The “long eighteenth century” from 1660 to 1800 has always been something of an enigma in English history. Before it, there came world exploration, the first settlements in North America, agricultural, commercial, industrial, and demographic growth, the Reformation, the rise of Puritanism, the formation of the Tudor state, and its temporary collapse in the violent upheavals and astonishing intellectual ferment of Europe’s first Great Revolution. But what happened next? What filled the mysterious century between the end of feudalism and the establishment of capitalism, to use Marxist terminology, between the century of revolution and the Victorian age of radical improvement and reform?

In some ways it could be argued that England blew it. It first conquered an empire, then lost it; it fought the first half of a new hundred years’ war with France for world hegemony, but failed to achieve clear victory; it was the first great power to consolidate political liberties with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but then declared the constitution, laws, and institutions to be perfect—a doctrine perfected by “everything-as-it-should-be Blackstone,” as Bentham later described this great mid-eighteenth-century legal pundit. As a result, for a century the elite resisted all suggestions of a need for any further change. During the middle and late seventeenth century England had adumbrated or developed all the basic ideals of the Enlightenment: rationalism and religious toleration; a rejection of superstition and a horror of enthusiasm; a disclaimer to any God-given mastery over nature and a recognition of man as a part of the natural world; economic and affective individualism and sexual libertinism; contractual sovereignty and propertied democracy; empirical scientific investigation and Newtonian cosmology. Having accomplished all this, England left it to the French and Scottish intellectuals of the eighteenth century to adopt and develop the ideas, invent the name Enlightenment, and take the credit.

On the other hand, England was the country most admired throughout Europe in the eighteenth century for its political freedom, its respect for the law, its widely diffused opulence and ostentatious luxury, its talented novelists, the cultivated douceur de vivre of its elite, and its huge naval power. It was also the country where from 1770 onward the industrial revolution first began in cotton mills, ironworks, and coal mines, and where, at about the same time, there can first be detected the beginnings of the great tidal wave of the Victorian moral and religious backlash. The era was, and in part still remains, a puzzle, but much has been clarified by an astonishing surge of historical research over the past two decades.

Thirty years ago the historiography of eighteenth-century England was a desert dominated by a monopolistic corporation, Namier, Inc., named after its founder and director, the historian Sir Lewis Namier. The corporation based its program on a series of hypothetical propositions: first, the only history worth studying is political history; second, political history is the exclusive concern of an elite of male power-brokers, a subject in which popular opinion counts for nothing; third, politicians have no ideals or general principles, and are motivated exclusively by self-interest, personal advantage, and family connections; fourth, political conflicts are not between parties of principle, but between rival factions of ins and outs jockeying for possession of the power and money and privilege that go with access to the authority and resources of the state.

This historical model was first put forward by Namier in 1929 to explain politics at a particular time, namely the 1760s, for which it had, and still has, considerable plausibility.1 As the Namier corporation expanded its hold in the postwar years, however, students working for the firm and within its guidelines extended the model backward to the reign of Queen Anne and forward into the 1780s. Thus a model that discounts both popular feelings and political and religious ideology was imposed on the period of intense and public political conflicts of the years between 1679 and 1721 and the period of the American Revolution as well, when the first British empire went down to humiliating defeat at the hands of a band of ill-armed and ill-disciplined rebels, in a war that many Englishmen thought should not have been fought in the first place.

More recently a powerful assault has been launched on the ideological props of the Whig interpretation of English history, in order to show that the 1688–1689 constitutional upheaval was a very conservative affair, rather than one that established a monarchy whose legitimacy depended in theory on a contract with the people, and in practice on the will of Parliament. This assault has resulted in downgrading John Locke and his popularizers to the position of little-read and little-respected radicals, and elevating the long-discredited Tory party and ideology into the mainstream of English politics and political thought, at any rate up to 1714.2

The first major attack on the neo-conservative historiography of the eighteenth century came from the far left, and from the new social history. Using an idiosyncratic neo-Marxism of his own devising, E.P. Thompson took the Namierite paradigm and, in a brilliant series of essays, stood it neatly on its head.3 To Namier, eighteenth-century England was the England of superbly self-confident Whig aristocrats in their country houses. Hardly anyone else counted, and if they did they could be seduced by cash or favor. To Thompson the poor filled the center stage, and the Whig oligarchs—now labeled patricians—were ruthless capitalist oppressors and exploiters of the plebeians, using their political power and their control of the machinery of the law to evade taxation, to accumulate wealth through force and fraud, and to acquire and enclose the land. But the poor fought back with a strongly resistant culture of their own, using mob violence as the weapon of last resort. Thus the cynical, conservative, elitist model of Namier now acquired its mirror image in the morally driven, neo-Marxist, populist model of Thompson. The great accomplishment of Mr. Thompson was to free eighteenth-century historiography from the strangle-hold of the Namierites, and open it up for exploration by the best writers of the new social history. He made the eighteenth century interesting again.


