The Significance of Society in the 18th Century: Conversations about Governance
Summary and Keywords
The American Revolution was an episode in a transatlantic outcry against the corruption of the British balance of power and liberty institutionalized in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689. English speakers during the 18th century reflected on this constitutional crisis within a larger conversation about the problem of human governance. Although many people excluded from Parliament supported political reform, if not revolution, they also sought remedies for the perversion of political power and influence in new forms of social power and influence. This article looks at the convergence of political and social discussions in a common discourse about the nature of power and the ways in which human beings influenced each other. The first section outlines the meanings of power and influence in British politics. The second section uses the novelist Sarah Fielding’s Remarks on Clarissa (1759) to delineate revolutionary notions about social power and influence. The third section turns to the speeches and writings of Edmund Burke in the run-up to the American Revolution to look at how English speakers deployed notions of social power to advocate for political reform.
The American Revolution was part of a transatlantic outcry against the corruption of the British balance of power and liberty institutionalized in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689 through the king in Parliament. English speakers reflected on this constitutional question within a larger conversation about the problem of human governance. People excluded from Parliament demanded political reform and revolution by deploying new forms of social power.
The subjects of King George III, who took pride in belonging to an “Empire of Liberty,” knew that they, like all human beings, were self-interested creatures whose inability to control desire amounted to disobedience to God. On their own, they could not overcome “the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man.”1 But they might find ways to manage their behavior, provided they accepted the unreliability of their imagination and acquiesced in judgement developed through interaction with others. The fundamental question was whether free people could govern themselves collectively if they could not govern themselves individually. If the “true design and end of government” was “security,” as Thomas Paine asserted in Common Sense, how could they protect their bodies and their property from others—and from themselves?2
Governance was a social as well as a political process. Demands that kings share power with elected representatives of the people constituted only one of several challenges to patriarchal institutions in the 18th century. Women and some men, usually urban dwellers of middling rank, increasingly insisted that marriage reflect the mutual affection of lovers rather than an alliance of fathers or an exchange of property. More generally, they argued that authority, or the right to govern, ought to emerge out of conversation among friends. The crisis in politics intersected with the crisis of family in a shared discourse about the impact of human beings on each other. Power, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was both “control or authority over others, dominion, rule, government, command, sway” and the “capacity to direct or influence the behaviour of others”; that is, as “personal or social influence.” Long associated with the impact of the heavens and stars, influence now connoted the “exercise of personal power by human beings.”
This definition of influence particularly appealed to people excluded from the operations of government around the British Atlantic in the 18th century. English women who had no political or legal standing exploited their growing literacy and access to print media to think about the ways in which they might exercise power or influence those who did. So, too, did members of Parliament (male, by definition) who were not friends of the king’s ministers. And so, too, did North American colonists angry about being denied the rights of Englishmen. These groups embraced revolutionary conceptions of sentiment and commerce in order to exercise their right to participate in the making of meaning and the exercise of power. Paine thus celebrated “the Power of feeling” in rallying people everywhere to the cause of America, even as he proclaimed that he was “unconnected to any party and under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle.”3
Far from renouncing political power, Paine was deploying social power for political ends. No one doubted, according to Paine, that autonomous individuals who recognized no authority outside themselves would follow their passions and their imagination into anarchy and eventually to tyranny. Human nature necessitated the existence of government, what Paine called “the badge of lost innocence.” But government was ultimately the work of flawed human beings, as the history of the king in Parliament in the 18th century surely revealed. Paine sought to combine constitutional reform and social revolution; he wanted to cultivate a world in which authority emerged through social commerce and in which governance involved individuals managing themselves “positively by uniting [their] Affections” as well as “negatively by restraining [their] vices.”4
Power and Influence in Politics
Ideas about power and influence during the 18th century grew out of the intertwined spiritual and political crises of the 17th century prompted by the ambitions of growing numbers of Europeans, especially in the British Isles and the United [Dutch] Provinces, to participate in the making of policy and meaning. Efforts to reconcile divine authority and human participation prompted lengthy discussions of the relationship between power and consent, as well as the nature of human beings and the contours of effective government of the self, the family, and the state. Taken together, these conversations offered a powerful challenge to the older idea that the security of mankind depended on the exertion of power by a few in ways that were beyond the comprehension of nearly everyone else.
In Europe, power had long connoted a formal exercise of sovereignty granted by God to a particular person, such as a king or a father, or a community of people, such as a nation, whose behavior was theoretically subject to public scrutiny and the rule of law. Influence was a manifestation of corruption; it was the means by which restless ambition achieved success within a monarchical structure of Power. Synonymous with Interest or Faction, it connoted an informal and private perversion of access to the body of the monarch in the service of personal gain. Power was traditionally patriarchal: queens reigned as the daughters of anointed kings. But women as well as men could wield Influence, because it was an exercise of unsanctioned and extralegal authority. Power commanded while Influence whispered, and the latter undermined the authority of the former.
