkable and valuable book.
But Captain Swing, in places, is curiously opaque and, in others, odd. The tradition of agrarian violence seems deliberately played down in order to highlight the wretchedness of the peasant in the early nineteenth century. Certainly there had not been such widespread rioting and arson as there was in 1830 (and I suspect that a lot of this was due as much to agitation from small-town radicals as to spontaneous combustion bred by hunger and despair—in economic terms, high prices and low or no wages), but violence—destruction of hedges or turnpikes, the burning of stacks and barns, the threatening of landlords—had been endemic for generations. There had been near-civil war in Gloucestershire and Suffolk in the 1730s. One cannot read the local correspondence of a clutch of country gentlemen for any decade of the eighteenth century without coming across rural violence and disorder; not only to lower prices, but also to prevent destruction of villagers’ rights, and at times to get better wages. The assize and session records for the eighteenth century in which the evidence for that violence lies buried are almost unexplored territories for the social historian. When explored, Captain Swing and his associates will fall into a larger perspective, for the death rattle of the English peasantry lasted for generations.
At many points, particularly when Rudé’s marshalling of detail gives way to Hobsbawm’s wider generalizations, I begin to feel uncertain and, indeed, unconvinced. The part of the small-town radical needs further exploration. The relationship of the places where riots took place to the main arteries of communication is not fully explored. The Huntingdon-East Northamptonshire riots clustered about the Great North Road; the Ipswich-Norwich road linked outbreaks in that region. The relationship with rural industry and the influence of the great dockyards, which drew so many pressed seamen from the immediate hinterland, both need further exploration. The emphasis on agrarian violence after 1830 and its neglect before 1800 are, perhaps, scarcely candid. The political experience of rioters might have been traceable by a more thorough garnering of poll books.
But why carp at such a pioneering work? Only because by such analysis, laborious in the extreme—hours of panning for a few sparks of gold—will the deep interest in politics, the sense of rights, liberties, and freedoms that permeated so much of English social life right down to the laborers and rural craftsmen, be revealed. Because of this, and because the social and political antagonisms so engendered were so acute, the English governing classes acquired an awareness of the need to season repression with a pinch of reform. But it was to that “Old England” with its mythical birthrights of freedom and liberty that many agricultural rioters looked, to which many small-town radicals turned, far more indeed than toward their masters, whether liberal or conservative. Yet their touching faith in “Old England” did not inhibit them from confronting and threatening their gentlemen rulers as their peasant ancestors had done over the generations. In all peasant revolt there is to be found an insistence on old rights rather than a demand for new ones and an indifference to fundamental social change.
This streak of conservatism found no better spokesman than William Cobbett, whose Political Register is an epitome of conservative anarchism. No one can understand the development of liberalism and socialism in England, even the British Labour Party today, without understanding William Cobbett. One could do far worse than to begin with John W. Osborne’s William Cobbett, His Thought and His Times, which is engagingly written, but curiously organized—Osborne often assumes knowledge about the details of Cobbett’s life that many readers will not have, and although there are advantages in dealing with aspects of Cobbett’s thought, it needs to be seen in firm chronological order.
Cobbett was a born writer, words intoxicated him. All of his life he wrote for effect, to create passion. His emotional response was direct, heartfelt, and rarely consistent. He was less candid than he liked to appear. He possessed little sense of human reality and far more vanity than intelligence. He was a master at playing on the prejudices of the petty bourgeoisie. He hated Negroes, Jews, Methodists, and Roman Catholics, financiers, bond-holders, city merchants, and metropolitans of any other kind; loved prize-fighters, cock-fighters, bull-baiters, cricketers, honest farmers, contented craftsmen, industrious poor, lords and squires, so long as they remained uncontaminated with the System. His favorite anathema was London, the “great Wen” as he called it, and he idolized the traditional old England before she had been corrupted by commerce, high finance, and industry. But the England that he saw was decadent and corrupt: the yeoman had pale, not ruddy, faces; empty, not full, bellies. So he laid about him in superlative fighting prose.
Cobbett could be radical: he was for the reform of Parliament; he wanted the hours of children working in factories regulated. But his response was always emotional and his remedies, nine times out of ten, were a return to a rural idyll of an England which he dreamed about, but which never was. That dream of an Elysian England of patriarchs, well-fed peasants, contented, if illiterate, craftsmen, and compassionate, profit-sharing landowners, has haunted English radicalism ever since: we turn to the polemical works of Dr. Leavis and at once realize that Cobbett rides again.
But even in Cobbett’s day this myth was already more than a century old. It grew like a weed over the new ideas, the rational thinking of the Enlightenment, and checked their growth. Indeed this is admirably illustrated in Carl B. Cone’s The English Jacobins, which deals with the leadership of English radicalism at the end of the eighteenth century. Although Professor Cone covers well-trodden ground, his judgment is excellent, his illustrations apt, and his style lucid. His book is, moreover, a valuable corollary to the more original work of Rudé and Hobsbawm. He demonstrates clearly the hand of tradition, even among those radicals like Thomas Hardy, the shoemaker, who were nearest to the working class. Even he felt that annual parliaments, juster representation, and the acceptance of every freeborn Englishman’s birthright—namely the vote—would cure the national ills: sentiments that were variations on a theme started in the first half of the seventeenth century. There was no rejection by English radicals of the structure of society or even of government. A conservative, backward-looking element clouded much of their thinking; and the idea of equality never possessed the dynamic force that it acquired in France, or even in America.
Yet the stirring of the working class to political and economic consciousness, even though it was often framed in views that would have been familiar to the Levellers, scared most of the middle-class radicals—the Wilberforces, Wyvills, and the like—who had toyed with Parliamentary reform in the early Eighties. The horrors of France sharpened their patriotism and strengthened their faith in moral regeneration. But these were well-worn themes of English radical history. Historians have used them before to stress the distinctive nature of English radicalism, the shallowness of its social permeation, dismissing most radicals as eccentric or socially powerless, or both.
Yet increasingly it is being revealed to us that below the surface of English political life, with its stable, solidly entrenched institutions, there was a sea of discontent: endless criticism and discussion of an Englishman’s rights and wrongs, a warm seedbed of radicalism that kept alive a sense of freedoms won long ago, but being corrupted and lost. Here was tinder, and the politicians were aware of it. It rendered their policies of repression tentative and unconfident; it bred a sense of the expediency of reform. It led them to an idolatrous reverence for Burke’s rhetoric and the trenchant conservation of Dr. Johnson, but to a mood close to paranoia when rational, highly intellectual political theory raised its head—a subject best left to cranks and foreigners. But the political life of England between 1750 and 1832 cannot be understood unless the political discontent of yeomen, shopkeepers, artisans, and laborers is realized. The extent of their discontent and its ferocity still await an historian.
June 19, 1969