But Thompson was not the only one. Since 1967 the politics of the period have become a major historical battleground. First it has been established that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was indeed the decisive event in establishing parliamentary checks on royal absolutism. It paved the way for a financial settlement that effectively tied the crown to annual parliaments in order to keep going, and for a financial and banking revolution that allowed England to fight and win its great wars with France largely on credit. The revisionist denigration of the Glorious Revolution has been effectively routed.4

Next Professors Geoffrey Holmes and W.A. Speck demolished entirely the efforts to apply the Namierite model of politics to the period between 1679 and 1721. They demonstrated the intensity and violence of party conflict over numerous issues of deep principle: Church vs. Dissent; Crown vs. Parliament; the army vs. civilians; the court vs. the country; war vs. peace; the moneyed interest vs. the landed interest, and so on.5 In a brilliant little book J.H. Plumb explained how and why this ferocious infighting died away around 1720, to be followed by an era of almost unprecedented political calm. He also explained how the electorate during the reign of Anne became not only the largest and the most frequently consulted of any in Europe, but proportionately larger than any to be seen again in England before the late nineteenth century.6 By the 1970s, the Namierite interpretation of the reign of Queen Anne was dead.

Just recently the mid-eighteenth-century Namierite stronghold has come under attack from three directions. First, Professor Linda Colley has pointed out in In Defiance of Oligarchy that the political tranquillity that existed under the rule of the Whig oligarchy was not quite as tranquil as all that. The landed elite remained divided, with a small but fairly cohesive Tory party still present, still defending the Anglican church, still collecting votes, and capable on occasions, although only with the aid of a group of renegade country Whigs, of defeating the main-line Whig administration.7 Professor Colley has exaggerated the significance of her findings (who doesn’t?), but thanks to her we now are forced to recognize that not all eighteenth-century squires joined the Whig cause: there remained a permanent split in the elite, with a significant minority loyal to the Church, opposed to major wars for empire financed on credit, and hostile to Whig government in general.

The second line of attack came from Professor John Brewer, who demonstrated first that ideology mattered in the mid-eighteenth century, and second that the aristocratic client system could on occasion be successfully challenged by an extraparliamentary popular protest, namely the Wilkite movement.8 This proved that both the electorate and the disfranchised could make their voices heard, and that there was more to English politics than infighting among factions of Whig aristocrats. Public opinion existed out there, now well informed thanks to growing literacy (up to 1760) and the rapid spread of coffeehouses and provincial newspapers. It was a public with ideas of its own about taxation, war, and the proper distribution of both political authority and the spoils of office.

Here again, the argument has been pushed too far, for the Wilkite movement despite its phenomenal success was an ephemeral affair whose connection with the radical agitation during the French Revolution in the 1790s, the parliamentary reform movement of the 1820s, and the Chartists of the 1840s is almost impossible to trace. Although the Wilkite agitation shook the government, it was in large part, as Professor Brewer admits, “a brilliantly orchestrated and skillfully advertised soap-opera.” It relied heavily for its success on the exploitation of new marketing techniques to whip up popular support, and on the reluctant support of the judiciary in enforcing the law without fear or favor. Judicial impartiality is a peculiar feature of eighteenth-century English life and it is currently the subject of sharp controversy between Marxist and non-Marxist legal historians, the former explaining it away as astute tokenism on the part of the judiciary to retain elite hegemony, the latter insisting that the records tell a different and morally more attractive story.


The third attack on the Namierite position arose from a close study of the urban electorate in the 1780s, Electoral Behavior in Unreformed England, which showed that in some of the boroughs that returned the majority of the MPs the electorate was sharply polarized. According to a less-than-adequate sample of four, what divided them was not class or interest or clientage loyalty, but that hoary issue, religion—that is to say the conflict of Church vs. Dissent. Whether this was a nationwide phenomenon, however, remains to be seen, and is perhaps unlikely.