The epic poem by John Milton (1608–1674), Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), laid out the contours of the problem of governance so starkly and so profoundly that its language permeated 18th-century writing. Satan, an angel cast out of heaven for disobedience, rallies others to sin; that is, to rebel against the sovereignty of God. Banished from communion with the Creator and excluded from Power, Satan must exercise Influence instead. Knowing that coercion cannot sustain Power, God had given human beings the ability to choose, to recognize what they gain from submission to his authority. Men and women are “Authors to themselves in all / Both what they judge and what they choose; for so / I form’d them free, and free they must remain, / Till they enthrall themselves.” But Satan misled them, exploiting human weakness through charisma, eloquence, and cunning. The embodiment of Influence, he is “a false dissembler unperceiv’d.” Relying on hypocrisy—“the only evil that walks / Invisible”—he offers humans the illusion of liberty without restraint. Satan will “pervert” Man by “some false guile,” for “Man will heark’n to his glozing lies.” Man will fall from grace because he will find Satan persuasive.5
That was the tragedy of humanity because to accept the power of God was to affirm the justice and sweetness of his dominion. Human beings ought to embrace the sovereignty of God, and secular governments sanctioned by him, because they ensured their happiness. According to deputy governor John Winthrop (1587/88–1649), the settlers of Massachusetts chose not to behave as “brute beasts” in accordance with their “natural” (or “corrupt”) sense of “liberty.” They would cultivate a “civil or federal” notion of liberty as a covenanted pursuit of “that only which is good, just, and honest.” Marriage embodied the process. The voluntary submission of a woman to the authority of her husband was a “liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free. The woman’s own choice, makes a man her husband; yet being so chosen, he is her lord, and she is subject to him, yet in a way of liberty, not of bondage.”6 Patriarchal power rested on ritual recognition of authority founded on consent given in exchange for security. If the surest path to a sense of security lay in accepting God’s authority, it did not require human beings to participate in the exercise of power or the making of meaning.
In sacred and secular realms, freedom was not the right to fulfill any desire but the right to do what is right in God’s eyes unmolested. Threats to this sense of security could come from enemies, foreign and domestic, with different religions, values, or purposes. No less dire was the threat from within the minds and bodies of individuals. Nothing was more commonplace than the notion that happiness, contentment, security, and liberty depended on the management of human passions. Power thus mattered as much as Liberty, for individuals alone could not be trusted with self-government.
For most 18th-century English speakers, the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689, in which the Protestant William of Orange overthrew the Roman Catholic James II, provided the most effective constitutional remedy to that question. In retrospect, it had constituted a government that balanced Power with Consent (or Liberty). The notion that Parliament shared power with the king, rather than simply consented to his decrees, and the restriction of suffrage to men of property and standing conferred legitimacy, meaning that it seemed fair, just, and, above all, effective in ensuring the security of the people. More than submission or acceptance, consent—for a minority of adult males—entailed participation through Parliament in the exercise of sovereignty. England would never again have a monarch who claimed absolute dominion over his subjects.
Treatise of Government (1689), written by John Locke (1632–1704), was the most influential statement of this position. Locke wrote as a client of Anthony Ashley Cooper, first Earl of Shaftesbury (1621–1683), the leading opponent of the Stuart monarchs, and as a critic of proponents of divine right and patriarchal prerogative such as Sir Robert Filmer (c. 1588–1653). But many readers in the 18th century assumed Locke’s principles were British principles. Authority flowed from the consent of men rather than the will of a patriarch, Locke contended. To be subject to “absolute, arbitrary power” was “the perfect condition of slavery.” Ensuring that man has “an understanding,” God has permitted him “a freedom of will, and liberty of acting” once he has reached a state of maturity through education broadly understood. The experience of pleasure and pain taught men to surrender some degree of liberty in order to ensure security. The “end of civil society,” asserted Locke, was “to avoid and remedy those inconveniences of the state of nature which necessarily follow from every man being judge in his own case, by setting up a known authority, to which everyone of that society may appeal upon any injury received, or controversy that may arise, and which every one of the society ought to obey.” Law, after all, “in its true notion is not the limitation so much as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest.”7 There was always a need for a Power to adjudicate disputes, protect property, and advance the general interests of mankind. But it ought to be a government of laws produced by mutual agreement. Power asserted without consent was an act of war.
By the middle of the 18th century, large numbers of English-speaking peoples—exceptions included Jacobite supports of the exiled Stuarts—took pride in living within an empire that celebrated its institutional balance. The principle of consent allowed Britons to imagine themselves as the antithesis of the subjects of Roman Catholic monarchs and priests who supposedly relied on coercion and superstition. The structure of the British government was such that its authority survived the bad behavior of those who controlled it. Resistance was a birthright of all English men and was their natural reaction when confronted by arbitrary Power that threatened rather than preserved security. Critics, Dissenters, and rebels tended to denounce the men who exercised power rather than the structures of Power itself.
The central issue was a question of character, particularly the susceptibility of all men, including anointed kings, to temptation by Satan-like advisers. Power became arbitrary, more often than not, when Influence substituted selfish interest for the common good. Thomas Paine and his readers discarded monarchy in no small part because kings and queens seemed to do nothing more than exhaust the public treasury and grant patronage to their friends. Those aspects of human nature that made Power necessary inevitably compromised the exercise of Power by human beings.
The personification of Influence in the Anglo-American imagination was Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), first Earl of Orford and the leader of the Whig majority in Parliament in the 1720s and 1730s. Walpole maintained himself in power by avoiding war, rewarding supporters with patronage, punishing opponents, and cultivating the friendship of Queen Caroline (1683–1737). To his critics, including Henry St. John, first Viscount Bolingbroke (1678–1751), Walpole was a man without principle, a creature of corruption, the master of the “Robinocracy,” the epitome of insidious Influence. All men “lie under great temptations, through the infirmities and corruption of human nature, to prefer their own private interest to that of the community,” observed Bolingbroke. But “wicked ministers have exerted their endeavours, in all ages, to abridge the liberties of the people and wrest the laws to the punishment of their fellow-subjects.”8 Weaned on this rhetoric, some Americans rebelled in 1775 because they believed Influence had so perverted Power as to make it impossible to live within the empire they once loved and admired.
