Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The eighteenth century: an overview

Whose eighteenth century?
Historians write about a ‘long eighteenth century’, meaning the (relatively stable) period between the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 and the Great Reform Act of 1832. The start of the premiership of Pitt the Younger at the end of 1783 is often seen as a ‘half-way mark’ in this long century.
How is the period to be interpreted? There have been a variety of interpretations:
1. Whig: The Whig historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, portrayed the period as one of unalloyed success. Stuart absolutism had been defeated, and Britain combined religious toleration with economic success and political freedom (though not democracy) in a way that made it the most progressive country in the world.
2. Namierite: The ‘high politics’ school of Sir Lewis Namier in the post 1945 period abandoned Whig grand narratives and stressed the role of individuals acting their power games on an aristocratic political stage. Ideas and ideology were firmly minimized.
3. Marxist/radical: In the 1960s historians like E. P. Thompson focused on issues such as popular culture and class divisions. This was ‘history from below’ with the middle classes (so important in the Whig narrative) firmly downgraded in favour of a ‘patrician/plebeian’ dichotomy.
4. Revisionists: In the late 1980s and early 1990s the historian J. C. D. (Jonathan) Clark used the terms ‘ancien régime’ and ‘confessional state’ in order to stress the conservative, hierarchical nature of English society and the continuing importance of religion.
5. The British dimension: In 1992 Linda Colley’s Britons argued that the eighteenth century saw the creation of a British (rather than purely English) nation united round a popular Protestantism and imperialism, with France as the hostile ‘other’. Unlike Thompson, who stressed the deep class conflicts in society, Colley’s model is one of consensus.
These interpretations have varying degrees of validity. All have problems. The Whig version is too triumphalist, the Namierite one too fixated on high politics and too dismissive of ideology. The radical version ignores the continuing forces of conservatism and the growing (cultural if not political) power of the middle classes. The revisionists pay little if any attention to popular politics and Colley ignores Ireland and the often very acrimonious divisions within Protestantism. There will never be a ‘final’ narrative of the eighteenth century.

Characteristics of the 'long eighteenth century'
For all the differences of interpretation, the period possesses a certain unity and witnessed some hugely important developments.
1. The nation state of Great Britain came into being. Wales had been peacefully absorbed into England in the sixteenth century but until 1707 Scotland remained an independent nation state. The Glorious Revolution acted as a powerful catalyst for political and economic unity. It was fear of a disputed succession that led to the union of parliaments. This was an economic as well as a political union. Scots now paid the same taxes and customs duties and competed for the same government and administrative posts. But since the Revolution settlement the Scots had been permitted to maintain their own law, and Presbyterianism remained the established religion.
The union reinforced a trend which had begun in the 16th century. Since the Reformation Scots and English had shared Protestantism, and since 1603 the same dynasty. The King James Bible had brought written Scots more in line with English.
By the 1740s and ‘50s the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘Great Britain’ were being used by some in preference to ‘England’ and ‘English’ - much to the resentment of many English people. The Scots term ‘North Britain’ never really caught on. But Rule Britannia (composed in 1740 by the Scotsman James Thompson) and the British Museum (founded in the 1750s) were terms that lasted. This may be because of the iconographic significance of Britannia.
But anti-Scots feeling was real and significant. No Hanoverian monarch visited Scotland until George IV in 1822 - his wearing of the kilt led to the association of ‘Scottishness’ with the British monarchy. George III’s prime minister Lord Bute was the target of John Wilkes’s satire.
God save the King, first sung at a London theatre in September 1745, encapsulates the ambiguity of Britishness. Although circulated in Scotland as well as England, it has a verse about ‘rebellious Scots’. By 1800 it had become a more unequivocally British anthem.

2. Religion played a major role in the state Although the eighteenth century is often seen as a century of religious apathy compared with the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain was a profoundly Christian country and witnessed two waves of a major religious revival, the first beginning in the 1730s, the second in the 1790s. Religious sectarianism had not disappeared and anti-Catholicism remained a ferocious force. London saw two major religious riots, the Sacheverell ‘Church and Queen’ riots (against Dissenters) in 1709 and the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in 1780. The establishment in England was firmly Anglican. The monarch had to be Protestant. The Toleration Act (1689) grated freedom of worship to Protestant Dissenters, but the Test and Corporation Acts (in theory) barred them from public office. In Scotland, Presbyterianism was the established religion. A series of penal laws, especially harsh in Ireland, discriminated powerfully against Roman Catholics.

3. Britain remained a hierarchical society Politics was dominated by the aristocracy who (along with the bishops) made up the House of Lords. Most members of the Commons were connected in some way to the aristocracy as heirs, relations, or clients. The aristocracy and country gentry retained enormous prestige throughout the period (though anti-aristocratic rhetoric increased from the end of the century). The ‘middling sort’ (not referred to as the middle classes before the 1790s) were increasingly numerous and wealthy, but on the whole they did not aspire to political power. The majority of the population was poor – though the degrees of poverty varied greatly. Few believed it was appropriate for the ‘lower orders’ to have a political voice.

4. Britain was an increasingly wealthy trading nation During this period national wealth doubled in real terms. The consequence (and the cause) was a growing domestic market which could only be satisfied through commercial expansion, both at home and overseas. London was the largest city in western Europe and the provincial towns grew in wealth. Britain sought and won an empire in the West Indies, North America and Asia against international competition and by the end of the period was indisputably the world’s great imperial power.

5. Britain was a major European power engaged in a series of wars against other European countries, notably France. She fought the ‘second Hundred Years War’ in 63 of the 144 years between 1688 and 1832 (44%), all but one of them victories. These wars created their own institutions for tax gathering, financial investing and military administration - and in doing so they transformed the British state.

6. The Glorious Revolution had ended the prospect of a centralized and absolute monarchy Power was increasingly located in the ‘King in Parliament’. After 1689 Parliament became a permanent part of the constitution and its work-load dramatically increased. In the countryside the aristocracy and gentry were responsible for local government. However men of humbler background were not excluded. Parish officials were chosen from outside the gentry. Elections were conducted by men of the middling sort. Lower down the social scale there was a world of popular political culture with its (sometimes violent) rituals. The government was in the hands of the aristocracy and gentry but, lacking a continental-style machinery of repression, it could not have continued without the consent, to some degree, of the governed.