As a result of this three-pronged attack, Namierism as a political model now preserves its full credibility only for the mid-century period. But even here it looks very different in the light of new understanding of the true complexity of eighteenth-century English society and a better appreciation of the richness of political ideology in that period, a subject to which enormous attention has recently been paid by a number of brilliant scholars on both sides of the Atlantic, led by John Pocock and Bernard Bailyn.9 What has chiefly interested American historians is the way the “country” ideology of the dissident Whigs provided, with suitable modifications, a justification for the American Revolution.

Even more striking has been the new emphasis on social history that has changed our views of so many aspects of eighteenth-century English history in recent years. For beneath the revisionism in politics and political theory lies a major revaluation of the nature of English society in the eighteenth century. The first important development was the astonishing revival of the aristocracy. In 1649 they seemed finished—their country houses mostly looted, their deer parks emptied, their estates confiscated or subject to heavy fines, their House of Lords and the privileges and titles that went with it abolished. Great nobles of ancient title went skulking in corners, trying to avoid arrest for debt. A century later they were perhaps at the height of their power, prestige, wealth, and control over the political and financial patronage structure, a position to which they clung, more or less successfully, until 1880. It is one of the most important and most extraordinary stories of English history and one central to the very peculiar social, political, and cultural development of that strange island.10

The second key to an understanding of eighteenth-century England is recognition of the unique importance of the growing numbers, influence, wealth, and cultural attainments of the so-called “middling sort.” These people were not the mythical “ever-rising bourgeoisie” of the older textbooks: they were the professionals, merchants, tradesmen, small manufacturers, clerks, skilled artisans, yeomen farmers, and the like whose existence was a never-ending source of astonishment and admiration to foreign visitors to England. In 1741 Horace Walpole remarked that “there was nowhere but in England the distinctions of the middling people.” John Bull was one of them. Below them there may still have been a third of the population on the edge of destitution—the plebeian mob—but they were taken care of by the most elaborate and expensive poor-relief system in Europe. No one starved to death in eighteenth-century England.

The critical novelty was that by 1800 there were at least half a million “middling” families, well educated, fashion conscious, and with money to burn on luxuries. English political stability depended on the fact that they were not “rising.” They were not seeking to overthrow their betters, the landed elite, but rather to absorb the culture and the values of their social superiors. All they wanted was to gain respect as worthy of admission to the vote, and to place limits on the corrupt exploitation of the spoils system of pensions and sinecure offices. They were denied the first until 1832, but obtained a little satisfaction about the latter thanks to the “economical reform” movement and the efforts of the younger Pitt.


One component element of this “middling sort” was the professions, whose emergence from 1680 to 1730 is the subject of Professor Holmes’s book, Augustan England. It is misleadingly titled, but full of insights and interest, and tackles an important and much-neglected topic. Unfortunately, however, so opaque are the statistics that it is not entirely clear whether there was an increase at all in some professions. Thus the number of Oxbridge Fellows and Professors grew only minimally as student enrollments shrank. The number of barristers—whose work was limited to pleading in court—rose until 1730, but then declined as attorneys—who dealt directly with their clients—took over many of their functions (a decline that also affected the Society of Advocates in Scotland). The number of beneficed clergy also shrank as the practice of pluralism, of holding two livings at the same time, grew rapidly to satisfy the greed of the influential few. What seems to have been happening is that this shrinkage at the top of the older professions was more than compensated for by expansion in the lower levels: attorneys and solicitors and their clerks in the law, apothecaries, barber-surgeons, and quacks in medicine, schoolmasters in education, curates in the church.

The officer corps in the military certainly grew, as the standing army became an entrenched feature of the English state, but it expanded and contracted like a concertina with the ebb and flow of war and peace, with thousands of officers eking out a living on the edge of gentility on half-pay during the long lulls in the endless war with France. There was also some expansion in the civil service, especially in the excise office to collect taxes, and in the admiralty to mobilize resources for war. But the totals by 1730 are not all that impressive when compared with those in 1688, and the income of the majority was barely enough to keep them in the ranks of the respectable “middling sort.”

In 1730 there were about 60,000 adult men (out of about 1.4 million) employed in what we would today recognize as a profession. At their lower levels professions were important avenues of social mobility, but they are mainly of historical importance because their members constituted an educated, literate body of townspeople who provided part of the market for English cultural products, from novels to newspapers. Despite its weaknesses—too much anecdote, too little quantification, too little analysis of social causes and consequences—Augustan England is an important book, and a gold mine of information. One section of the “middling sort” is exposed to view as it organized itself, obtained social status, and developed formal hierarchies of recruitment, salary, and promotion, a process that was to continue throughout the eighteenth century.

