Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The eighteenth century: an overview

Hogarth, 'Polling: The Humours
of an election, 1755'
Note the absence of a secret ballot
Public Domain

There are many excellent books on this subject. I have relied particularly, though by no means exclusively, on the relevant volumes of the New Oxford History of England.

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 William Pitt the Younger at the end of 1783 is often seen as a ‘half-way mark’ in this long century.

For all the differences of historical interpretation, the period possesses a certain unity and witnessed some hugely important developments.

Great Britain

The nation state of Great Britain came into being with the union of the English and Scottish parliaments. 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.

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 1753) were terms that lasted. This may be because of the iconographic significance of Britannia.
But anti-Scots feeling was real and significant, not least because of the two unsuccessful Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745
The crushing of the Jacobite cause
at Culloden, 16 April, 1746
Public Domain
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. 


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 with the Methodists in the 1730s, the second, led by the Evangelicals, in the 1790s. Religious sectarianism had not disappeared and anti-Catholicism remained a ferocious force.

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.


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.


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. Following the Septennial Act of 1716 a new parliament had to be summoned every seven years.

In the countryside the aristocracy and gentry were responsible for local government - a development that had begun in the fourteenth century. 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.

The franchise

After 1707 the House of Commons returned 558 members representing 314 constituencies: England, 489 members, 245 constituencies; Wales 24 members, 24 constituencies; Scotland 45 members, 45 constituencies. This representation remained the same until 1800, with the increase of 100 Irish members.

In England the great majority of county and parliamentary constituencies returned two members. These seats were often wildly at variance with the distribution of the population. Men over the age of twenty-one could vote in the counties if they held freehold property worth forty shillings per annum. In England and Wales there were 217 borough constituencies with a patchwork of voting rights. It has been estimated that for England in 1701 there were perhaps 118,000 county electors and 70,000 borough electors (out of a population of about five million). 

Elections in pocket boroughs were not contested. In what were known as 'popular' constituencies, elections could be fiercely contested and even violent. In his 'An Election', William Hogarth depicted the notoriously corrupt Oxfordshire election of 1754. Another fiercely contested election was the Westminster election of 1784.


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.


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.

The judiciary

The Bill of Rights granted judicial independence. Judges could no longer be dismissed by the monarch. This meant that the Crown could not necessarily rely on the courts to enforce its decrees.

The press

The failure of parliament to renew the Licensing Act in 1695 meant that the press was relatively free. Newspapers could be prosecuted for blasphemy or the vague offence of seditious libel, but Britain nevertheless had the freest press in Europe.


Britain in the eighteenth century was an oligarchy rather than a democracy. However, many of the building blocks of democracy were in place, notably parliamentary government, an independent judiciary, and a free press.

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