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Popular Politics. Sarah Richardson. What is Popular Politics?. ‘Radicalism’ is an anachronistic term Support is episodic, activists are divided, politicians are opportunistic.

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popular politics

Popular Politics

Sarah Richardson

what is popular politics
What is Popular Politics?
  • ‘Radicalism’ is an anachronistic term
  • Support is episodic, activists are divided, politicians are opportunistic.
  • The 19th century definition is one who holds the most advanced views of political reform along democratic lines but this does not really apply in the 18th century.
  • Many of those arguing for electoral reform in the early eighteenth century want to restrict the franchise to create a purer, less corrupt electorate.
18 th century radicalism
18th century radicalism
  • Hstorians increasingly recognise a lively out of doors political culture.eg Colley, Krey, Langford, Rogers and Speck . Wilson has included an imperial dimension to this.
  • Radical tradition focused on a vigorous resistance to ruling cartels; a sense of liberty and freedom among the English. Any attempts to extend standing armies, erect military barracks, centralise the police forces or tax collection met with fierce resistance.
  • Less about progress and the creation of new rights and more about the defence of rights that, it was perceived, had always been held by the English people and were enshrined in documents such as the Magna Carta and Bill of Rights.
  • Popular politics is commercialised in this period: press and pamphlet literature, production of ‘political’ artefacts, evolution of a programme of accountability and reform.
lecture structure
Lecture structure
  • Role of Whigs & Tories
  • Jacobites
  • Excise Crisis
  • Wilkes
whigs tories
Whigs & Tories
  • Age of Whig Oligarchy: do Whigs and Tories exist as separate entities in politics?
  • ‘the Tories were pre-eminently the landed gentry, unconnected with the Court - a social group rather than a political party’. (Brooke)
  • Traditional view stresses threefold division of politics, one based on Court and Country partitions rather than political parties.
  • Period before 1760 sees a metamorphosis of the Whigs from the party of the people to the party of established wealth and the Tories from the party of established wealth to the party of the people. So is popular politics mainly associated with Toryism or country politics in this period?
jacobite chronology
Jacobite Chronology
  • James lands at Kinsale in Ireland; siege of Londonderry; Dundee musters Jacobites at Lochaber and launches Highland War;

1692 Glencoe massacre;

1708 Old Pretender arrives at Dunkirk and sail for Scotland but turn back

1715 Bolingbroke flees to France; 4 leading Tories impeached; pro-Jacobite rioting in Midlands and North; Mar raises rebellion at Braemar; captures Perth; uprisings in Northumberland, Moffat, Rothbury, Kelso, Lancaster, Preston; Old Pretender lands at Peterhead

1744 British discover plot of French invasion, mass arrests

1745 French defeat Cumberland at Fontenoy; Young Pretender lands at Eriskay; capture Edinburgh; enter England but turn back at Derby;

  • French invasion cancelled; defeated at Culloden by Cumberland; Charles returns to France
  • Jacobite demonstrations at Lichfield races

1753 ‘Elibank’ plot betrayed; Cameron executed - last man to die for Jacobite cause


Culloden Today

The Battle of Culloden was fought on this moor 16th April, 1746. The graves of the Gallant Highlanders who fought for Scotland and Prince Charlie are marked by the names of their clans.

  • Romantic tradition of Jacobitism. Jacobitism was a genuine political movement Cruickshanks argued in Political Untouchables that the Tory party were Jacobites. Monod that Jacobitism infiltrated all levels of society.
  • Apathy, the Revolution settlement & power of state kept Jacobites at bay and ultimately defeated them. Jacobites were out of touch and unpopular.
  • Many Whig historians ignore Jacobitism or dismiss it briefly.
excise crisis
Excise Crisis
  • Walpole wanted to reduce the burden of the land tax and shift government revenues to other sources.
  • Excise scheme of 1733 involved converting the customs duties on tobacco and wine into inland duties.
  • Walpole had already introduced excise duties on tea, chocolate, and coffee and in 1732 had revived the salt duty

Walpole (1676-1745)

(John Wootton, c. 1730)

  • Tory country gentlemen held the view that it was their duty to shield their inferiors. Price of this paternalism was the land tax.
  • Others opposed to all aspects of Walpole’s policies
  • Excise duties involved giving extensive powers of search to revenue officers, and a wide jurisdiction to magistrates and excise commissioners.
  • Englishman’s right to privacy on his own property and also to trial by jury put at risk.
  • Orchestrated campaign in the press which exploited such fears.

From Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

On a search for titles containing the word ‘Excise’ between 1733 and 1735 there were 71 results.


"A panegyrick on Cardinal Wolsey", an anonymous satire on Sir Robert Walpole.

