"Those Damned Liberals": a British Keyword
by Alfred J. Drake
Perhaps no term in the American political lexicon is more likely to be misunderstood than "liberalism." Thanks partly to the reductive, history-free nature of contemporary political discourse, Americans tend to interpret the word "liberal" as connoting a proactive, semi-socialist approach to dealing with social problems. They see it as the antithesis, that is, of the contemporary supply-side economics that some label neoliberalism. With a glance at Lord Alfred Douglas' famous description of homosexuality, one might well call liberalism "the doctrine that dare not speak its name." Despite the taboo status of the L-word, we shall see that this idea has a more complex genealogy than the common interpretation suggests.
The American inflection of the term "liberalism" has by now attained a certain coherence, but such coherence comes only at the price of America's partial failure to see its own recent past with regard to any construction of history at all. In so far as the idea of liberalism as a proactive force is valid anywhere, it gains that validity only because of a series of complex theoretical and practical accommodations that will in part make up the substance of my introduction to this idea.
To historicize liberalism fully, of course, might well be the task of a long work in itself, one which would require me to account at length not only for a variety of English writers and movements but for a host of authors and affairs on the Continent as well. Since such a long study does not suit my present purposes, however, I shall instead provide a basic outline of liberalism's development and theorization in Great Britain. Even the relatively brief genealogy I have in mind will show that the civic, religious, and economic underpinnings of British liberalism (or at least of what came in the nineteenth century to be regarded as an unbroken chain of liberal thought) can be traced to certain strains -- not necessarily compatible -- of both Puritan and Enlightenment thinking, and, lastly, to the development of industrial capitalism.
To examine the liberalism of nineteenth-century Britain requires a look at several centuries of English history, from the time of Charles I to the bitter, yet goal-compatible struggle between Prime Ministers Gladstone and Disraeli and beyond. The most appropriate point at which to begin a study of liberalism's development is the English Civil War period, which lasted -- including the parliamentary struggles that preceded the war and the reign of Oliver Cromwell that followed it -- from 1640-1659. Examining the Civil War era will allow us to see the forces at work in the formation of early religious and political liberalism.
It seems appropriate to begin with a straightforward chronological account of the Civil War period and then move on to subtler analysis. In closely political terms, this period began as a struggle between the Stuart King Charles I and the Puritan wing of Parliament. Charles I ruled from 1625-49, the year of his execution by Cromwell's followers. According to some historians, his whole reign marked one continuous, constantly intensifying struggle between a high-handed King bent on pursuing his own domestic and foreign agenda and an increasingly unyielding, Puritan-tending House of Commons.
Whatever one's view of Charles' handling of his situation, it is clear enough that by 1628, no believer in the divine right of kings so much touted by James I could have been satisfied with things as they stood. The unruly third parliament called by Charles refused (as had already happened) to give him the money he requested for military and personal reasons. Instead, it advanced a Petition of Right calling upon Charles to downsize the royal prerogative and to preserve Englishmen's longstanding liberties. (1) Even more impudently, the Petition "forbade imprisonment without showing cause, martial law in time of peace, forced loans or taxes without parliamentary consent, and the billeting of soldiers in private homes without consent of the occupants." (2) No doubt, the Petition infuriated Charles, but his fiscal needs constrained him to sign Parliament's stranglehold on his right to do the usual things in the usual way. The Puritan-tending Members, following up on a tradition of constraining kings that stretched back to King John's signing of the Magna Charta in 1215, were at least beginning to get the upper hand in the battle for civil and economic control over England.
When the Third Parliament reconvened in 1629, Charles' favorite, Buckingham, had just been assassinated, much to the delight of most Englishmen. Charles, unable to win his points on the policies of his own bishops, dissolved the Parliament and even ordered that some of its members be arrested. From 1629 to 1640 -- the Personal Rule -- he governed without help or consent from any Parliament. To the outrage of prosperous English Puritans, the King resorted to various oppressive and dishonorable means of collecting revenue. While Thomas Wentworth ruled arrogantly in Ireland as Lord Deputy, Archbishop William Laud pursued a similarly single-minded policy in Church matters. Laud promoted an increasingly Catholic-looking, ritualized manner of worship in English churches, and treated those who objected to his policies with contempt and legal sanctions. Puritans rightly felt that the Archbishop, with his doctrine of "the beauty of holiness," was trying to stamp out the spirit of the Reformation in England.
Along with Laud, Charles made the further mistake of forcing upon the Presbyterian Scots an unacceptable prayer book and an Anglican-style Episcopal structure. (3) The Scots, used to their own prayer book and to decentralized administration of their own churches, promptly invaded England. Humiliated by Scottish victories, Charles had to call another Parliament to pay the Scots the £850 daily fee they demanded for their "stay" in the territory of their former king's son. It was a very Long Parliament indeed, one that Charles was never successfully to dissolve.