The young Philadelphian Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), studying medicine in London and Edinburgh, summarized the colonists’ dilemma in his divergent reactions to the House of Lords and the House of Commons during an October 1768 visit. In the former, Rush walked on something like “sacred ground” and was physically overcome by the royal throne. Allowed to sit where the king sat, Rush experienced what Edmund Burke described as the Sublime. “[S]eized with a kind of horror which for some time interrupted my ordinary train of thinking,” Rush could not speak, let alone reason. In the thrall of his Imagination, he tried and failed to order his thoughts. “[S]uch a crowd of ideas poured in upon my mind that I can scarcely recollect one of them,” he reported to a friend. Rush’s experience in the House of Commons was very different. His anger over the Stamp and the Townshend Acts did not translate into loss of control. To the contrary, in “the place where the infernal scheme for enslaving America was first broached,” where members of Parliament were trying to usurp the power of the king and rights of colonists, the “cursed haunt of venality, bribery, and corruption,” Rush had no trouble speaking. He stood tall where William Pitt the Elder had attacked the Stamp Act and quoted his speech from memory to an empty chamber.9 Monarchical power produced reverence; a commons corrupted, producing contempt. But the latter empowered Rush to unite with Pitt in opposing the degradation of power through influence.
Many Englishmen shared Rush’s revulsion. “The power of the Crown,” proclaimed Edmund Burke (1729–1797), had been reborn in Britain “under the name of Influence.” Indeed, the policy of the king’s ministers was “to secure to the Court the unlimited and uncontrouled use of its own vast influence, under the sole direction of own private favour.” How to resist this perversion of power? A beginning lay in restoring the House of Commons to its proper role.10 The “great and only foundation of Government, [was] the confidence of the People.” Although the origins of power were divine, the “forms” of government and “the persons who administer it, all originate from the people.” The Commons’ particular responsibility was to be “the express image of the feelings of the nation.” But too-many members of Parliament valued place more than “the affection or opinion of the people.” The “design” of “the new corps of King’s Men” to have “a Ministry unconnected with the people” required “a Parliament unconnected with the People.” If the 17th century had been preoccupied with the “distempers of Monarchy,” the 18th century had become all about “the distempers of Parliament.”11
What were freeborn English men and women to do? Perhaps, like others excluded from the operations of government, they might seek power in a different form. How did those who could not vote or hold office exercise influence? One possibility was to turn to innovations in the world beyond politics. The model of Pitt was a start, a hero with the courage to stand and condemn corruption. But much more was possible in the 18th-century British Empire.
English men and women could write and read. They could engage in conversations outside Parliament; they could have an impact through new forms of power and influence. Unable to command authority because of their race, gender, religion, or colonial status, they sought authority granted by interlocutors through reason and sympathy founded on arguments and experience. They could demonstrate that “the mere influence of the Court”—the “unnatural infusion of a system of Favouritism into a Government which in a great part of its constitution is popular”—would not overcome “office … authority … property … ability, eloquence, counsel, skill, or union.”12 Among the pioneers of this sensibility were Dissenters from the Church of England, who were consequential in the expansion of print culture in 18th-century Britain. Critics of the slave trade made their case through the writings and music of the occasional black man and repentant sailors. But no group did more to exploit and expand the new meanings of power and influence than women. Men such as Paine and Burke, who would never accept women as political figures, nonetheless shared similar assumptions about how people without power might influence those who had it.
Power and Influence in Society
English men around the Atlantic called for constitutional solutions to the problem of influence, including a wider suffrage, more openness, and legislation to restrict patronage. But many critics also sought to redefine the nature of power and influence as an outcome of social commerce, of human beings participating in a conversation rather than submitting to force, and of people acting out of understanding rather than fear. They began to talk of the power of sentiment and the influence of one person, in print as well as conversation, on another. Individuals, they suggested, operated within networks of friends, relatives, and interlocutors who monitored, advised, and cajoled each other in regular exchanges of sentiments and ideas.
As Adam Smith explained in his widely read The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), persuasion was a social act: it required both a speaker and an audience. Individuals observed as well as participated because they believed it was in their interest to do so. The goal for some was to improve themselves through social intercourse, as the Scottish writers Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid argued. It little mattered “whether the story we read be truth or fiction,” according to Thomas Jefferson; the former was “useful as well as pleasant.” Humans “are wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as a real personage,” since the “field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life.”13 Smith, however, was more concerned with the management of behavior through the observation of others. “The mind is rarely so disturbed,” he wrote, “but that the company of a friend will restore it to some degree of tranquility and sedateness.” “Society and conversation” were “the most powerful remedies” for the agitation of individuals and social disorder.14
Taken together, the conversations of thousands of readers amounted to an implicit and sometimes explicit challenge to the authority of patriarchal institutions. Print media allowed women and others to assert themselves and to influence others through the power of persuasion. To do so, they relied on imagined scenarios and personal histories (a.k.a. novels), which were rarely intended to replicate real life but instead to pose dilemmas and allow writers and readers, many of them disenfranchised, to reflect on the operations of power and to influence social settings. A concrete example was the question of female power and influence. Could a woman change a man’s mind and behavior? In the realm of the novel—a genre of prose fiction that particularly appealed to female readers and that was regularly denounced as subversive by men—female influence took several shapes. In its traditional form as whispered gossip, it was usually associated with older women. But increasingly young, educated, and unmarried women offered persuasion in open conversation as a different kind of female influence.