Commonplace book, Latin and English prose and poetry in several hands, c.1719-42 or earlier, the main verse hand probably 1730s. (Brotherton Library, Leeds)

  • George II stood by Walpole and as a result, he recovered although serious damage was caused
  • General election of 1734 was especially contentious.
  • 136 contested elections [out of 558 seats in the House of Commons], more than in any other general election before 1832 except 1710 and 1722.
  • In open constituencies government was heavily defeated
  • MPs who supported the excise scheme were severely punished in the large constituencies
  • Walpole retained a substantial majority of about eighty but lost oligarchic control
popular politics19
Popular Politics?
  • Excise crisis marked beginning of an organised opposition that looked to some element of the excluded public for support.
  • Jacobitism as the main vocabulary of popular opposition began to be displaced
  • National dimension of agitation against the excise
  • Constitutionalist discourse used by merchants for self-interested reasons but demonstrated the possibility of an extra parliamentary constitutionalist opposition
  • Wilkes was the first mass movement to project the ideology of popular constitutionalism into a political programme
  • Of middle class extraction - his father was a wealthy distiller in Clerkenwell.
  • Educated as a gentleman including a spell at University abroad.
  • Married a Buckinghamshire heiress
  • Wilkes entered parliament in 1757.
  • Wilkes was a publicist of immense skill and he cultivated the press by associating himself with the abstract cause of liberty
  • Wilkite movement was far more than the character of Wilkes himself. Indeed Wilkes told George III that he was not a Wilkite. He provided focus for discontent
wilkes affair
Wilkes Affair
  • Wilkes a campaigned against Bute in his paper the North Briton.
  • Issue number 45 of contained a trenchant attack on Bute.
  • To secure evidence against Wilkes a series of arrests and searches were undertaken under the legitimacy of general warrants issued directly by secretaries of state.
  • The courts found general warrants to be illegal. Wilkes was arrested whilst he was an MP and this was judged a breach of parliamentary privilege. Thus Wilkes was expelled from the House.
  • Wilkes fled to exile on the continent. He returned in 1768 and began his campaign to be elected to parliament.
  • Once elected as MP for Middx he surrendered to the authorities and was sentenced to 22 months in the King’s bench prison for his authorship of the article in the North Briton.
wilkes elections
Wilkes Elections
  • In 1767-8 the state of the electoral system attracted renewed attention. The corporation of Oxford was discovered in an attempt to sell its representation in order to pay off its debts.
  • Wilkes began his election campaign for the City of London. In the London election he was unsuccessful but stood for Middlesex and swept the poll.
  • Ejected from his seat at Middx but as often as he was expelled the people re-elected him
  • In December, Serjeant John Glynn, Wilkes' counsel in his libel trial succeeded in a byelection in Middlesex
  • Wilkes stood as an alderman in Farringdon and polled 1300 out of 1500 votes.
  • Support for Wilkes had now spread beyond London and there were 55,000 signatures on petitions in support of his cause.
wilkites and the law
Wilkites and the Law
  • Wilkites were strongly committed to reform: liberty of press; more frequent elections; removal of placemen from the Commons and a more fair and equal representation.
  • Moved from particular grievances to demands for a structural reform programme
  • Wilkites used the courts to generate drama from the courtroom.
  • View of the law dominated by four main themes: accountability; the elimination of partial justice; right to trial by jury; and governing by public consent rather than by force.
  • Wilkites used cases for their own political ends: eg the printers cases of 1771. These centred on the right of newspapers to publish parliamentary debates.
portrayals of wilkes
Portrayals of Wilkes
  • Popular plebeian politics is seen in Wilkite images as form of disorder.
  • Politics is portrayed as contentious and divsive.
  • Ramshackle buildings, unkempt rooms, dishevelled dress etc convey the disorderliness of popular politics.
  • Popular prints also condemned social emulation. Eg in tailor riding to Brentford. His unsteadiness hints at a forthcoming fall and the rules for bad horsemen is displayed in his pocket. Exceeding one’s station in politics or horsemanship is foolish and hazardous.
  • Echoed by the blacksmith who neglects his work for ill-informed and idle gossip.
wilkes supporters
Wilkes’ Supporters
  • Main support came from London and the Home counties
  • Sporadic support for him from all over Britain.
  • ‘essentially a product of the metropolis’.
  • Middling tradesmen supported him wholeheartedly eg the coopers, hatters, jewellers of the London livery companies and freemen.
  • Supported by the London mob who chalked Wilkes and Liberty on the streets of the city; smashed the windows of Lord Bute and Lord Egmont; paraded the Boot and Petticoat in the streets and burned effigies of Luttrell outside the Tower of London. The great majority of these were labourers, servants, journeymen and petty traders.
  • Were the eighteenth century reform and agitation movements really radical?
  • Reformers’ ideal was a broad, propertied oligarchy in which the lower orders should accept their place.
  • No wish to curb the powers of the monarchy or reform the House of Lords.
  • Emphasised lower taxes and cheaper more economical government but not poor relief or reform of economic injustices. Private property rights were still sacrosanct.
  • Radical opinion from at Wilkes on endorsed the principle of the sovereignty of the people and the derivation of political power from the populace.
  • Often innately conservative movements
  • The 'mob' played a peripheral role in the disquiet of the period and often took to the streets for reasons other than political ones.