For the first two years of the Long Parliament, no great disturbances arose, but by 1642 members were demanding all sorts of concessions from Charles -- he must do away with his favorite courts, the Star Chamber and High Commission; he must stop trying to dissolve Parliament on his own account; he must grant Parliament the right to meet every three years and sit for as long as it wishes; he must not tax the people without advance permission from Parliament. Furthermore, Charles even had to allow Wentworth (now Earl of Strafford) and Archbishop Laud to be executed. When an extreme radical faction in Parliament narrowly passed a Grand Remonstrance that demanded from the King the right to approve or disapprove the appointment of his own ministers and army officers, Charles, enraged, shut the Parliament down by military force and rode north to raise an army. Parliament soon delivered to him an impossible set of further demands, and August 1642 saw the first shots of the English Civil War. (4)
The first stretch of war between Puritans and aristocratic "Cavaliers" lasted until 1646, when the King had to surrender to the Scots. By 1648, however, the war was on again, and ended only with the recapture and subsequent execution of Charles in January 1649. From then until his death in 1658, the Puritan commander Oliver Cromwell cloaked his iron-handedly-moderate power in various forms.
From 1653-58, he was unofficially England's uncrowned king, officially its "Lord Protector." It is often justly said that the republican Cromwell's government was based on military power and that, as such, it was no supporter of radical democracy or civil liberties. That is true; the Lord Protector and his series of hand-picked (and eventually dismissed) Parliaments were firmly on the side of the prosperous middle class -- the landed gentry and the merchants and lawyers -- who had helped his parliament-commissioned Model Army win the war against Charles I. Because of this alliance, he had no intention of giving sway either to the ultra-democratic Levellers within the New Model Army or to the agrarian communists outside it.
Cromwell's moderate stand favored those who had property to lose and those who had non-Anglican, non-Catholic faiths to uphold -- so long, of course, as those faiths did not interfere with the Lord Protector's government or with the right of Englishmen to trade and to hold property. The very tenacity of Cromwell's moderation shows the radical nature of the opposition he and his class faced. Let us turn now for a time away from our focus on political chronology and toward this opposition, for it plays an important role in the development of liberalism.
One of the best ways to examine the struggle between Cromwell's party and more radical factions is to focus on the Putney Debates of 1647, which took place in the wake of Charles I's capture and before the renewal of the Civil War. In these debates, members of Cromwell's Model Army either opposed or defended a startlingly radical program for the reorganization of British politics. Perhaps the term "Model Army" is not the most likely one to bring to a modern reader's mind ideas about democracy and representative government. Today, most of us in the West tend to think of armies as tightly knit bodies whose primary concern is to obey the civil authority, not to interfere in the affairs of government or to bicker over political philosophy. That conception of an army, however, is possible (if it is possible) only within the context of a secure, autonomous modern state -- precisely the kind of Commonwealth that Cromwell and his men, at least in retrospect, were fighting in the 1640's to establish.
Parliament's Army, then -- a vast body of ordinary men recently freed from more or less feudal allegiance to their King; a body whose commanders were generally landed gentry and men of business acumen, not high-ranking aristocrats -- was in fact a hotbed of democratic innovation and dissension. England had fallen apart; a King had been captured for the time being, and the new government's form and basic orientation were as yet things unclear. Naturally enough, the soldiers who had helped to capture His Majesty did not wish merely to be disbanded by Parliament for their pains; they believed it their right to take part in the formation of the new government, whether it was still to have Bishops and Charles or not.
The immediate occasion of the Putney Debates, according to David Wootton, editor of the anthology Divine Right and Democracy and whose analysis I follow here, was that "Parliament was unwilling to offer guarantees for the payment of the extensive arrears owed the soldiers in back pay, or to offer them an indemnity for illegal acts committed during the war." (5) Because of this behavior on Parliament's part, explains Wootton, the army began to consider extreme measures: "The soldiers . . elected representatives to press for their rights and established links with the Levellers. The issue at Putney was whether the programme of these allied radicals should be imposed upon the Parliament by the army." (6)
The Levellers of whom Wootton speaks have some right, as he points out, to the title of the first modern political party. The Leveller faction dates to around 1645, and its main demand was universal male suffrage -- the right to vote without regard for property ownership or other such qualification. This demand, of course, would have seemed downright communistic to the propertied and moneymaking supporters of Oliver Cromwell. The Levellers conceived of British society as "a group of equal individuals" (7), not as a quantity of members submerged into a corporate, hierarchical body, as in most feudal political thought. This idea was received as disagreeably anarchic whether stated in a generic Leveller tract like England's Miserie and Remedie (1645) or in the Agreement of the People drawn up by the New Model Army in conjunction with Levellers and put forth as a social program to be foisted on the Parliament. In a characteristic exchange like the one that follows, we can see the sharpness of the difference between Cromwell's supporters and the Levellers among the Army:
Rainsborough [a Colonel sympathetic to the Levellers]: [R]eally I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.