Another piece of evidence of the rising of the “middling sort” was the growing urbanization of England in the eighteenth century, a neglected feature of the age only recently brought into focus in an excellent work of synthesis, The Impact of English Towns, 1700–1800, by Penelope J. Corfield. Apart from the altogether unique city of London, towns seem not to have prospered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But in the eighteenth century the proportion of the English population that became urbanized rose from about 20 percent to 30 percent, the increase being distributed among the provincial cities, while London maintained its position as the residence of about 11 percent of all Englishmen. The increase came from immigrants, since high urban mortality prevented towns even from reproducing themselves. The immigrants from the countryside were not, however, cottagers ejected from their holdings by enclosure of the village by a ruthless landlord, as we used to believe. It is now clear that about 70 percent of England was already enclosed by 1700, and only another 13 percent or so went the same way in the eighteenth century.11

The economic base of these towns was mostly diversified, depending on marketing, small manufacturing, or overseas trade, but some of it was more specialized, as in dockyard towns, spas, or seaside resorts. Indeed the royal dockyards were the largest economic organizations of the age, larger than anything seen in Europe since the fall of Rome. But whatever their economic functions, most of these towns acquired a generous cultural infrastructure: physical plant like coffee-houses with the London newspapers, bookshops, theaters, assembly rooms, lending libraries, churches, and meeting houses; and community associations like philosophical societies and reading clubs. This active cultural life, this urban renaissance, is the most striking feature of the provincial English town in the eighteenth century. It is no accident that this is the period when the words “civility” and “urbanity” changed from meaning mere residence in a town to take on the moral and aesthetic connotations of culture, politeness, and social polish which they still retain today. In a generally rather unimaginative but well-illustrated book on historical geography by Michael Reed, The Georgian Triumph, the chapter “The Urban Landscape” brings out very clearly the scale of the transformation. Ambitious urban planning became a reality, best seen today in Bath, the West End of London, and Edinburgh.

Apart from the cultural efflorescence of the towns, the most striking evidence of the rise of the “middling sort” is provided by the growing demand for luxury goods and services. This can be seen in the spectacular growth of the spa town of Bath, the subject of R.S. Neale’s recent study, which for the first time combines an examination of the leisured pleasure-seeking clientele who flocked to the city, the entrepreneurs who built it, and the building craftsmen, artisans, tradesmen, porters, and domestic servants upon whose labors the whole enterprise depended. But Bath is only one byproduct of the commercialization of leisure and the growth of a consumer society which, as Neil McKendrick and J.H. Plumb have shown, is so central a feature of eighteenth-century England.

The facts of this consumer revolution are hardly in doubt. There occurred a remarkable growth of sophisticated advertising and marketing techniques. Fashion drove the market. It altered from year to year, almost from month to month, so that suppliers, Josiah Wedgwood for example, were obsessed with the need to keep up with the fickle winds of change in taste, dictated to the provinces by the great capital city of London. By 1786 a female foreign visitor could rhapsodize upon “lovely Oxford Street” where “behind the great glass windows absolutely everything one can think is neatly, attractively displayed.” So sophisticated had the artifices of fashion become that by the late eighteenth century women seeking to add to their sexual attractions could purchase not only spring-loaded false bosoms but spring-loaded false buttocks as well. McKendrick has explored Wedgwood and Boulton’s phenomenal success in marketing luxury pottery and fashion goods; J.H. Plumb has pointed to provincial theaters, music festivals, horse racing, tourism, children’s toys and books. It can plausibly be argued that all this was man’s first big step to modern consumerism: the insatiable eighteenth-century English demand for frivolous as well as useful goods and services created a world that is recognizably our own.

If this is so, then the three key questions are who were the consumers, what were their motives, and what were the effects of the new demand for luxuries. The first two, unfortunately, remain wrapped in obscurity. We do not know exactly who bought or what really impelled them to do so. A description of demand-side economics, demonstrated from evidence of what supply-side manufacturers and servicing trades thought their customers wanted, is hardly sufficient to identify who the latter were. Only a study of household inventories and personal diaries will provide a more precise picture of who wanted what, and why. We need to know how large was this market, and how far down the social scale the consumer revolution penetrated. Thus Thompson’s work has fundamentally altered our vision of the cultural baggage of the eighteenth-century poor, but a case can be made that he has exaggerated its nostalgic defensive quality, its opposition to the inroads of capitalist consumerism. The laboring people adapted readily to new market values and mass-produced goods, for example in the way they shifted their drinking habits from home-brewed products of varying quality to standardized beer produced by huge, heavily capitalized urban breweries.