The novelist Sarah Fielding (1710–1768), the author of the well-received The Adventures of David Simple (1744), provided an extended exploration of the revolution in authority in her Remarks on Clarissa, Addressed to the Author: Occasioned by Some Critical Conversations on the CHARACTERS and CONDUCT of That Work. Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady (1748), by the printer Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), was perhaps the most influential novel published in English in the 18th century, appearing in three parts in November 1747, April 1748, and December 1748. Torn between her sense of duty to her father and her family and her revulsion toward a man they would have her marry, Clarissa Harlowe runs off with the charming Richard Lovelace. Immoral and unscrupulous, Lovelace is the classic rake; like Satan he tempts the virtuous Clarissa to make bad choices. Abandoned by her family and lost in London among disreputable characters, Clarissa is raped by Lovelace. He is killed in a duel and she dies rather than live a life of shame. Clarissa was enormously popular, creating an even-greater sensation than Richardson’s novel Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), which had prompted Sarah Fielding’s older brother Henry (1707–1754), the author of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), to mockery in An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741) and Joseph Andrews (1742).15
Published anonymously in 1749, Sarah Fielding’s Remarks on Clarissa was one of the first extended pieces of literary criticism dealing with the relatively new genre of the novel, or what many called personal histories. The plot turns on the assertive Miss Gibson’s efforts to convince Bellario, a man of “known Taste and Impartiality” and “Candor,” to understand Clarissa as something more than a frivolous diversion for flighty women.16 The short book is an extraordinary document, a narrative of social commerce that allows us to hear 18th-century people talking about an 18th-century book. As such, it illustrates female power or influence exercised in revolutionary settings and in a revolutionary manner.
Creating a fiction to comment on the value of fiction, Sarah Fielding imagined a plausible scenario in which an intelligent woman persuades a man to sympathize with the dilemma of a young woman, to appreciate a female perspective on Clarissa. Miss Gibson’s and Bellario’s youth adds a frisson of romantic and sexual tension. Their eagerness to engage also sharply contrasts with older characters’ closed minds and ingrained habits. Remarks was a challenge to patriarchal authority, including that of Sarah’s older brother, Henry. Denied access to the masculine realm of Power and refusing to flirt or insinuate, Sarah Fielding and her character Miss Gibson deploy their reason and sentiment openly through engagement. Unable to command and unwilling to whisper, Remarks reconstitutes female influence, from gossip by Eve-like characters trading on sexuality to sincere mixed-gender conversation between intellectual if not legal equals.
Language complicated matters because, as Edmund Burke explained a few years later in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), meaning emerged only through conversation. Unlike painting, language sought to “affect rather by sympathy than imitation; to display rather the effect of things on the mind of the speaker, or of others, than to present a clear idea of the things themselves.” Words were representations, not real things, which, ironically, intensified their “influence” over the passions. Burke identified three reasons for this power. First, words facilitated sympathy through “manner”; they influenced the passions through an exchange of “our opinions concerning them.” Second, words were of “a very affecting nature,” more so in rhetoric than in reality; in fact, “strong” expression was usually more successful than “clear” expression. And third, words facilitated the creation of new “combinations” and thus “give a new life and force to the simple object.”17
Remarks begins with a series of exchanges about the first installment of Clarissa in “a pretty large Assembly of mix-d Company.” Nearly everyone deplores its length. More substantively, a man complains that only a history of Rome might require such detail. Another man scoffs at the idea “that knowing the Particulars of the Family at Harlow-place was of as much Consequence, as the knowing the Springs and Wheels on which of the Affairs of the greatest Commonwealth that was ever heard of since the Creation of the World.” The “lady of the House” and mother of six children disputes this argument. She believes “penetrating into the Motives that actuate the Persons in a private Family, of much more general use … than those concerning the Management of any Kingdom or Empire whatsoever.” Others defend Richardson by emphasizing how well the details make readers “intimately acquainted with all the Harlows,” including the looks in their eyes and the tone in their voices.18
When an older man criticizes Mrs. Harlow for joining the men of the household against her daughter—that is, blaming her for not resisting patriarchal power—Miss Gibson replies with a perspective informed by her gender. Lacking access to Power, Clarissa’s mother had no other choice. How could she have prevented the “Fury” of her husband and his brother? No wonder Mrs. Harlow falls back on habits of ritual submission and deception. “[P]erhaps she flatter’d herself, that she might gain more Influence by seeming to comply.” Yet, Sarah Fielding’s sympathy for the woman does not mitigate her distress at her behavior. “Virtues” such as “a long Habit of Submission” produce their own “Maladies,” including “a want of Resolution.” Reinforcing the point, when an older man departs in disgust with Miss Gibson’s opinions, his daughter accompanies him without protest, “as submissive a Daughter as Mrs. Harlow was a wife.”19