General Ireton [a supporter of Cromwell]: [T]hose that choose the representers for the making of laws by which this state and kingdom are to be governed are the persons who . . comprehend the local interest of this kingdom; that is, the persons in whom all land lies, and those in corporations in whom all trading lies. This is the most fundamental constitution of the kingdom, and which if you do not allow, you allow none at all. This constitution has limited and determined it, that only those shall have voices in elections. (8)
The kind of sentiments uttered by Rainsborough were anathema to the conservative General Ireton. These sentiments flowed from the Agreement of the People, a document drawn up in conjunction with the Levellers and one which, aside from suggesting that Parliament should be the highest authority in the land, demanded a number of important liberties -- freedom of religion, exemption from military drafts, parliamentary immunity, and equality under the law regardless of rank. The Agreement was the first real attempt in English history to forge a constitution, and it was strikingly radical in its exaltation of the supposed native rights that this constitution and the new representative government, together, were to protect. (9)
It is true that the King's escape in November, 1647 effectively put an end to what Cromwell would surely see as a great deal of democratic prating -- the immediate need with the King at large was to stamp out all dissension in the New Model Army so that the war could be brought to a successful conclusion. Events favored Cromwell, not the communist or at least democratic element within the Army. Nonetheless, the heated debate at Putney symbolizes for us the intensity of the demand that the War unleashed for civil and religious liberty. The New Model Army was truly a new and more representative kind of army; it was at base an early bourgeois army, and as such it wanted to carry its representative qualities into the government still to be forged.
With the war finally won by 1649 and the King safely out of the way, Cromwell settled into power. From 1649-53, he tried to negotiate between the Rump Parliament and the Army, but wound up dissolving the Rump when it showed too much independence. The Commonwealth had thenceforth to be replaced by the Protectorate. The Instrument of Government of 1653 provided that Cromwell, as Lord Protector, would receive advice from a council of state and from a one-house, triennial parliament consisting of members from England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Unfortunately, this arrangement degenerated into military and personal rule because Cromwell repeatedly dismissed disobedient new parliaments. By 1658, Oliver Cromwell was dead, and his son Richard lacked the political experience to hold England to the Protectorate arrangement. (10) In 1660, a populace disenchanted with army-style, Puritan-leaning government got its wish when a new Parliament called on Charles II to return from Continental exile. The rule of the saints had ended.
Charles II ruled with the example of his late father before him. Even though his pro-Catholic stance alienated a thoroughly Anglican, if royalist, Parliament -- which had itself already cracked down on Puritan Dissenters, he managed to reign for twenty-five years. He married the daughter of the Catholic King of Portugal and allied himself with Louis XIV of Catholic France -- neither of which decisions pleased either radical Protestants or Anglicans in England; yet still, he kept his head and throne intact. Somehow -- partly with Louis XIV's money and partly with his own skill -- and, no doubt, with the aid of England's weariness of war -- Charles II managed to present at least the image of the stability that England wanted.
Charles II's reign, thanks to the action of an Anglican Parliament hostile to him, Catholics, and Dissenters, saw the rise both of modern religious non-conformity and, even more importantly, of political parties. The King's party in Parliament were called "Tories" (11), while London merchants, along with certain aristocrats who wanted to limit further the King's power and those who favored more freedom for dissenters and less for Catholics, came to be called the "Whigs." Both of these new elements -- modern non-conformism and political parties -- were to play an important role in later British political life and in nineteenth-century liberalism.