We also need to know why the customers were so eager to buy. Is the pull of London, the alleged high rate of social mobility, and advertising in a free press sufficient to explain so remarkable a phenomenon? McKendrick seems to favor a Veblen model of conspicuous consumption stimulated by status competition. But he admits that the suppliers were not only satisfying a pent-up demand with their skillful campaigns and marketing tactics, but were actually stimulating a demand for goods that had never existed before. The mechanism, according to McKendrick, was an internal “demonstration effect,” namely the desire of the “middling sort” to follow the fashions set by the rich, just as we do today. As Mandeville put it in 1714, when the process was just beginning: “Luxury employed a million of the poor, and odious Pride a million more. Envy itself and vanity were ministers of industry.”

But is Veblen’s theory of competitive conspicuous consumption enough? Do not people spontaneously enjoy buying things as a form of self-gratification? If so, consumerism may be seen as a product of the rise of new concepts of individualism and materialism, or of the herd instinct to imitate, but not necessarily of the frenzy for conspicuous competition. Thus both the market and the motives at present remain rather obscure. Only the economic fact of an unprecedented consumer demand is clear.

Finally, what were the consequences of this consumer demand? McKendrick claims that it “goes a long way towards explaining the coming of the Industrial Revolution.” But does it? What, for example, has the production of highquality pottery by Wedgwood and toys by Matthew Boulton to do with the development of iron-manufacture or textile mills? It is perfectly possible to have the psychology and reality of a consumer society without a heavy industrial sector.

The problem of the antecedent causes of the industrial revolution has much bothered historians lately. Once they got away from W.W. Rostow’s deceptively simple model of an economic process of “take-off” led by the textile mills, they were still at a loss for an explanation. At this point the Germans stepped in with a new hypothesis and a new word: proto-industrialization.12 For almost a decade this has seemed the solution. By proto-industrialization is meant a regional setting for rural industry—usually textiles—worked by peasants in their homes. Other peasants were drawn into commercial agriculture to feed the industrial workers, the regional towns supplied the market and the capitalist entrepreneurs who financed the whole enterprise, and the products were exported, not sold locally. The result, so it is argued, was increased population growth through the stimulus to earlier marriage, an eventual shift to workshops organized for greater efficiency and reduction in costs, the development of a cadre of export-oriented merchants, and a commercialized agricultural sector. Result: all the groundwork for an industrial revolution.

Unfortunately, empirical testing in England leads to the conclusion that proto-industrialization flourished here and there at various times from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, but in most cases it eventually just petered out.13 Proto-industrialization, in short, seems to have been neither a sufficient, nor even a necessary, cause of industrial revolution. The heretical suggestion has even been made that the industrial revolution in England was an accident, not very closely related to the general economic, psychological, and social modernizing processes that were admittedly going on in eighteenth-century England. For example, there appears to have been an inverse correlation between literacy, the key indicator of modernization, and industrialization, the former actually at its maximum in remote and barren West-morland and declining in the areas of high industrial growth from 1760 to 1840. After all, who needs to read in order to work as a laborer in a textile mill or coal mine or ironworks?14 On the other hand, the geographical accidents of a plentiful water supply to power mills, or the close proximity in the ground of iron and coal do seem to be necessary causes, although certainly not sufficient ones.


What of the poor, that bottom third of the population, the casual laborers, domestic servants, abandoned or widowed wives and mothers, the sick, the destitute? Before industrialization most of them drifted aimlessly from job to job, the women from domestic service to needlework to taking in laundry to prostitution and back again, the men from casual labor in the fields or workshops or the building industry or porterage, to spells of unemployment, vagabondage, and petty pilfering. That the deserving poor were taken care of by a national system of poor-relief is now beyond dispute, although the degree and quality of that care varied from parish to parish.