Remarks eventually settles into a narrative of the conversation between Miss Gibson and Bellario. The former not only admires Clarissa; she understands how much the character’s gender limits her choices and shapes her behavior. Thinking as a man, Bellario objects to Clarissa’s behavior as excessive and unrealistic. Their dispute underscores the challenge of mixed-gender discussion. Even the honest Bellario cannot grasp how patriarchal institutions shape the female behavior he deplores. Perhaps he, and certainly young women, could learn from Clarissa’s predicament. Although the “laws of God and Man have placed a Woman totally in the Power of her Husband,” a sensible young woman identifying with Clarissa will necessarily reflect on “the Sort of Man in whose Power she would chuse to place herself.” Clarissa was right to resist her family’s choice of a husband, but it was not a decision to be made in isolation. Miss Gibson admires Clarissa’s “Steady Resolution to refuse any Man she could not obey with the utmost Chearfulness; and to whose Will she could not submit with Reluctance.” In the end, everyone would benefit from a conversation about Clarissa. Women would learn how “Humility and Meekness” encouraged tyranny even as they remained wary of the “Artifices” of Lovelaces.20
Despite the obvious problems and pitfalls, Sarah Fielding insists on the possibilities of mixed-gender conversation. In the end, Miss Gibson persuades Bellario to change his mind. Explaining what he calls his “Conversion, if I may be allowed the Expression, to your Favourite Clarissa,” Bellario describes the operations of a new world organized around social relationships. Richardson’s “Method [is] so intirely new, so much an Original manner of Writing” that new rules apply. Clarissa is “a real Picture of human Life, where Story can move but slowly, where the Characters must open by degrees, and the Reader’s own Judgment form them from different Parts, as they display themselves according to the Incidents that arise.” As Miss Gibson suggests, people must now be judged on the “whole” of their lives, not “from any one single Action.” Sympathy is the key to the novel’s influence; that is, its power to persuade. Miss Gibson commends Richardson for writing in the first person and in the present tense so that “we not only weep for, but with Clarissa, and accompany her, step by step, through all her Distresses.”21 The same holds for the Gibson-Bellario conversation. Individuals make meaning together, not by submitting to or resisting power they do not understand, but through the power of feeling and the influence of reason.
Bellario (and perhaps brother Henry?) pay attention; they take women seriously, they engage with them, and they are transformed. A fantasy? Perhaps. But not implausible. Increasingly, educated men understood their treatment of women as a test of their all-important mastery of themselves and a key to their reputation, or honor. A man such as Bellario wants to be well regarded both by men and women. Unlike the older male in Remarks, he values mixed-gender social commerce because he believes he will benefit from it. The frisson of flirtation and sexual attraction enhances his pleasure. He welcomes a woman’s influence as a source of improvement. Thus, Sarah Fielding imagines through Miss Gibson and Bellario’s conversation the perfecting of a new form of influence in which women achieve the power of interpretation.
Of course, the problem of human weakness remained. Just as men driven by ambition in the world of high politics of the court and Parliament mastered the art of deception to satisfy their interests, so too did lovers mislead young women. Influence as persuasion was as dangerous as influence as corruption. This dilemma would not go away. “For though management and persuasion are always the easiest and the safest instruments of governments, as force and violence are the worst and the most dangerous,” warned Adam Smith in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), “yet such, it seems, is the natural insolence of man that he almost always disdains to use the good instrument, except when he cannot or dare not use the bad one.”22 So strong was the tendency of human beings to indulge their passions rather than cultivate their judgement that even the most-ardent supporters of the power of sympathy fretted about its limited influence. To others, social commerce as an organizing principle seemed impossibly speculative, fodder for the imaginations of women but not for the minds of men who dealt with the harsh realities of politics and empire. And yet Edmund Burke, one of the smartest and most pragmatic figures of the 18th century, devoted much of his career to doing something similar to his rival in retrospect Thomas Paine: deploying social power for political ends.
The Influence of Society on Politics
No one was more conversant with power and influence both in political and social contexts than Edmund Burke, a man who fit his own description of “the politician” as “the philosopher in action.”23 Burke’s misleading reputation today as a conservative rests largely on his polemic Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in which he warned against organizing a government on unwarranted speculations about moral virtue. Yet, Burke was a Whig in politics, a relentless critic of corruption, and an advocate for Catholics, Americans, South Asians, and others excluded from British politics. A quintessential insider by social status and political position, not to mention gender and race, Burke possessed the sensibility of an outsider. He consistently championed the cause of people he perceived as victims of abusive power, whether they were North American colonists or the family of Louis XVI.