What Charles found the time to do between dalliances with his whores -- Protestant or otherwise -- his Catholic successor James II could not accomplish by any means. This ruler was forced to abdicate after holding the crown for only three years, and Parliament awarded it to James' half-sister Mary and her husband William -- both of them good Protestants who promptly invaded England from Holland. Their successful, bloodless entrance was called the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Protestant England was happy at last, and what is more, Parliament had given the kingdom to William and Mary only on condition of their accepting the terms of The Bill of Rights of 1689:
1) The use of the suspending power or the dispensing power without parliamentary consent was declared illegal; 2) Roman Catholics were prohibited from succeeding to the throne; 3) provisions would be made for frequent sessions of Parliament and freedom of debate; 4) standing armies were prohibited; and 5) the levying of taxes or forced loans without the consent of Parliament was repudiated. (12)
Once and for all, these terms rendered the monarch's power subordinate to that of the Parliament. At last, thanks to England's troubles in the seventeenth century, the idea that social and political stability in England depended on toleration, limited government, and balance of power came to the fore. Most Protestant Dissenters gained essential freedom of worship, and William, though never greatly popular with his subjects, ruled with relative caution. In sum, British monarchs from William's time onward had to give up -- even in theory -- all trifling about the divine right of kings and learn to obey the political philosophy set forth in John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government of 1690:
 . . A man, as has been proved, cannot subject himself to the arbitrary power of another; and having, in the state of Nature, no arbitrary power over the life, liberty, or possession of another, but only so much as the law of Nature gave him for the preservation of himself and the rest of mankind, this is all he doth, or can give up to the commonwealth, and by it to the legislative power, so that the legislative can have no more than this. Their power in the utmost bounds of it is limited to the public good of the society
. Secondly, the legislative or supreme authority cannot assume to itself a power to rule by extemporary arbitrary decrees, but is bound to dispense justice and decide the rights of the subject by promulgated standing laws, and known authorised judges. For the law of Nature being unwritten, and so nowhere to be found but in the minds of men, they who, through passion or interest, shall miscite or misapply it, cannot so easily be convinced of their mistake where there is no established judge . .
. Thirdly, the supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent. For the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires that the people should have property, without which they must be supposed to lose that by entering into society which was the end for which they entered into it; too gross an absurdity for any man to own. (13)
In Locke's statement, we can see the close link in a late-seventeenth- century English mind between civil and economic rights or liberties. Locke, like many of his middle-class contemporaries, evidently believes that the whole purpose of the state is to protect the property of individuals -- merchants, lawyers, and the like, presumably of whatever religious faith (or at least of whatever shade of Protestantism) they may be -- from potential predators. Men would never have entered into a social contract with one another, thinks Locke, if for this overriding issue. In fine, social stability depends upon economic security. Locke's philosophy is very much in accord with the insights Britain gained from the turbulent period leading up to the Glorious Revolution: if certain basic religious, civic, and economic freedoms are not respected, men will return to a political arrangement not much better than the "solitary, nasty, brutish" State of Nature derided by Thomas Hobbes. In Britain's Lockean scheme, freedom of speech, worship, and self-representation by the people are corollaries of the need to maintain economic security.
The economic liberalism that came to dominate English thought in the relatively settled century after the English Civil War can be traced to this Lockean framework and to the political events that in part made it possible. The classical economists of the late eighteenth century were deeply indebted to John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government. Adam Smith, of course, is the most important among these political economists. In sync with the advancing industrial power of England in the latter half of the eighteenth century, Smith advocated laissez-faire capitalism: reacting against interventionist, royalist mercantile (14) policy, he favored free trade between nations, a nearly unregulated market, and a government that served as little more than a referee in the competitive struggle between one capitalist producer and another. Smith believed that human self-interest, i.e. the force behind the law of the marketplace, would allow for the development of a far more harmonious society than any that the mercantilist practice of kings had ever achieved. Smith, a Scottish moral philosopher, encapsulates this cheerful belief in The Wealth of Nations (1776) with his concept of the Invisible Hand, a general principle derived from his own theorizing about two market forces: supply and demand. Left more or less to themselves, these two laws would regulate the production and distribution of goods in a given society, ultimately producing harmony between otherwise purely self-interested people.