The study of the poor, history from the bottom up, has been the hallmark of the new social history of the past thirty years. It is therefore astonishing to find that the best book on the subject was first published in 1925, a brilliant picture of low life and high death in London that is still in print in England in paperback.15 Mrs. George fastened on such “modern” topics as fertility and mortality, crime and punishment, disorder and mob violence, alcoholism and popular amusements, hospitals and prisons. It is a truly extraordinary achievement. Recent work, inspired primarily by E.P. Thompson, has also focused on crime and the law, and the values, beliefs, customs, and habits of the poor. Thompson has coined phrases that are now a standard part of every historian’s vocabulary, for example, “the moral economy of the crowd,” by which is meant a concept of natural justice and a just price, which was accepted by both poor and rich alike, and served as the motivating and justifying ideology behind grain riots and antienclosure riots.

Outside this vigorous new Marxist scholarship, of which R.S. Neale’s fine study of the working class of Bath forms an independent offshoot, there has recently appeared a valuable survey, The Experience of Labour in Eighteenth-Century English Industry by John Rule. Dr. Rule has demonstrated a commonly shared sense of a moral economy of the proletariat, with recognized rights and freedoms, provided clear proof of the early origins of trade unionism deep in the heart of the eighteenth century, and unearthed a thin but perceptible underground stream of radical opposition to the social injustices of emergent capitalism.

Thompson defined the eighteenth century as “patrician society, plebeian culture.” He was, in a sense, correct, but what he left out was the emergence of a recognizable middle-class culture of respectability, which allied itself with the elite, the patricians, to stamp out working-class cultural habits and customs and pastimes, ranging from the abolition of contractual and clandestine marriages to the suppression of “cruel” sports like bear baiting or cock throwing (but not, of course, fox hunting or boxing). Thus the outlines of Victorian bourgeois culture and morality were already visible in the middle of Georgian England. It was as early as 1770, for example, that Wedgwood decided that the middle-class consumers of his pottery would in future prefer that Greek gods and goddesses be modestly covered with fig leaves and draperies instead of being displayed nude, as before.

As a result, by the end of the century the “middling sort” were beginning to define themselves and their values as “middle class,” and the “lower orders” to be seen and to see themselves as “lower class.” What confuses the situation, however, and casts doubt on Thompson’s idea of The Making of the English Working Class, is that that class was itself being split between the “respectable” and the “rough,” with different patterns of behavior, concepts of honor, and aspirations in life. Whereas the former tried to follow the code of the middle class, the latter preserved its own working-class cultural values regarding work habits, drink, kinship, domestic violence, and sexual behavior. There was certainly a hardening of social frontiers as moral paternalism gave way to legal compulsion in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but that frontier ran right through the middle of the working class, while at the top another frontier divided the landed classes, the professions, and the old mercantile and banking bourgeoisie from the new industrialists and entrepreneurs from the north. Thus the cultural frontiers split both the upper class and the working class, to the infinite confusion of all historians, but especially Marxists.

The other main contribution to our understanding of working-class life has come from another discipline altogether, that of demography. In their monumental study of England’s population, Professor Wrigley and Dr. Schofield have argued—rightly or wrongly—that the rapid population growth after 1740 was very largely due not to declining mortality but to rising fertility caused by a fall in the age of marriage and a rise in the proportion of people marrying.16 More recently, Professor Wrigley has discovered an astonishing psychosexual transformation from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, the full explanations and implications of which have yet to be explored. 17 Between 1680 and 1800 the age of marriage for women fell by three years, from 26 1/2 to 23 1/2, and for men by two, from 27 1/2 to 25 1/2. At the same time the proportion of both sexes who never married fell from 18 percent to 6 percent.

One would have expected that both trends would have reduced the number of extramarital conceptions, but in fact the reverse occurred: the proportion of first conceptions out of wedlock rose from 12 percent to a staggering 50 percent. Only in half of these cases did the couple marry before the child was born, leaving the rest—a quarter of all first births—as bastards abandoned by their fathers and left to be taken care of by the mothers and the parish authorities. It is clear that during this hundred years a major transformation of popular sexual practices took place, and therefore of popular moral values. The mid-seventeenth century was a remarkably chaste society, in which people married late or not at all, and yet rarely conceived children out of wedlock; the eighteenth century was the reverse, and the evidence suggests that most young people, at any rate in the lower classes, were sleeping together before marriage.