Born in 1729 in Dublin, Burke was the son of a Roman Catholic mother from Cork and a Protestant father who was an ambitious lawyer. Sent to London to read law in the early 1750s, Burke instead established himself, counting David Hume and Adam Smith among his many friends. Until Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, his most important book was A Philosophical Inquiry in the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which appears, as does Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, in Thomas Jefferson’s 1771 catalogue of his library.24 Burke made his career (and his fortune) in 1765, when he became private secretary to Charles Watson-Wentworth, the second Marquess of Rockingham. Rockingham, the leader of the Whig opposition, arranged for Burke to win a seat in a pocket borough and came to rely heavily on him as a spokesman. In 1774, Burke won election as a member from Bristol, a major port city whose merchants had interests all over the Atlantic and beyond. He only briefly held a cabinet post during his three decades as a member of Parliament; he was always most effective as a spokesman for the opposition even when his friends were in power.25
In its simplest form, Burke explained, power was a “source” of the Sublime, which was “whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.” And there was “nothing sublime, which is not some modification of power.” The Sublime excited fear, fueled the imagination, and short-circuited judgement. An example was Milton’s description of Satan in Paradise Lost: “the mind is hurried out of itself, by a crowd of great and confused images; which affect because they are crowded and confused.” The Sublime depended on “ignorance,” because fear flourishes in inverse proportion to understanding. Thus Benjamin Rush experienced the Sublime in the House of Lords, where he was virtually paralyzed by the manifestation of power in the throne, but did not in the House of Commons, where he thought he understood the operations of power, however corrupt. “Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little,” wrote Burke. “It is thus with the vulgar, and all men are as the vulgar in what they do not understand.”26 The successful acquisition and exercise of power required recognition of men as social creatures whose behavior was not always rational or predictable. “[P]olitics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature,” concluded Burke, “of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part.”27
Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents, a pamphlet Burke wrote in 1770 to expose the corruption of the king’s ministers and to justify the opposition of his patron Rockingham and their allies in Parliament, is a brilliant distillation of his ideas about the intersection of politics and society and the importance of social power. Burke saw reform both as a matter of legislation and new forms of association and discourse. The most important innovation of his essay was his argument for a political party as a group of friends openly united in support of policies they believed were in the best interest of the members of a nation united socially as well as politically. Patriotism was more than demonstrating loyalty to the king. Patriotism was also associating to argue for specific ideas, to influence the operation of power through argument, and to see authority as a process that results from debating differences. Although Burke called for constitutional reform, he knew that, in the end, nations were not “primarily ruled by laws; less by violence.” Nations were, in fact, governed by “the same methods, and on the same principles, by which an individual without authority is often able to govern those who are his equals or his superiours; by a knowledge of their temper, and by a judicious management of it.”28
Here Burke echoed Sarah Fielding’s notion of influence, although he understood it exclusively as the province of men. People who do not have power can exercise influence by cultivating together an understanding of its operations. They could be friends allied through honest sentiment and principle rather than friends pursuing wealth and power through obscure and illicit means. Unlike a faction, which remained a cabal of selfish men operating behind the scenes, a party achieved authority through persuasion achieved in public debate. The problem with holding high office was the development of “a certain tone of power.” A “man is generally rendered somewhat a worse reasoner for having been a minister. In private, the assent of listening and obsequious friends; in public, the venal cry and prepared vote of a passive senate, confirm him in habits of begging the question with impunity, and asserting without thinking himself obliged to prove.” The value of open conversation was that individuals had to engage with each other, take each other seriously, and exercise influence through persuasion. An author offering “plain principles” allowed readers who relied “on any man’s reason [rather] than the greatest man’s authority” to form “a judgment.”29 No wonder, then, that so much of Burke’s speeches and writings specifically engage with the style and argument of another speaker or writer.
To be sure, Britain’s problems—identified by the popularity of the iconoclastic and colorful critic of the Crown, John Wilkes, as well as the swelling protests of American colonists—were constitutional. But the most-effective means of redressing the imbalance of liberty and power, Burke believed, was neither more democracy nor greater reliance on individuals. Rather, he argued, Britons needed to understand how much the exercise of power required new forms of organization, new forms of power and influence. Thus Burke called for a party, a voluntary association of friends united by sentiment and ideas. Where a faction sought power through Influence, as in whispering in the ear of the king and buying off members of Parliament, a party was “a body of men, united, for promoting by their joint endeavours [in] the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” They would stand forth and make their ideas known in public rather than in a “secret tribunal, where they are sure of being heard with favour, or where at worst the sentence will be only private whipping.” “Whether a measure of government be right or wrong, is no matter of fact,” asserted Burke, “but a mere affair of opinion, on which men may, as they do, dispute and wrangle without end.”30 In a party, authority emerges out of open exchange.
Politicians, like all individuals, ought to recognize that they operated within a web of relationships. A man who stood apart from his friends, who insisted on following a different path, or who did not recognize his own fallibility or social obligations was not only unlikely to succeed, he was foolish and untrustworthy. Association—friendship rooted in sentiment and principle—compensated for the weaknesses of individuals. Men on their own were dangerous because they were men, not angels. Good statesmen would “bring the dispositions that are lovely in private life” into public service. They would be gentlemen as well as patriots. They would “cultivate friendships, and incur enmities.” Restoring the dignity of the House of Commons followed from investing “men with popular confidence, public opinion, natural connexion, or natural trust … with all the power of Government.” They would serve their king out of “affection and fidelity” rather than “avarice.”31
Burke was explicit about the value of “connection” in combating evil designs. Individuals alone could not achieve anything. “Where men are not acquainted with each other's principles, nor experienced in each other's talents, nor at all practised in their mutual habitudes and dispositions by joint efforts in business; no personal confidence, no friendship, no common interest, subsisting among them; it is evidently impossible that they can act a public part with uniformity, perseverance, or efficacy … No man, who is not inflamed by vainglory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavors are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”32
Similar ideas informed Burke’s position on the American crisis. “Men thinking freely, will, in particular instances, think differently.” That was a fact of life, and not necessarily an expression of resistance to authority. Commenting on the “disobedience … universal throughout America” after the passage of the Stamp Act, Burke told Parliament that the situation within the empire was “wholly new in the world … nothing in history is parallel to it.” The colonists were more likely to desist if Parliament took them seriously and sought to persuade them of the value of subjection to its authority. “People must be governed in a manner agreeable to their temper and disposition; and men of free character and spirit must be ruled with, at least, some condescension to this spirit and this character. The British colonist must see something which will distinguish him from the colonists of other nations.”33 To take Americans seriously was not to say they were right. It was to initiate a conversation. “Reflect how you are to govern a people who think they ought to be free, and think they are not.” To punish them would gain “no revenue” and produce only “discontent, disorder, disobedience.”34
Here Burke explicitly argued that what bound the colonists to Britain was a perception of themselves as different from members of other nations. The British Empire was to be distinguished by social commerce as well as exaltations of liberty. “[F]orce” was “a feeble instrument” with the Americans because they were English men, members of a nation defined by sentiment and ideas. Their “fierce spirit of liberty” was “according to English ideas and on English principles.”35 In the long run, Burke was participating in a revolutionary conception of nation as a political community united by shared principles and affection rather than a congeries of subjects of many statuses, united by shared loyalty to a prince. Even as he advocated taking the Americans seriously, then, Burke was heading down a road that would eventually exclude everyone from conversation who was not an Englishman.