This whole idea, let it be noted, fits very well within the Enlightenment philosophies (themselves founded upon the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century) that held sway on the European Continent and -- with an empiricist twist -- in Britain during the eighteenth century. Like Newton's gravity -- the unseen yet all-powerful physical force that structured the universe, a force that, when understood, could give men an insight into their place within that universe -- market competition, or supply and demand, had the power to order human affairs. (15) Just as unseen gravity's effects could be empirically observed by an intelligent observer and then construed mathematically into a coherent formula for the operations of the universe, so competition's workings could be observed, measured, and codified into a rational economic and social system. Thanks in part to the tabula rasa psychology of John Locke and other empiricists, human passions -- including the self-interested desire to accumulate wealth -- could no longer be dismissed in typically Christian fashion (16); they had to be incorporated into an orderly, mathematically-correct universe and harnessed, educated, perfected, to serve the interests of social harmony. Adam Smith, although he seems to have been more an intuitionist than a good Lockean, is the most sanguine in this respect. The period from 1750 to the eve of the French Revolution (1789) was in many ways a busy one for Britain, and perhaps the busiest Englishmen of all were the rising bourgeoisie -- the new industrialists and the merchants and legal servants who depended upon them. The Empire was on the advance, and the cry of "free trade" was heard everywhere from representatives of industrial capitalism. The new class that Marx would later call the most dynamic and restless class in history (except for the proletariat to which it gave rise) was beginning to flex its muscles, and Adam Smith's laissez-faire doctrine was its optimist creed. (17)
What, then, disturbed this busy but prosperous state of affairs in England? To examine the development of liberalism in its modern economic and political context, we must look first to the French Revolution, and then examine more closely than early economists like Adam Smith could the actual effects of industrial capitalism in the early nineteenth century. First, we must determine how the French Revolution influenced English attitudes toward social and political democracy. In this complex historical episode, the French bourgeoisie and the industrial workers ultimately joined with the peasants to overthrow the monarchy and any aristocrats who sided with it. Although this causal account is oversimplified, the point is that the French Revolution became very much a bourgeois uprising, even if the agrarian peasants and certain aristocratic factions may have served as its catalyst. The manufacturing, free-trading class disliked royalty and landowning aristocracy just as much as did the peasants; the king and nobles were, after all, in the modern manufacturers' way. As Marx pointed out almost 150 years ago, the bourgeoisie's appearance on the historical scene was momentous, even revolutionary. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx, in making a customarily acidic point about his sometime teacher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, states his opinion about the character of the French Revolution. The comment is worth quoting at length:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce . . Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society. The first ones [Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and others] knocked the feudal basis to pieces and mowed off the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other [Napoleon] created inside France the conditions under which alone free competition could be developed, parcelled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and beyond the French borders he everywhere swept the feudal institution away, so far as was necessary to furnish bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European Continent. The new social formation once established, the antediluvian Colossi disappeared and with them resurrected Romanity -- the Brutuses, Gracchi, Publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality had begotten its true interpreters and mouthpieces in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desks, and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Wholly absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer comprehended that ghosts from the days of Rome had watched over its cradle. But unheroic as bourgeois society is, it nevertheless took heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war and battles of peoples to bring it into being. (18)
As Marx suggests, it is important to realize that what today we might consider a conservative, staid force was once the agent of revolution, a force worthy even of draping itself in the robes first of Republican and then of Imperial Rome. Indeed, under the fiery Jacobins Robespierre, Danton, and Marat, the violence on French soil went so far that it threatened to destabilize the whole country. More conservative forces, embodied in a five-man panel called the Directory, soon settled into power, and their response to still further unrest was Napoleon Bonaparte. After becoming First Consul in November 1799, Napoleon brought order back to France, and -- to the benefit of the bourgeoisie, apparently -- soon moved to export French commerce, culture, and ideals to the whole of Europe.
What was good for France was not necessarily good for all the countries that Napoleon conquered, or tried to. The English, Austrians, Russians, Prussians and others finally succeeded in putting Napoleon's armies down in 1815. Thereafter, the terror of the French Revolution weighed heavily on the rulers of Europe, and they were determined to prevent any such uprising in their own domains. At first, this fear and determination resulted in brutal repression of the poorer classes -- a cruel irony since Marx's analysis shows the bourgeoisie, not the poor and the working class, to have been the real power behind the revolutionary violence in France. Nonetheless, there was a kind of logic about the British aristocracy's repression of working people -- they may not have been the cause of England's problems, but their increasingly violent actions were a powerful symptom of the underlying flaws in the country's social and economic structure. Perhaps the most important manifestation of working-class discontent was the Manchester Insurrection about which we read in Carlyle's Past and Present. In 1819, hundreds of working people gathered to hear a speech by the radical Henry Hunt and were wounded, even killed, because they had dared to assemble and give voice to their grievances. This attack on the part of local magistrates and troops came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre. The event itself occurred in the wake of the Luddite Riots of 1816, in which jobless workmen "systematically wrecked factory machinery in the industrial towns of northern England." (19) The industrial workers of Britain, organized or not, were beginning to make it evident that something was deeply wrong with the status quo, and that gesture was enough to provoke a violent reaction on the part of the old guard.
