Beyond Liberty and Property: The Process of Self-Recognition in Eighteenth-Century Political Thought

Description

331 pages
$35.00
ISBN 0-7735-1006-0

Author

Year

1984

Contributor

Reviewed by James Moore

James Moore was Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, Loyola Campus, Concordia University, Montreal.

Review

This book should be considered required reading by any serious student of the politics and culture of eighteenth century Britain. The seven essays collected here, none of them published previously, permit us a number of novel insights into the political thought of the period. It was once fashionable to suppose, with Sir Lewis Namier, that the political ideas of eighteenth century Englishmen represented no substantial differences of principle or policy; the public discourse of this period consisted of nothing but rationalizations of the interests and ambitions of the leading political actors. More recently, the work of Pocock, Kramnick, Dickinson, and others has demonstrated that the debates between court and country gave expression to profound disagreements in ideas of property and liberty, between defenders of property in government stock and bonds and the influence in government which such property conferred and, on the other side, spokesmen for real property or property in land, which was thought to secure the independence, the ability to bear arms, and other virtues of a patriotic people.

Professor Gunn approaches the political thought of eighteenth century Britain along somewhat different lines. He is concerned in particular with changes and continuities in the ways that politicians, political thinkers, and journalists of the time understood themselves. His studies, informed by an extraordinary knowledge of the voluminous pamphlet literature of the period, reveal a number of interesting but rarely noticed features of public life in England in the years between the Glorious Revolution and the Great Reform Bill.

It is curious to learn, in the second essay in this volume, that long before the press was perceived and perceived itself as a Fourth Estate (distinct from the Crown, the Lords, and the Commons) various other institutions and associations were cast in this role. The Ministry, the Opposition, the People, the Dissenters, the Bishops, Convocation were all identified at one time or another as a Fourth Estate; the press assumed this role only in the nineteenth century. He argues a complementary thesis in the seventh and final essay, “Public Spirit to Public Opinion,” that the idea of public opinion and the term itself emerge in England no earlier than the 1780s. He discounts the significance of earlier theories that governments derive their authority from opinion, in theories expressed by Bacon, Temple, and Hume among others, on the grounds that these theories of opinion never achieved a satisfactory idea of a public or of the manner in which beliefs and sentiments are communicated among a people. He finds an extended discussion of public opinion and how it is formed in the works of the little-known radical informer David Williams, whose writings are the subject of the fifth essay in this volume. Williams’ political writings are notable for their extended use of the organic metaphor of the body politic. Williams elaborated a system of indirect representation which was designed to bring the villages, towns, and other “extremities” of the body politic into communication (albeit indirect) with the “sensorium” of the political system which he took to be Parliament.

Another political thinker, much better known than Williams to his contemporaries and to ourselves, who is accorded an essay to himself, is Mandeville, whose defence of luxury is linked with the Whig defence of influence in politics and contrasted with the classical ideal of virtuous poverty propagated in Cato’s Letters. This reading of Mandeville may help to account for the notoriety of the reception of the 1723 edition of The Fable of the Bees while earlier versions provoked no vehement reaction. It may remain a problem for this interpretation, however, that the critics of the Fable were not for the most part classical republicans, nor was that tradition prominent in the cluster of moral attitudes attacked by Mandeville.

The most important essay in the volume and also the longest (73 pages) concerns the phenomenon of eighteenth century Toryism. It is widely held by scholars of this period that the Tory principles of the sovereign power of kings and of the passive obedience of subjects had become moribund by the first or at the latest the second decade of the eighteenth century; at best such principles were confined to the Jacobite fringe, with its unqualified allegiance to the Stuarts. In “The Spectre at the Feast: The Persistence of High Tory Ideas,” Gunn demonstrates with ample evidence that these principles continued to be assented through the entire course of the eighteenth century. Among the most vigorous asserters of High Tory principles were Church of England clerics who preached (typically, but not exclusively, in anniversary sermons for the royal martyr, Charles I) that kings derived their sovereign right to rule from Divine Providence. The same conviction informed Tory histories of England by clergymen and academics who are sometimes mistaken for Whigs because they accepted the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian succession, although their acceptance was based on Tory, not Whig, considerations. The Inns of Court, the periodical press, and sectarian movements as different as the Hutchinsonians and the followers of Wesley all subscribed to Tory principles. The persistence of Tory principles is seen to eventuate in a rehabilitation of the writings of Filmer and Leslie by Loyalists in North America and other critics of resurgent Lockeanism in the later decades of the century. The story of eighteenth century Toryism is an important one, and it is one of the merits of this book that it tells this curious and rarely told story. But all the essays collected here deserve to be read carefully and appreciatively. There are few books written on the political thought of any period that rival this one for thoughtfulness, good judgment, and solid scholarship.

 

Citation

Gunn, J.A.W., “Beyond Liberty and Property: The Process of Self-Recognition in Eighteenth-Century Political Thought,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/37654.