To secure its sovereignty in America, Parliament had to persuade or, rather, remind Americans of the value of the British Empire. “All government … is founded on compromise and barter,” proclaimed Burke, on consideration of “what we are to lose as well as what we are to gain.” In the end, “Man acts from adequate motives relative to his interest, and not on metaphysical speculations.”36 The Americans, Burke insisted in 1777, were to be treated “as rational creatures; as free agents; as men willing to pursue, and able to discern, [their] own true interest.” He “embrace[d them] as our friends, and as our brethren, by the best and dearest ties of relation.”37 “I am charged with being an American,” Burke told the sheriffs of Bristol in 1777. “If warm affection towards those over whom I claim any share of authority be a crime, I am guilty of this crime.”38 Burke well knew that he sometimes “tired” his colleagues with “long discourse.” But that was “the misfortune of those to whose influence nothing will be conceded, and who must win every inch of their ground by argument.”39
In a larger sense, a nation, like a party, was founded on relationships among people who recognized their interdependence, who found security through mutual engagement, who chose to subjugate themselves to power because they would benefit from so doing, and who acted out of understanding of the need for power rather than sheer terror at its existence. The cost of the civil war within the British Empire was the loss of social connections rooted in shared values, common interests, and mutual affection. “Whilst manners remain entire, they will correct the vices of law, and soften it at length to their own temper.” But “War suspends the rules of moral obligation, and what is long suspended is in danger of being totally abrogated. Civil wars strike deepest of all into the manners of the people … By teaching us to consider our fellow-citizens in an hostile light, the whole body of our nation becomes gradually less dear to us. The very names of affection and kindred, which were the bond of charity whilst we agreed, become new incentives to hatred and rage when the communion of our country is dissolved.”40
The signers of the Declaration of Independence had reached precisely the same conclusion the previous year, when they had written off not only the king—whose failure to respond to their petitions revealed that he was no more than a co-conspirator with Parliament in the plot to reduce Americans to slavery—but the British people themselves, who were guilty of ignoring “the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” The differences among English speakers would be resolved neither by constitution nor commerce but by conquest.
War, not love, consumed Europeans and Americans from 1754 to 1815. War shaped the constitutional development of the American republic and the national identity of its citizens. And war ultimately facilitated a reaction against the imagined possibilities of the 18th century that included an assertion of the unique ability of white men to govern others. Their cultivation of personal discipline, their condescension to inferiors, and their combination of reason and sympathy underscored their ability to govern themselves and therefore their right to govern others who differed from them in sex, age, race, religion, class, or nationality.
Nonetheless, 18th-century conversations about social commerce have had an enduring legacy. Developed through explicit confrontation with the brutal realties of corruption and coercion both in public and private lives, they were a particularly creative episode in a long series of efforts by human beings excluded from power in different places and different times to imagine alternatives to governance through command for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. If we dismiss the process of exercising influence through commerce, association, and sentiment as pie-in-the-sky ideas discussed by dreamers in drawing rooms, we miss the origins of modern discourse about human nature, difference, and ways of challenging as well as exercising power. This essay participates in that process. It puts readers into conversation with Sarah Fielding and Edmund Burke on the assumption that we benefit from engaging with them and their assessments of power and influence within the context of their distinctive world. To the extent that we retain a faith in education as a means of managing ourselves through self-awareness honed in conversations—imagined and real—with others, living and dead, we continue to affirm the possibilities of social commerce.