What, then, was so wrong with Britain that bayonets and bullets began to disperse crowds of angry men and women? The machine age had come upon England earlier and more intensely than anywhere else, and by the early 1820's, the human cost of such a drastic change was becoming more and more apparent. There had always been poverty and unemployment in the country, but now it took on a more concentrated form than ever before, and so became almost impossible to evade. Capitalism did little to improve the old social problems; if anything, its dynamic lawlessness created new miseries for the poor. From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1750, the people who were caught up in -- or abandoned by -- the new form of production had little or no legal protection against rapacious employers and subhuman living conditions. What modern Europeans refer to as a social safety net simply did not exist in early industrial Britain. Relying on the right to contract "freely" with the laborer for his sweat and skills, factory and mine owners took advantage of those who had nothing but their labor power to sell. From the 1750's and 60's onward, former agricultural laborers, unemployed thanks to the increasingly capitalistic, efficient farming practice known as enclosure, flocked from the country to the city in order to find work. Once in the city, these landless, jobless people found that they were at a great disadvantage in the bargaining between themselves and those who owned the factories, raw materials, and tools. As a result, they were forced to accept long hours, subsistence wages, and sometimes disease-ridden living conditions as part of their contract with the owners of capital. Women and children worked unbelievably long hours, often at dangerous jobs. This unrewarding work in mines and factories, of course, also had the great benefit of preventing busy children from obtaining even a rudimentary education. The lower-class family, as an institution, suffered under early capitalism as much as individuals did -- work took priority over parenthood and marital happiness. Thus, over against the great advances that the Industrial Revolution brought about in England's productive capacity, transportation system, agricultural practices, and general level of technology, we must register the human cost of these advances. Those who did the most to bring the changes about gained little for their pains.
To the generic problems associated with industrialism, the war against France contributed a variety of problems in its own right, and so helped to cause an economic depression in England. In the teens and twenties, European countries were too devastated by the war to buy overstocked English goods, and the consequent decrease in sales caused unemployment and financial ruin for many. Veterans returned home, causing a struggle over scarce jobs, and the unpopular Corn Law was stiffened in order to keep the price of aristocrat-grown wheat high. As a result, poor working people had to pay even higher prices for their daily bread. As always, taxes on consumption of basic goods hurt those who could least afford to pay. (20) Against increasing urban misery and social injustice, the conservative strategy of violent suppression could not succeed forever, and the most intelligent among Britain's aristocratic leaders recognized the fact. Under great pressure, England's best statesmen saw the need for at least limited political and social reform.
Members of both the Tory and the Whig parties took part in the initiation of the new reforms. In the 1820's and early 1830's, liberalizing Tories like George Canning the Foreign Secretary and Robert Peel the Home Secretary opposed the aristocratic ultra-Tory policies of Foreign Secretary Castlereagh and at first, the Duke of Wellington. Canning and Peel, while they were by no means American-style democratists, saw clearly enough that at least some reform of the electoral system was imperative. Until his death just after becoming Prime Minister in 1827, Canning concentrated on liberalizing foreign policy, while Robert Peel devoted his time to reorganizing the criminal code and the police, among other things. William Huskisson, as president of the Board of Trade, worked somewhat against the aristocrats and in favor of the manufacturers by advocating a freer trading system with Europe. (21)
Things were going rather smoothly for the Tories until Prime Minister Lord Liverpool resigned due to illness and Canning, as mentioned above, died suddenly after succeeding to Liverpool's position. King George IV found it necessary to appoint the conservative Duke of Wellington Prime Minister. The Duke was at first hostile to the spirit of reform, but at last he gave in, even backing the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. The act passed, allowing an Irishman to sit in Parliament, but it was the last reform the Tories were to have the chance to pass for some time -- the ultra-conservatives within the party forced Wellington to resign in 1830, opening the way for a Whig takeover of the government. Thanks to this change of government, it was Whig Prime Minister Lord Gray who had the honor of presiding over the passage of the first great Reform Bill in 1832. This bill, backed by Lord John Russell and an aristocracy anxious to ally itself with the newly powerful manufacturers, reformed the electoral system, wiping out some of its most abusive district-stuffing practices and so granting the northern-based industrial class greater clout in elections, and, therefore, in national affairs. The Reform Bill was hardly what we might today call democratic legislation; it extended the right to vote to only around three per cent of the British population and specifically to about half of the capitalist middle class. (22) Industrial workers themselves remained unable to vote. In sum, the First Reform Bill seems to have been intended mainly as a holding action against the threat of violence. Perhaps the new Poor Laws enacted by the pro-Reform Parliament best illustrate the limited nature of these early reforms: some of those unfortunate enough to possess neither capital nor jobs were forcibly herded into workhouses -- hardly an enlightened solution to a serious, endemic problem, and hardly the way to defuse permanently the anger of average working people or the very poor. The Factory Act of 1833, too, is revealing: its main provisions were as follows: "(1 No employment of children under nine years of age. 2) No child under thirteen was to work more than nine hours per day and each child was to receive two hours of school per day. 3) No child under eighteen was to work more than twelve hours a day (excluding meal breaks). 4) Inspectors were to be appointed by Parliament to enforce these provisions." (23) If these were improvements, we had best not ask what the old conditions were.