It is one thing to establish the facts, and another to explain them. The obvious cause is the decline of Puritanism as a source of moral discipline in the village, and a decline in the power and the will of the Anglican church courts to punish sexual offenders. But no one wanted bastards, neither the village, which had to pay for them, nor the mother whose prospects of marriage were severely reduced. The notion of Professor Edward Shorter that this change was the product of some glorious, individualistic, hedonistic release of the libido among the poor, who now rushed together to follow the dictates of nature, is therefore more than a little farfetched.18 There must have been a major change in moral attitudes to premarital sex, and a relaxation of control by religion and by the local community and the parents. The girls, in their desire to catch a husband, were now consenting to sleep with suitors on the basis of mere promises of marriage, which in half the cases were not fulfilled. It is hardly surprising that the proliferation of bastards whom no one wanted caused the rise of institutions to deal expeditiously with the situation: “killing wet-nurses” whose function was to dispose of the infants in as short a time as possible, and foundling hospitals or workhouses which de facto served the same purpose. The average expectation of life for an illegitimate baby of the poor in the eighteenth century was more a matter of weeks or months than years.

The outline of the development of upper-class marriage and sexuality is now fairly well known, and not a great deal new has emerged from recent studies. Two reexaminations of the legal device of the “strict settlement,” by which large landed families tried to ensure the perpetuity, or perhaps enlargement, of family names, seats, and estates, have modified some previous ideas but left the core of the argument about its significance intact.19

Two forays into the field of marriage and sexuality among the upper classes from other disciplines have proved almost entirely unhelpful. The essays by scholars of English literature in Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century Britain deal mostly in pornographic trivia, the exception being a spirited overview by Dr. Roy Porter and a careful look at sexual attitudes in Enlightenment Scotland by Dr. Norah Smith. An art historian, Dr. Robert Cowley, has devoted a whole volume to a study of the symbolism in Hogarth’s four pictures of Marriage à la Mode, the result being a parody of the great Panofsky tradition of iconography. We know that Hogarth filled his paintings with elaborate symbolism, but Dr. Cowley contrives to see symbolic meaning where none exists. If the gouty earl has coronets carved on his crutches, it means that “it is the earldom itself which is crippled.” If the alderman has a twisted stock around his neck it is “perhaps a sign of his particular pretension or deviousness.” And so on for page after tedious and implausible page. Perhaps the most hilarious passage of all occurs on page 59, with comments on the little dog’s “semi-aroused masculinity,” which are too long to quote. The great art historians have developed the study of iconography and symbolic meaning to a high pitch of sophistication, but this humorless and pedantic volume is a model of how it should not be done.


Only one attempt has so far been made to pull this disparate welter of the new social history together into a single volume, to tie together into a coherent whole demography, family, sex, poverty, death, leisure, culture, printing, literacy, the arts, consumerism, mentalité, and class. Dr. Porter even, rightly, tries to weave politics into the picture in his English Society in the Eighteenth Century. That he has not altogether succeeded is owing largely to the chaotic and centrifugal state of social history today, which is flying off in all directions with no larger structure to hold it together—not the nation-state or Marxist class conflict. Nothing is left but a ragbag of miscellaneous topics, all fascinating in themselves, but without anything to bind them together.

But Dr. Porter has done well, producing a vivid, witty, and entertaining volume that has also great erudition and occasional brilliance. He has read and absorbed virtually everything; there is not a book or an article that is not somewhere incorporated in his text. There is also a wisecrack or joke on almost every page. For example: bluestockings—“the air of their levées was as blue as their stockings later became”; death—“the grim reaper was no snob”; traveling—“the unfortunate traveller shared his bed with strangers and fleas, and his road with gibbeted corpses and highwaymen”; behavior—“as a national institution the stiff upper lip came later”; and so on. After a while these cracks become a trifle tedious, and get in the way of the serious and important things Dr. Porter has to say.

He concludes that “it was a society which was capitalist, materialist, market-oriented; worldly, pragmatic, responsible to economic pressures. Yet its political institutions and its distribution of social power, unlike those of more modern times, were unashamedly hierarchical, hereditary and privileged.” Social life was stretched by social and intellectual conflict, the rise of individualism and the decline of deference, the demands for political participation by the middling sort, and the runaway economic growth. And there was a persistent undercurrent of riot, robbery, and general disorder inevitable in a society almost entirely lacking a police force, or any instruments of law and order other than the constable and the JP, a small standing army, and a nominally ferocious penal code.