Discussion of the LiteratureP. J. Marshall’s The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America, c. 1750–1783 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766 (New York: Knopf, 2000)David Armitage’s The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000)Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992)Kathleen Wilson’s The Island Race: Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Routledge, 2002)
Major studies of the constitutional tensions in the British Empire include , , and . On questions of national identity, see and .John Brewer’s Party Ideology and Party Politics at the Accession of George III (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981)Kathleen Wilson’s The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture, and Imperialism in England, 1715–1785 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998)Eliga H. Gould’s The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000)Steve Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011)
Studies of 18th-century British politics were long dominated by the contention of Sir Lewis Namier that interest rather than ideas was what mattered. The speeches of men such as Edmund Burke were nothing more than empty rhetoric that obscured the real business of advancing the careers and fortunes of friends and destroying those of enemies. Since the 1960s, historians have challenged that interpretation by pointing to the importance of ideas and policies. The landmark book was . Other important works include , , and .Bernard Bailyn’s The Origins of American Politics (New York: Knopf, 1969)The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1992)Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969)Brendan McConville’s The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688–1776 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006
Still the best places to start on North American politics and the ways in which colonists perceived the actions of Parliament and its leaders are and , as well as . ) delineates the pervasiveness of attachment to monarchy.Jay Fliegelman’s Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution against Authority, 1750–1800 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985)Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002)Holly Brewer’s By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007)
On the revolution in authority in the 18th-century Anglo-American world, see these key works: , , and .Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001)Nicole Eustace’s Passion Is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008)Sarah Knott’s Sensibility and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009)Eve Tavor Bannet’s The Domestic Revolution: Enlightenment Feminisms and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000)Nancy Armstrong’s How Novels Think: The Limits of British Individualism from 1719–1900 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)Emily C. Friedman’s “Remarks on Richardson: Sarah Fielding and the Rational Reader,” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction 22.2 (Winter 2009–2010): 309–326;Laura E. Thomason’s The Matrimonial Trap: Eighteenth-Century Women Writers Redefine Marriage (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2014)
On social commerce and sentiment, see , , and . On fiction, see ; ; and .David Bromwich’s The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014)Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)
and are parts of a rehabilitation of Burke that includes rescuing him from political historians who tend to dismiss him as a hack and early-21st-century conservatives who wrench him out of an 18th-century context.
Primary SourcesThe Portable Edmund Burke, edited by Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin, 1999)Sarah Fielding’s Remarks on Clarissa, Addressed to the Author (London: J. Robinson, 1749)John Locke’s “An Essay concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government,” in Treatise of Civil Government and A Letter concerning Toleration, edited by Charles L. Sherman (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1937)John Milton’s Paradise Lost, edited by Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, edited by Edward Larkin (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2004)
Relevant primary documents, many of which can be found online, include ; ; ; ; ; and Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).
Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1992.Find this resource:
Brewer, Holly. By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Brewer, John. Party Ideology and Party Politics at the Accession of George III. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.Find this resource:
Bromwich, David. The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.Find this resource:
Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.Find this resource:
Fliegelman, Jay. Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution against Authority, 1750–1800. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.Find this resource:
Marshall, P. J. The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America, c. 1750–1783. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:
McKeon, Michael. The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.Find this resource:
Rothschild, Emma. Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.Find this resource:
(1.) Article 9, “Of Original or Birth-Sin,” in Articles Agreed Upon by the Archbishops and Bishops of Both Provinces and the Whole Clergy in the Convocation Holden at London in the Year 1562 for the Avoiding of Diversities of Opinions and for the Establishing of Consent Touching True Religion [accessed February 12, 2015].
(2.) Thomas Paine, Common Sense and Related Readings, ed. Thomas P. Slaughter (Boston: Bedford, 2001), 75. Originally published in 1776.
(3.) Paine, Common Sense, 73, 74.
(5.) John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 64–65, 81–82.
(6.) John Winthrop, Winthrop’s Journal: History of New England, 1630–1649, ed. James Kendall Hosmer (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1980), 2:238–239.
(7.) John Locke, “An Essay concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government,” in Treatise of Civil Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Charles L. Sherman (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1937), 16, 17, 37, 58, 36.
(8.) Bolingbroke, The Craftsman, Vol. I, 111; quoted in Bernard Bailyn, Origins of American Politics (New York: Vintage, 1968), 46.
(9.) Benjamin Rush to Ebenezer Hazard, October 22, 1768, in Letters of Benjamin Rush, ed. L. H. Butterfield (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951), 2:68.
(10.) Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents, 444, 446, 469, 462.
(13.) Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, with a List of Books for a Private Library, 3 August 1771, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, ed. Barbara B. Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008–2015, 742) [accessed Feb 12, 2015].
(15.) Thomas Jefferson’s library in 1771 included copies of both Richardson novels as well as the works of Henry Fielding and his sister’s David Simple. Jefferson to Skipwith, 3 August 1771.
(16.) Sarah Fielding, Remarks on Clarissa, Addressed to the Author (London: J. Robinson, 1749), 13, 18.
(17.) Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Hollywood, FL: Simon and Brown, 2013), 186, 189, 188. Originally published in 1757.
(22.) Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 2d ed. (London: William Strahan, 1778), II:391.
(23.) Edmund Burke, “Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents” (1770), in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (London: John C. Nimmo, 1887), 1:530.
(24.) Jefferson to Skipwith, 3 August 1771.
(25.) My understanding of Burke reflects the particular influence of David Bromwich, The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); and Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
(26.) Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 37, 63, 60, 59.
(27.) Burke, “Observations on a Late Publication, Intitled, ‘The Present State of the Nation,’” in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (London: John C. Nimmo, 1887), 1:398.
(28.) Burke, Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents, 436.
(29.) Burke, “Observations on a Late Publication,” 338, 346–347.
(33.) Burke, “Observations on a Late Publication,” 390, 395.
(34.) Burke, “Speech on American Taxation, April 19, 1774,” in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 2:75.
(35.) Burke, “Speech on Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, March 22, 1775,” in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 2:118, 120.
(36.) Burke, “Speech on … Conciliation,” 169, 170.
(37.) Burke, “Address to the British Colonists in North America,” in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 6:186, 191.
(38.) Burke, “Letters to the Sheriffs of the City of Bristol on the Affairs of America, 1777,” in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 2:222.
(39.) Burke, “Speech on … Conciliation,” 177.