The reformist 1830's in England were followed by the Hungry Forties and the intermittent eruption of radical Chartism among the working class, and finally by the domestic prosperity and foreign adventurism of the fifties and sixties. In the wake of the limited First Reform Bill, disappointment began to take root in the poorer class. In 1838, William Lovett and Francis Place set to paper a six-point plan for improving the average worker's life. The six points were 1) universal male suffrage; 2) vote by secret ballot; 3) a salary for members of Parliament; 4) the elimination of property qualifications for members of Parliament; 5) equal voting districts; and 6) annual elections. (24) Unfortunately for the Chartists, Parliament dismissed their petitions in 1839, 1842, and 1848, and the movement died out soon thereafter. Nonetheless, the decade of the forties was hardly devoid of politically significant change; in 1845, Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel followed the lead of the capitalist Anti-Corn Law League of Richard Cobden and John Bright and decided to abolish the Corn Law over a three-year period. Peel may have had little choice but to implement this policy -- the same bad weather that caused the Irish potato famine in 1845 also ruined the English aristocrats' wheat crop, threatening the poor of both England and Ireland with extreme misery. Without cheap imported grain, Ireland faced near-starvation. Peel took action, but his action cost him the support and unity of his own Tory Party. The Whig Lord John Russell took over the Prime Ministership from 1846-52, and it passed to ex- foreign minister Lord Palmerston from 1855-58 and 1859-65. In the increasingly industrialized and prosperous 1850's, Palmerston concentrated on foreign affairs. He supported, opposed, or remained neutral in various causes, among them the campaign for Italian unification, a British war against China, the American Civil War, and the Indian rebellion known as the Sepoy mutiny. Palmerston supported Italian unification, kept neutral toward the warring American states (25), and fought the Indians and Chinese to maintain British economic and imperial "rights" in the East. In 1865, only an unfavorable public stopped him from involving English troops against the Prussian Bismarck's designs in Denmark. (26) While Palmerston pursued these policies, England prospered at home, and the threat of Chartist communism died down once and for all.
Interestingly enough, even though the Chartists saw their most radical hopes quashed by the growing power of Britain at home and abroad, their basic demands for reform survived to be incorporated into both the Tory and Whig-Liberal platforms. The Chartists' six provisions for reform strongly resemble the basic tenets of Jeremy Bentham's older philosophy, Utilitarianism. This philosophy is oddly divided against itself, and for that reason, it is central to the paradoxical stance of democratic liberalism. On the one hand -- unlike the Chartists -- Utilitarians like Bentham (1748-1832), James Mill, and, later, John Stuart Mill stand for the deepest wish of the bourgeoisie -- an essentially laissez-faire economy, an economy with minimal government interference and maximized options for owners of capital. When authors like Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens, and John Ruskin rail away in their own peculiar fashion about "Benthamee radicalism," "enchantment," "doing as one likes," "Mr. Gradgrind," and "illth," they seem always to have had the Utilitarians in mind. How can it be, then, that the trades-unionist Chartists copied their program from Bentham?
Here we come to the other hand of Utilitarian political economy. In a sense, Bentham and his followers are the true heirs of the Enlightenment. Like Adam Smith, Bentham believed that there was a natural community of interest among humans; unlike Smith, however, Bentham did not believe that these same humans could naturally intuit the communal nature of their existence. For Bentham, social harmony was indeed at least partially achievable, else he would have been no inheritor of Enlightenment optimism; nonetheless, his antipathy to any talk of innateness in connection to the human animal ruled out mere natural inclination as the means of progress. If men and women were to make social progress, thought Bentham, they would need the aid of strong legislation; they would need government far more than Adam Smith thought. Self-interest -- the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain -- defines for Bentham the purpose of human life, and "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" is the greatest principle he can attach to the end of human society; but still, self-interest needs guidance if it is to move in channels harmonious with the desires of one's fellow beings. Bentham's human is born as a good Lockean empiricist -- a delicate blank slate upon which must be written the instructions for social harmony and happiness. Just as education is important within Locke's philosophy, so education and government are vital to the social and political system of Jeremy Bentham. The "felicific calculus" of Benthamite fame may emphasize the modalities of pleasure -- intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, and purity -- but it measures these with reference to the lack or even reverse of pleasure: pain and punishment. (27) In Bentham's Utilitarian scheme, while laissez-faire reigns in the economic sphere, governmental institutions must work alongside this sphere and correct what economics alone cannot accomplish. Schools, prisons, and parliaments must come under the reformer's scrutiny and be made to mold their subjects into better, more fully social beings. (28) Utilitarianism, in sum, is the perfect philosophy for the rising middle class in England because it promises both free-market economics and enlightened reform of social institutions. (Or at least it promises the semblance of reform.) In a word, Utilitarianism promises stability within the chaos of expanding industrial production and profit-taking.
