Studying 18th-century British history provides clear proof that we have learned almost nothing in the 250-odd years since then. The problems we grapple with today are the same ones our ancestors were trying to solve in the 1780s and 1790s.
Then, as now, a small political and economic elite dominated the country, seeing itself as the only group able to run things properly. These rich landowners and their acolytes were facing considerable criticism and hostility due to events at home and overseas. Today it would be the crises of economic austerity, migration and terrorism; then it was the impact of independence won by Britain’s American colonies, followed by the French Revolution. In both centuries, the resulting demands put forward by reformers were much the same.
18th-century Demands for Change
People wanted social, economic and political reform. They believed rule by an aristocratic elite was no longer appropriate. Wealth came as much from being a merchant or a manufacturer as by inheriting family land-holdings. Rapid changes were taking place in technology and the marketplace. Education was available more widely than before. Most of all, cheap printing and an unregulated press drew the egregious vices and excesses of the rich to people’s attention. Was the same group worthy of the unquestioning regard and obedience they expected? Many thought it was not.
The new United States of America had proved thoughtful, enlightened change could produce a more equitable division of wealth and political influence, and do so without causing riots or rampant instability. Not long after, France exploded into revolution against an ancien regime noted for its callous disregard of any interests but its own.
At the start, the French Revolution was widely welcomed in Britain. Its Enlightenment values and the calls for equality fitted well with the views of many on this side of the Channel, especially the Whigs. Only later, when the Terror started, did doubts begin to outweigh optimism. Finally, when France degenerated into despotism under Napoleon, Britain as a whole began reluctantly to support the war which had broken out between the two countries.
The Troublesome People of Norfolk
Few parts of England were as consistently radical-minded and Whiggish as Norfolk. Since the days of Oliver Cromwell, himself from East Anglia, the county had shown its devotion to parliamentary governance free from royal or aristocratic interference—along with a general bloody-mindedness towards authority. It was also a stronghold of religious dissent. Since there was virtually no difference between the teachings of the Church of England and the strictures of the aristocrats who dominated the political elite, conflict was inevitable.
London may have grabbed the headlines, but Norfolk folk were just as likely to enjoy a good riot, or seek to undermine the country’s ‘natural’ rulers with demands for constitutional reforms based on inconvenient and unanswerable logic. Tom Paine, the most influential radical propagandist of the time, came from Thetford. Norwich was home to a powerful group of thinkers and philanthropists who opposed the careless selfishness of those currently monopolising wealth and power. Men like William Taylor, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, John Thelwall and William Godwin were all closely linked with Norwich. Mary Woolstencraft was born there, as was Harriet Martineau.
What Did the Norfolk Reformers Want?
These examples will be depressingly familiar from current events. All come from a single document: a letter from the London Corresponding Society, dated 20th September, 1795, addressed to the secretary of the Norwich Branch at 2, Upper Goat Lane, Norwich. The letter begins with a burst of visionary zeal.
We congratulate you on the increase of your Members, and the rapid progress that Knowledge is making in the country. The Sun of Truth is arisen, and sheds its influence on the four Quarters of the Globe. Mankind begins to awake and shake themselves, and like the Roaring of a Lion, the voice of the People is heard, and Tyranny and Oppression begins to tremble. Reason and Fortitude appear to have superseded Bigotry and pale-eyed Timidity. Ambition, the Soul of War, shall be humbled, and Peace with plenty crowned shall supersede the hostile Clamours of contending Nations.
Phew! They don’t write political manifestos like that any more. No waffling or fudging there! Now the writer turns to practical matters.
We fix not our hopes in the present Members of the Opposition, experience having taught us that the moment they shall be placed in Power, Reform will be evaded with the same degree of cunning as it is by those hypocritical deceivers that now steer the course of corruption. We lament that too many of our Countrymen are still immers’d in that species of Ignorance and Folly that regards splendid Appearance and dignified Titles to constitute the Honour and Glory of a Nation.
He doesn’t pull any punches here either, does he? He believes none of the political parties is interested in anything except gaining power—then exploiting it for their own ends. Have you heard that somewhere recently?
Beware of Government Spies
Most of this is the typical of those who feel themselves denied a proper say in affairs. We wouldn’t see it as inflammatory or liable to incite revolution. Still, the secretary of the Norwich branch took care to remind those to whom he sent the LCS letter to take the proper precautions.
I have sent you a Complete Copy of the letter we receiv’d from the London Corresponding Society; but we came to a Resolution last Meeting not to copy it at all, but as it was come into the Country I have sent it to you, but I hope you will not let it go out of your hands nor suffer a copy of it to be taken on any account.
They needed to be cautious. Barely a year before, Thomas Hardy, the former secretary of the LCS, had been tried (but acquitted) for high treason.
At the end, the Norwich secretary noted with pride that membership numbers were increasing quickly, despite noisy, government-sponsored opposition from the city’s Loyal Clubs. Food shortages locally were also on the agenda; the committee had decided to “appoint a [sub-]Committee to select from Thelwall’s Lectures on the Present Scarcity of Provisions, and to point out a Proper Remedy, viz. a thorough Reform.”
There you are. With only minor adjustments in wording, it could all be said today. Even government support of “venal Courtiers and delusive Sophists” (greedy politicians and their tame spin-doctors, in modern terms) is still with us.
Maybe it always will be.
Illustration: Dr. Joseph Priestley (left) and Tom Paine, presided over by the Devil. A contemporary cartoon by Cruikshank.
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