What Dr. Porter underplays, however, is the darker side of the eighteenth century: the physical squalor, the disease, the alcoholism, and the bestial cruelty depicted in Hogarth’s savage engravings or John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and documented by Mrs. George. Even the growth of reason had its drawbacks. For example, in an age of religious indifference religious enthusiasm became equated with madness, and the victims of both were incarcerated and subjected to the standard, wholly ineffectual, but allegedly “rational,” therapies of bleeding, purging, and vomiting.

Nor does Dr. Porter sufficiently stress the pervasive stink of corruption at all levels of elite society and government. In 1751 Henry Fielding had a character in Amelia remark, “Do you not know that this is as corrupt a nation as ever existed under the sun? And would you think of governing such a people by the strict principles of honesty and morality?”20 This was one aspect of the Namierite view of the English polity, and its truth is undeniable. The ideology of the American revolutionaries was in part based on a horrified reaction to this luxury and corruption.

But if Dr. Porter is a good deal too sunny in his view of the eighteenth century, his overall interpretation rings true, and his book provides easily the best general account of eighteenth-century society that we have. He stuns his reader with apt quotation after apt quotation, interspersed with striking statistics. The decline of the parliamentary electorate is demonstrated by the fact that in 1761 the seats in only eighteen out of 201 small boroughs were contested, and that in 1780 there were contested elections in only two counties. Unlike the situation in the reign of Queen Anne, a sophisticated political machine run by the social elite now held the reins of power, and had squeezed out the electorate. It was the rule of oligarchy. The central government left the countryside to be run by the amateur JPs, but it siphoned off more and more of the GNP to pay for war: 7 percent in 1715, but up to 27 percent by 1801 (how does Dr. Porter know?). Per capita taxation doubled during the century. Meanwhile the poor were kept quiet by welfare payments, the cost of which multiplied sixfold in a hundred years.

It was a society run in the interests of property owners, who passed more and more ferocious legislation to punish thieves and robbers. But their bark was worse than their bite, and the number of hangings dropped dramatically once the alternative punishment of transportation, first to America and then to Australia, came to seem an equally efficacious and more humane way of ridding England of these undesirables. But it was a society that was under the law and whose freedom and wealth were the admiration of Europe. Dr. Porter is right to stress the extraordinary adaptability of the Whig landed elite in riding the whirlwind of economic growth, naval expansion, and individualism in personal relations; at the end they managed somehow to remain still firmly in the saddle.

“The Thing,” as the radical William Cobbett disgustedly called the elite, survived, thanks to the dexterous use of political power to satisfy both the landed and moneyed interests, and the equally dexterous use of patronage, clientage, and corruption to manage the electorate and the elected. They also demonstrated respect for the law as applicable to all classes, including themselves, as well as restraint in the economic exploitation of their inferiors, a willingness, that is to say, to provide not only a plausible appearance but a reality of the most just and free society in Europe. But above all the nation got rich, and those riches, along with personal freedom, were spread widely throughout the top two-thirds of the nation. It was trickle-down economics and ideology, and it worked. Dr. Porter’s book sums up two decades of intensive research, and provides the reader with dazzling anecdotes, striking statistics and observations. One can criticize it for its shapelessness and for its robust determination to look on the bright side, but it is, for all that, a brilliant tour de force and, basically, correct.

In 1777 an anonymous Englishman complacently described his country as “a nation whose constitution is founded on the principles of liberty, whose commerce is extended over the whole circumference of the globe, whose internal wealth, as consisting in landed property and moneyed interests, is great almost beyond example.”21 It is indeed upon this unique combination of respect for liberty and law, booming overseas commerce, unprecedented domestic affluence for the majority, and rocketing expenditures on war and poor relief—as well as rising corruption, declining cruelty, persistent poverty, and frustrating alcoholism—that historians are still commenting today. I would argue that eighteenth-century England provided the first fumbling prototype of the warfare-welfare state which has become the standard model for the late twentieth century.

A final point concerns the ethics of publishing that affects scholarship in every field. The books of Porter (Penguin); Holmes (Allen and Unwin), and Corfield (Oxford) are packed with facts and quotations, many of them new even to experts in the field, but all three are entirely without footnotes. It was bad enough for publishers twenty years ago to begin to cut costs by stuffing footnotes into the back of the books; but it is intolerable to eliminate them altogether, leaving the author, like Professor Holmes, to publicize in his preface his willingness to answer personal inquiries about his sources. This is a trend in publishing that should be stopped in its tracks, before it becomes the norm.

This Issue

March 29, 1984