In keeping with the promise of this philosophy, the prosperous third quarter of the nineteenth century saw a struggle between liberalizing Tories and still more liberal, reform-minded members of the opposition Whigs, now called Liberals, to earn the mantle of progressivism. By the 1850's, nearly everyone seems to have agreed that some reform was necessary in order to retain capitalism; aristocrats had long since partially allied themselves with the manufacturers. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it is fair to say, the difference between the Tories and Liberals with respect to social reform was more a matter of emphasis than of fundamental disagreement. In the 1860's and 70's, after the temporizing Ministry of the Whig Lord Palmerston, Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli locked horns with the Liberal William Ewart Gladstone in a struggle to win for his party the title of greatest reformer. Disraeli, lamenting the stratified quality of English class structure, championed an almost Carlylean strategy of infusing the aristocracy with a sense of obligation toward the working class. "Tory Democracy" was to pacify the worker by alleviating the harshness of his existence, and thereby do away with the hostility between rich and poor. No longer should there be Two Nations in England but instead one harmonious society. Under the leadership of Disraeli, England saw the passage of the Second Reform Bill in 1867, which extended the vote to the second half of the middle class and, in fact, to nearly all male citizens. (29)
While not so sanguine as Disraeli about a revitalized aristocracy, the Liberal leader Gladstone, for his part, shepherded in major reforms in a variety of areas: education, law, land rights, the military, public health, and conditions in the workplace. Gladstone's Third Reform Bill of 1884 "redistributed parliamentary seats according to the Chartist proposal of representation in proportion to population" (30) and extended the vote still further to agricultural sections of England. In sum, both the Tories and the Liberals, in their respective ways, saw state-sponsored social reforms as a means of keeping capitalism stable, and both wanted the credit for so keeping it. What some have derisively called the Welfare State is largely the creation of these Victorian capitalist statesmen. The economic liberalism which -- altered from its original "levelling" aim in the late eighteenth century -- was once the ideal of the Victorian manufacturer who favored untrammeled, unregulated capitalism was no longer considered tenable by the first quarter of the nineteenth century. With the advent of Disraeli and Gladstone, the remainder of the Victorian Era came to consist of a struggle between those who thought that "reform" had proceeded far enough to render the economic base sustainable and those who agitated for further reforms. Most liberalizing Tories and Liberals wanted to retain as much of the old Enlightenment theory and practice as possible, of course, but that is why they insisted on enacting economic and social reforms. When we examine the cultural theories of the authors on our syllabus, we should remember that all of these critics had to situate themselves with respect not only to England's already ancient tradition of civil libertarianism but to its long-standing laissez-faire economic theory and to the reform measures that its inadequacies sparked.
Finally, and on a darker note, we should remember that social reform was not the only strategy invented by Victorian statesmen to compensate for the inadequacies of laissez-faire capitalism. In foreign affairs, Disraeli was an unabashed imperialist who named Victoria Empress of India in 1872 and made Britain a major stockowner in the Egyptian Suez Canal. Disraeli also supported the Turks against the Russians and Slavic nationalists in Eastern Europe, invaded Afghanistan twice, and annexed the Transvaal Boer republic in South Africa, among other actions. All of these events took place within the context of a European Continent become increasingly nationalistic and imperially inclined after 1870. Disraeli's era is the era of Otto von Bismarck's Second Reich and of an industrializing and expanding Japan." (31) Even the domestic-minded Gladstone, who ventured little further in foreign policy on his own account than advocacy of Irish Home Rule, found himself committed to the enterprises of Disraeli in South Africa and Egypt. The linkage of social progressivism with imperial ambition was, as we know at this late date, to play a disastrous role in the first half of the twentieth century. A European struggle over territorial, political, and ultimately economic supremacy was to lead Britain (and America) into the First World War, and the consequences of that war, in turn, were to lead to the almost unimaginable horror of World War Two. Following in the footsteps of Bismarck and other Prussian predecessors, Adolf Hitler, by simultaneously rearming Germany and reviving its failed economy, beguiled a desperate nation into war and nearly total destruction. (32) Legally sweeping aside a Weimar Republic weakened by international depression and territorial constraints, Hitler showed that militarism and imperialism are two interlinked options -- at least in the short term -- for boosting a people's economy and sustaining a country's standard of living. If capitalism -- even liberal capitalism -- will not work indefinitely on its own merits, there are always those who may successfully induce the average citizen to give up democratic freedom in favor of economic security and imperial pride.
Notes: The main source for the historical background I provide is History of England, 3rd. Edition, by Harold J. Schultz. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1980.) One can find this information in any number of books, but Schultz's account is concise and well done, so I have adapted the common facts from his book for presentation here.
1. Schultz, ibid 112.